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Calm Down: The Eagles Are Still Rebuilding

Patience is a virtue.

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***EDITOR'S NOTE: The following piece is written by a friend of the site, Trev223, who happens to contribute to Philadelphia Phillies SB Nation site The Good Phight. Trev has contributed to BGN before. With all the doom and gloom surrounding Philadelphia's 2014 season, Trev is somehow able to stay level-headed and offer some reasons for optimism. Enjoy.***

A rebuild brings out the worst in people. This is kind of a sure bet regardless of if the rebuild is successful or not, too. If it's not successful, people start to get antsy, start to question all the losing, start to wonder if they'll see a good team in the next decade. Look to the Houston Astros, the Chicago Cubs (well, until this offseason), or, probably, the Jacksonville Jaguars for examples: fanbases getting frustrated because the promised land keeps getting pushed back. But it's almost worse when the rebuild does work right away, because expectations get skewed. The Kansas City Royals - who will almost certainly not make the World Series again this year, and maybe not the playoffs - are a good example of this (though they moldered in mediocrity for a good long time) and, sadly, our own Philadelphia Eagles are a perfect example as well. So let's shift from baseball and hypotheticals to a subject closer to home: the Eagles rebuild and their choices in the draft.

The Eagles, as we know, cratered at 4-12 in 2012 in one of the most aggravating and gut-wrenching seasons I can recall as a sports fan. Seriously, if you're one of the people out there that think the Eagles' collapse is, say, worse than the Phillies in 1964 or worse than the "Dream Team" in 2011, please take a minute and try to remember 1964, 2011, or 2012, if you were alive for them (2 for 3 over here!). Anyway, after that season of fourth quarter losses and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Eagles fired Andy Reid and hired Chip Kelly. Skimming over all of the "does Chip's schtick work in the NFL?" stuff (mainly because people on this very site, not to mention people on BGN Radio do it waaay better than I could), let's look at the history. Kelly picked up the team with almost no expectations, drafted an O-lineman in the first, and rode the back of a surprisingly efficient backup quarterback and a deeply weak schedule to turn a 4-12 team in a first round playoff loser. This is remarkable. Can you imagine the Jaguars, WASTEAM, or the Raiders suddenly going 11-5 and going to the playoffs next year? If you said yes, I'ma stop you right there: you're lying.

Anyway, for better or for worse, 2014 was now a supercharged year in the rebuild. No longer was this a process in place, but it was a process that was complete. There was ostensibly a franchise quarterback, an offense that could move, and a defense that, if it got a few holes filled, could at least keep opposing teams to 21 points. As it happens, one out of three gets you uh, out of the playoffs. The team, as we know, was not one or two pieces away, and a hilarious secondary, a hobbled O-Line, and a franchise quarterback who turned into a Drew Stanton sized pumpkin kept the Eagles out of the playoffs. So goes the rebuild.

But not to a lot of fans, right? For many fans, this is an unforgivable collapse, an indictment of Howie Roseman, if not of Chip Kelly himself and the team overall. The cornerbacks are bad, the quarterbacks are bad, and the Eagles were only good enough to pick between 16-20 in the 2015 draft. As if this weren't enough, the Eagles' first round pick, Marcus Smith II, was a bust. A bust! Maybe these geniuses don't know what they're doing!

Okay, calm down. There are three important points I'd like to make as we head into the Eagle-less and Cowboys-full playoffs in an effort to gently push you all back from the ledge, and here they are:

  1. The rebuild is still in progress, whether or not you think the record tells you so.

  2. The Eagles are going to have to rely on scouting if they are going to be good. This means "bust" status and mock drafts aren't helpful.

