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11 things I think about the Eagles

It’s the dawn of a new era

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Year 1 Week 1 of the Carson Wentz era begins on Sunday. It’s an exciting time to be an Eagles fan. There’s a lot going on this season that I’m looking forward to.

1 It ain’t saying much, but the Eagles are division title contenders

This is stating the obvious, but this division is horrible, and the Eagles have at least as good of a chance to win it as anyone else. Tony Romo will miss at least 6 games, the Cowboys are done. The Giants have gotten the most consistent and productive years out of Eli Manning and haven’t done anything with it. They’re still the same one dimensional offense, and the defense is still a grease fire. The strongest contender is the Redskins, who were lousy until Kirk Cousins went on an unsustainable second half performance. 2015 Cousins was 2013 Nick Foles. Granted, the Eagles have Carson Wentz throwing to wet paper bags, but the Eagles defense and special teams will be good enough to win the division. The offense doesn’t have to do as much as the rest of their rivals to get to 9 wins. Probable? Maybe not. Possible? Absolutely.

2 Don’t sweat the numbers on Carson Wentz

More and more we are using statistics in sports, and using them correct, which is great. So many things that happen on a field or court or rink or track that we can quantify and use to objectively evaluate. Too often we rely on old counting stats instead of rate stats, assign wins and losses to players who really didn’t factor into the win or loss, and use statistical benchmarks of easy to use integers of 5. We need to get away from things like total passing yards and more towards yards per attempt, which tells a much better picture.

But even then, statistics can be misleading in football. Much of what happens on the football field isn’t accounted for with stats, and the ones that are need context. I think that this season people will paint Carson Wentz’s season with stats, both old school and advanced, that don’t accurately describe his season.

From a statistical standpoint, Donovan McNabb’s rookie season was worse than Tim Tebow’s one year as a starter in 2011. In his rookie year, Cam Newton had a worse interception percentage than Eli Manning and Blaine Gabbert just to name a few, and Andrew Luck’s yards per attempt in his first season was worse than Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman, among others. There are going to be people who focus too much on Wentz’s statistical performance. I’ll be the first one to tell you that statistics are important, that the eye test isn’t enough. But we have to keep in mind that the skill position players on this team and the game plan built around them are going to handcuff Wentz’s production. Focus on his ability to extend and make plays. Those are things that can’t be taught and are recipes for success. His preseason performance was a good example: the talent around him let him down with drops and pressures, but you could see that he brought things to the table that the veteran QBs on the roster couldn’t. Don’t focus so much about the numbers this season, focus on the playmaking.

3 People are looking at the linebacker situation wrong

When we think about linebacker usage and base defense, we think in terms of “4-3” and “3-4.” We shouldn’t. The NFL has been on a steady trajectory towards three WRs being the base offense, and in 2015 that finally happened: 51 percent of snaps came with teams playing with 3 WRs, and an additional 14 percent of snaps were with 4+ WRs, meaning that front sevens saw the field only a third of the time. Nickel is now base defense.

Jim Schwartz has four veteran linebackers of varying skillsets that he will mix and match, and most of the time half of them are going to be on the bench together. Get used to it.

4 I think Fletcher Cox is going to have a monster season

We’re all expecting big things from Fletcher Cox this season, and with good reason. He’s the best player on the team and Jim Schwartz’s defense and his abilities are perfect fits. But there’s another reason I think he’s going to have a truly great year in addition to the playbook suiting Cox: Schwartz seems to get every last ounce out of his star DTs. Albert Haynesworth was a terrific player under Schwartz in Tennessee, then was one of the most unmotivated players you will ever see when he left to go to the Redskins. Ndamukong Suh isn’t the lazy oaf that Haynesworth was, but he had a season that fell well short of expectations last year, though he was outstanding in 2014 without Schwartz. Marcell Dareus had a career year in his one season under Schwartz in 2014, last year he had the worst season of his career. A career year for Cox, not just to date but going forward, is a strong possibility.

5 I think the fear of Jim Schwartz leaving is without merit

For some there is a feeling that a really good season by the Eagles defense will have teams tripping over themselves to hire Jim Schwartz as a head coach. I don’t see that happening. First, Schwartz spent all of 2015 unemployed. Crazier things have happened, but people don’t go from unemployed to head coach in two years. Second, teams really want offensive head coaches. In the past five seasons, only 13 of 35 head coaches hired were defensive coaches, and four of them were retreads who had at been to at least one conference championship game. Schwartz oversaw the Lions turn around from 0-16, but that team had literally nowhere to go but up, and by the end of his tenure Schwartz was criticized for poor decisions, a stagnant team, and had an infamous altercation with another coach. I can’t see how teams will be lining up for him after one good season. After two, maybe, but the Eagles will cross that bridge when they get to it. With teams preferring offensive head coaches, there’s always good defensive coordinators available. And for all we know, Schwartz doesn’t even want to be a head coach. The autonomy he has as the Jim Johnson to Doug Pederson’s Andy Reid and the shield of protection of not being the head coach is a really good job to have. I’d compare it to Josh McDaniels, people keep pegging him as head coach despite a poor head coaching record, but he doesn’t even take interviews. He knows he’s got a great situation as the Patriot’s offensive coordinator.

