What Happened to the Philadelphia Eagles?

I don’t write about sports very often, as I would rather focus on other subjects. Every so often, I do have something to say about sports and I would rather post it here than in a comment section of a sports blog.

I have been a football fan, as well as an Eagles fan, for as long as I can remember. While I am certainly not an expert at the level of Tommy Lawlor, the best of the Eagles bloggers, I do watch a couple of games every week, read many articles about the sport, including those about the new advanced metrics created to help us better understand player and team performances, etc. Most importantly, the great thing about sports is that anyone can voice an opinion leading to interesting debates.

  • Changing the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. – Coach Chip Kelly wants a 3-4 defense. However, the Eagles had drafted and signed players for over a decade under Andy Reid to play a 4-3 defense. If faced with such a situation in which your defensive front 7 consists of players who fit a 4-3, why would a coach who is simultaneously installing a new offense want to fit square pegs into round holes? Players such as Cole, Curry, Graham, and even Cox are far more effective in a 4-3. Kelly should either have stayed with the 4-3 and hired a defensive coordinator with experience running this scheme or gradually transition to a 3-4 by drafting and signing players who fit both. The abrupt transition was a mistake and has led to inconsistent play since 2013.
  • The releases of DeSean Jackson and Evan Mathis and the failure to understand player valuation in the NFL. – While one can understand Kelly not liking Jackson in his offense, he failed to realize that other teams would highly value Jackson’s talents. Trading him, without bad mouthing him, would have been an understandable move. Releasing him made no sense. The release of Mathis was even more puzzling as the Eagles were desperate for a guard and there were no negative reports or rumors about his behavior. Both parties were losers, as Mathis is making less money in Denver and the Eagles have had problems at guard. These moves seem to indicate that Kelly failed to understand the difference in player evaluation and acquisition between college and the NFL. O-line play has been poor in the NFL this season. This is due to injuries and lack of available talent. In such an environment, blithely jettisoning a good left guard like Mathis was awful and displayed a lack of understanding of the value of o-linemen. Starters, regardless of their flaws, should never be released unless a team is in salary cap hell and has no choice.
  • The failure to anticipate offensive line problems. – How the Eagles made this mistake is puzzling. In 2013, the Eagles had a great running attack and it was no coincidence that the o-line was healthy the entire season. Major injuries as well as age related declines led to a less effective running game and persistent pass protection problems in 2014. The backups were exposed as backups, players that could be tolerated for a few games due to injuries to starters, but starters. Then the Eagles let Herremans walk, released Mathis, failed to draft an o-lineman, and failed to sign a free agent o-lineman. This season, the Eagles started two of the backups, one of whom is now on IR. The great Jason Peters has become injured and mortal and for some reason Jason Kelsey has played poorly most of the season. Chip Kelly wants to run the ball first and use success in the running game to take shots down field. This was the formula that worked well in 2013. Even with McCoy at rb in 2014, the o-line problems made the running game less effective and this also contributed to the passing game problems. A top 5 NFL running game starts with the offensive line while there are enough quality running backs available to plug one in when needed. Mike Shanahan’s Broncos showed this for years as he cycled through rbs but always had a strong running game due to the o-line. In college fb, we have seen this with Wisconsin. And Kelly essentially did this at Oregon as he never had a premier rb other than maybe Stewart. For the Eagles to think that they could not draft or sign an o-lineman since 2013 and not expect persistent o-line problems is disconcerting.
  • The DeMarco Murray signing and overvaluing running backs. – The problem with signing Murray was that it was a poor use of cap space. When the Eagles traded McCoy, they attempted to address the need for a rb by offering a contract to Frank Gore. This was a good move as Gore would not be able to command a large salary or long term cap commitment due to his age. When he accepted the offer and then changed his mind, the Eagles signed Ryan Mathews and then Murray. As many commentators noted, Mathews was a great fit for the Eagles running game but could not handle the load of a feature back due to his extensive injury history. This is exactly what has happened. However, the Eagles appear to have panicked and over paid for Murray. Why they didn’t feel comfortable with Mathews, Sproles, and a replacement level rb like Kenjon Barner or an undrafted free agent is a mystery. I can only speculate that the Eagles were fooled by Murray’s production in 2014 behind a dominant Cowboys o-line or they failed to note that in todays NFL rbs are not valued highly or they were not confident in their ability to develop a young rb. Whatever the reasons, the signing of Murray was a misallocation of resources.
  • Wide receiver problems. – While Jeremy Maclin was overpayed by KC, it has often been over looked that he is from Missouri and played for Reid for most of his career. Thus it is not clear that the Eagles had a realistic chance of resigning him. However, it is clear that the team misses his hands and outstanding route running. The Eagles did address this by drafting 3 wrs over the past two years but two of them have not developed. Also, they foolishly extended Cooper after his fluke 2013 season and then signed Austin, a older, injury prone player. This has left the team with a receiving core that drops a lot of passes and struggles to get open due to poor routes and lack of speed and quickness. Add to this the release of Jackson and the Eagles have below average talent at wr. If the running game was at the 2013 level, this would not be such a major concern, but with the frequent collapses of the running game since then, the lack of production among the wide outs has hurt.
  • Quarterback problems. – The Eagles as an organization have had qb problems since McNabb began to decline. Since that time, there has been a revolving door at the position and no one has stood out. While the Foles for Bradford deal has been scrutinized to death, without the benefit of hindsight, it was a good gamble. What has made it look so bad are the o-line problems. With the running game of 2013, a slightly below average NFL qb can thrive in Kelly’s offense. While many of Foles’ stats in 2013 were a fluke, he was still an effective qb. His limitations surfaced in 2014 when the o-line problems hampered the running game and pass protection. As all NFL observers have noted, the never ending rules changes have led to a league in which the qb is by far the most important player on the field. However, not enough pundits have noted that a strong running game can make a good qb seem like a great qb. Russel Wilson, Tony Romo, even Ben Roethlisberger are examples of this. Witness how Aaron Rogers has struggled lately has the Packers’ running game has been ineffective. I do not believe that the Eagles need a qb significantly more effective than Bradford. The caveat is that they must have a running game as good as that of the 2013 team.
  • An underestimation of building a team after significant roster turnover. – The more observant pundits cautioned before the start of the season that the large number of roster moves would lead to significant on the field problems in at least the first part of the season. This has certainly been the case as seen by the constant procedure penalties, missed blocking assignments, receivers and qbs not on the same page, blown coverages, etc. However, this only scratches the surface. There seems to be an assumption that Kelly is done molding the roster into his image and that he expected all to eventually go smoothly sometime this year. It is as if all too few people can conceive of the idea of a multi year plan. What is puzzling about this attitude is that in baseball and the NBA all realize that attempting to rebuild a team in a year is impossible. Yet for some reason, people believe that an NFL team can draft a few players, sign some free agents and voila. I don’t believe that Kelly believes this. I think that he planned on a multi year retooling of the team while still remaining competitive. I do not believe that he thought the team would play as poorly as it has during some of the debacles this season. As such, he probably expected a step back this year with an eye towards improvement in 2016 and Superbowl contention in 2017. It was naive for anyone to believe that the significant roster changes would pay off in one off season but it has certainly been an unpleasant surprise that the team has struggled so much.

These are my thoughts on how Chip Kelly’s Eagles found themselves below .500 in December after two 10-6 seasons.

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