The narrative is the same almost every season for teams that overachieve, but ultimately lose in the end. “If you would have told me, at the beginning of the season, that the (insert team name) would go (insert improved record) and lose in the playoffs, I would take it.”
I can only imagine this is the thought that countless Eagles fans are waking up to this morning on the heels of Saturday night’s last-second loss to the New Orleans Saints. Especially after last season’s disastrous 4-12 mark, why wouldn’t they be wrapping themselves with the warmth of the consolation prize that is an exit in the playoffs, a fate shared by 11 other teams? Personally, I find this coping mechanism to be shallow and, quite honestly, the mindset of a loser that has been beaten down by disappointment.
Yes, the Eagles 10-6 regular season and their spirited effort against the Saints before ultimately falling was something to be proud of. With a first year coach and a roster that appears to still be a few moves away from the ideal personnel, it was tough to imagine this team winning more than six or seven games, let alone ten. That being said, as the team piled up wins over legitimate opponents as they bared down on the playoffs, one had to adjust their expectations. The Eagles were supposed to be this year’s ‘hot team’ that entered the playoffs with momentum and snuck up on the opponents who were resting on their laurels. Unfortunately, the team could not do enough to upend the Saints and join the cluster of teams around the NFL wondering, what if?
At the end of the day, much like every other season in Philadelphia Eagles existence, the outcome of the season is a failure. I do not want to be a fan of the team that is happy with not winning the Super Bowl. If the goal at the beginning of the season is anything short of a title, the team has already sealed their fate as it takes an insatiable thirst to be the last team standing to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy.
However, from a big picture standpoint, that does not mean there are not things to gain from the type of season the 2013 Eagles had. The end result has a much different feel than the 2010 Eagles, who were convinced that adding a piece or two would get them over the hump and putting in the extra work was not necessary given their regular season success. It is also different from the 2002 and 2003 Eagles, who fell to inferior opponents and enraged the fanbase with sub par performances on the biggest stage.
For the 2013 Eagles, the feel is a unique one. Much like Andy Reid’s first playoff team in 2000, there is a framework set in Philadelphia for the first time in what seems like forever. Considering the overall youth of the roster, the playoff loss is not the death-blow that brought into conversation the declining play of impact veterans. What we watched Saturday night was a collection of young players step under the bright lights for the first time in their career, fight until the end, but ultimately fall short. Without the sort of colossal contracts and endorsements that some of the more veteran-laden teams have to fall back on, this was all the Eagles had to hang their hats on. The pain in quarterback Nick Foles’ eyes as he took the podium for the final team in 2013, now entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback heading into the offseason, was all anyone needed to see. These Eagles thought no one was going to beat them and the harsh realization of falling short of their goal cut them to the core.
Moving beyond the loss, the 2013 season did provide some clarity to the team’s outlook for the future. When we look back at 2013, few will call up the team’s 10-win record as much as they note the growth of a roster and the unification of a locker room that had been in shambles. They will talk about Foles, the awkward second-year QB from Arizona who had no prayer of excelling in Chip Kelly’s offense, throwing seven touchdowns in a game and falling points shy of the greatest season ever from a passing efficiency standpoint. They will talk about the defense, the supposed Achilles heel of the team before the season, holding nine straight opponents under 21 points and forcing 31 turnovers compared to the prior year’s 13. Finally, they will talk about how Chip Kelly, a coach plucked from the college ranks with no NFL experience, proved the ‘old school’ mentality had to adjust its ways and that there is more than one way to approach offensive football at the highest level.
The most important thing to keep in mind when looking back at the 2013 season is if the 2014 team learned from both its success and failure. Since he was hired, Chip Kelly has preached teaching and learning from experience rather than putting things in the rear-view mirror. To ignore either the errors or triumphs of past performances is a disservice to every player in the locker room and it does not allow the team to develop as a unit. Everyone on the Eagles; on offense, defense, and special teams will carry the sting of the immediate end of the season with them as they move forward into next year. What they are able to do with that resource will ultimately determine if they can get over the hump and bring a championship to Philadelphia or fall like every team before them. With parity being the norm in the NFL, the future is always uncertain. The teams that achieve consistency, such as the Ravens from 2008 until now, are the ones that learn and grow from their failures.
