The Eagles have flown high for the majority of the last decade and a half. This past year, though, they barely took off. Now they face the the challenge of beginning a new era. But what went wrong? It depends who you ask, as I’m sure every Eagles fan can come up with at least a few goats they’d like to scape. LeSean McCoy said it was a lack of heart, Howie Roseman said it was a lack of chemistry. Some blame Andy Red while others still curse the ghost of Donovan McNabb. For a more fleshed out answer, we need to look at the context of the situation, as well as its history, while taking into consideration both the on-field aspects related to coaching, playmaking, and scheming as well as the mental, emotional, and psychological aspects of team cohesion, passion, and pride.
One thing that’s very hard to overcome in the NFL is a slew of injuries to the same position. The top teams have good depth, but it’s hard to have an insurance plan for every starter. The fact is, the Eagles lost four out of their five starting offensive linemen in 2012. This was the same group of starters who, just last season, ranked 2nd overall in the NFL in terms of run/pass blocking and penalties. The O-Line was was the most dominant unit on that team and the primary reason the Eagles finished with a top five offense in 2011. They also finished, as you might recall, with an 8-8 record, setting up Jeffrey Lurie’s now infamous ultimatum that 2012 would be a make-or-break season for our dearly departed Andy Reid.
The inability to adequately replenish the offensive line, I believe, was the hammer in the coffin that led to Andy Reid’s firing and the eventual dismissal of our once beloved scrambling (for his life) quarterback, Mr. Michael Vick. Of course, the problems extend much deeper and much further back, but let’s start from a purely football perspective before getting into all of the metaphysical reasons the Eagles now have Chip Kelly as their head coach.
If I can take a moment to pull a Mitt Romney, I think the trickle down effect helps to explain why the offensive line turned the team against itself, became soft, and sometimes even appeared to give up.
When you have a terrible, porous offensive line, your quarterback, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends will suffer. They’ll suffer so much that it doesn’t matter who they are, how fast or tough or smart they are. A back can’t run without blocks and a quarterback can’t pass without protection. When the offensive line allows constant pressure, the quarterback takes sacks, hits, and hurries. More importantly, a weak O-Line is the best recipe for turnovers. Fumbles and sacks, interceptions from rushed throws, strips in the pocket — all of these have become a recurring nightmare for Eagles fans, who have seen the Eagles turnover differential since the start of the 2011 season plummet to -38. Yes, MINUS 38. The next worst team in that timeframe, Kansas City, isn’t even in the same ballpark at -26. Conversely, the best team since 2011 has been the Patriots, who have a +42 differential. In other words, over the last 32 regular season games, the Patriots have had 80 more turnovers go in their favor than the Eagles — or 2.5 possessions per game.
Clearly, turnovers have been the achilles heal of this team the past two seasons, yet they only account for damage done on one side of the ball. Or do they? Turnovers, one of the truest marks of incompetence in the NFL, don’t exist in a vacuum. They give the ball over to the opposing team’s offense (that is, if their defense didn’t already score off the turnover) and they almost always put the defense coming onto the field in a tough spot. If the D doesn’t have a short field to deal with, they still have to stop an offense now surging with momentum. This incompetence of the offense or special teams inevitably trickles down to the D who has frequently (again let me reiterate the -38) had to pick up the offense/ST slack. The D comes onto the field on a negative note, perhaps angry or frustrated with the offense, and they begin to lose that sense of accountability to one another –they are no longer a cohesive unit, a unified team.
In this way, I believe the turnovers, mostly as a result of a terrible offensive line in 2012 and a series of critical mental/fundamental mistakes in 2011 “trickled down” throughout the team, eventually turning the players and fans against the basic philosophies of Andy Reid, Juan Castillo, Jim Washburn, and Todd Bowles. Three of those four gentlemen have already been canned and I’m guessing Chip will want to hire his own defensive coordinator to replace Bowles.
I’d be remiss not to mention that the defense is also very much responsible for this team’s implosion. They have had more blown coverages and botched plays in the past two seasons than I can remember throughout the entire Andy Reid/Jim Johnson era. When Jim Johnson passed away after the 2008 season, so too went the Eagles chances of ever again competing for a Super Bowl under Reid. Johnson had his players disciplined mentally and physically and had the knowledge and schemes to always keep opposing offenses off balance. He will go down as one of the all-time great defensive coordinators and his presence, may he rest in peace, is simply irreplaceable — the defense never recovered nor adapted a new identity under McDermott, Castillo, or Bowles. In retrospect, the passing of Johnson all but ended the Andy Reid era–we just didn’t know it yet.
I firmly believe that you win games at the NFL level by being the best team. Winning has a lot less to do with a franchise QB or stud head coach or star playmakers than it does with turning 11 cogs into one well-oiled, furious machine. The abilities and fundamentals of all players at the NFL level is extraordinarily high. Still, the difference between the abilities of teams to win and between players to compete is remarkably small. The parity that exists in this league is delightfully apparent. On any given Sunday, the Bills could make a run at the Pats or the Rams could upset the Niners, or the goddamn Redskins can win the NFC East. It’s no surprise, with 11 guys on each side of the field at all times, that the team who plays more as “one” will win.
To do this, you need a core of leaders on and off the field and you need a GM who can build a roster around guys who would die for the city they play for. Brian Dawkins epitomized that role in Philly for years. Now, LeSean McCoy, Trent Cole, and even newcomer Demeco Ryans come to mind. Roseman has already stated that he is ready to get back to the philosophies that made the Eagles so formidable circa 2004, like building through the draft and making hard decisions with players who have outperformed their contracts.
Now that we have Chip Kelly, a fresh mind and one that is hungry to compete at the NFL level, I have confidence that the team can enter into a new era of success. I hope that we can build a run-first offense around Nick Foles, who has fantastic intangibles and appears to be about as tough a competitor as there is in the NFL. If we can get the ball into the hands of our speedy wide receivers and let Shady carry the load, I have confidence in Kelly’s ability to let Foles lead this offense. It also helps that Kelly reportedly just absolutely hates turnovers. That’s always good. On defense, we simply need to find our heart and our identity. The players need to look toward the leaders on D to bring out that passion and they need to be accountable to each other through the good times and especially the bad. Putting that #4 overall pick to use on the defensive side wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
This is unchartered territory for many of us, as I was barely 11-years-old when Andy Reid was originally hired. I must say, as fun and tantalizing a ride as it’s been, I’m ready for something new–I just hope the players and coaches are as eager as the fans to bring home the bacon. As always, the Lombardi Trophy is the only dish that can satisfy this city’s enormous appetite for winning.