When Chip Kelly took his potent, fast-paced offense from the University of Oregon off the college campus and to the NFL gridiron, there was a mix of skepticism and excitement. When the Philadelphia Eagles put up 33 points in the 2013 season debut against the Washington Redskins and had Washington’s defenders sucking wind, the “genius” and “revolutionary” tags quickly spread in regard to Kelly’s offense.
Leading the Eagles to a 10-6 record and division title in his first NFL season, not to mention taking Nick Foles from backup quarterback to the highest-rated passer in the league and catapulting LeSean McCoy to the very top of the running back food chain, Chip’s legend only grew. The results were so promising in year one that while many questioned the decision of the Philadelphia Eagles to cut ties with Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson in the prime of his career after having the best season of his career under Kelly’s watch, most gave Philadelphia the benefit of the doubt despite the rare decision.
For much of this season, despite inconsistency at quarterback and a clear step down in production, the good times continued. The Eagles led the NFC East much of the way, winning their first three games, then five of their first six, and sat at 7-2 heading in to Green Bay — with the Eagles having great chances to win in both losses. After getting thoroughly outclassed by the Green Bay Packers, the Eagles bounced back before destroying the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day to take sole possession of first place at 9-3. Everyone was still firmly on board the Chip Kelly train, and rightfully so. Despite some curious decisions here and there, the Eagles were sitting at 9-3 after 13 weeks following up a 10-6 campaign and division title in year one.
We all know what’s happened since. The Eagles got trounced by the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, fell behind 21-0 at home against the Cowboys and ultimately lost both the game and the division lead in that contest, and then went out and laid a complete egg against the inferior Washington Redskins to put the final nail in their 2014 coffin.
At this point, the mistakes and curious decisions in Saturday’s matinee matchup have been examined all over the place. There’s really no need to rehash all the garbage that took place at FedEx Field. And while plenty of words will be dedicated to how the likes of Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams should be shipped out of town as soon as humanly possible — because they should — I want to look at something different. Specifically, I want to tackle the coaching and personnel moves that led to the collapse from 9-3 (a 9-3 that could have been 11-1) to out of the playoffs with one week left to play.
So here are the five ways coaching and personnel decisions led to the collapse of the 2014 Philadelphia Eagles.
The Chilly Draft
When you’re a team entering a new regime, the NFL Draft is crucial in setting the tone and changing the culture. And while rookie wide receiver and second-round pick Jordan Matthews has had some big games and looks like a very good pick moving forward, you can’t say the same for anyone else the Eagles drafted in 2014 as of yet.
We know you can’t really grade a draft until players have a few years to develop — just ask Brandon Graham — but for a team that had gaping holes in its roster and hoped to improve on a 10-6, division title year, wasting a first-round pick on a guy who can’t even get on the field despite being 100 percent healthy is simply inexcusable. It’s doubly inexcusable when injuries and ineffectiveness at the linebacker position ran rampant for the Eagles, and still first-round pick Marcus Smith wasn’t equipped to play.
There are no two ways around it — Smith has been a big-time bust in year one. Considered a reach the moment his name was announced, it looks even worse 15 games into the season. Smith has barely suited up and certainly has been invisible, this despite the Eagles playing Casey Matthews regularly due to an injury to DeMeco Ryans. If you can’t get on the field in that situation, you weren’t worthy of a first-round pick, period.
Third-round pick Josh Huff looks like he has potential and did return a kick 107 yards for a touchdown, but he’s also cost the Eagles with some deadly turnovers. Jaylen Watkins, the fourth-round corner out of Florida, can’t get on the field despite the struggles in Philadelphia’s secondary, and Taylor Hart and Ed Reynolds are names of people the Eagles drafted. Beau Allen has been decent as a backup defensive lineman to spell the nasty trio of Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton, so no complaints there, but the Eagles didn’t do a whole lot beyond the contributions and potential of Matthews in this draft.