6 I think that Carson Wentz just might be the man

“It” is a strange word. We say “a guy has it” or “this guy is it” and we’re talking about a true intangible, a quality in a person that we can’t describe using words. Usually the term is an empty cliche.

Doug Pederson played with Dan Marino, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb. Frank Reich played with Boomer Esiason in college and Jim Kelly in the pros, and he coached Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. All are guys that most definitely have it, whatever it is. And Pederson, Reich and John DeFilippo have played with or coached Johnny Manziel, JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch, Mark Sanchez and Scott Mitchell, guys who most definitely did not have it. They have seen Carson Wentz day in and day out and felt he’s ready. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe no one can really tell if a guy has it. They probably can’t. But if they can, this staff knows what it looks like and what it doesn’t look like.

7 I think Zach Ertz isn’t going to get that breakout season he’s primed for

Travis Kelce made the Pro Bowl last year after a really good 2014, and now Zach Ertz has a head coach with that playbook and is going to rely on TEs this year. Doug Pederson’s offense, the lack of skill at WR, the lack of a strong running game and a rookie QB all set up a TE for a strong season. But I don’t think it’s going to give him the breakout season we have been waiting for. Kelce played 92% of snaps last year, Ertz might top out at 70%. At least early in the season Brent Celek is likely to get a lot of playing time, and Pederson looks like he is going to, and should, use Trey Burton as well. All of those are going to eat up opportunities that otherwise could go to Ertz, even if he plays 90% of snaps.

8 I think the offensive line is better than we think

The Patriots and Broncos had revolving doors on offensive line last year, both in their actual blocking and their roster changes. The Cardinals were so pleased with their line last year that have three new starters. They were all Super Bowl contenders.

The Cowboys vaunted OL is outstanding at run blocking, but below average at pass blocking. The Steelers seemingly have problems every year with their line and haven’t had a losing season in over a decade. Nobody has real depth. Winning in the trenches is important, but QBs make the OL much more than OL make the QB. The Eagles have four legit starters and the 79th pick in the draft waiting in the wings to take that fifth spot. It’s not the best OL, but it’s a situation a bunch of teams would gladly be in.

9 I think I’m kind of getting excited for Doug Pederson’s offense

The Eagles offense probably isn’t going to be good, but if the preseason is any indication, and I think from a high level view it can be, it should be fairly smart. Pederson has shown he understands the limitations of his roster and he’s been using players accordingly to mask some weaknesses. Some coaches might bring Dorial Green-Beckham along slowly, Pederson threw him out there in the red zone with the first team almost immediately. If DGB is going to stick, he’s going to have to get it done in those situations, and Pederson didn’t hesitate to test him. He knows that aside from Jordan Matthews the rest of his WRs stink, so he is going to run a lot of two and three TE sets because the Eagles are really deep at TE. And he hasn’t been afraid to throw guys in the deep end and see if they swim. With the various offensive line shuffling, he had Stefen Wisniewski play RG, which he’s never done before. Isaac Semualo had spent most of camp as the backup center, when Allen Barbre moved from LG to RT he shuffled Semualo to LG. He gave Chris Givens every chance to show something by playing him heavily in the third preseason game, and then they didn’t hesitate to dump him and Rueben Randle after the game after they did nothing to warrant sticking around.

This doesn’t mean Pederson is a good coach, we’re going to need to see real games to make any kind of determination. But after watching Chip Kelly’s frustrating dogmatic player usage and loyalty, and concerns that Pederson is in over his head, it’s encouraging to see pragmatism from him before the season has even begun. It’s okay to get your hopes up a little.

10 I’m definitely excited by the aggressive front office

Howie Roseman has his flaws, but he’s got his strengths too. You can’t score if you don’t shoot, and he’s taken a lot of shots this offseason with rebuilding the roster. There will be misses, but throughout his career Roseman has done extremely well with the many trades he has made. This year he made a flurry of moves that improved the team both in the short and long term, but reshaping a roster takes more than one offseason. Next year there will more moves, and like the Eric Rowe trade they may not all be popular. But the 2017 Eagles are going to look pretty different from the 2016 version, and that’s going to be a good thing. The Eagles have big needs and Roseman has done pretty much all he can to build around Wentz. In the past there have been plenty of fair criticisms of Roseman. This year, you can’t fault him for trying.

11 I think everyone should relax

Remember 1999? It was awful. It was unwatchable. And everything turned out okay.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Doug Pederson is Andy Reid or Carson Wentz is Donovan McNabb. But year 1 can be a mess even for legends. In his rookie year, Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions. Brett Favre’s coach refused to play him his rookie season, he even said has much to his face in front of cameras. Bill Parcells won three games in his first year as a head coach, Bill Walsh won two. Some of the greatest of all time started off really badly.

Everyone likes a good origins story. Hopefully the 2016 season is one for the Eagles. If not, everyone also likes a good bad movie. You’re bound to get one of the two. Enjoy the ride.

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