Having followed this Eagles team more closely than any before, from both a fan perspective and an analytical point of view, there is a lot to dissect when it comes to this year’s team. If I were to put a positive spin on what is ultimately considered a failure in every locker room but one at the end of the season, I would say that the 2013 Eagles answered some of the most important questions building teams have to deal with. Since moving into a prominent role within the organization, Howie Roseman was generally looked upon as a meek, numbers cruncher being groomed to be Andy Reid’s lap-dog. What 2013 told us that Roseman, with the help of a bolstered evaluation staff, appears to be as promising a young front office mind as there is in the NFL. The returns on the 2012 and 2013 draft are more than most teams could dream of when it comes to depth and impact. Savvy free agent signings that bolstered the starting units make the Ronnie Brown and Steve Smith signings feel like a distant memory. Roseman is as hungry to win as this city is. He might not have the sort of hardened, blue-collar appearance the city might prefer. Still, it is easy to hear the relentlessness in his voice in his media availability as well as his weekly radio appearances on WIP during the season.
The 2013 season, for the first time since the early-2000s, told us that there is young, stability at the quarterback position in the form of Nick Foles. A little less than a year ago, many of us were groaning at the notion that the turnover-prone Michael Vick would be filling in as a stopgap as the team waited for the talent rich 2014 draft to yield a quarterback in the mold of what Chip Kelly wanted. By the end of 2013, the entire Eagles fanbase had developed a connection with Foles unlike the unique relationship of the team’s last franchise quarterback, Donovan McNabb. McNabb probably will go down as a more talented player than Foles, but one season told me that Foles is the guy I want under center when the game is on the line. He looked all the part of a second-year player in the early portion’s of Saturday’s game. Yet, before you knew it, he had led the Eagles on two must-score drives and walked off the Lincoln Financial Field for the last time with a lead. Barring a miracle, Foles will never be able to duplicated his astounding 13.5-1 TD to interception ratio. What matters more to me is that the unflappable quarterback who did all he could to endear himself to Chip Kelly will do anything to win and, this season, that meant being nearly perfect. There might be a day where impatience gets the best of Kelly and he opts for a more mobile option under center. Unless Foles regresses drastically, I am convinced that would be a gaffe that the organization could never forgive themselves for. Foles might not have duplicated Tom Brady in terms of winning a Super Bowl in his second season after taking over for a veteran starter. He sure looked a lot like Brady leading the Eagles on a go-ahead drive on the team’s final possession. Had the Eagles been fielding the same caliber defense the Patriots had and benefited from something like the ‘Tuck Rule’ we would probably still be discussing the similarities.
The biggest question, not only in Philadelphia but around the league, at the start of 2013 was whether or not Chip Kelly could succeed in the NFL. He would not have the pick of the litter as far as talent went, he would not have the comfort of Nike to hide behind like he did at Oregon, he would have to deal with men instead of boys, the detractors had a field day. The comparisons to previous failures, such as Steve Spurrier was often the justification of talking heads preaching the ‘old school’ mentality of the NFL. Too many cautionary tales had tried to outsmart the best league in sports, only to fall short and walk away with their tail between their legs. In addition, Chip Kelly was walking into a situation where a toxic culture had overcome a once proud locker room. He would be replacing the most accomplished coach in Eagles history and he would have to deal with the scrutiny of the Philadelphia media, a far cry from the submissive beat force in Eugene.
To his credit, Kelly did not flinch upon his arrival. Every decision he made, he did so with full-bore. The questionable hiring of Billy Davis as defensive coordinator, the drastic alterations to the team’s nutrition and fitness regimen, the preseason quarterback competition, all were major topics of debate as Kelly attempted to bring his new mentality to the NFL. He defended Riley Cooper, a career backup whose social gaffe was as unforgivable as any in the heavily scrutinized world of the NFL. He constantly preached the value of Nick Foles, a quarterback that seemed as distant the prototype that the new coach would need upon his entry to the NFL. Kelly was not trying to outsmart anyone, he was not trying to be defiant. He just did not see any reason to have to further explain decisions that he was comfortable making. The team’s first game in Washington showed Kelly’s philosophies could work from an Xs & Os standpoint. Bringing a young, battered team back from a 3-5 mark to go 10-6 to make the playoffs showed that Kelly could be the leader of men this organization risked so much on. Whether it was the veterans who would have taken a bullet for Andy Reid prior to his exit, or the young players whose early career had been marked by turmoil; Kelly brought stability to the locker room by season’s end. One of the hallmarks of this year’s Eagles team was all the big plays that were made by various figures throughout the roster. Whether it was a timely interception, a game-sealing run, a big-time throw, or a key block the same Eagles team that could not make winning plays in years past were doing so under a coach whose message would be lost when it was not being delivered to teenagers.
