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The 2014 Eagles: Reflections on the road ahead

The Philadelphia Eagles season ended Sunday with an unfulfilling and unimportant win against the Giants in New Jersey.  Unfortunately, without the annual budding hope of Spring Training & given the lackluster play of the local winter-sport franchises, many fans will be left in the cold for four months until wide-eyed, potential rookies convene upon Chicago for the 2015 NFL draft.

Like the Eagles brass, however, it is impossible to consider future talent without first evaluating the performance of this most recent team.  With that said, we look back on another Lombardi-less season and make observations: in the hope that better times are ahead.

1.     These are the facts:

        a.     This is a team just 2 years removed from 4-12.

        b.     They had a last place schedule in 2013 & finished 10-6.

        c.     This year, playing a first place schedule, they finished...10-6.

Kelly’s Eagles v.2.0 managed an identical 10-6 record (4-2 in division) to their 2013 counterpart.  In 2013, the Eagles opponents managed a combine .453 winning percentage.  Comparatively, the Eagles opponents managed a .475 winning percentage this , sure. At the Cowboys: the shine has faded there.  Fortunately, there is no Bowl Selection Committee for CHip & Co. to impress & they scraped by “beating the teams they should beat.”  On the other hand, their six losses came to four playoff bound teams (Arizona, Green Bay, Seattle, & Dallas), a talented (though underachieving) 49ers team on the road, and an infuriating loss to an inferior Redskins team in DC.

2.     As pretty picture a picture painted above, believe it or not, this represents an improvement:

This above facts can (obviously) be viewed in one of three ways: as a step backward, if your expectations coming in were high; as a step forward, if you prioritize strength of schedule; as a step laterally, wherein you likely blame the NFL allowing a 7-8-1 Panthers team to compete in the postseason. 

What cannot be denied is that this team is 2 years removed from a top-5 draft pick & organizational overhaul.  On January 16th, 2013, if you had been told Kelly would go 20-12 in his first two seasons, you’d have taken it.

 

3.     The Eagles lost games this year b/c the talent on the field wasn't up to the task against more talented units.

Is there any doubt that the Eagles have less talent on their roster, top-to-bottom, than San Francisco, Green Bay, Seattle?  The only team here that you could argue against is San Francisco.  The truth is the 49ers have more a more talented roster but a coaching staff & front office that couldn't handle the ego growth that came with short-lived success.  The Eagles more comfortably fit into the next tier of NFC contenders: accompanied by the Cardinals, Cowboys, Lions, and precisely no one from the NFC South. 

Consider this: how many defensive starters would play meaningful snaps for the Cardinals?  Fletcher Cox? Mychal Kendricks?  Maybe Connor Barwin?  How many offensive starters would play meaningful snaps for Dallas?  Jason Peters, Shady, Maclin?  The Lions have talent but not discipline but are the Eagles any better in this regard: more on that below.

 The lone exception is, perhaps, the last loss of the season at the Redskins.  Though the Birds have an undoubtedly higher talent level from 1-53, they happened to be immeasurably inferior in defending the Redskins biggest strength in the receiving corps.

With the book closed on the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles: the following truths have been written in ink:

            a.     The offense wasn't talented enough to beat good defenses (SF, ARI, SEA)

            b.     The defense wasn't talented enough to stifle good offenses (GB, DAL)

4.     When your raw talent is roughly even, you'll lose games b/c of penalties, turnovers, & fluke plays.

In Arizona, the Eagles committed three turnovers: including a Josh Huff fumble & interception in the red zone.  They were penalized 11 times for 104 yards.  Hosting Dallas, they again turned the ball over three times—including the opening kickoff—and were penalized 8 times for 95 yards. Though the Eagles committed just two turnovers—see how we’re settling now—at the Redskins, they committed 11 penalties to the tune of 102 yards.

This is, perhaps, the most alarming issue going forward the Eagles face.  Largely because this is a reflection of coaching.  Turnovers, mindless errors & penalties are the signature of undisciplined teams.  Undisciplined teams, as we have seen, rarely make the playoffs.  When they do, it is a short lived Lombardi threat.  Simply put, if Chip Kelly wants to make viable attempts at an NFL championship, he is going to need more disciplined play from the 22 on the field.  Which brings us to…

5.     Talent Evaluation:

Holding, facemask, horse-collar tackle, pass interference, etc.  What do all of these penalties have in common?  They are all committed by players who have been beaten by their opponent.  Infrequent & uncommon flags for these reasons can be often reasoned as “bad calls” or, at the very least, tolerated by the team, coaches, fans, bloggers, etc. 

But consider this, the 2013 Eagles were flagged 99 times for a total 889 yards.  Both of these figures are middle of the road in the NFL last season.  This year, however, is another story.  The 2014 Eagles committed 115 penalties accounting for total of 995 yards given away to opponents. Only 11 teams had more penalties; only 7 teams gave away more free yards.

