The difference between one season and the next is usually defined by what happens in the offseason. Whether it’s personal moves made a general manager, schematic adjustments made by a coach, or on-field improvements made by the players, the offseason is the time when season defining changes are made. That makes it fitting that we start a season preview with the man who dominated the offseason, Philadelphia Eagles’ football overlord Chip Kelly.
Kelly started the offseason with a bang when he won a power struggle with now former-Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. While Roseman remains with the team in an executive capacity, Kelly was given full control of the team’s football operations.
This past offseason, no team was more active than the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite being successful in the two seasons prior (20-12 record, one trip to the playoffs), Kelly elected to tear down his team on the fly and rebuild it in his own image.
Kelly’s week long whirlwind of moves resembled a terrible movie scene where an evil authority gains control of an institution and promptly fires everyone to hire his own evil minions. Kelly’s series of moves included: trading LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, giving Bryon Maxwell top-cornerback money even if he’s not a top cornerback, flipping Nick Foles and multiple high draft picks (a second rounder in 2016) for Sam Bradford, watching Jeremy Maclin walk out the door to Kansas City, and replacing McCoy with DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews at full price. Kelly iced his cake by cutting star guard Evan Mathis in June after months of trade rumors.
Making whole sale changes is not necessarily a bad thing. If an organization hits its glass ceiling than a shake up is usually necessary. However, unlike other Philly-based rebuilding projects, it is unclear if the Eagles were at that glass ceiling. Despite missing the playoffs, the Eagles finished a solid if unimpressive 10-6. They also ranked 7th in team DVOA (per Football Outsiders), the best mark of any non-playoff team. It ranked them less than a percentage point behind the NFC East Champion Cowboys. Their finish was lackluster, but it was not a team that appeared to be in need of a total rebuild.
The question that will end up defining Kelly’s regime now that he has his team is a simple one: Will the 2015 Eagles be a good football team?
Chip Kelly’s football teams have long been defined by their offense, that’s why the Eagles hired him in the first place. Kelly’s up-tempo spread scheme has been a mixed bag of results over his two-year tenure. When Kelly led the Eagles to the NFC East title in 2013, the Eagles were an offensive machine that ranked 3rd in Offensive DVOA and 4th in points per game. When the Eagles narrowly missed the playoffs in 2014, Kelly’s offense fell to 13th in Offensive DVOA but still managed to finish 3rd in points per game. 13th is still better than league average, but it is also less than you would want when your head coach is supposedly an offensive savant. The Eagles also saw about a half yard decline in yards per play, falling from 6.2 ypp in 2013 to 5.6 in 2014. A once unstoppable offense was starting to get stopped more frequently.
The biggest change for Philadelphia’s offense between the 2013 and 2014 season was the health of its offensive line. The 2013 Eagles had near perfect offensive line health. This was critical because when healthy, an offensive line of Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans, and Lane Johnson is amongst the NFL’s best. That health faded fast in 2014 when injures to Mathis, Kelce, and Herremans (as well Lane Johnson’s four-game substance abuse suspension) forced the Eagles into using seven different offensive line combinations featuring 10 different players. In a league where continuity is so important to offensive line play, it easy to see why the Eagles offense struggled.
A path to offensive success for the Eagles is impossible to imagine without a revival of the running game that defined the success of Kelly’s rookie season. The Eagles ranked 1st rushing DVOA in 2013 only to fall to 13th in the category last season. Running back LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing and all-purpose yards in 2013, before losing almost a full yard per carry in 2014. This was not McCoy’s fault per-say, he fell victim to the offensive line problems mentioned above. It also will not be McCoy’s fault if the Eagles’ have a replacement level running game again in 2015, seeing as he is now a Buffalo Bill.
