Super Bowl 49 is over and the New England Patriots are champions. In not too long the ever-so deprived sports fans in Boston will get to enjoy yet another championship parade. Meanwhile, fans of the other 31 NFL teams will be sitting at home and wondering what it will take for their team to be able to hoist the Lombardi trophy next year. Since the NFL is known to be a copycat league, it's only natural to think about what can be learned from the current champions in order to in replicate their success.
So what can the Eagles learn from the Patriots? I have some thoughts on the subject, but before we get to that, allow me to direct you to my thoughts on what the Eagles could have learned from the Seahawks last year. I was recently reading through that piece and I realized that I still agree with a lot of what I had to say then. For example:
"The truth is there's no secret formula to winning a Super Bowl, and that's what's great about the NFL. This isn't the NBA, for example, where it's more-so a matter of having the best players. In the NFL the parity is significant and there are so many variables in play. The way I see it, the best strategy towards building a championship winner is to take the simple advice of the following mantra: "Whatever you are, be a good one." ... Championships are won on the macroscopic level. The Eagles aren't just a safety or a pass rusher away from winning a championship. Adding those pieces will certainly help, yes, but it's bigger than that. They key to success is about consistently making strong personnel moves: hitting big on draft picks, signing undervalued players in free agency without shelling out ridiculous contracts, finding a diamond in the rough here and there, etc."
With that said, some thoughts about the Patriots. Two big themes come to mind:
New England made a conscious effort to improve their secondary in the 2014 offseason and it paid off. They let Aqib Talib walk and they signed both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to start at cornerback. Devin McCourty was already in place at safety. The re-signing of much-maligned former Eagles safety Patrick Chung turned out to be a surprisingly positive addition. Chung was healthier with the Pats than he had been with the Eagles, so that probably factored in to his improvement.
The overall takeaway here is that the Patriots were able to put a good secondary together without really having to rely on the draft. Perhaps the Eagles can fix their secondary woes in similar fashion. Revis will be on the market again (assuming the Patriots don't pick up his $20 million option). Byron Maxwell will be a free agent. So will the aforementioned McCourty. The Eagles will have options.
Then again, it's important to remember there are no guarantees in sports. Investing in the secondary doesn't necessarily ensure improvement. Think back to the Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie experience. Or take a look in the division to when the Dallas Cowboys gave Brandon Carr a huge contract in free agency and traded up to draft Morris Claiborne. How about an even more recent example: the Denver Broncos overhauled their secondary last offseason. They signed coveted free agent safety T.J. Ward to start next to Rahim Moore. At cornerback, they signed Aqib Talib and drafted Bradley Roby to pair with Chris Harris Jr., who is very good. The Broncos built a good secondary. But come playoffs time, it didn't really matter. The Broncos lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional round because Peyton Manning wasn't playing so hot. Which leads me to my next point...
It's still all about the quarterback. The Patriots have been to six Super Bowl and won four of them because they have arguably the best signal caller in the history of the game. The Pats always have a chance with Brady. You can talk about how defense technically won the game because of the final interception by Malcolm Butler, but it was also the New England defense that surrendered a 24-14 lead from which Brady clawed from behind to overcome.
Quarterback is the most important position in the sport. There is no "good enough" when it comes to that one. You either have a championship caliber quarterback or you don't. It's a league of the haves and have nots. Right now, the Eagles don't have an undisputed franchise passer. They haven't had one since the decline of Donovan McNabb. Peep these stats: The Eagles lead the NFL in turnovers since 2011 with 130. Quarterback position has been responsible for 94 (72.3%) of those. Over 11 years, McNabb had 4 seasons in Philly with 10 or more interceptions. In five years without him, Eagles have 4 seasons with QB throwing 10 or more.
Some may think Nick Foles can be the guy. Maybe he can, but it's hard to be optimistic given his 2014 performance. I don't want to hear about the 6-2 record. First, Foles was 5-2 because he shouldn't be credited with only playing one quarter against the Texans and leaving the game with a tie score. Second, if points scored on returns in the Washington game (seven - Chris Polk touchdown) and Rams game (14 - Cedric Thornton recovery and Chris Maragos recovery) don't happen, Foles is 3-4. Yes, Foles was dealt an unideal situation. The offensive line wasn't great, though evidence suggests the pass protection wasn't that bad. He was actually pressured slightly less in 2014 than he was in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. The injuries to the offensive line likely had a bigger negative effect on the Philadelphia running game. LeSean McCoy didn't look close to his 2013 form.