Kelly is not without his faults. Time management issues, missed challenges, and overthinking simplicities such as kickoff coverage might have cost the Eagles a chance to advance. There is still the looming thought that he might jump ship back to the comforts of the NCAA when the next big job opens up. Regardless, if some of the ‘experts’ who bashed the hiring of Kelly at the beginning of the season refuse to admit the error of their ways, they’re just as incompetent as they figured the first-year coach was going to be. Kelly has put together a very solid coaching staff that, barring drastic changes, will have a second offseason to continue to develop the necessary cohesion to represent the Eagles team off the field. Judging by the early returns, it appears Kelly has a very defined idea of the type of players that he wants, and he will be able to add more of those with another year of drafting and free agency.
By the end of the season, one could look at each unit of the Eagles and pick out areas they excelled in and also had to work on. One of the major benefits Kelly walked into was the fact that the team had a few explosive playmakers and an experienced, talented offensive line. When the team was at its best, the offensive line was dictating the line of scrimmage and LeSean McCoy was able to act as the proverbial ‘closer’ as the well-conditioned Eagles often put games out of reach in the fourth quarter. The run-heavy offense paired with the option-heavy playcalling opened up the Eagles pass game and allowed receivers to get open easier than in the past. When Nick Foles took over, he showed the benefits of having a quick-thinking quarterback who made confident decisions and realized the importance of holding onto the ball. Even after tailing off a bit toward the end of the season, DeSean Jackson had his best year as a pro. Rewarding Kelly’s loyalty, Riley Cooper went from unheralded backup to the team’s primary red zone option, tallying a team-high eight touchdown receptions. Brent Celek had a renaissance-type season and it looks like the Eagles might have a future star in Zach Ertz. Chip Kelly’s reputation as an offensive guru paid serious dividends for the entire Eagles roster.
One of my issues with the offense was that any negative play, almost regardless of impact, seemed to derail the rhythm, sometimes for multiple drives. Whether it was a loss of yardage via tackle or penalty or a lack of execution, the Eagles offense sometimes went from 60 to zero in a heartbeat. One of the things that made Foles so good this season was he appeared so dialed in to Kelly’s philosophies that it seemed like he wasn’t thinking at times. You could argue that, with another year and more responsibility, Foles may be given a bit more leeway in terms of improvisation. In terms of 2013 however, he seemed all too eager to take a sack or throw the ball away at the first sign of resistance. This kept his turnover count down, but the great quarterbacks become great when they are able to take a bad situation and turn it into a positive. Foles did everything Kelly asked for him this season and I would hope the coach rewards him with a bit more control of the offense.
An area that the offense needs to address moving forward is identifying and developing a go-to player to draw more attention from the defense. DeSean Jackson is as dynamic a talent as any in the league, but his greatest weapon is his speed and can be somewhat neutralized by strong defenses. Ertz could be this type of player, much like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but he is coming off his rookie year and still must make significant strides if he even wants to sniff that type of company. An offseason of Foles being able to work with all of his receivers should develop the type of unconscious connection that the top quarterbacks have with their targets. That said, there were times where the Eagles could have used that type of safety blanket to extend drives and alleviate some of the pressure put on the defense. With Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper entering free agency, I struggle to see both on the team next year. Despite his production in years past, if there is a team that offers Maclin a multi-year contract, it is tough for me to see him on the team in 2014 and beyond. There are some dynamic pass-catching threats in the upcoming draft, a topic we will cover at a later date, and it would come as a surprise if the Eagles did not target one of them.
As far as the defense goes, it was difficult not to be impressed by the performance of Billy Davis’ unit. Whether or not it happens, it is tough to find a reason that the defensive coordinator should not at least get looks as a head coaching candidate. He was able to take a defense, largely made up of 4-3 personnel, to adapt an entirely new, complex scheme and put forth an inspired effort all season. Considering the amount of time they had to spend on the field and the snaps they faced, the defense might have been a more inspiring development than the offense. Davis’ unit was the classic ‘bend don’t break’ defense. They knew they were not the type of group that could line up against an opposition and stop them cold. Instead, they placed a higher emphasis on turning the opponent over and limiting the damage. Even in the final game of the season, that saw the defense allow the Saints to run down the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal, the overall performance of the defense was impressive to say the least. No matter how many yards the opposition gained, the Eagles seemed to emphasize making plays over preventing yardage. This approach rounded into form midway through the season and carried the Eagles into the playoffs. While the team is certain to address various positions on that side of the ball in the offseason, it is tough to pick out positions that were necessarily bad over the course of the season. Aside from Patrick Chung, who was victimized both in coverage and in terms of tackling, every starter performed admirably. Trent Cole had early struggles from the OLB position, but regained some of his pass-rushing prowess by season’s end. Though they may have wilted toward the latter stages of the year, the young defensive line might end up being the most promising group on the team. Rookie Bennie Logan performed well enough to cut Isaac Sopoaga, and Fletcher Cox along with Cedric Thornton rounded out a very impressive trio of defensive linemen.
