When the 2013 schedule was first released, one of the most unique features of it was the timing of the Eagles’ bye week. Philadelphia, along with the Bills, Bengals, and Seahawks, would have the latest possible week off of the 2013 season, 11 games into their season. With a rookie head coach starting 11 consecutive games without relief to start off his coaching career, one could not help but be curious as to how he and his team would respond. To put things in perspective, during his college coaching career at Oregon, with a schedule already laden with weeks off during the season and leading up to four BCS bowls, the most games Kelly had to coach during a season was 14. All three of his other seasons coaching the Ducks were 13 game slates, all of which had a built-in, month-off break prior to a Bowl Championship Series game. In his first season holding down a coaching position in what most people consider the most demanding of leagues for coaches, Kelly was going to have to navigate his way through what was over 80% of the amount of games he was faced with during a given year. While every team’s bye week location usually has some pros and cons, it was a unique location for a first year coach coming from the college ranks.
Lo and behold the bye week finally arrived and, depending on expectations, one would have to consider the Eagles 6-5 record and positioning atop the NFC East to be a moderate surprise. During an 11-game stretch, filled with peaks and valleys, Eagles fans have been put through a roller coaster of emotions, yet find themselves riding high into a two-week stretch filled with: bragging rights, water-cooler arguments, and unreasonable projections. While the consensus on Chip Kelly’s first sample size is up for debate, one cannot argue with first place being a positive thing. That being said, after 11 games of seeing Chip Kelly run his team through the goods and the bads, we are now presented with another ‘first’ for the Eagles head coach: his first bye week.
The man Kelly replaced was nearly synonymous with the Eagles annual bye week. Andy Reid’s incredible 13-1 record coming off the week off was one of the most remarkable footnotes on his career in Philadelphia and was a huge reason he was able to lead the Eagles through such an impressive period of consistent success. Opinion’s on Reid aside, one cannot argue with numbers, and to know how to fully take advantage of a bye week is essential for any NFL coach, let alone a first year coach with no NFL experience. How a coach / team / organization responds to the freedoms of the bye week can make the difference between carrying momentum through the beginning of a ‘second season’ or losing focus and flushing any prior success down the drain. The Eagles find themselves squarely in such a position and once again have to prove they are a different club than last year’s team and turn their success in the first 11 games into a strong sprint to the finish over the last five.
So with Sunday’s thrilling win over the Redskins in the rear-view mirror, the debate over whether the week 12 bye week is a good thing or a bad thing can now begin. Can the momentum of the three-game win streak entering the bye carry over into December? Will such a young team be able to handle the lack of authority for an extended period of time? What can Chip Kelly do with an extra week off as far as preparation and scheming? Can the coaching staff use the time away from the team effectively and maintain a connection upon their return? All of these things and more come into the picture when considering the first bye week of a coach with as little NFL experience as Chip Kelly and his younger team.
While I acknowledge that there could be some pitfalls associated with a bye week coming off a three-game win streak, for this Eagles team, considering how they’ve responded to what Chip Kelly has asked for them, I consider this week 12 respite to be a blessing, 100%.
One of the most fascinating things about Chip Kelly’s arrival to the Philadelphia Eagles organization was the overhaul of the team’s fitness and nutrition program. Over the course of mini-camps, training camp, and preseason, it seemed as if there were daily stories among the local outlets about a new smoothie recipe, fitness program, or sleep schedule that the Eagles players were being introduced to. Breaking away from some of the traditions of Andy Reid, who built in several ‘reward days’ (Taco Tuesdays) into his team’s diet. Chip Kelly’s insistence that his team undergo a uniquely prepared and strictly monitored 24/7 approach to physical fitness and nutrition. Even though the team infused a great deal of young talent into their overhauled roster, there would still be veteran players at key positions for a team that, now we see, intended on competing. The intended effects of Kelly’s ‘sport science’ programs was to better prepare his team for the rigors of the NFL schedule and to have them not only holding up, but pulling ahead of other teams towards the latter portions of the season.
