YOUR First-Place Philadelphia Eagles…that has a nice ring to it. It’s not exactly something that sounds weird or uncommon considering we’re really only two years removed from a decade-plus era of division dominance, but from the sheer depth of those two long years, it certainly is a beautiful phrase. As most of you know, I actually tend not to overreact. I believe football – and its 16-game season – is just one huge “sample size issue,” so I usually come off as an overoptimistic ray of sunshine during the seemingly darkest days and a sobering bath of cold water during the seemingly brightest of days. And, while the Eagles commentary on the site has been non-existent, this year has been no different. I was preaching “cold water” patience after the Washington game when the world declared Chip Kelly’s offense nothing short of “revolutionary.” But, I was preaching “ray of sunshine” patience after the Broncos annihilated a team that looked completely lost with a coach that all-of-a-sudden looked overmatched. Patience. That is what we needed in both instances. Well, after the beating the Redskins on Sunday and entering the bye on a 3-game winning streak, I am ready to actually agree with the commonly-held belief that our Eagles are in the driver’s seat in the NFC Least. And, while it probably will only result in a 9-7 division title and a home dog status in the playoffs when San Fran or Carolina come to town, this is progress. And, progress is what we needed so desperately after the last half-decade of the Reid Era were littered with quick fixes, free agency fool’s gold, and tricking ourselves into thinking that on-paper talent was more important that team chemistry, proper coaching selections, players that hunger for victory, and (as Doogan as always refers to) the SKILL of staying healthy. And, as the great Bill Walsh always said – “you set base camp in the playoffs…then you climb the mountain.” Just get to the tournament. And, that is what the Eagles are in a great position to do over the next month and a half. In Chip We Trust!
But, how did we get here? Well, below, in my humble opinion, are the 12 most important people to shape the 2013 Eagles resurgence.
Honorable Mentions: Mychal Kendricks (if the list went to 13, he would be #13 – he’s been great in his second year, I just personally want a little more consistency from a strongside linebacker but that will almost certainly come with experience – he’s a budding star); Riley Cooper (after looking like a guy who didn’t belong in the NFL for much of the season, he has exploded with Foles at the helm – it has to make one think about whether Foles’ development has been this good for Cooper or whether Cooper’s has been part of the reason for the Foles explosion…hmmmm); Brandon Boykin (he’s been terrific in the slot and even stepped up when he had to start); Benny Logan (has been such a revelation, that he made Isaac Sopouaga completely expendable – which, in and of itself, was a good thing – and has really blossomed, helping to make this 2013 draft class look like it could be really special); Colt Anderson (there is a rare Eagles post when I don’t mention Mr. Anderson – he hasn’t seemed to make quite the difference that he has in years’ past, but you would still be hard-pressed to find a person on this planet that covers kicks and punts better than my boy, Colt); Donnie Jones (we probably all forgot how nice it is to actually have a good punter)
12). Cedric Thornton – A defensive lineman with only 1 sack is among the dozen most valuable players on a first-place team? And, selected over a linebacker pushing 70 tackles through 11 games? Well, I think so. I think Thornton’s development has been absolutely crucial to the strides that this defense has made. He has played the run exceptionally well and is rushing the passer so well that teams seem to start sliding protection in his direction, which has opened up things for the edge rushers. Thornton has shown the potential to be a real star in this league and may even get some Pro Bowl consideration from those in the know.