DeMeco Ryans, one of few players who performed well in 2012, was even better in 2013. As the emotional leader and on-field general of the defense, Ryans constantly came up with big plays and acted as Billy Davis’ eyes and ears. Mychal Kendricks, though still inconsistent at times, made huge strides as an impact player and flashed the type of athleticism and ability that will help him match up with some of the premiere talents in the NFL. Finally, Connor Barwin was the rudder that helped steer the Eagles into the 3-4 hybrid scheme of Davis. After years in the Houston Texans organization, whose defense still excels in the 3-4, Barwin was brought in as a free agent to act as the ‘predator’ in Davis’ scheme. Between being able to cover tight ends and running backs, his ability to bat down passes, and even rush the passer, Barwin might have been the most important defender on the defense. There will probably be a couple of additions to the team’s front seven who will be given a chance to compete for jobs. However, it is tough to point out actual holes between the defensive line and linebacking corps in terms of the 2013 team.
The secondary might be the area that the team addresses most in the offseason. It was not that the unit was necessarily bad. But it became apparent that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, good quarterbacks could isolate and attack some of the weaknesses within the group. After an interesting start to his Philadelphia career, Cary Williams became a legitimate starting outside cornerback. No one will start comparing Williams to the Richard Shermans and Joe Hadens of the world, but not every team needs those players. Williams would have slip ups in terms of penalties and missed coverages here and there, but he did excellent work on some of the best receivers the Eagles faced in the second half of the season. The most important thing that Williams brought from Baltimore was not even on the field. The former Raven injected a toughness and accountability, sometimes flirting with bluntness, that the best defensive backs in the league often have. Williams is a big, physical corner and takes on all comers. Along with Barwin, Williams was a slam dunk free agent signing and appears worth the three-year/$17 million deal the team gave him. Across from Williams, Bradley Fletcher also performed well in his first year in Eagle green. Injuries are always a concern with Fletcher, but when he was healthy he was as solid in coverage and rarely out of position. Due to the shortcomings of Roc Carmichael, I expect the team will address the outside cornerback position with high priority. That said, Williams and Fletcher were a fine duo and appear to have the talent to hold off a young addition if their health does not get in the way.
Brandon Boykin, as far as a ‘bang for your buck’ player, was arguable the most valuable player on the team. The second-year man out of Georgia played just a shade over half the snaps during the regular season, but turned in some of the biggest plays of the season including six interceptions, tied for second in the NFL. His iconic pick to end the win against the Cowboys, sealing the division for the Eagles, seemed to justify Billy Davis’ insistence on keeping the young playmaker in the slot as a nickel specialist. From a talent standpoint, Boykin might be second only to Fletcher Cox on the team. Were he a few inches taller, he would be setting himself up for a payday the likes of which are reserved for only the top defensive players in the league. It seems as if the motivated Boykin uses his ‘deficiencies’ to his advantage and makes use of his explosiveness to cover up the holes that the opposition feels they can exploit. Boykin might be an outside corner eventually, but in today’s pass happy NFL the Eagles have a rare luxury in the former Bulldog.
The safety position is really the only position group where I would not be surprised to see two new starters. Nate Allen performed well enough to not be the focal point of every criticism aimed at the defense. Still, the safety position is generally looked upon as an impact role on the field and Allen still has not shown the same playmaking ability he flashed in the early stages of his career before injuries slowed his progression. Chip Kelly preaches competition more than anything as far who holds down starting positions. Should the Eagles decide to bring Allen, who just completed the final year of his rookie contract, expect another player to be brought in to push him for the strong safety position. Earl Wolff was promising when he worked his way into the safety rotation, but his injury-riddled second half paired with the fact that he was a 5th round pick means there are no guarantees with the rookie from N.C. State. He will have to prove not only that he has not lost any of the explosiveness or awareness that helped him earn a starting role, but that he can be counted on as a weekly option at either safety position. Then, there’s Patrick Chung. The former Oregon Duck and New England Patriot was brought in to bring an element of physicality to a defense that, with all their issues, was considered soft first and foremost. Unfortunately, the same problems that plagued Chung in New England reared their ugly heads in Philadelphia. Chung was constantly out of position in coverage and his insistence on going for the knockout blow in terms of tackling. More often than not, he would either miss a tackle or even hit one of his teammates with his blind approach to the ball carrier. It’s a wonder that the defense, that put such an emphasis on gang-tackling and limiting damage, could survive as long as they did with Chung’s freewheeling approach to such an important position. The Patriots do not often cast-off 2nd round picks without good reason. After watching Chung for one season, its pretty easy to see why he was nudged out of Foxborough.
