This week's question posed by Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk is here:
This is it: it’s been quite a season here on GMC Playbook. Thanks for being creative and engaging with my questions. We’ve been talking all year about what it means to be GMC Professional Grade. Here’s my last question for you: Did your team have a Professional Grade season? If not, what will it take to get there next year?
No, the Eagles did not have a Professional Grade season. Come January, they will be sitting at home watching the playoffs instead of being out on the field themselves. They were 9-3 following a big Thanksgiving win and had a 92.5% chance of making the playoffs, but they blew it by losing three straight games. These losses highlighted many of the issues that Philadelphia needs to fix before becoming a legitimate championship contender.
• Turnovers: This is the most obvious downfall of the 2014 Eagles. The Birds lead the league in giving the ball away. This issue isn't new. Since 2011, the Eagles lead the NFL in turnovers with 129. The league average is 98.2 in that span. To no surprise, one position is most responsible for turnovers...
• Quarterback: The Eagles have turned the ball over 54 times in the Chip Kelly era. 40 of those turnovers came from a quarterback, which is 74%. Love or hate Donovan McNabb, the Eagles were spoiled with him. McNabb had four seasons in Philadelphia with 10 or more interceptions over the course of 11 years. In the five years since he's been gone, the Eagles have had four seasons with quarterbacks throwing 10 or more interceptions. The Eagles haven't had a legitimate franchise quarterback since McNabb.
Nick Foles looked like he could be the guy in 2013, but his performance was highly unsustainable and he crashed back to Earth in 2014. It's unclear whether Foles can be the answer. He will likely have another shot to prove himself in 2015 due to a lack of available quarterback options. But merely hoping Foles is better doesn't seem like much of a solid plan. What improvement is Foles going to make between Year 3 and Year 4 that he didn't make between Year 2 and Year 3? Why didn't that already happen?
But while the quarterback position had a lot to do with Philadelphia's failures in 2014, so did another key position on offense.
• Running game: The problem with the 2014 Eagles was not so much that they didn't run enough, because they finished with the seventh most attempts, but the problem was that they didn't run efficiently. The Eagles' 4.1 yards per attempt ranks 17th. Compare that figure to 2013's 5.1 yards per attempt and it's clearly a significant difference. Philadelphia's rushing attack was elite in Chip Kelly's first season but was merely average in his sophomore campaign. The Eagles need to run the ball more efficiently in 2015. A better run game could go a long way in taking the burden off of Foles, just as it did last year.
As for fixing the position, it's unclear what the Eagles will do. LeSean McCoy ranks fifth in total rushing yards but his 4.1 yards per carry ranks tied for 24th. Other running backs with 4.1 include: Alfred Morris, Boobie Dixon, Shane Vereen, Giovani Bernard. Morris is the only other full-time starter in that group. McCoy's cap number rises to $11,950,000 in 2015. The Eagles absolutely have the cap space to keep him, but it's worth noting he could be released for a savings of $7,550,000.
McCoy needs to be better in 2015. It is true that he was hurt by the fact that he was playing behind a patchwork offensive line earlier in the season. The Eagles rank with the third most percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. It's also true that teams were cheating on stopping the run because they were daring the Eagles to beat them with the pass.
But to say McCoy made the most of his opportunities does not seem true. McCoy averaged 2.09 yards after first contact this season. That's a career low for him, with the previous low being 2.10 in his rookie season. He wasn't nearly elusive as he usually is. McCoy finished 15th out of 18 running backs that have played at least 50% snaps in Pro Football Focus's "Elusive Rating", which boils down a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers. McCoy finished much higher in this rating in past years: sixth in 2013, sixth in 2012, seventh in 2011. Anecdotally, at least, it seemed like there were too many times when McCoy left yards on the field due to his sudden inability to make a defender miss.
Perhaps McCoy will be better in 2015. Perhaps the Eagles will make a change. Either way, the run game was the identity of the 2013 team, and the Eagles need to find a way to get back to that.
• Secondary: Along with turnovers, the "X-plays" that the Eagles allowed down the stretch really cost them. Bradley Fletcher is the obvious victim here. The Eagles simply need more talent in the secondary. It's a personnel issue. Outside of Malcolm Jenkins, none of the starters are very good. With Cary Williams potentially set to be a salary cap casualty and Fletcher scheduled to be a free agent, the Eagles will be forced to address the cornerback positions in some form. The Eagles will also likely be looking for an upgrade on Nate Allen, who is also scheduled to be a free agent.
• Continuity: Don't forget to keep things in perspective. The Eagles will finish the season with a winning record. This isn't a case of "everything must go!" Philadelphia still has a lot of good pieces already in place. Chip Kelly isn't flawless but how many coaches are really better than him? The defensive front seven looks strong and is headlined by an absolute stud in Fletcher Cox. Jeremy Maclin proved to be a reliable No. 1 wide receiver and Jordan Matthews showed serious potential in the slot. The Eagles special teams unit turned out to be the best in the NFL. These are just a few examples of the pieces the Eagles will have to work with in 2015.
• Question marks: There are a number of questions surrounding this team that will only play out in a matter time. What happens at outside linebacker? Will Trent Cole be cut? Will Brandon Graham stay? How will the offensive line be addressed as it continues to age? How will the Eagles upgrade upon Riley Cooper? Can the 2014 draft class show up in 2015? What's going on with the Howie Roseman-Chip Kelly dynamic? Will Tom Gamble, Eagles VP of Player Personnel, leave for a general manager job? And if so, what kind of impact will that have? No choice here but to wait and see.
TL;DR - For the Eagles to get back to having a 'Professional Grade' season in 2015, it all starts with improving the run game. Talent upgrades in the secondary will help as well.
The Eagles have their work cut out for them this offseason. It should be an interesting one, which usually tends to be the case with this team.