It was a weird offseason for me as I contemplated the Eagles' direction in 2015 and beyond with Chip Kelly running the full show. The last time I was on BGN Radio (March), I talked about a wait-and-see approach and letting things play out, that we can't accurately judge how we should feel about the offseason before going into Training Camp. I tried to take that view because, well, I hate being a Debbie Downer all the time. The truth is there's enough to be concerned about, and the people who aren't on board with what's going on shouldn't be immediately dismissed at hot takers. I myself have had lots of conflicting ideas, lots of "you know you'd be fully pissed off instead of confused about your feelings if this was anyone else other than Chip" internal dialog. Is he a brilliant and perceptive football savant, or a rogue and irresponsible megalomaniac? Because I don't think there's an in between. I believe in Chip, but I also feel the undeniable strain of cognitive dissonance. Six months later and on the cusp of the season, I still have those sentiments of doubt, but I am also super excited after what I saw transpire in the preseason. Could this all blow up and be a total disaster? Of course, we're talking about the Philadelphia Eagles, after all. That's their thing. However, there seems to be a special vibe about this team. The talent, culture, personalities and goals all mesh. This feels, for the first time, like Chip's squad; this is a roster made in his image.
First thing's first, of course. I hated the Sam Bradford trade at first and was shocked when it went down. I reeeeeeeally did not want that to be it. I knew I didn't believe in Nick Foles as the Eagles' starting quarterback, but Sam Bradford was not whom I envisioned as the savior. Hell, I don't know who I envisioned as the savior, since even if Marcus Mariota was the easy slam-dunk pick, there was no way to acquire him. It just wasn't Sam Bradford. Maybe he's not Chip's ultimate endgame, but he is for this season at least. I found myself trying to rationalize Bradford and then watched some of his clips and John Barchard's Twitter breakdown. He's got talent, and I always like to think Chip knows what he's doing more than I do. I think that's a reasonable expectation. If he believes Bradford's the guy who can make this team better than 10 wins, I'm on board and willing to see the experiment out for the season. The overall stats aren't kind to Bradford, and even before factoring in injury history, the tape is littered with ups and downs. However, the most recent sample size was encouraging. Bradford was really good in 2013 at executing what Shurmur, and now Kelly, are looking for to power their offense.
Keeping Bradford healthy is paramount because he has the rare ability to make those around him play better.
This shows up in Bradford's 2013 metrics with the St. Louis Rams. Bradford ranked sixth in the league in vertical yards per attempt (a production measurement on throws 11 or more yards downfield) and fifth in stretch vertical yards per attempt (production on aerials that travel 20 or more yards downfield).
That he was able to post a 12.5 VYPA and 15.4 SVYPA with a wide receiver corps of Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Chris Givens and Brian Quick and a tight end tandem of Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks shows just how effective Bradford is in raising the performance level of those around him.
Bradford's got underrated athleticism, gets the ball out quickly, can make "wow" throws both from an arm strength and ball placement standpoint and is being given a fresh start in his career -- a new lease on his football life. By all indications, he's embraced it and is rejuvenated. Bradford also have a much better offensive line and overall arsenal here than he ever had with the Rams. Kelly's offense is predicated on hitting big plays in the passing game while also making very few mistakes. His Oregon teams ranked third in interception percentage (2.1 percent) and 18th in yards per attempt (7.5) among major conferences teams during his tenure there. As the advanced stats indicate, Bradford fits the big play/limited mistakes profile.
Avoiding errors while hitting big plays has also been a Bradford specialty. In the aforementioned 2013 campaign, Bradford posted a 0.7 percent bad decision rate (BDR) that ranked tied for third best among qualifying quarterbacks. BDR measures how often a quarterback makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team, so posting a low number here is a major factor in keeping the interception percentage low.
This was not an anomaly for Bradford, as his 1.5 percent BDR in his last season at Oklahoma was the lowest among the top quarterback prospects in the 2010 draft.
Bradford didn't play against the Colts in the preseason opener, then had a scare on his sixth snap against the Ravens when Terrell Suggs hit him around the knee following a handoff. It was a scary (and nefarious) play, but Bradford got up and gave Suggs a piece of his mind. Every Eagles player, coach and fan exhaled. He showed rust and missed a couple throws on the drive, but he led the offense down the field for a touchdown. It was at that moment that the fans started to let themselves dream, even if only a little bit. The extreme optimism developed in the Packers game, that's when we all lost our shit. The perfect touchdown pass to Sproles, the fourth-down strike to Trey Burton (his last read) while being hit, the seven-yard stick to Brent Celek in the back of the end zone. Three drives, three touchdowns, hype train ramped up to warp speed.
