Turn And Face The Strange: What We've Learned About The New Philadelphia Eagles

These may not be the Eagles you know, but they could become the Eagles you love.

There was a lot to take from the Eagles opening night performance – most of it good, some of it bad, with the jury still out on some other things. Here’s some stuff we learned:

Runs! Runs! Runs! (Or: can Chip Kelly manage the Phillies too?)

As LeSean McCoy emerged as one of the top runners in the NFL, it was hard not to feel bad for the guy for being stuck in Andy Reid’s pass first, pass second, pass third, punt fourth offense. Reid calling the plays for a runner of McCoy’s caliber felt like a guy who never learned to drive owning a Mercedes Benz – going from Reid to Chip Kelly is like that Benz being sold to Michael Schumacher.

McCoy carried the ball 31 times on Monday night; this in and of itself is not a huge surprise – the Eagles were expected to run early and often and lived up to the billing by going with the ground game over 60 percent of the time, the large lead they held over Washington for a good portion of the game likely contributing to the run total as well. It’s only the fifth time since Andy Reid’s initial season in 1999 that an Eagles RB has had 30+ carries in a game, the other games being:

  • Duce Staley rushing 31 times for 135 yards in the 2002 game against the Arizona Cardinals where Donovan McNabb threw 4 TD passes on an injured ankle.
  • Brian Westbrook picking up 148 yards on 32 attempts in a forgettable 2007 game against the Cam Cameron led Miami Dolphins, who would end the season with a 1-15 record. Aside from the yellow and blue beatdown of the Detroit Lions early on and A.J. Feeley giving the undefeated Patriots a run for their money, I’d classify the entire 2007 Eagles season as forgettable.
  • 2008 would see Westbrook get 33 carries for 131 yards and a score (and another 6 receptions for 72 yards and a TD) in a 20-14 win over the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. New York came into the game with a dominating 11-1 record, but without standout WR Plaxico Burress, who had shot himself in a nightclub earlier that week. The two teams would meet again in the divisional round of the playoffs, where the Eagles emerged victorious again to improve to 2-0 against the Manning/Coughlin Giants in the playoffs (the rest of the league is a collective 1-8).
  • McCoy’s first 30 carry game came in another night game against a divisional opponent, a 34-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys on the day before Halloween in 2011. Shady cut through Rob Ryan’s Dallas defense for 185 yards on 30 carries, his two touchdowns contributing to 34 unanswered points before a Tony Romo TD pass early in the 4th put Dallas on the board.

Sustained Drives: A Cure for the Time of Possession Blues (at least in the first half)

The Eagles were the only team in the NFL that went their entire opening game without going three-and-out at least once. On the other end of the spectrum, Jacksonville’s Gus Bus went back to the garage after making three stops seven times, with nearly half of their drives ending with a three-and-out. The San Diego Chargers – next up on the docket for the Eagles – had a 3&O percentage over 40%, which could lead to a very tired SD defense if that trend carries on and the Eagles attack continues to move at ludicrous speed.

The key to moving the ball quickly without making your own defense cramp up and reach for the oxygen mask is to sustain drives. The Eagles had 5 drives of seven plays or more against Washington and did so by moving the chains consistently, racking up 21 first downs in the first half. Half of the Eagles drives in the first two quarters lasted nine plays or longer, even though all of them clocked in at under four minutes of game time.

The downside of the offensive performance obviously came in the second half, where none of the seven Eagles drives went longer than six plays. Moving the ball became an issue as well – the only Eagles second half drive that found its way past the Washington 40 yard line originated beyond that mark: a Cary Williams interception made the original line of scrimmage the Washington 30, with McCoy cutting through the defense for a 34 yard TD run two plays later. The next Eagles drive after that score started well with two McCoy runs for a combined 14 yards before a massive implosion began with Bryce Brown being pushed out for a five yard loss, followed by a Lane Johnson false start, and then Brown being stuffed, an incomplete pass, and two more penalties leading to a 4th and 40 and one hell of a punt by Donnie Jones.

