First things first: this is not an analysis of Chip Kelly or his offense. There are enough articles out there that do a better job than I ever could. What I will say about Chip Kelly is this: I don't think he's going to try and make the Eagles into Oregon Ducks East. They will not be a clone of what we've seen in Eugene over the past few years. I believe that the only two things we know about Chip Kelly for sure is that he likes an up-tempo offense and that he does whatever he thinks he needs to in order to succeed with his team. His base offense will probably look more conventional for the NFL and he will begin to install it over the summer after he goes over the fundamentals. In this post I'm going to step between those two events on the timeline and put on the coach's hat. There is one fundamental part of football that I believe should be taught before any offense, whether it be spread or West Coast. That missing piece would be executing running plays from the I-formation.
Before I begin with my reasoning I would like to present this disclaimer. I am not a football coach or player. I have never been associated with any official organization at any level and have never played beyond sandlot football. I do not have a the wonderful grasp of individual plays and X's and O's that people like starship007 have. I do feel like I have a decent grasp of the game as a whole - things like schemes and formations and how they all fit together. This is simply my opinion on my understanding of the game and I'm sure some of you may disagree. But I trudge forward nonetheless.
Let's start with what we have on the plate before getting into theory. Of the Eagles starters on offense, King Dunlap is the only one scheduled to be a free agent this spring. With Dennis Kelly showing flashes of potential and the return of Jason Peters, I think the Eagles let him walk. With the rest of the team returning (barring a trade), the Eagles have the following talent at their disposal in skill positions:
Receivers and Tight Ends: DeSean Jackson, while certainly not the biggest or most physical wideout, is a legitimate deep threat over the top and showed this year a refreshing commitment to the game as he failed to drop a pass up until his injury. Jeremy Maclin is somewhat disappointing as a first-round pick but has been solid over the middle and can be a good possession receiver in the right offense. Jason Avant easily has the best hands on the team and is one of the best slot receivers in the league. Brent Celek is your prototypical tight end: physical, athletic, and a good blocker, but he doesn't have a viable backup.
Running Back: LeSean McCoy, as we all know, is easily one of the most elusive running backs in the NFL right now but isn't really the best downhill runner. Bryce Brown has shown the potential to fill that niche but fumbles too often, and the fullback position once again has been mostly nonexistent in Reid's offense.
Quarterback: Nick Foles is a typical pocket passer with a tremendous feel for the game but lacks a cannon arm. He has potential but will need proper coaching to become a truly successful quarterback in the league. Michael Vick, while dynamic, is too prone to turn the ball over to really be a starter for any team that might already have an answer at the position.
This is the starting point for Chip Kelly. He has to look at this group of athletes and decide how big a part his zone-read or spread offense subpackages are going to play in his offense, if at all. But before diving into that, I'm going to consider the antithesis of everything Chip Kelly believes in: the I-formation. This is because I believe the chances of any offense being successful in a given game can be measured by how well a team can execute running plays from the I-formation.
We've all seen the I-formation, but in an effort to be thorough I'll define it here. The I-formation consists of the fullback and halfback positioned directly behind the quarterback in a straight line (hence the "I") with the tight end brought in to block with the offensive line. Two receivers are spread out wide. Here is an illustration:
As you might imagine, the I-formation is used primarily to run the ball. When a pass is called it is most likely play-action. And not only is the formation a run formation, but runs are generally up the middle with very little in the way of sweeps or slashes, unless the particular play has a complex blocking scheme. In short, the I-formation is a simple formation, and with that simplicity comes the key to being successful offensively. This is because running a play out of the I-formation at the beginning of a game has one purpose and one purpose only: to establish control of the line of scrimmage.
If an offense manages to gain three yards consistently when they run out of the I-formation, what excuse does the defense have? There is no trickery or gimmicks involved to confuse them. It is purely a battle of physicality and power, and it is a battle that the defense has lost. The offense called the defense out and beat them. Now they have the edge because the defense must make adjustments if they want to challenge the line of scrimmage. From a coaching standpoint, a football game is about making adjustments on the fly and the team that initially forces their opponent to make adjustments immediately has the advantage.