The special teams would be the story of the team’s last two losses of the season. Alex Henery’s inability to consistently kick the ball out of the endzone, a task that appears easy for almost every kicker in the league, allowed Darren Sproles to spring a long return late in the 4th quarter to set up the Saints for their game-winning drive. The lack of confidence in Henery, no matter how much the coaching staff defended him, forced the team to have to devise kickoff strategies when a touchback would save all the time and effort that went into it. In the Minnesota loss, the team went to comical lengths to avoid the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson and paid for it by giving the Vikigns prime field position throughout the contest. They were able to mask his struggles throughout most of the Saints game, only to have Henery’s last kick be a perfect trajectory for one of the most dangerous returners in the league. The coverage unit took responsibility for allowing Sproles to break through the first wave, but it never should have come to that. Henery might not get cut right away, but its tough to see him entering 2014 as the starting placekicker. Consider the former Nebraska Cornhusker, who somehow could not kick in the cold, Andy Reid’s final knife in the side to the Eagles organization.
Free agent Donnie Jones was as revered a punter as one could imagine. His expertise in pinning teams within the 20 allowed the Eagles’ bend don’t break defense to increase their chances at forcing turnovers and coming up with plays to stop drives. He kicked a 70 yard punt and a 69 yard punt in consecutive weeks and his punt toward the end of the Cowboys game forced Dallas to put together a drive, rather than running one play and kicking a field goal. Chalk up another free agent victory for Howie Roseman and the Eagles by bringing in Donnie Jones. Jones is entering free agency again and, should another team decide to break the bank for him, it would be bad business to bring him back. That being said, Donnie Jones reportedly enjoyed his time in Philadelphia greatly and could possibly be had at the right price.
I was disappointed that the team was unable to return a punt or kick for a touchdown this season. Special teams coach Dave Fipp looked to have a unit that could spring either Brandon Boykin or Damaris Johnson (remember him?) at any time during the preseason. Toss in the fact that DeSean Jackson would be used as a punt returner again and it looked to be a safe bet that a return touchdown might be in the cards this season. Jackson had one called back against the Cardinals, albeit on a very shaky penalty, but other than that there was very little excitement from the return game. With Chip Kelly’s offense, it seems almost greedy to hope for a better performance from the return team. That said, it couldn’t hurt to have another way to put pressure on the opposition and alter their gameplan the way good returners forced the Eagles to.
As enjoyable as this season was for the most part, the true challenge for Chip Kelly and the new regime starts now. The Eagles will not be sneaking up on anyone next year and they will be playing a first place schedule. It is tough to say what the state of the NFC East is, with all the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the teams. The Eagles seem to have wised up to the fact that winners build through the draft and supplement with free agents, rather than depend on them. Much of the team’s core is made up of players drafted in the last two seasons and the team is arguably ahead of schedule in that respect. Despite going through some offensive struggles toward the end of the season, I would say Chip Kelly was probably ahead of his opposition and will have them making adjustments throughout the offseason. For this reason, Kelly has to ratchet things up and continue to add wrinkles and make alterations to his offense to stay ahead of the game. Almost the entire offense should be returning and the cohesiveness should help sustain the progression shown over the first 16 games of Kelly’s tenure. The defense will most likely continue its personnel shift toward a more traditional 3-4 unit and cover up some of the holes that teams took advantage of throughout the season. One thing working for Kelly, that was evident all season, was that his messages are simple and he is always willing to explain them to whomever. There is very little ‘coachspeak’ and his forward approach causes very little confusion or gray area when it comes to adjusting to his philosophies.
10-6 was beyond my preseason expectations of a 7-9 finish. I still sit here today facing the reality of having to spend at least another year of being a fan of a team without a Super Bowl. The season, in terms of black and white, is a failure because they were not the last team standing. When you take a step back and look at things through slightly rosier-colored glasses, there is a lot to like about this season. There are several more things solidified that were not a year ago. Most of the important positions on the team are spoken for and there are not so many holes that would force the team to keep plugging in young, or mediocre players. The team can start to address their depth and increase the inter-squad competitiveness that produces the best performances from incumbents and improves special teams play. The Eagles winning 10 games proved that Chip Kelly belonged with the big boys in the NFL. Now, if he wants to be considered one of the greats, he has to continue to show improvements and innovation. Considering he started off as a special teams coach for Columbia University in 1990, taking into account his rapid trajectory, its not outrageous to think he continues to trend in that direction.