Washington drove down the field for a touchdown following the Jones punt, and then got the ball back in short order thanks to Josh Wilson capitalizing on poor ball protection by Jason Avant and forcing a fumble. With field position on their side now, Washington took four plays and only 82 seconds of game time to go 29 yards for a touchdown to make it a two score game. The following Eagles drive squandered a brilliant 36 yard scramble by Vick when a holding call on Jason Kelce turned a 3rd and 5 into a 3rd and 15, leading to an incompletion and a punt.

It’s important to remember that some of the offensive line penalties may be attributable to an adjustment period – three of the five starters on the Eagles offensive line played little, if any, meaningful professional football last year. Other than a holding call on Evan Mathis, all of the offensive line penalties came against guys who were hurt/mostly hurt or in college last year: A false start on Jason Peters, a false start and a hold on Kelce, and a false start on Lane Johnson.

The Defense Was Opportunistic… And Nasty

There was much made about recent Eagles defenses hardly striking fear into the hearts of their opponents, and while reputations like that are not won or lost in a single game, Bill Davis and his defense took a step in the right direction by forcing three turnovers while racking up three sacks, a safety, and a few big hits to welcome Robert Griffin III back to the NFL. Individually, Trent Cole looked positively resurgent, Mychal Kendricks showed glimpses of the next step you hope a rookie with high promise and expectations takes between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and Demeco Ryans transitioned back into the 3-4 defense fine for a guy who supposedly left Houston partially because of a perceived inability to play in the scheme.

Most impressively, the Eagles hit the Redskins where they were their strongest last season, forcing a team that didn’t turn the ball over last year (Washington surrendered an NFL low 14 giveaways compared to an NFL high 37 for the Eagles) to cough it up three times, four if you count the safety. Run defense has been a problem for the Eagles since the days when Emmitt Thomas was the defensive coordinator, but the unit did a great job of stopping Alfred Morris- the #2 overall rusher in the NFL in 2012 - holding him to zero net yards and a lost fumble on his first three carries. Of Morris’s 12 carries, 6 would have to be deemed ineffective: one resulting in a lost fumble, another in a one yard gain, and four more in no gain or a loss of yardage. Two more stops of no gain and one yard, respectively, were negated by Redskins holding penalties, though the one yard gain would have netted Washington a first down.

The biggest change on defense – more than Fletcher Cox (kind of) living up to the hype, Trent Cole partying like it was 2009, or anything else – was sheer opportunism, illustrated best by their turnover creation and ability to get off the field: the Redskins converted on only 2 of 10 third downs (and they were 3rd and 1 and 3rd and 2 respectively). The 80% mark in defensive 3rd down efficiency tied with Detroit for second best of the week and improves over recent performance: the 2011 and 2012 Eagles made the stop on third down about 62% of the time. The later years of the Reid era were filled with games where it seemed like every screw up the Eagles made was capitalized on fully while the opposition was let off the hook time and time again – it looked like we were in for more of the same when Michael Vick’s batted down ‘lateral’ was returned for a touchdown, or when the Redskins scored 20 unanswered points to close to within six, but when Jake Knott came up with the onside kick recovery that barely eluded Jason Avant, one thought seemed hard to escape:

This is the kind of game Reid’s Eagles would have lost.

The most common critique of the defensive performance - that they caught the Redskins at the right time and capitalized on a rusty quarterback, only to almost let him steal the win when he got his sea legs back - might be the most important thing to learn. Luck is a funny thing in that people (and groups of people) who prepare well and seize opportunities tend to be luckier than those who don't. Let's grant the Eagles a bit of luck and say that Washington's uncharacteristic miscues and turnovers were a result of Griffin seeing no preseason action and Alfred Morris being extremely limited. That may be true, but all great defenses are opportunistic, they capitalize on mistakes no matter how, when, or why they’re made, and while this Eagles defense is far from great, they did just that. Forget great – the Eagles defense wasn’t even good in the second half by any means, but they were good enough – and in the first step of a long rebuilding effort, that’s more than anyone probably should have expected.