11). Cary Williams – Now, I was “offline” during the whole training camp fiasco, so I never got to chime in on Cary Williams and the ordeal with the sconces (or whatever the hell that word is), but let’s just say that the summation of my thoughts were – “Wow, this is being way overblown.” Now, I don’t fully blame the media – who certainly has a history of blowing things way out of proportion because I think Cary’s refusal to just shut the hell up certainly aided the overdramatization of it all. But, really, what were we really fired up about? Seriously. I think Williams’ addition – not necessarily on the field because he has proven to be not much more than an average cornerback – has been team-changing. We suffered through two years of a defense led by a polite, mild-mannered offensive line coach-turned coordinator who was abused by a foul-mouthed, cranky defensive line coach. On the field, we were subject to a cornerback who was as overly cerebral as he was overly paid and a defensive end who pretended to be “cultured” all the while emulating the crankiness of his position coach clearly to the detriment of the defense, as a whole. And, “cerebral” and “cultured” may be great at dinner parties, but those traits don’t exactly win football games. Now, I am not at all insinuating that Cary Williams isn’t intelligent (far from it, actually) nor am I implying that he isn’t cultured (hell, he taught me what a sconce is – though, I’m still not sure I’m even spelling it right), but what I am explicitly saying is that Cary Williams brought with him the F-YOU attitude that this defense has lacked since the great Brian Dawkins left for the Rocky Mountains. This F-YOU attitude has pervaded throughout the defense and now they play with anger. Again, Williams has been little more than a mediocre cornerback in his play (which, has sadly been quite the upgrade from last year), but I don’t think I’m overstating the effect a guy like that can have on a young group – especially when he wears a Super Bowl ring on his finger (and loves to talk about that…among other things).
10). Connor Barwin – If you were to judge Barwin’s impact from just the past couple of games, he would actually probably be a good bit higher on this list. But, I want to take the whole season into account, and Barwin took a little time getting established on this defense. But, since he found his way, he has been a man on a mission. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more dominant games ahead for the guy who rides his bike to work.
9). Nick Foles – What?!?!? The NFL’s leader in passer rating is only the 9th most valuable guy on his own team? Yes, he is. I’m not trying to sell him short here. I’m just saying that Foles has only started 5 of 11 games this year, and one of those was arguably the worst game ever played by an NFL quarterback. All that said, the 4 games (plus most of the first Giants game) that Foles has been out there have been legendary. And, there is no doubt that the reason that the Eagles are now the legit favorites to win the division is squarely because of the stuff Foles has done. But, I just have to give deference to some of the other guys who actually have played more than half of the team’s games.
8). Jason Peters – Jason Peters has been considered – by many actual “experts” – the best tackle in football, when healthy. And, while he hasn’t completely returned to his pre-injury form this year, he has come around as of late and is playing his best football of the year right now. And, that is not surprising, considering he is still just barely a year removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon – TWICE. If Peters is what he is and isn’t going to return to his All-Pro form – which is entirely possible given his age and health history – then the Eagles still have a high-quality left tackle, who is tailor-made for this system. If Peters is actually still recovering and will only get healthier – which is also quite possible given the severity of his injury – then we might not yet totally realize just how incredible this offense could be. With the ever-improving rookie Johnson on one side, a returned-to-form Peters on the other, and a stellar interior (more on that coming up), the sky is the limit for this unit.
(NOTE: I never played offensive line in the NFL – or on any level of football. I never coached or scouted or evaluated talent for a football team on any level. I don’t even know most of the techniques needed to become a good offensive lineman. But, line play is one of my favorite things to pay attention to, and while I don’t really know anything about what makes a good lineman, I like to think that I do, so humor me in these “evaulations,” as I like to think of them…)
7). Fletcher Cox – Similar to my feeling on Barwin, as stated above, I believe that just looking at this team over the past month or so, Cox may actually be at the top of this list. But, he was a bit inconsistent in the beginning of the year, which is completely understandable, considering he’s only in his second year in the league, and his first year in this brand-new system. It is incredibly encouraging (I am getting downright giddy about his potential) that every game for the past couple of weeks, Cox has put in the best game of his career. He keeps upping his play every time out – capped by this week’s utter domination of the Washington Professional Football Team, where he lived in the backfield. He saved what could have been a devastating collapse on that final play when he forced RG3-and-out (see what I did there?) to give away the final drive when Boykin fair caught the pass in the end zone for the game-winning interception. Coach Kelly said that “Boykin saved his butt,” but what he really meant – and everyone knows it – is that Cox saved his butt. While I am loving the offensive line, I am even more bullish about this defensive line, which is starting to be utterly dominant week in and week out, and there isn’t a guy over 25 among them. It is not unreasonable to think that Fletcher Cox might be the best player on the best D-line in football within a year or two.