After trading McCoy to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso and the apparent cap relief it provided, Kelly binged on running backs in free agency by signing former Cowboys’ starter DeMarco Murray and Chargers’ starter Ryan Mathews. While Murray did lead the league in rushing last year, many questioned the logic of giving out nearly $30 million in guaranteed money to running backs as the league continues to devalue them. Questions have also been raised about the health of Mathews and Murray, whom have two 16 game seasons between the two of them for their careers. There is no questioning what Mathews and especially Murray are capable of when they are healthy, but the odds of them both being healthy seem to be low.
The more concerning factor for the Eagles’ rushing attack will be the offensive line. Part of Murray’s success last year was due to the fact he played behind the league best Cowboy’s offensive line (more on that in the coming weeks). A healthy 2013 Eagles’ offensive line is on par with that unit, but they are guaranteed not to have that group ever again after Kelly cut Todd Herremans and more surprisingly, Evan Mathis. Herremans was a solid guard who could be expendable in search of cap room, but Mathis is an all-world mauler (and two time pro bowler) who any offense would suffer from losing. The Eagles are now projected to start journeymen Andrew Gardner and Allen Barbre at both of their guard spots. Without Herremans and (especially) Mathis, regaining their 2013 form could be impossible for this running game regardless of who is carrying the ball.
Turning over and entire running game is one thing, but Kelly took it three steps further by also turning over his entire passing game. Kelly boldly traded starting quarterback Nick Foles, a 2015 4th round pick, and a 2016 2nd round pick to the Rams for starting quarterback Sam Bradford and a 2015 5th round pick. The Eagles gave up a lot for a seemingly lateral move. Bradford has been better than Foles in terms of Quarterback Rating, posting a 90.9 career mark compared to Foles’ 81.4. However in terms of ESPN’s Total QBR Foles blows Bradford away with his career mark of 64.4 compared to Bradford’s 40.7 (Total QBR is based on a 1-100 scale). Bradford has also missed the entirety of the last two seasons with ACL tears. While Foles did miss time last year with a broken collarbone, he has much healthier track record.
A lot of analysts were turned off of Foles because of his ascetics, his throws are not always the prettiest thing in the world. He was very impressive in making the necessary reads to run Chip Kelly’s offense, but he was not the best pure passer. People may have forgotten in his absence, but Bradford is not the prettiest passer either. Bradford has a complete inability to go down throw it down the field, going just 14/44 on passes that travel over 15 yards in the air during his last active season in 2012. That may not matter as the Eagles have lost DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in consecutive seasons and now lack a reliable deep threat. Bradford will have to rely on more intermediate threats like running back Darren Sporles, tight ends Zach Erntz and Brent Celek, and slot receivers like Riley Cooper and Jordan Matthews. If everything works out and Bradford returns from injury better than ever, there is a chance he could succeed as a reader of defenses who makes easy throws in the same way Foles did. Given Bradford’s health history and lack of weapons, the odds may not be in Chip Kelly’s favor.
One place where the Eagles could drastically improve is on defense. Philly actually ranked in 10th in defensive DVOA last season. Their total DVOA was an unbalanced representation of two different things: an awesome run defensive and a team with no defensive backs. Philadelphia was the league’s 7th best team against the run in terms of DVOA but 18th against the pass.
Philly’s rush defense was build around defensive end/blackhole Fletcher Cox, who led the league in tackles on run plays with 43 this past season. Cox’s dominance, combined with the development of speedy inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks created a run-thumping unit that anchored a defense on the rise.
For whatever problems the Eagles pass defense had in 2014, Kelly sought to correct them in free agency. Bryon Maxwell’s contract has been well-documented, but if he can survive life outside of Seattle he will be an improvement over Bradley Fletcher regardless of his cap hit. In a lower profile signing of another former Seahawk, Walter Thurmond can be a valuable secondary player if he stays healthy; after all he was Bryon Maxwell before Maxwell was in Seattle. The biggest impact on Philly’s pass defense could come from Kiko Alonso. The middle linebacker was a ballhawk during his healthy rookie season in Buffalo, intercepting four passes while defending four more. If Alonso can cover that kind of space in Philly he can take some burden off of the Eagles’ still weak safeties. The other benefit of Alonso is that Connor Barwin can now stay where he belongs, as a pass rusher (14.5 sacks in 2014), instead of making up for the stoic DeMeco Ryans in coverage. Having Barwin coming off the edge full time will add to an otherwise weak Eagles’ pass rush. If Alonso, Maxwell, and even Thurmond can boost up this pass defense the Eagles have a chance to be one of the NFL’s top defenses.