Someone on Special Teams Might Be Pretty Special

Donnie Jones was one of the true unsung heroes of the Eagles win. The ex-Texan’s first punt as an Eagle started the Redskins at their own five yard line, leading to a safety two plays later. Jones’s five subsequent punts put the Redskins on their own 20, 6, 34, 6, and 11 yard lines, with Washington’s start at the 34 coming from a 61 yard boomer after penalties and a bad Bryce Brown run forced the Birds into a 4th and 40. As some guy from pointed out, Jones had three times as many punts that lead to the opposing team starting inside their own ten yard line in this game than the Eagles had in the entire 2012 season. The Redskins only started from beyond their own 21 yard line twice: once when Donnie Jones had to punt from his own 14 yard line and again after recovering Jason Avant’s fumble.

The Team (And Its Fans) Are Having Fun

It the post-opening win euphoria, a lot of commentators have written and talked about how Kelly’s more energetic, rah-rah style has reinvigorated Eagles players and fans alike. This isn't just something to feel all warm and fuzzy about – it appears to have translated onto the field, where DeSean Jackson and Trent Cole looked like new men, Michael Vick seems rejuvenated and not a frustrated guy trying to put a happy face on things.

Everything that happened to the Eagles in the latter portion of the Andy Reid era created a dark cloud over the team that Chip Kelly has been able to push away. It's hard to put a starting point on where things took a permanent turn for the worse, but the 2008 NFC Championship Game loss to Arizona seems as good a point as any. Sure, the Eagles won the NFC East in 2009 and delivered some real magic with Vick in 2010 (including an outright miracle) but the bad far outweighed the good and it came in many forms.

  • On the field: losing in the playoffs to Dallas, a seemingly all-star secondary turning historically bad, most of the 2011 season, all of the 2012 season.
  • Off the field: allowing Brian Dawkins to walk away, the Banner vs Lurie/Reid/Roseman soap opera, Jim Washburn, Vince Young and the Dream Team, horrid drafts that now see a first, second, and third round pick from the 2010-2012 drafts elsewhere in the league, with another set of them – Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Curtis Marsh – struggling to live up to their promise.
  • Tragic beyond the scope of football: The deaths of Jim Johnson and Garrett Reid.

Some revisionist history paints the Andy Reid era as a 14 year long nightmare and that’s completely unfair, but it undoubtedly didn’t end well. Chip Kelly comes in with big ideas and new car smell and it’s had a positive psychological effect on the team and its fans, which will be amplified now by Kelly’s impressive debut. By contrast, look at the last four Eagles coaching debuts:

  • 1999: Doug Pederson leads Andy Reid’s Eagles to a 21-0 lead over the Arizona Cardinals after the first quarter, which remains a comfortable 24-6 at the half. The Cardinals win 25-24 on a last second Chris Jacke field goal. The game didn’t sell out and was blacked out on local television. This game was also the beginning of the end of the Brian Finneran era, which was much shorter (and less talked about) than the Andy Reid era.
  • 1995: Ray Rhodes’s Eagles fall to Trent Dilfer and the Tampa Bay Bucs 21-6. Ricky Watters short arms a pass over the middle to avoid a hit and delivers the infamous "For who? For what?" line. The game didn’t sell out and was blacked out on local television.
  • 1991: Rich Kotite’s Eagles go into Lambeau Field and lay a 20-3 beating on the Green Bay Packers behind one of the greatest defenses in NFL History. Randall Cunningham is hit by Bryce Paup in the first quarter, suffers a torn ACL, and misses the rest of the season.
  • 1986: Buddy Ryan’s much hyped coaching debut results in a 41-14 blowout at the hands of the Washington Redskins. The Eagles actually lead the game 7-3 after a quarter and keep it competitive at 20-14 at the half before giving up 3 unanswered second half touchdowns to the Skins. (Hey! That sounds familiar!)

Could we be setting ourselves up for a massive letdown? If you’re thinking about taking out a second mortgage, signing the check over to StubHub, and making a trek to East Rutherford in early February, then probably. If you’re glad the team looks competitive, exciting, and fun again, then sit back and enjoy the ride.

Until the Chargers win by 14, Andy Reid comes back to town and wins by twenty, and half the team is on injured reserve by Week 10.

Sorry, I haven’t shaken the instinct to brace for the gut punch yet.

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