Prior to the 2013 season, I predicted that the Eagles would finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year. The team was coming off of two miserable seasons that exposed several issues. Their roster had deteriorated as a result of questionable free agent signings and bad drafts in 2010 & 2011. Turmoil in the locker room had seeped its way out into the public, and by the middle of the 2012 season, there were significant rumblings of dissent between players, coaches, and the like. Finally, even after removing the cancerous presences within the organization, the team was seriously depleted in terms of talent and were bringing in a coach with zero NFL experience.
To be fair, while depth was an issue for the Eagles, they still had a handful of elite-level talented players with a few pro-bowl caliber players sprinkled in. It was not as if Chip Kelly would be arriving in Philadelphia to an empty cabinet. He would have a top-5 running back in LeSean McCoy, a game-breaking wide receiver in DeSean Jackson, a book-end tackle in Jason Peters to go along with several other very good lineman. In addition, veterans like Brent Celek, Michael Vick, and DeMeco Ryans made up a leadership core to help Kelly’s transition into his first NFL locker room. The primary issue with the Eagles teams of 2011 & 2012 was that, while they would have moments of greatness where their talent was on display, the lack of organizational depth and accountability would often prevent them from competing over four quarters against quality opponents, as well as close out inferior opponents. While it is true that the Eagles roster needed a serious makeover, I would argue that the bigger problem was one of culture and that is what Kelly and his staff would have to address upon arrival.
15 weeks into the season, it is difficult to believe what we are seeing from this Eagles team. A year after the lone bright spot was a comeback win over the free-falling Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Eagles have re-energized a fanbase and brought excitement back to a city that was complacent ever since the team’s loss to the Packers in the 2010 Divisional playoffs. Sitting at 8-6 (already exceeding my expectations), the Eagles are miraculously in the driver’s seat for the automatic playoff bid awarded to the winner of the NFC East. While a down year by their division rivals certainly has something to do with Philadelphia being perched atop the rankings, at the end of the day every team’s first goal is to win the division. In 2010, a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team won the NFC West division in Pete Carroll’s first year as head coach. As the league mocked the division’s inability to produce a above-.500 winner, the Seahawks prepared for a home playoff game against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Highlighted by Marshawn Lynch’s nickname-earning ‘Beast Mode’ 67-yard touchdown rumble, the Seahawks shocked the champs and won 41-36. Seattle would go on to lose in the next round to the Chicago Bears. However, one cannot discredit what a small taste of success has done to the Seahawks organization from the top-down. Three years removed from their 7-9 playoff team, the Seahawks are the prohibitive favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and have a young, dynamic roster that appears poised to contend for years to come.
With the Seahawks roster being the envy of every team in the NFL, it is tough to draw comparisons between them and an Eagles team that has flaws and holes all over the depth chart. That being said, to ignore the similarities of the situation is ignorant and deserves consideration at the least. The 2010 Seahawks were a team of pieces; some high-quality, some very high-quality. Seattle drafted several high-profile players from the college ranks to infuse new talent into the roster. With their first three picks being tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas, and receiver Golden Tate, the Seahawks brought notoriety and players with a winning pedigree into the fold. Pete Carroll had to develop the culture that he wanted and spread it throughout the locker room. With little credibility from an NFL standpoint (coming from a collapsing USC dynasty), it would be difficult for Carroll to stand on a soapbox and try to convince every player at training camp that his word was gospel.Instead, Carroll needed his most talented pieces (Lynch, rookie Earl Thomas, Russell Okung, and even Matt Hasselbeck) to take his approach and lead by example. Heading into the final game of the season, a division-deciding matchup with the Rams, Seattle had gone through similar ups and downs that the 2013 Eagles have. They had lost the two previous games by a combined 39 points, and had seen the promise of the season vanishing before their eyes. However, Carroll and the Seahawks were able to put the losses behind them, and set forth a winning effort as they defeated the Rams 16-6, thus sealing a division title.
The 2013 Eagles are already assured a better record than that Seahawks team. With eight wins, Chip Kelly has already avoided a losing record in his first season and has the expectations of the fanbase and organization ahead of where it was when he was hired. Similar to that Seahawks team, save for a few high-profile veterans, a major chunk of the Eagles team is made up of first or second year players and free agents. There have been times over the course of the year that people have sold Kelly down the river, most notably after the team’s consecutive losses without an offensive touchdown against the Giants and Cowboys. There have also been times, as recent as last week, that some have anointed Kelly as one of the more brilliant hires in NFL coaching and a potential innovator of the game at its highest level. In today’s world of rapid, polarizing reactions it is easy to jump to these types of conclusions, but on numbers alone Kelly is a success at this point of his first season.
One of the more unnerving things about the last two seasons was that I knew there were high-character guys on the roster. It was the Jason Babins, Nnamdi Asomughas, Dominique Rodgers-Cromarties, etc. of the world who were keeping them down. It is not that, all of a sudden, Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis, Mychal Kendricks, Trent Cole, and even Nate Allen to an extent were bad seeds that Kelly magically turned into team leaders. More, it was the organizations insistence on removing the negative presences in the locker room, even at the expense of talent. It is impossible to build a foundation for a champion without being able to start at square one with zero distractions. With the sort of drastic overhaul Kelly was bringing to the NFL level, if there was even a small contingency of players who would not buy in, it would have threatened the progress and potentially deterred the former Oregon coach from remaining at the professional ranks.