On the field, it is hard to tell what the 2015 Eagles will be. A lot of these moves sort of make sense or are not drastically harmful (besides losing Mathis). There is a chance that Kelly works his wizardy on this offense despite all of the turnover and they are a top five unit again. There that all of the upgrades he brought in on defense will make them formidable against the pass and could produce a top ten season. If both of those things happen in concert, Philadelphia will not be a fun place for opponents this Fall. The flip side of that coin is that there is a chance this all goes wrong. Bradford, Murray, Mathews, and/or Jason Peters could relive their sketchy injury histories leaving Kelly with Mark Sanchez, no running backs, and a whose who of receivers and offensive linemen. Alonso could be slow recovering from his torn ACL and Maxwell could flop. No team has more variance in their possible outcomes for this season than the Philadelphia Eagles.
One last factor needs to be accounted for when considering this team: Chip Kelly himself. The Washington Post‘s Kent Babb did an excellent profile of Kelly last week that felt like one of those books everyone should read. While the major revelation of Babb’s story was Kelly’s secret ex-wife, there was also lots of interesting information about Kelly the football coach. As part of his discussion about Kelly’s obsession with sports science, Babb mentions a daily urine test that all Eagles’ players are required to take. This is the kind of control Kelly exerted at Oregon, all college coaches could easily do this if they wanted to. My question is, will professionals fall in line with this kind of behavior? It is one thing to dominate every facet of a college students life with sports science, dealing with grown men is a whole new ball game.
While reading Babb’s profile I was reminded of anecdote from Jack McCullam’s book Dream Team, detailing the 1992 Olympic United States Men’s Basketball Team. McCullam documents a story where head coach Chuck Daly (of Bad Boy Pistons’ Fame) tells his assistants, Duke head coach Mike Kryzewski and then Seaton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo, to learn to ignore the pros. In short, Daly tells them that they cannot control everything with professionals in the way they with their college teams, Daly believed if they were putting in the work on the court it was okay to ignore the stupid little stuff (McCullam, 146).
Anyone who has a working knowledge of Chip Kelly knows it is impossible for him to ignore the little stuff. I have serious concerns that Kelly’s style could wear on his players and they could get burnt out on the coach in the near future. I am not saying they will, but it would not be surprising if they did. Just ask new Steelers’ corner (former Eagle) Brandon Boykin, who made comments about Kelly and his “culture”. While some interpreted Boykin’s comments as painting Kelly as a racist, Boykin explained he just did not believe that Kelly knew how to handle professional athletes.
“I’m not saying he’s a racist at all. When you are a player, you want to be able to relate to your coach outside of football. When you’re not talking football scheme, I want to be able to sit there and talk to you about whatever. There were times, he just wouldn’t talk to people. You would walk down the hallway, he wouldn’t say anything to you. And I don’t know what that is. I’m not saying he’s a racist in any way. As a player, I wanted to be able to relate to my coach a little bit better and I felt like a lot of guys in that locker room feel the same way. Of course. when you’re in the organization, you’re not going to voice your opinion. I’ve always been a guy of honesty — you’re honest with me, I’ll be honest with you. I felt that honesty wasn’t there all the time.” – Brandon Boykin
This latest incarnation of Chip Kelly’s Eagles is the first true incarnation of Chip Kelly’s Eagles. Before it was just his schemes and his practices, now its all of that and his ideals plus his roster. This is truly Chip Kelly’s year to be in control of the Eagles just like he was the Oregon Ducks. No one is entirely sure what the final product will look like (good 0r bad), but either way it’s on Chip Kelly. The only question now is, can he make this work.