What does this all mean?  It means many in Midnight Green were getting beat frequently enough to, for lack of a better term, cheat in order to do their jobs.  A not so alarming example for you: the starting secondary—Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Nate Allen, & Malcolm Jenkins—combined for 20 penalties & 268 yards surrendered.  By the eye test, we know Jenkins was the best player of them on the field: he was responsible for 2 of those flags & just 20 of those yards. It should be noted that talent isn’t always the answer: as Jason Peters was the most frequently flagged member of the offense.

The point?  More talented players would not be in positions to hold, interfere, or otherwise impede an adversary who had won the play.  The real point? This coaching staff had to do a better job of talent evaluation & roster management.  If Andy Reid had a problem putting his guys in the right position to succeed, then Chip Kelly has a problem succeeding to put the right guys in position.  But rosters aren’t rebuilt in a day.  So, looking back what could have been done, but…

 

6.     Scheme better. A couple random thoughts here.

        a.     If coaching staff distributed more to Sproles, Ertz, & Chris Polk (I said it), this Eagles would have finished at least 12-4.

The logic here is simple enough.  Darren Sproles’ average touches per game in 10 Eagles wins: 7.1.  Sproles average touches per game in 6 Eagles losses: 4.3.  With the Saints: 173 touches in 2011, 123 in 2012, and 124 in ’13.  Sproles had 97 touches this year in an offense that average nearly 71 offensive snaps per game.  You spent a 5th round draft pick to bring him here from New Orleans and that is exactly the production you got: but only because it was schemed that way.

Zach Ertz: This goes to the point above.  Talent needs to be on the field.  Admittedly, this is more of an eye test argument than the Sproles argument mathematically engineered above.  Ertz had more receptions, total yards, and yards/game this season than he did in 2013.  He was also on the field for a higher percentage of snaps.  The problem, he isn’t on the field enough in the red zone.  He is an athletically-gifted, big-bodied target that can make contested catches in a shortened field.  He is a guy that absolutely must be available to help a team that ranked 23rd in red zone scoring percentage.

Chris Polk: the change-of-pace back du jour.  Again, no math here.  Just argument.  But you’re reading the blog for a reason, so…  If Chip Kelly had utilized Chris Polk in short yardage & goal line situations earlier in the season—against the 49ers or Cardinals, for instance—it is probably that one of those games is a W & the Eagles are in the playoffs.

        b.     This Eagles coaching staff distributed the ball too much to Riley Cooper, Josh Huff, and LeSean McCoy (I said it).

Riley Cooper. He is an able blocker and sometimes comes down with contested catches based on his size alone.  He has sure hands, dropping <4% of his targets, despite the memorable drop in San Francisco.  The problem?  He is overpaid for his production and his targets at crucial moments takes the ball out of the hands of those guys listed above. Riley Cooper is not of the same natural talent level as Sproles, Ertz, or Polk. He caught 55 balls on 95 targets for 577 yards & 3 touchdowns.  Based on his annual average salary ($4.5M per year), for every reception in 2014, Riley Cooper earned roughly $82,000. This is just absurd.

Josh Huff.  The guy is a rookie fourth round draft pick.  He seems to have some real talent and showed incredible flashes: most notably the 107 yard kickoff return TD against the Titans.  He made an impact on special teams.  The reasoning he is here and not listed with Sproles et al. is that he, like Riley, is taking targets away from the those guys.  I am not saying he can’t be listed with those guys: possibly even next year.  Does Chip see him as a possible DeSean Jackson type? Possibly, but this year he made too many costly/rookie errors.

LeSean McCoy.  Wait, isn’t this counter-intuitive given the arguments above? No…idiot.  Why not?  Some people are going to say he had the second best year of his career in 2014.  They’re wrong.  In 2010, McCoy had 285 touches for 1672 yards & 9 TDs.  In 2011, Shady had 321 touches for 1624 yards & 20 TDs.  In 2013, he had 366 touches for 2146 yards & 11 TDs.  This year: 340 for 1474 & 5 TDs.  True, he was playing behind a patchwork offensive line for a third of the season.  True, he didn’t have his boy DeSean to pull a safety out of the box.  The truth is this: LeSean McCoy—for whatever reason—had his fourth best season in the NFL.  This is NOT an argument against his talent.  But if we want Sproles to get more touches, then they have to come from somewhere, right? If he is a running back, as Chip insisted, then this is where they come from.

 

7.    Moving Forward

        a.     This team is still 2 drafts (assuming they aren't blundered a la 2014) away from legit Super                 Bowl competition.

                    These are the positions (in order) that need addressing: QB, CB, S, WR, LB, OL, CB.  We                     have over 100 days to analyze the draft.  This will be another post.  For now, let’s get into                     known NFL commodities.

        b.     Free agency: Who to keep? Who to ditch? Who to target?