6). Evan Mathis – Evan Mathis has become an unknown star on this team. Even in the dreadful seasons of 2011 and 2012, the one consistently bright spot on this team has been Mathis, who has – without any recognition – gone out and gotten the job done. He is big enough to protect the middle, strong enough to open holes for Shady (and, even more so, the inside-the-tackle running threat of Bryce Brown when he comes in to change it up), and, maybe most importantly, athletic enough to hit the second-level or pull, as this complex offense requires. Maybe a bit of a head-scratcher as a Top-6 MVP on this team, but the interior of this line has been sensational all year (and, particularly during Foles’ ascension), and a lot of that credit belongs to Mathis.
5). DeSean Jackson – Cocky, quick-tempered, diva wide receivers are a dime a dozen in the NFL. And, many of them are nowhere near worth the trouble. But, we have one that is. This offense works because of DeSean Jackson. And, sometimes it works best when Jackson doesn’t even touch the ball (just don’t tell him that). He is so feared in the NFL, that every single defensive gameplan that the Eagles face is tailored towards taking away the D-Jax home run. Safeties can’t cheat on the run. Corners can’t blitz. And, most importantly, the focus of a defense is always tested because one misstep could result 7 points. The overattention paid to Jackson has opened up things for the emerging Riley Cooper, and more importantly, has allowed Kelly and the staff to design plays to find mismatches – particularly LeSean McCoy on a linebacker, which was perfectly exemplified Sunday when McCoy scored on the wheel route against his ill-equipped defender – linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know that Jackson is one of those guys that you love to have wearing your colors. There is something to be said for the guy on your team that just gets under the skin of opposing teams. Opposing teams expend a whole lot of energy hating DeSean, which, if it takes them off their game just a little bit, plays right into DeSean’s master plan and is a big part of his, let’s just call it, “charm.”
4). Jason Kelce – What is the definition of the Most Valuable Player? Well, that debate runs hot at times (just ask any Mike Trout supporter), but to me, it’s pretty simple. A team’s MVP is the player who would have the most negative affect on a team’s success were they to no longer be a part of that team. Even with a clear definition, it is still an interesting debate because there is almost never a way to truly measure this – even qualitatively, let alone quantitatively (with all due respect to supporters of the grossly overrated baseball statistic of WAR). That being said, what happened last year after Jason Kelce was injured in the later part of the Eagles Week Two win over the soon-to-be Super Bowl Champion, Baltimore Ravens (that’s right, most people forget that 1 of the FOUR wins the Eagles had last year was over the World Champs)? Let me give a quick recap (VERY quick because everyone would probably just as soon forget it) – after beating the Ravens to go to 2-0, the Birds went to Arizona and laid an egg before coming back and limping through an improbable win over the Giants at the Linc. The Birds were 3-1 before the wheels fell off and they only won 1 of their final 12 games. There have been countless reasons cited as to what happened – everything from divided locker rooms to coaching staff infighting to flat-out bad players. But, the one thing that I have not really heard at all was the loss of the center. The NFL is littered with promising seasons derailed by an injury to a team’s center and the Birds not only lost a center last year, but one of the best in the league. Now, I am not saying that the 2012 Eagles were a 12-4 team with a healthy Jason Kelce, but I think the 2013 Eagles could be a 10-6 team with a healthy Jason Kelce – and a playoff afterthought without him. That is pretty much exactly how I would define “valuable.”