  3. Team and player development is not linear.

Okay, so the first point - yes, the rebuild is still in progress. An 11-5 year might have suggested that Chip had skipped the painful part of a coaching change and team philosophy overhaul, but this painful exit from the playoffs should probably convince you otherwise. People jaw a lot about regression to the mean, but I think we can actually only point to true regression at the quarterback position - Nick Foles did not look like Nick Foles when healthy, and Mark Sanchez proved that he was, well, Mark Sanchez - and running back position - RIP Shadybounce. The former is pure regression, as a guy who looked otherworldly came to earth; the latter is just football being weird. No way to predict McCoy's decline over the offseason. Otherwise, the team developed. The front 7 as a unit looked tremendous, and previous Earl Thomas regret-machine Brandon Graham finally blossomed into what, ostensibly, Andy Reid saw him becoming. Furthermore, the loss of Desean Jackson did not the offense kill, as Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin were able to shoulder the WR burden, with flashes from Josh Huff and Zach Ertz and, uh, a couple of things from Riley Cooper. And the O-Line, while banged up, revealed some encouraging backups in Matt Tobin and Andrew Gardner. So hell, I'll take that.

And so should you - year two of a true rebuild often looks worse than this. Inconsistent, flawed teams are more likely to end up 6-10 or 7-9, in the true dregs of mediocrity, and the Eagles have a shot at winning 10 games this year. Yes, that sucks for draft placement in 2015, but it's encouraging for future development. The team is getting better and it's not some old-age fluke: the rebuild is moving apace.

Second point: if the Eagles are moving steadily with their rebuild, don't expect a lot of 4 win seasons to restock the team. Kelly's coaching is effective enough that he can win 9-10 games with cobbled together mud and rock people at quarterback and Billy Davis somehow is able to field a defensive unit with literally unmovable scarecrows at cornerback. Regression here is not going to get us into the truly terrible echelon of teams without some equally terrible luck, so don't count on picking above 15 for a while. Unfortunately, as Matt Dering is so fond of telling me, that means the Eagles may not have a shot at true first round talents.

To expand, let's assume the Eagles win on Sunday and pick at 20 this year. In 2009, the 20th pick netted Brandon Pettigrew; in 2010, Kareem Jackson; in 2011, Adrian Clayborn; in 2012, Kendall Wright; in 2013, Kyle Long; and in 2014, Brandin Cooks. So, out of the bunch, Wright is an okay third receiver; Long is a solid O lineman; and Cooks is maybe good or maybe not. The rest? Not great, Bob. And if you were wondering about secondary help, as so many of you seem to be? Excepting 2014, which is too soon to tell on guys like Dennard and Verrett and Roby and Ward, here are the list of CB/S that were taken after pick 20: Des Trufant; Xavier Rhodes; Matt Elam; Harrison Smith; Jimmy Smith; Devin McCourty; Kyle Wilson; Patrick Robinson; and Vontae Davis. So between Trufant, Rhode, Elam, and McCourty, some nice roleplayers, but no impact talent really.

And impact talent is what you need to win. It's not as bad as the NBA, mind you, but you can find contributors in the NFL in free agency. The first round is about impact. It's with this in mind that so many people have criticized the Marcus Smith pick, and while I don't have the knowhow to defend Smith as a player, I want to briefly defend the logic behind the pick. If you trust your scouts, which ostensibly the Eagles do, and if you trust your decision makers, which the Eagles and Jeff Lurie certainly do, then you have to take a leap of faith toward the end of the first round. If Jimmy Kempski's account on Inside the Eagles that the Eagles' 6 targets all went before their pick in 2014 is accurate, then they did exactly the right thing in trading back and picking a project. Because there is most certainly talent in the end of the first round, but a lot of it is high risk/high reward talent. In other words, as fun as it is to say that the Eagles needed to draft an impact player in order to have a successful first round, the players available to any of the good-to-great teams are prospects. That is, they have to develop.

So I think we have to assume two things: one, the Eagles had a board with Beckham, Fuller, Mosley, Pryor, Cooks, and Clinton-Dix (or some sort of combination), followed perhaps distantly by Marcus Smith; and two, that they figured they could get Smith at the tail end of the first, but not at the tail end of the second. That means that they saw an opportunity to salvage a crummy situation by trading the pick away and taking their project a few picks later. And maybe Smith had a 2nd round grade on him, but I'd argue if he did, then Dennard, Verrett, Benjamin, et al also did. And all that means is that the Eagles didn't love anyone else in the draft, but liked Smith the most. Will Smith develop into a need-filling LB? I mean maybe, but who knows? It certainly wouldn't be the first time a player was drafted higher than expected and declared a bust before exceeding expectations *meaningfully glances at Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox*.