Coaches live and die in the NFL by their ability to adjust. And while the good coaches are able to do this very well, the great coaches force the other team to make adjustments first. This gives them the upper hand because the opponent now has to play their style of football and abandon pieces of their game plan or throw it out completely. This is when a great coach goes for the jugular and gets the game out hand before the opponent can respond. And it all started by establishing control of the line of scrimmage.
Now I am not suggesting that a team base their entire philosophy on the I-formation, because that would be illogical. However, going by the belief that any offensive system functions better with control of the line of scrimmage, I would build the core of my offense - lineman and blockers - in a way that would allow me to successfully run plays from the I-formation. I would leave the finesse and elegance to the skill positions and acquire those players by how they would fit into whatever system I want to run. But the players responsible for blocking up front would be picked with the I-formation in mind. In this way, the I-formation is less of an offensive strategy and more of a barometer measuring how well I will be able to open up my offense over the course of the game.
So, given all this, what does Chip Kelly have to work with? How many pieces are really in place? How much effort will it take to make them competitive? We've seen teams like San Francisco turn things around in one year with minimal changes to the roster. Are the current players on the Eagles' offense capable of producing similar results?
With all the injuries the Eagles had this season, it's easy to forget that they have quite a bit of talent on their offensive line. They have question marks at right tackle/guard (depending on what they decide to do with Todd Herremans) and Jason Peters isn't getting any younger, so they might want to address the offensive line early and often in the draft. That being said, they are set from center down to left tackle for at least the 2013 season and with some good roster management the Eagles have a chance at having a very good offensive line next year. Depth is an obvious concern, but that unfortunately is a problem that may take a few seasons to fix.
Accepting that the offensive line is capable of delivering a solid rushing attack from the I-formation, the next place to look is at running back. LeSean McCoy is arguably the most talented halfback in the league but he is not a real downhill runner. His incredible acceleration allows him to hit holes in the line very quickly but if they close up as he's getting there he's not trucking anyone over. Bryce Brown has an opportunity to complement McCoy if he can cure his fumblitis. Even then the Eagles don't have a good fullback-halfback hybrid in the Frank Gore mold; a hard runner that is going to fall forward for a couple extra yards. It wouldn't be a bad idea to acquire a player like that either through free agency or the draft.
Considering all of this, I think it's safe to say that the Eagles could run out of the I-formation and control the line of scrimmage very effectively as long as they look to address depth on the line and the lack of a true hard-nosed runner. The foundations for a quick turnaround are there - provided everyone stays healthy. Again, this is more of a depth issue than luck issue.
As far as opening up the offense goes, the Eagles' limiting factor is at the most important position: quarterback. No matter how impressed we may have been with Nick Foles this season, he still needs developing and has some question marks surrounding him. He has a good base of talent around him with two dynamic running backs and one of the better receiving corps in the league, but it is ultimately up to the coach to put him in a position to succeed and see if he runs with it (I don't care how much like Andy that sounds, that's really all you can do with a quarterback after you coach them up). What I like about Chip Kelly is his up-tempo offense because Foles really seemed to thrive in that role against Tampa Bay. Then again, the Buccaneers decided to play prevent for some inexplicable reason, so that might have had something to do with it too... but none of this speculation matters at all if the Eagles can't control the line of scrimmage in the first place. This is also assuming that Chip likes Foles enough to give him a shot as the starter, which is something we really don't know right now.
Chip Kelly's ability to confuse defenses is enticing, but I still think that the deception can only take you so far if the defense is able to play in the backfield on a consistent basis. Kelly may be an innovator, but his schemes - like every offense - will most likely fail if he can't establish control of the line of scrimmage. And that all starts with the same philosophy Kelly himself dealt with in New Hampshire: downhill running in the I-formation.