The 2016 Eagles season was weird. The final result was not unexpected, but the way they got there was not. The Eagles got off to a hot 3-0 start before struggling for a large stretch of games. Then the Birds picked up two (meaningless) wins at the end of the season to end the campaign on a high note, sort of.
Based on record alone, the 2016 Eagles were not an improvement over the 2015 Eagles. Philadelphia finished their last two regular seasons with a final record of 7-9.
But a closer look at the numbers reveals the Eagles made progress in their first year under new head coach Doug Pederson. In a number of areas, Pederson’s Eagles were an improvement over Chip Kelly’s final Eagles team. See for yourself.
It’s pretty amazing the Eagles outscored their opponents by a combined total of 89 more points in 2016 than in 2015 and still won the same amount of games. And not amazing in the sense “Oh, that’s awesome!” More like amazing in the sense “How the heck did the Eagles not win more games last season?”
As explained earlier, the answer is that the Eagles were involved in a lot of close games that didn’t go their way. To some extent, that’s just bad luck. I’m not saying the Eagles are some elite team being held back by misfortune. But in 2016 they were a team that was closer to being good than they were to being terrible. In the long run, outscoring your opponents and winning the turnover battle is typically a recipe for success.
|3rd Down Pct||37.95%||20||39.57%||15||-1.62%|
|4th Down Pct||48.15%||17||50.00%||15||-1.85%|
|Goal to Go Pct||75.00%||14||70.83%||13||4.17%|
Before you look at the rankings and think the Eagles’ offense was much worse without Chip, pause for a second. Remember that Kelly’s fast-paced offense always put up big volume stats due to the amount of plays he runs.
OK, so the rate metrics (yards per play) in 2016, which are more indicative of true offensive efficiency, weren’t any better. But there are some explanations for this lacking performance, and it’s not as simple as saying Kelly is superior to Pederson.
First, consider the Eagles started a rookie quarterback from Division I-AA for 16 games after planning to sit him for most of the season. The 2016 passing numbers are down compared to 2015, when the Eagles had an NFL veteran at quarterback in Sam Bradford.
Another thing to consider is how the talent drain under Kelly took a toll on the 2016 Eagles. Carson Wentz had to deal with the worst wide receiving corps in the NFL. The offensive line, which Kelly barely addressed during his Philadelphia tenure, lost Lane Johnson for 10 games and lacked quality depth to replace him.
One interesting note is that the running game improved a little without Kelly. That area was supposed to be Kelly’s strength, too. And it’s even more impressive that the Eagles got better in that area when you consider their running back corps isn’t exactly awesome.
A final note on the offensive comparisons that isn’t present in the table is the topic of time of possession. In 2015, the Eagles ranked dead last in average ToP (25:51). In 2016, the Eagles ranked first (32:31). Therefore, the Eagles also won the Super Bowl. That’s how this works, right?
Alright, so not quite. Time of possession doesn’t always mean everything, but there is some value to running a ball-control offense. For example, it can benefit a team’s defense, which brings us to our next comparison ...
|3rd Down Pct||40.00%||t-19||42.86%||26||-2.86%|
|4th Down Pct||44.44%||12||66.67%||27||-22.23%|
|Goal to Go Pct||73.68%||20||68.75%||15||4.93%|
The Eagles’ defensive struggles during Kelly’s tenure were due in part to the way the former head coach ran his offense. Philadelphia’s defense often played two or three more extra games worth of defensive snaps per season under Kelly. As a result, the Eagles’ defensive volume numbers were never very pretty.
In 2016, the opposite was true because the Eagles held the ball a lot on offense. Therefore, the defense didn’t have to face as many plays, and that helped the defense improve in a number of categories. The addition of Jim Schwartz over Bill Davis at defensive coordinator didn’t hurt either.
One of the areas where the Eagles improved most is red zone defense. Philadelphia went from next-to-last in 2015 to third in 2016. The run defense also saw significant improvement.
In terms of rate stats, the Eagles’ pass defense was somehow worse in 2016 than in 2016. That just highlights the Eagles’ huge need for new and improved cornerbacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS (FOR)
|Punt Return Avg||12.9||2||11.4||2||1.5|
|Kickoff Return Avg||27.3||2||20.9||25||6.4|
|Field Goals Made||85.37%||t-15||80.77%||27||4.60%|
The Eagles kept Dave Fipp around from Kelly’s staff and the decision paid off. Both of the Eagles’ return units improved in 2016. Caleb Sturgis also improved from being terrible to being slightly above average.
SPECIAL TEAMS (AGAINST)
|Punt Return Avg||8.1||9||5.1||3||3|
|Kickoff Return Avg||18.7||2||20.7||7||-2|
Punt coverage took a dip while kickoff coverage improved.
The advanced metrics back up what I’ve been saying all along: the 2016 Eagles were significantly better than the 2015 Eagles despite having the same record.
Offense is the area of weakness for Philadelphia. That’s where they really need to improve this offseason. The skill positions (wide receiver and running back especially) are obvious areas of need.
When I wrote “2016 was a nice starting point for the Eagles’ new era” earlier this week, I got some feedback from people who didn’t agree. “Wtf are you talking about, BLG”
I’m not saying 2016 was a great season for the Eagles. But after looking at the numbers, and putting them in the context of the Eagles having promising young franchise quarterback Carson Wentz in the fold, it provides reason for optimism.
The truth is the Eagles still have a lot of work to do. The Eagles have a lot of needs and this isn’t exactly a young squad. Philadelphia ranked as the fifth oldest team heading into the 2016 season. This offseason will be critical in making improvements to the roster. Wentz’s development will also be a key factor in getting this team closer to contention.
There’s no guarantee the Eagles will continue on a path of improvement moving forward. But at the very least, the 2016 season showed the Eagles were very right to move on from Kelly and head in a new direction.