The Marcus Smith pick just screams of Eagles’ blunders of the past, whether it be the Danny Watkins variety or the Jon Harris nightmare. Either way, not an instantaneous hit to the 2014 draft for Kelly and Howie Roseman. To compare, the Eagles drafted Lane Johnson (starter), Zach Ertz (semi-breakout this year) and Bennie Logan (starter) with their first three picks last season, all of whom played a lot as rookies and thrived to some degree in year one or two — though Johnson has been inconsistent this year after serving a four-game suspension to start the season. Conversely, none of the first three picks this year are starers, and only Jordan has had a real positive impact on most games.
Writing Off The Wrong Wide Receiver
No question about it, Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman hit home runs this offseason with the additions of two former New Orleans Saints. The signing of Malcolm Jenkins gave Philadelphia at least one stable and able body in the secondary, and giving up a fifth-round pick for Darren Sproles — dangerous both on punt returns and as a compliment to McCoy in the backfield — was the very definition of a steal. Both players have been huge for the Eagles.
If only all of the offseason moves could have been positive, perhaps we’d be singing a different tune as the playoffs approach.
It all started with the combination of sending DeSean Jackson packing while simultaneously extending Riley Cooper for five years at way too much money. Last season, both Jackson and Cooper had career years. With DeSean stretching the field and making huge plays, defenses had no choice but to give Jackson’s side of the field plenty of attention. That meant more space for Cooper to work with, and it resulted in an excellent year for both players. Unfortunately, the Eagles overvalued Cooper’s contributions and undervalued what the disruptive Jackson brought to the field.
I’m not saying the Eagles were entirely wrong for cutting ties with DeSean — though I was vehemently against the move. We’ve all seen what can happen to a team when there’s a divided locker room, a la the Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens Eagles of 2005. It can be madness. But if you’re going to let a talent like Jackson go, you have to have a better backup plan than simply expecting Cooper to remain at his 2013 level or even improving and having Jeremy Maclin replace Jackson’s production. Maclin has been wonderful in 2014, but Cooper has proved to be nothing more than a below average wide receiver without the burner commanding attention on the other side. It’s resulted in a starting wide receiver who essentially functions as a sixth offensive lineman. Riley Cooper has no business starting for any NFL team, let alone one with playoff and ultimately championship aspirations.
Meanwhile, the thought of Jackson reuniting with Maclin and combining with Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and rookie Jordan Matthews, not to mention McCoy and Sproles, is tantalizing. After all, Jackson thrived in Kelly’s system last year. Imagine what he could potentially do with even more weapons around him. It’s a moot point, but one that Eagles fans will question as long as this team comes up short while Jackson remains explosive and Cooper remains impotent.
By the way, while we’re on the subject of the locker room, it’s not as if we’re dealing with a choir boy in Cooper, a guy many thought would derail Philadelphia’s season last year for his racist remarks at a country music concert. So yeah.
If It’s Broke, Don’t Fix It
I’m not here to pick on Bradley Fletcher. Plenty of opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers have done that already this year. I’m also not here to pick on Cary Williams. Everyone knows what a bowl of fart soup he is. No, I’m here to pick on Billy Davis and, yes, Chip Kelly.
Listen, you can tell us all you want that Brandon Boykin is too undersized to play the outside and that there’s no better options than Fletcher and Williams to start at corner all you want, but when those two continue to get worked week in and week out, as they really have in the team’s losses, you have to try something different, right? Not if you’re Billy Davis — and, yes, Chip Kelly.
Despite Fletcher being unable to cover anyone, Davis continued to leave him out on an island against top-notch wide receivers every damn week. It resulted in Dez Bryant having a field day and DeSean Jackson running right by him the past two weeks alone. Throw in Williams’ stupid penalties and either large cushions or being far behind, and you have to change something up. Yet Davis continued to refuse to give safety help to his corners, and he continued to say that Boykin and/or Carroll could not do a better job. First of all, most fans believe Boykin is the best corner on this team, even if he isn’t a shutdown guy. He’s been exposed a bit this year, but he at least makes plays and has better skills than either Fletcher or Williams. But even if he and/or Carroll couldn’t do a better job than Fletcher and Williams … they sure as shit couldn’t do worse. So throw them out there and let them prove themselves.
Nope, not Billy Davis.