The point is that any pick outside of the top 15 is a risk. Yes, first round picks are less risky than fifth round picks, but none are slam dunks. The Richard Shermans and Tom Bradys of the fifth and sixth round come about because of good scouting. Even if Marcus Smith never flourishes - and I think to give up on him now shows an incredible lack of imagination - you need to trust that the scouting side of the team has a coherent philosophy in place and aren't just drafting to have fun with projects. And that gets us to a secondary point, too: the philosophy of a rebuild has to be all-in. You gonna do traditional football rebuilds? Great, hire Bruce Arians and be the Cardinals. You gonna do a different kind of rebuild? Okay hire Chip Kelly and innovate. But don't mix the peanut butter with the chocolate unless you want to become the 49ers or the Bears or WASTEAM. Love Chip or hate Chip, love Howie or hate Howie, as long as both are here, it's their show to run, and we should hope for a consistent running of it, lest this turn into a tire fire.

Finally, third point: rebuilding processes aren't linear. The easy way of saying this is that no team gradually gains wins until they hit the Super Bowl. Just because the team won fewer games this year than last does not mean the Eagles have an incoherent rebuilding process happening. It just means that they have a rebuilding process happening. You want to know why Bill Belichick can waltz into 12 wins every year? It's because he's had more than a decade of time to get his stride. And Chip Kelly is the kind of coach that can hit that kind of stride: he's smart, he's creative, and he has a philosophy that isn't just rehashed Ditka dreck. But it's not like the team is just going to get better and better. It might have to get a little worse and a little better in fits and starts. That's football.

Beyond that, people will be frustrated maybe forever that the Eagles stuck with Foles instead of drafting Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel. Heck, I'm not super thrilled about it either. But the fact of the matter is that Foles looked competent coming into last year, and Roseman and Kelly did the right thing and brought in competition for Foles with Sanchez. This is like textbook stuff if you think you have a franchise QB which, frankly, you can't blame anyone for thinking after 27-2. But things change, and you have to adapt. The Quarterback position isn't going to fix itself, and just because our recency bias sees Dez and Desean and screams at us to draft a cornerback, that doesn't mean that we can just stick to the plan from last year. As BGN Radio's Matt Dering points out, the Eagles have a bigger problem than that:

"Quarterback is the most important position in all of the 4 major sports. There isn't a good analogue anywhere else. The nice thing about having a quarterback is since you only need one you can spend your resources elsewhere. You can spend on places like defensive backs, line depth, and offensive weapons. The problem is if you don't have one, you need to get one. And to do that you need to spend resources on them. Money, draft picks, whatever, a quarterback has to be on your mind at all times. What I see a lot of right now is people advocating just pretending we have one and spending on non QB luxuries like line depth instead of the most important position in football. Or instead of addressing quarterback at all, we should take the far more unconventional approach and focus on becoming elite at several more positions (this is what people talk about when they talk about Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, and so on). While this may seem appealing because of the amount of difficulty teams have addressing quarterbacks, this is definitely not any easier, and certainly nearly impossible to maintain. Trying to depend on 5 positions being really good as opposed to 1 would not pass muster as a coherent strategy anywhere, regardless of the tradeoffs involved."

In other words, you should spend most of your bullets drafting QBs you think you can use if you don't have a good one. The Eagles thought they had a good one last year; it seems like they don't this year. While we as fans might want them to just try try again with Foles and focus on cornerback or safety, the truth is that their board may indeed be very Quarterback heavy. That's a needed reaction to the curveball they got thrown in Foles' development.

In all, and for the tl;dr crowd, the point of this article is pretty straightforward: calm down. The Marcus Smith pick is not a disaster, nor is it an indictment of the front office. It is instead a glimpse into what they are looking for in the end of the first round, which is high impact, risky guys. Guys who can play football at an okay level - your Cary Williamses, your Todd Herremans - can be found in free agency. But elite, impact talent? That's the draft, friends, and you're gonna kiss a lot of frogs before you find that prince. Also, calm down about this season: nothing has changed in the plan, and Chip is not off to Michigan. Rebuilds are long and unexpected beasts, so take comfort in the fact that smart people are guiding the ship. God knows we could be the Browns.

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