Maclin. Having taken a chance on a one-year deal, he delivered elite production on the outside: 85 receptions for 1,318 yards & 10 TDs.  All of those rank him in the top 15 in the NFL.  For comparison’s sake, in 2013 DeSean Jackson had 82 catches for 1,332 yards & 9 TDs. It doesn’t get more similar than that.  The prevailing argument is that Maclin was unable to “take the cover off the defense” in the same way Jackson was, right? DeSean had 25 plays go for longer than 20 yards in 2013.  Maclin in 2014: 21 plays of 20+ yards.  Talent? Check. Culture fit? Check. This is a receiver you have to have back, regardless of cost.  He’s earned it.

Brandon Graham.  Seriously? The guy that cost us Earl Thomas? Let him walk! Not so fast.  He matured into a major contributor in the final year of his 5 year contract: notching 46 tackles to accompany 5.5 sacks & 4 forced fumbles.  That is solid production for a part time OLB.  Is he a more natural fit for a 4-3 defense? Probably.  Is there anyone on the roster that will pick up that production? Nope…not even your 2014 first round draft pick.  The guess here is that the front office focuses on the secondary first: hoping Graham is still available after the first wave of free agent signings.

Casey Matthews. Here’s another Reid-era draft bust that managed to come in and change Delaware Valley perceptions in his contract year.  He is never going to be a disruptive force in the middle.  He’s never going to be Chuck Bednarik Jeremiah Trotter or DeMeco Ryans.  But he held down the fort after Ryans’ injury and is a capable backup who knows the scheme.

Bradley Fletcher & Nate Allen.  I can’t even type these names without putting holes in my keyboard. Later guys.  If you’re smart, you’ll follow whatever highway Patrick Chung did north to resurrect your careers in New England.

Speaking of which: can this front office please saddle up and acquire Darrelle Revis? The Eagles are projected to carry over roughly $15.5M dollars of cap space into the 2015 season.  This is the 3rd highest in the NFL.  Howie Roseman, as Chip Kelly infers, is a salary cap whiz.  Assuming the following players have their contracts renegotiated—or they are outright cut—this total could rise prior to the start of free agency: LeSean McCoy, James Casey, Riley Cooper, Todd Herremans, Cary Williams, Trent Cole, & DeMeco Ryans.  The general point here is this: the Eagles have money to spend and there are free agents that could make this defense instantly stout on the back end.  Some names to consider/dream of:

  • Darrelle Revis (NE): Likely too expensive.
  • Chris Culliver (SF)
  • Byron Maxwell (SEA): We saw what he can do in this league first hand.
  • Devin McCourty (NE)
  • Rahim Moore (DEN): Ball hawker to pair with Jenkins
  • Demaryius Thomas (DEN): Probably not going anywhere
  • Ryan Mallett (HOU): Would make a great backup QB in this system.
  • CJ Spiller (BUF): Eagles reportedly tried to acquire before Sproles.
  • Dez Bryant (DAL): Chip loves acquiring players who have beaten him.
  • Torrey Smith (BAL): Burner: would immediately displace Riley Cooper.
  • Michael Crabtree (SF): may be had cheap because he played on a poor offense.
  • Mike Iupati (SF): see Crabtree, Michael. Option if Mathis holds out/exits.
  • James Carpenter (SEA): huge part of Marshawn Lynch’s success.
  • Pernell McPhee (BAL): If the Birds can’t agree with Cole/Graham, someone needs to play OLB. Apparently it won’t be Marcus Smith.  This could be the guy.
  • Jason Worilds (PIT): Ditto above.

Honestly, all of the above is likely a pipe dream.  The last two offseasons, the front office has avoided big name, expensive free agents; instead, signing more players at mid-tier contracts & hoping to get lucky.  Many of the names won’t reach free agency at all: either being locked up or franchise tagged.  If some of the names happen to slip a couple weeks, especially the defensive guys, don’t be surprised if the Eagles get into it. 

What do they need to do in free agency to be more viable in 2015? Finding a starting CB, S, OLB would be great.  Most likely, they go after 2 of those.  If they happen to find a WR & OL depth, that’d be gravy.

        c.     2015 Schedule

Next season, the NFC East will be pitted against the AFC East & the NFC South.  Having finished second in the division this year, the Eagles will play the other NFC division runner-ups—the Lions & Cardinals—to round out the 16 game schedule. In 2015, South Philly will kindly host the Cowboys, Giants, Skins, Saints, Buccaneers, Bills, Dolphins, & Cardinals.  If you’re planning a road trip with the Birds in 2015, here are the teams you could be seeing: Cowboys, Giants, Skins, Panthers, Falcons, Patriots, Jets, & Lions.

Ready for an entirely too early prediction for 2015? Here it comes.  Eagles finish 4-2 in the division…again.  They beat Marcus Mariota’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints, Bills, and Dolphins at home. They cough up a home loss to the Cardinals.  Road losses in Foxborough & Detroit; wins in Charlotte, Atlanta, & New Jersey.  For an overall record of 11-5.

 

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