3). DeMeco Ryans – I seriously debated putting Ryans #1 on this list – and how crazy would that have sounded 12 months ago? Now, I love DeMeco Ryans. I loved him in Houston, and I was elated when the Birds acquired Ryans from the Texans for, essentially, a 4th-round pick. But, he was borderline bad last year and, at times, looked like he was all but done as an NFL player. Fast-forward to 2013 and he is, in my opinion, the far and away most important player on this surprisingly rejuvenated Eagles defense. He flies to the ball, rarely misses a tackle, and always seems to be in the right place and the right time. He has seems to be – despite being, by all accounts, a quiet, reserved guy – the unquestioned leader of this defense. And, as history shows, the best defenses in the NFL are those led by the middle linebackers. (Don’t agree? Why don’t you mention that to Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary, or Jack Lambert…) And yet, there’s an interesting twist in the backstory of the Great Ryans Renaissance of 2013 – Ryans was only made expendable in Houston because (a) he did not look like the same player after rupturing his Achilles in 2010 and (b) he seemed like a poor fit for the Texans’ new 3-4 defense. Now, three years removed from probably the worst injury a linebacker could suffer (see the concerns laid out in a nice article here, written a year ago – before Ryans’ resurgence), Ryans is somehow looking much like the stud who busted into the league in 2006 with over 150 tackles for the Texans. And, even more incredibly, he has been doing it for a team that plays a whole lot of the very 3-4 brand of defense for which Ryans was considered a total misfit.
2). LeSean McCoy – Yes, this team’s surprising success has been on the backs of the unexpected defensive resurgence and the even-more-unexpected emergence of Nick Foles as the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen. But, while those two welcome developments may be the most surprising, the most important Eagle on the field this year comes as a surprise to no one. With all respect to that guy up in Minneapolis, Shady McCoy is quite possibly the best running back on the planet. And, he couldn’t be more perfect for the brilliant offensive mind of Chip Kelly. He hits the holes when they’re there and makes people miss in the backfield when they’re not. He is a terrific pass-catcher and a very underrated pass-blocker. He is the talent that makes this offense go and would be – if not for the stupid stats being put up in the Mile High City – a legitimate candidate for league MVP. He has been that good. My only complaint is that he needs to stop giving us heart attacks with these seemingly season-ending injuries that only keep him out a series or two.
1). Chip Kelly – I can say it when it’s true – and it’s true more often than I would like to believe – I WAS WRONG. I was not a huge fan of the Chip Kelly hire. I wouldn’t say that I outright hated it because I was intrigued and saw the lure, but I really thought that this team needed an identity of toughness to pull itself from the wreckage left by the last regime that – while wildly successful – stayed too long and left behind a dumpster fire of poor drafts, jaded veterans, and a rabid, yet cynical fanbase just waiting for a reason to believe. And, for some reason, 85-points-per-game in Eugene, Oregon, while intriguing, didn’t exactly scream “toughness” to me. But, man, was I wrong. I don’t think I could create even a fictional coach that would more be exactly what I would want in my head coach. He is highly involved in the analytics, but not afraid to go by his “gut.” He loves the high-powered, high-paced offensive schemes, but, still believes completely in running the football. He believes that football is won in the trenches by large men. He values efficiency and a minimization of errors without sacrificing explosive play. He believes in his offensive system, but understands when it needs tweaking. He is not too stubborn to change his mind and admit where he was wrong, but he is also the unquestioned head man, who takes full accountability of everything under his purview. He recognizes the things on which he is not an expert and trusts the men he has chosen to fill those gaps. He is solely focused on how to be the best – all the way down to how you eat and sleep – and leads this by example. And, most importantly, he only cares about one thing – winning. Time will tell if all of this adds up to the long-elusive Super Bowl title in Philadelphia, but if you couldn’t tell, I’m smitten. I’m a believer. And, I didn’t even want to be. But, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Eagles success this year is more of a result of Chip Kelly than anyone else in the entire organization. And, I don’t think it’s really all that close…