But the best quarterbacks in the league don't let excuses get in the way. The best quarterbacks are able to mask a team's weaknesses and carry the team. 2014 proved that Foles probably can't do that. Now, that doesn't mean Foles can't be a successful quarterback. As seen in 2013, he can. The problem is that he needs everyone around him to be going well in order for him to succeed. Put another way, he's a bit of a system quarterback. Allow me to borrow from what Greg Cossell, who probably watches more tape on players than anyone, had to say about Foles early in the 2014 season:
"I think if you look at Foles the player, what you likely see is this: He's got a good arm but not a gun; he's not a power thrower, not a drive thrower. He's a little more of a finesse thrower than a drive thrower. He does not have quick feet. There is no quick-twitch to his movement. There's no explosive lower-body movement to him. When you look at Foles, I think what you see is a quarterback that needs the system to work for him and provide defined reads and good throws with the route concepts, just the whole system. He needs the system to work for him...
"I don't think he's really any different [from last year]. Because he's not a quick-twitch guy, when he doesn't feel comfortable making a throw he'll start to look a little awkward because he's not quick twitch, he moves around."
The reality is that Foles will most likely be the Eagles' starter again in 2014. This isn't necessarily an endorsement of Foles as much as it is an indictment of any kind of replacement option. The Eagles might try to get Marcus Mariota, but for now it's hard to count on it happening.
But that's only the short-term outlook. The long-term is a bit of a concern considering Foles will be a free agent at the start of the 2016 offseason. The Eagles find themselves in a tough spot right now, and it's one I wrote about early on in the season:
"The potential problem that lies ahead, however, is if Foles does not play up to snuff. The worst case scenario for Philadelphia is NOT one where Foles completely bottoms out and proves he cannot be a franchise quarterback. In that event, the Eagles could just wait until Foles' contract expires in 2016 to make a decision on his long-term future with the team. Or the team could at least consider alternative options.
The worst case scenario for Philadelphia is one where they commit to mediocrity. Simply put, Foles playing merely "good enough" will not be good enough. A mediocre performance from Foles puts the Eagles in a tough spot. A mediocre Foles puts Philadelphia in, for a lack of a better term, quarterback purgatory. On one hand, capable quarterbacks are hard to find and Foles may be to good to pass up. On the other hand, he might not be good enough to lead the team to a championship win, which is obviously the ultimate goal. Look no further than NFL teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals with Andy Dalton or the Kansas City Chiefs with Alex Smith for current examples. Dalton has yet to win a playoff game in three attempts. Smith has won in the playoffs but was never able to put his former team, the San Francisco 49ers, over the top.
What makes this situation especially tricky with Foles is that he does not always seem to play as well as his box score statistics always indicate. The numbers can be misleading at times, especially due to the benefit of playing in Kelly's offense.
The first few games of the Eagles' 2014 season highlight the perfect example. Make no mistake; Foles played well enough to not lose the games for the Eagles. He did not do enough, however, make those wins more comfortable than they could have been. A look back at the coaches' tape shows too many easy plays were left on the field. Other times Foles did recognize open targets and simply threw an inaccurate ball. Needless to say, Foles has given some cause for concern."
Once again: there is no "good enough" when it comes to the quarterback position. It's "have" or "have not" when it comes to having a franchise passer. Settling for less at the premium position is not a good idea. Not every team is going to be able to land their hands on a Tom Brady or anything close to his caliber. I fully admit that I don't know what the Eagles can do to really upgrade the position right now. But that doesn't make settling a good option. The Birds are in a really tough spot with no easy answer. Thanks to the Eagles new power structure, it's up to Chip Kelly to somehow find his guy. And the clock is ticking because Kelly is already entering the third season of his five-year contract.
Getting back to the focus of this post, in order for the Eagles to contend in 2015, the Eagles need better quarterback play. (Duh.) Considering they led the NFL in turnovers in 2014 (and since 2011), it's so ridiculous to suggest they're only an improved secondary away from winning a title. It's part of the puzzle, yes. But it's irrelevant if the turnovers continue to happen.
In order for better quarterback play to be accomplished, they Eagles need to revive the run game. It can't be merely average again. It needs to be elite. Fixing this area will give the Eagles the best shot they can to win with Foles. It will take the ball out of his hands and, theoretically at least, opens things up for him in the passing game. Combine this offense revival with an improved secondary and the Eagles should be in a pretty good spot. Of course, all of that is much, much easier said than done. For now, it's the goal. Chip Kelly and Ed Marynowitz have their work cut out for them.