The ride that this year’s Eagles have been on has been extremely entertaining. There have been several electrifying moments, astounding performances, and wins in games that they would have lost over the last two seasons. All of this is well and good, but the most astounding and impressive thing about this team is the seemingly overnight transition from a circus-like team of individuals to a professional, confident, accountable bunch that makes you proud to cheer for them. When the Eagles would win games in 2011-2012, they would ‘out-talent’ teams and find a way to hold on long enough to avoid the inevitable disaster. This approach would come back and bite them on numerous occasions, as squandered fourth quarter leads became the norm. This season, while the roster might not be quite as talented or proven, the sense of inevitable doom is still there, but it does not come to fruition. Chalk it up to a fanbase that has been devastated by heartbreak to expect the worse, but even when things get tense with this Eagles team they have found ways to close out wins. I would argue that, from a talent standpoint, the NFL is the most balanced of all the four major sports. The difference between winning and losing usually comes down to what’s between the ears and inside the chest more than 40 times and arm strength. One could make the argument that the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions, maybe even the Packers (even without Aaron Rodgers) had more talent on their depth chart than the Eagles did. What has made the difference was that the team has a rapidly developing identity and a level of trust with their coaches and each other that allows each individual to worry about his job and nothing else.
Early on, it was Kelly’s innovative use of sports science and college-level practice techniques that garnered the local and national headlines. Now, 15 games into his first season, while those are still at the root of his early success, the story is about the mental toughness and togetherness of a team that was put together in a few months during the offseason. Even with potential bombshells such as Riley Cooper’s preseason racial slur, Cary Williams skipping OTAs, and a controversial quarterback competition, the Eagles seem well in control in the locker room and on the field. There is a forward-thinking attitude among the players and coaches that take instances that used to linger and fester within the roster, and immediately puts them in the rear-view mirror. Gone are the sideshows of the ‘Dream Team’ and ‘Dynasty talks’, this group is all business and they win and lose like professionals.
Take, for example, DeSean Jackson’s recent meltdown on the sidelines in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. There have been few players on this team that I have been as impressed with, on and off the field, as Jackson. He is on pace for a career year, has remained out of the headlines, and appears to finally be maturing into a leader. Yet against the Vikings, we saw a bit of ‘old DeSean’ when he loafed in pursuit of chasing down a defender who had just come down with an interception. Jackson was irate on the sidelines, had to be restrained, and one could almost hear Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston salivating about the potential of an Eagles player losing his cool. Instead of letting the matter affect his game, Jackson took his game to another level. Albeit in a losing effort, Jackson had a career-day against the Vikings, hauling in 10 passes for 195 yards and a score. When the topic was brought up after the contest, rather than pouting and pointing to his statline, Jackson approached the situation like an accountable adult who realized the crux of his ways.
“It was just a point in the game where you’re dealing with a lot of emotions involved, and it’s one of those things that happened,” Jackson said. “I cannot really discuss what happened. That’s what happened, it is what it is. At the end of the day, we lost the game. We felt very comfortable and confident that we should be able to come out here and win, we just didn’t play good enough. We didn’t play good enough to win, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters”
Jackson did not name names, did not point fingers, did not wax poetically about how he used the anger to turn in a career performance. Even during a career season, Jackson seems to care less about stats and more about returning to the playoffs and being part of something special.
Chip Kelly is a coach that can connect with players like Jackson. He realizes that, at the end of the day, everyone’s prime goal in this league is winning at all costs. It took a leap of faith by Jackson to trust that Kelly was going to help turn him from a one-dimensional deep threat into a dynamic talent on the outside that can hurt teams all over the field. By buying in to what Kelly has been preaching, Jackson is experiencing his best success as a pro and playing the part of a model citizen and teammate to a tee.
It is impossible to say whether or not the Eagles can achieve the type of success that the Seahawks currently are. To build a roster of that caliber, teams need to hit on a high percentage of draft picks, play the free agency game as savvy as possible, and even get lucky (like drafting Russell Wilson in the 3rd round after signing Matt Flynn). For all we know, Chip Kelly could pull the ultimate run-around on the Eagles and take the Texas coaching job for $10 million a year. I do not expect this, but acknowledge that anything can happen. What is very possible, and I would argue probable at this point, is that Kelly can continue to inject his philosophies and culture into younger, more talented players as Howie Roseman and company continue to build the roster. We have seen that the free agency approach to building a champion does not work. Instead, a winning franchise is made up of rooted commodities with an initiative in mind and an emphasis on professionalism. It is possible that the Eagles have a superstar coach whose contributions to the game are just beginning. With Tom Gamble on board, Howie Roseman has been able to infuse the team with young talent that already seems to be playing beyond their years. Finally, and most importantly, the team has a message and a direction. Rome was not built in a day, neither were the Seahawks. However, if a civilization can erect a building that they can hang their hat on, it goes a long way toward bringing on prosperity in a timely manner. Seattle built that building with a division title and a playoff win. The Eagles are on track to do something similar, and with a firm foundation built, it is hard to see things crumbling down any time soon.