Chip Kelly has looked bad so far this year. Really bad.
At the beginning of the year he took over the GM job and showed no caution, ripping off a series of transactions that stunned and baffled fans and writers. And when the season started, it all blew up. Injuries. Poor play. Atrocious blocking. For half of the first game against the Falcons, bad defense too.
The team has slowly clawed its way back toward respectability ever since, starting with the defense, even as injuries got worse. In this crazy year, the New Orleans Saints are pretty bad (but so are the Skins, who beat the Eagles. And the Jets, who lost to them, are undefeated otherwise.)
Philadelphia's blowout win on Sunday gave us the first real glimpse of Chip's vision for this team, the goal he had in mind with all of his GM moves. For this week's 5 Good Things and 5 Bad column, I'm going to look at the parts that are -- and aren't -- working.
1. Gambling on Injured Players
When Kiko Alonso re-injured the same knee he tore his ACL on -- twice -- the usual Chip-haters reacted with predictable sarcasm. "Who could have seen THAT coming?" Well, Chip did. His strategy of acquiring damaged talent was always a high-risk, high-reward approach. The hope was that the successes outweighed the risks.
How has it turned out? The Eagles have plenty of injury problems, but the biggest have been among previously healthy players who were on the team before Chip even arrived -- Cedric Thornton, Jason Peters, and Mychal Kendricks. Of the players who Chip acquired, all of the injured ones except Kiko were healthy until this year: Lane Johnson, Brandon Bair, Taylor Hart, Byron Maxwell, Allen Barbre and Chris Maragos.
Meanwhile, Kiko's injury is reportedly NOT an ACL tear after all. He should be back in a week or two. And LeSean McCoy, who the Eagles traded for him, is out with a hamstring injury. He's probably going to miss about the same number of games.
6th round pick JaCorey Shepherd looked great preseason, then tore his ACL in training camp. RB DeMarco Murray gets an asterisk. He was not previously injured but had 520 touches for Dallas last year and was considered an injury risk as a result. He missed a game with a hamstring pull and has not looked very good so far.
Look at the damaged talent that Chip acquired who have NOT been injured (so far):
-- QB Sam Bradford (erratic play, but no injuries despite 7 sacks and 23 QB hits behind a weak offensive line)
-- S Walter Thurmond (3 INTs and 4 stuffs, already career bests at a position he's never played before)
-- RB Ryan Mathews (5 Y/C, 8.4 Y/R, playing well)
-- LB Jordan Hicks (rookie All-Universe stud).
Those are four of the best players on the team.
2. Sam Bradford
He threw for 333 yards against New Orleans, who had two of their best DBs (S Jairus Byrd and CB Keenan Lewis) back from injury for the first time. A week after his "bombs away" performance against Washington, Bradford mixed short passes with a lot in the 10-20 yard range. As in the second half of the Washington and Atlanta games, he led drives well, moved well in the pocket and handled tough QB hits with grit.
3. A Deep and Wide Receiving Corps
Last month I asked Chip if he was looking for one or two of the 10 Eagles who caught passes against Atlanta to step forward as the #2 and #3 receivers behind Jordan Matthews (who's on pace for 1,000 yards this year). He answered that:
"As long as everybody catches it, I don't care who ... we have five guys out -- or potentially five guys out -- on each play and it depends how the defense expresses itself or where the ball is going to go."
Of course he cares, but Chip wants a lot of different tools for different situations. The much-despised Riley Cooper is 6'4" and a great blocker, almost like a TE/WR hybrid (a "wide end"?). Miles Austin, a crafty veteran, caught a TD against Washington and helps mentor the many young receivers. Huff, another great blocker, could score on any screen or short pass and can physically dominate less muscular DBs. (Despite frequent criticism for all three, each has caught a pass of 39 yards or longer this year.)
Agholor is a high-pointing speedster. All 3 RBs are great receivers and pass protectors. Etc.
It's easy to game plan against Washington and Detroit -- you focus on DeSean and Megatron. Playoff teams always have at least one great CB, sometimes two, that they can match up on a star WR. No team has 3 or 4 great man defenders, though, not even Seattle.
New Orleans has a lot of big DBs, including 6'4" Brandon Browner, so Chip focused on his big or physical receivers: Huff, Cooper, and the tight ends. That's a great luxury to have.
4. An Impenetrable Defensive Front
Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton have formed a 700-foot wall of solid ice against opposing runners, and college buddies Taylor Hart and Brandon Bair sub in without weakening it. The "3" in a 3-4 two-gapping defense isn't expected to make a lot of plays, but these guys are doing that too. Cox had 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles against Drew Brees, and Brandon Bair is a pass-tipping machine.
5. Special Teams Dominance
Darren Sproles has been the most consistent offensive player in good times and bad, able to turn around games single-handedly. Josh Huff doesn't get many kick returns due to touchbacks, but he makes them count as he showed with his 40-yard return to start Sunday's blowout. Another ex-Duck, Kenjon Barner, waits in the wings in case either gets injured.
Less visibly, the blocking and tackling by the Eagles STers remains superb, and is a hidden tactic for improving the open field tackling skills of the starters and key subs who line up on the four core ST units.
Bad Things (or, not yet sufficiently good things)
1. Sam Bradford
One of the main reasons Chip gave up on Nick Foles was the number of turnovers he had last year. Bradford has managed to avoid fumbles -- Foles had three just in the first game last year -- but he has thrown 2 interceptions a game in 3 of 5 games, which is not OK. The fact that they were in the red zone against New Orleans made it even worse.
He also looks tentative a lot, and simply hasn't been that accurate. Cooper was getting open, both on the first RZ interception and on a long pass down the right sideline, but Sam threw both passes short. Only good D by Cooper stopped the second pass from being another interception. Bradford was bailed out by a roughing the passer penalty on that play, but that doesn't change the fact of the bad throw. Even in his good games, Sam is leaving a lot of meat on the bone, you might say.
LBs are supposed to be the play makers in this defense, but aside from the Legend of Jordan Hicks (3 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a sack in his first five games), this unit has been too quiet. They aren't sacking, intercepting or blitzing with much effect, due in large part to injuries (Kendricks, Alonso) and aging (DeMeco Ryans). Hopefully that will change with returning health, as the front line is teeing them up perfectly to wreak havoc.
3. Byron Maxwell
Yes, it's not fair to blame him for his free agent salary or undervalue Malcolm Jenkins due to his reasonable cost. And Maxwell has improved after a very shaky start. But he has the size and tools to be a true shutdown, follow-the-best-WR cornerback. It would strengthen this defense immensely if he was.
4. DeMarco Murray
He was better against New Orleans, once short passes opened up the run game. But Murray continues to underachieve, looking slower than Ryan Mathews even as he demands more snaps. He got them against the Saints and delivered 83 yards on 20 carries, which was fine. But Mathews delivered 73 yards on just 8 totes, and Murray's evident frustration will not be solved by complaining. Hopefully his hamstring injury is part of the problem, and he'll improve with healing and familiarity with this system.
5. The Offensive Line (duh)
You know all about their problems. But just imagine Sunday's game against the Saints, if the Eagles had a strong, athletic OL opening up big holes and giving Bradford time to go deep like he did in the Washington game.
That's a wonderful vision of a team that could go deep in the playoffs.