Throughout the season, those veteran players who many saw as weak links on a team trying to change their identity, have seen their careers undergo a renaissance. Brent Celek, who embraced Kelly’s changes from the get-go, appears as strong and fast as ever. Celek always was a strong athlete, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him run with the speed and purpose that he did on the 43-yard screen pass in the first half of the win over the Redskins. Trent Cole, 31, was written off by almost everybody (myself included) when the team announced it would be moving away from the 4-3 scheme that Cole had excelled in. All Cole did, in week 11 mind you, was record two sacks against a mobile quarterback, doing so against the opponents’ best offensive lineman. Cole had not had a 2+ sack game since 2011, and he did so from a position he has been playing for less than a full season. DeMeco Ryans, who many felt was traded from the Texans because of their transition to a 3-4 defense, is the unquestioned leader of the rapidly improving Eagles defense and looks as if he could find himself in serious discussions for a trip to the Pro Bowl.
The team as a whole has appeared extremely fresh in the fourth quarters of games over the last few weeks, most notably their offense during the team’s game-sealing, nearly 10-minute drive against the Packers. The defense had to withstand 16 plays on the field against the Redskins before Brandon Boykin finally sealed the game on the 17th play, hauling in his 4th interception of the year. Boykin’s play made the highlight, but it was Fletcher Cox being able to bring a heavy pass rush that forced Robert Griffin III into a bad decision. In his day-after media appearance, Chip Kelly noted that his coaching staff had prepared their entire schedule around the knowledge that their week off would be occurring so late in the season. Based off initial returns, one can’t help but feel comfortable knowing that Kelly took a detailed, meticulous approach as far as making sure his team would be in the best state before, during, and after the week off.
While the team as a whole has looked extremely fresh heading into the bye, another advantage of the location of the week off is to get some injured players back from injury. Missing from the lineup against the Redskins were starting defensive players Earl Wolff, Bradley Fletcher, and Mychal Kendricks. Jason Peters, while he did start and play, was not his normal dominant self and appeared to be laboring a bit as the contest played out. It surfaced after the game that Peters was not close to 100% and decided to play through the pain before the week off. Peters is the team’s most dominant, and important lineman, and to have him as close to 100%, along with the rest of the offensive line, is essential if this team intends to stay in contention. Every team in the NFL has to deal with significant injuries over the course of a season. How a team is put together in terms of managing the amount of man-games missed by important players is always a huge topic of conversation at this point of the season. The last few weeks, Najee Goode and Roc Carmichael have proved to be adequate fill-ins, but Kendricks, Fletcher, and Wolff were all key impact players on an improving Eagles defense. If this team wants to make a legitimate run at the playoffs, they will need to have their best players on the field. It is certainly comforting knowing that the team has players who can start a game and not have their defense suffer too much, but at least Kendricks and Wolff appear to be long-term fixtures and Fletcher was the team’s best outside corner before he was sidelined. Allowing them an extra week to recover should be crucial as the team readies itself for the final five games of the season.
As far as looking at the bye from a competitive standpoint, this was the only spot I was somewhat murky on. Momentum is always such a big thing for teams over the course of the NFL season. Fans have been drilled at nauseam as to how the ‘hottest’ team entering the playoffs always wins the Super Bowl. The Ravens bucked that trend somewhat last season and the Redskins carried a seven-game win streak into the postseason only to be eliminated after one game, but winning streaks are never a bad thing. One thing that we, especially as fans, have learned about this year’s team is that they are not as susceptible to the swings of momentum as one might have thought. After a huge win in week 1, the team went on to lose three straight. Then after apparently righting the ship, winning two in a row, they turned in two stinkers to find themselves at 3-5 at the midway point. Now after the first three-game win streak under Chip Kelly, the team is forced to sit on their haunches for two weeks coming off an emotional win at home.