But back to the apprehension for a second. What truly got me feeling pessimistic at the start of the offseason was the signing of DeMarco Murray. I didn't even want Ryan Mathews, but signing him to a cheap deal to alternate with Darren Sproles, Chris Polk and a rookie would have been fine with me, provided the cap resources went into fortifying another part of the team. Talent aside with Murray, I simply don't believe in committing big money to the running back position. Isn't Kelly's scheme supposed to enhance his players? Todd Herremans even said as much on the radio after his release (and not in a bitter or vindictive way either). But at the same time, it's foolish to assert that the relationship between offensive line and running back is not symbiotic. They feed off each other. One play the offensive line -- and our offensive line is going to be damn good -- will do all the work to open a hole and enable a nice gain, the next play there will be a blown blocking assignment but the running back will make a guy miss in the backfield and then pick up yards on his own.
Now, Murray runs in the decisive, one-cut, downhill way that's ideal for the system and hopefully he pays big dividends rather than succumb to injury. He's five months older than LeSean McCoy, but has nearly 700 less career touches. I like what I saw from both signed running backs in the preseason, especially Mathews, for whom the same injury caveat as Murray (and every player ever) applies -- but when he's right, he can be really good. I was bleh on the odd Miles Austin signing, where I wasn't buying the whole veteran leader thing as a justification for the roster spot. But it's only one season and maybe he'll make a few useful plays. In fact, he's gonna score a couple touchdowns against the Cowboys and it'll be hilarious and we'll all have a great time and talk about it for years because fuck them, you know? Actually, that alone is enough justification for the Austin signing. Besides, Jordan Matthews looks primed for a monster season -- like, a top-10 receiver in the NFL season. Nelson Agholor showed in his preseason snaps that he's going to be a dynamic playmaker at this level. Throw in hopeful progression from Josh Huff, and that's a top-three that, while young, has all kind of potential. Sproles' versatility and role as a receiver is the cherry on top. Then there's Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton at tight end. The Ertz injury is a bummer, but he's got the talent to be among the best tight ends in the league. Celek is Celek. Veteran stalwart, excellent blocker, good for contributions as a receiver. You all know how I feel about Burton and his ability; really want him to be a legit part of the offense. Anyway, the point is: This offense is extremely deep at the skill positions and is dangerous everywhere. Pick your poison, defenses.
Speaking of defenses, how about our defense? Whoa. We've never had any doubts about the front seven, but that unit looks even more formidable now with Kiko Alonso joining DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks in the middle and Brandon Graham taking over for Trent Cole at outside linebacker. I'm expecting Graham to be among the league leaders in sacks. Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton is as good as it gets up front in a 3-4, and Graham, Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry makes for a talented trio of pass rushers. Perhaps Marcus Smith, when healthy, can fill a rotational niche. Three-fourths of the secondary and the position coach were (and had to be) replaced in the offseason, with Cory Undlin taking over for John Lovett and Byron Maxwell headlining the personnel turnover. The improvement under Undlin has been stark and significant, with the players echoing as such. Maxwell's an easy target for the bust label because of his contract and where he's coming from, but I love what I've heard about him and what I've seen on the field so far. Walter Thurmond was brought in on a one-year deal to reunite with Kelly and then immediately transitioned to safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins, where he's been a revelation. Nolan Carroll is the second starting corner for now, but it appears he'll kick inside to the slot and Eric Rowe will take over outside in nickel. I can't imagine this is how the Eagles wanted the situation to shake out, as they gave Rowe tons of work in the slot in the preseason. E.J. Biggers is whatever. I know he's technically last on the depth chart right now, but I think Denzel Rice is going to end up getting a serious look in the slot -- and soon. I get the sense the Eagles like him more than simply being inactive every week.
So, yeah, from March through July, when anyone asked me what I thought of the Eagles in 2015, I threw out 8-8 as their ceiling, simply because maybe Chip Kelly had flown off the handle and I didn't believe in all the pieces coming together, especially at the most important position. I've changed my tune in the ensuing six weeks. Obviously Bradford needs to remain healthy, but that's a vital condition for every team in the league banking on its starting quarterback. I'm not ready to buy the Super Bowl champion predictions, but I do think this Eagles team should win the NFC East and has a chance to make real noise -- at the very least record the franchise's first playoff win in eight (8!!!) seasons. More than anything, I feel like if I've invested and believed this much in Chip over the last two years, I can't bail now. Not before the season where he's assembled the roster exactly how he wants it. No way. Hell, I'm doubling down. I've never been on the bandwagon more than I am now. With no risk, there's no reward.
If you need me, I'll be grilling meats and chugging growlers with Dave Mangels in the Georgia Dome parking lot as we prepare our minds, bodies and loins for tonight's opening game against the Atlanta Falcons in an environment that I expect to be 50 percent Eagles fans. I'll be wearing my Brian Westbrook Villanova #20 jersey. Come say hi. Let's party and enjoy the start of something special together.