Which brings me back to Chip. No, Chip doesn’t run the defense … but he does run the Eagles. He’s the head coach. He has the power to tell his defensive coordinator that he needs to change something up when a part of the defense is clearly broken. Evidently, Chip was satisfied all season with allowing Davis to keep trotting Fletcher and Williams out there with impunity. It makes no sense. The Eagles secondary was broken almost all season, and Billy Davis never once tried to fix it. OK, once — this past Sunday, Week 16, with the Eagles losing to the Redskins deep into the game. Talk about too little, too late.
Andy Reid 2.0?
Fairly or unfairly (mostly fairly), Andy Reid often got criticized for neglecting the running game and putting the ball in his quarterback’s hands too often. Last season, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing under Chip Kelly. This year, they’re down to ninth, a drop that is worse than it looks when you consider the Eagles have been relying on Mark Sanchez.
Andy drove fans nuts, but one thing he did do when McNabb got injured was lean more on his running game to help his backups out. That was part of the reason why Jeff Garcia was so effective in place of an injured McNabb and helped the Eagles to the playoffs.
Kelly should have been doing the same things with Sanchez under center, particularly once the former first-round pick began to struggle as he so often did in New York. Instead, Kelly has continued to put the game in Sanchez’s hands instead of his impressive stable of running backs, particularly the last three weeks.
It began in the loss to the Seahawks. Yes, Seattle stuffed the run time and time again, but McCoy had only 17 carries, Sproles just four and Chris Polk, who has become a short-yardage and change-of-pace terror in limited opportunities, had zero. This despite the fact the Eagles got out to a 7-0 lead and trailed by just three at half.
Against the Cowboys, McCoy had just 16 carries, Sproles three and Polk two. Yes, some of that had to do with the fact the Eagles fell behind 21-0 early, but even after coming all the way back to take the lead, the running backs weren’t getting enough touches.
Then this past Saturday, with the season on the line, Sanchez struggling heading in to the game, and the Eagles locked in a tight contest, Kelly had Sanchez drop back 50 times to pass, while only calling his running backs’ number 26 times. Sanchez did have five carries himself, but a nearly 2-1 pass to run ratio with a backup quarterback simply isn’t smart. Yes, Sanchez was effective most of the game, but he did what’s become all too common for him and this team — turn over the ball in a critical moment.
The Eagles have two stud running backs and a very powerful, impressive third back. Yet even with relying on a backup quarterback with a history of inefficient, inconsistent play, Kelly continued to put the ball in the hands of Mark Sanchez at a much greater rate than the more than capable hands of Shady, Sproles and Polk. It was maddening.
The Refusal To Adjust
I understand that Chip wants to run his offense and run it the way he’s accustomed to. But this isn’t the PAC-10/12. Defenses adjust, especially on the better teams, and the best coaches adjust to those adjustments. For Chip, this simply isn’t an option. It’s full speed ahead no matter what, and frankly, it’s cost his team.
With the Eagles offensive ineffective against playoff-caliber opponents — namely the Packers, Seahawks and the second time around against the Cowboys — Chip just kept going to the up-tempo well. Never mind that his defense was on the field the whole game and wearing down due to the offense failing to get anything going. Never mind that the up-tempo pace wasn’t producing. It was always full speed ahead.
You can have your philosophy and run it. But the absolute best coaches realize when something isn’t working and they adjust. Chip never did. Sometimes, it makes sense to slow down and give the defense a rest, give the offense a chance to settle down and look things over. Sometimes changing the tempo can catch the defense by surprise. But Chip just never did it. Hell, it was like pulling teeth just to get him to run the play clock down late in games with a lead.
I love Chip’s aggressive nature and confidence in his offensive philosophy, but there are times when you have to adjust. Opposing defenses will continue to adjust to Chip’s system. The question remains on whether or not he’s willing to adjust to those adjustments. So far, he hasn’t, and that’s not good.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have full faith in Kelly and this staff. The Eagles were working with an incomplete roster, and it was clear that this team isn’t quite up to contender level yet. However, there are things Chip needs to work on. He needs to realize this isn’t college. And he’s not blameless in his team failing to show up ready to play the past two weeks against division foes with their playoff livelihood on the line.
The Eagles need to fill some holes and players need to improve. But so do the coaches, Chip Kelly included.