One of the biggest revelations about this Eagles team has been the improvements in the team’s leadership core. Articles have poured out for most of Monday about how the roster overhaul, notably the addition of Connor Barwin and the removal of several toxic personalities, have helped fast-track the locker room culture change that the franchise so desperately needed. This is an exciting development for certain, but now is the time that each member of the team needs to have the sort of individual accountability to stay the course of the season and not let bad habits waste the progress that the team has made before the week off.
I cannot predict one way or another how the roster will respond collectively, but a lot of what I have seen and heard over the season gives me confidence that the team’s veteran players will set a strong enough example for a talented group of young players to fall in under. One of the most refreshing parts of the Eagles 6-5 start has had almost nothing to do with stats, wins, losses, or plays. It is the absence of the sort of petty, childish arguments that would emerge from the locker room and pin certain players as villains and others as soft while the team lost games at a staggering rate. Whether it was Nnamdi Asomugha eating in his car, Jason Babin not caring about his team, or even some of the questionable decisions by DeSean Jackson over the years, it seemed that every week of the season, the story of the game was secondary to whatever soap opera was occurring in the Eagles locker room. Somehow, after the year started with as polarizing and moronic an action by an Eagles player (Riley Cooper) that threatened to drive a stake through the team before taking a snap, very little has emerged as far as bad blood or tension in Chip Kelly’s locker room. Oddly enough, during the Eagles win over the Redskins, we saw Jackson, Cooper, and LeSean McCoy engaged in a heated argument on the sidelines and one might have assumed that the new competitiveness of the game was getting to some of the team’s most important players. Instead, and obviously we can’t always take what Kelly says as gospel, the head coach explained that his three biggest producers were simply getting caught up in their passion for the contest and their desire to win. This is very much a ‘coach-speak’ type of answer, but the fact that there have been no further developments in the matter makes you a bit more comfortable knowing the team’s ability to act mature when they need to.
This is going to be the most important thing for the Eagles to keep at top priority leading up to their next game. Many argue that this franchise took a nose dive when it became clear that there was no leadership in the locker room. There was still talent on the roster, but the team could never respond to adversity and often folded when put in high-pressure situations. When things started going south in 2012, there was no confidence that the team could bring themselves out of the losing streak. It became clear that Andy Reid’s message was no longer reaching the team, and there was no individual or group of individuals that had the collective clout in the locker room to pick up the slack for their coach. Sure, the sample size of this season is small, but this team is starting to show an ability to rise up in the situations that their predecessors never could. Starting with the defense, where despite allowing almost record yardage, the unit has taken pride in keeping the opponent out of the endzone and have gone seven straight games without allowing 21 points or more. The offense, with a second-year pro under center, ignored the criticism swirling around the team after failing to score a touchdown in two straight games. During their three-game win streak, the Eagles have scored a cool 100 points and their offense is doing incredible things.
As a fan, I love the location of this bye week. I get two weeks of post-division rival win bliss and the comfort of having the Eagles in first place throughout the rest of November. As someone who lives in the D.C. area, I can enjoy the doom and gloom of Redskins nation, while their franchise tries to prevent itself from folding at the seams. Having said all that, there was no way of knowing what the team’s record was going to be at this point, or any way of predicting that the Eagles would be playing in one of the worst divisions in sports. From an analytical standpoint, while I acknowledge some downsides to having the bye after three straight weeks of wins, I really struggle to find many negatives of having the week off so late in the season. One of the things that made Chip Kelly such an intriguing prospect as a coach was his 24/7 approach to football. He dedicates his whole existence to trying to gain an advantage over the opponent and put his team in a position to win. I firmly believe that he took that same approach when he was informed of the location of the team’s bye, and I believe that every action leading up to this point of the season has had a purpose. I said going into the team’s game against the Redskins that, if they were able to win the game and break the 10-game losing streak, I would give them the benefit of the doubt, for the first time all season, and feel confident about the next game. Two weeks from now, I could be eating my words and scratching my head as to how the Eagles once again regressed after inspiring hope. For now, from both a fan and analytical standpoint, I will trust the Eagles brain trust that they put their team in a position to gain the most from the location of this bye week, and that the team will enter the second season with the same confidence and purpose that they exited the first season with.