So, here we are through two rather interesting games of the Eagles season, and the Birds sit at 2-0, including a shaky home win against a really bad team and an impressive road win over a pretty good team. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there, but let’s take a look at what we have seen so far in these 120 minutes of game action. Here are my biggest takeaways through the first two games:
1). Nick Foles looks shaky
I know, it is strange for the #1 takeaway for a 2-0 team to be a negative one. It is even stranger for that negative to be about the QB who is 2nd in the league in passing yards and is in charge of the league’s highest scoring offense. I have come around and am officially a “Foles guy” now, but we have to be honest – he looks a bit shaky. The first half against Jacksonville was abysmal, and the first half against Indy wasn’t all that much better. He has missed open receivers and has misthrown several short passes and bubble screens. While he did rally both times and showed some real resiliency, he does not seem to have the same poise and accuracy that he had last year. But, let’s remember, it’s early. They’re 2-0. And, they lead the league in points scored, so we will take 19 of those “shaky” games if they turn out the same result. I am actually encouraged by the fact that both Foles and McCoy have been relatively quiet and they have 64 points and 2 wins in two games.
2). The two guys picked ahead of Foles look FANTASTIC
Foles – the 3rd-round pick – may be the most nationally well-known Eagle drafted in the 2012 draft, but the two guys the Eagles drafted before their franchise QB have are on the brink of legit stardom – and they are both on the other side of the ball. Mychal Kendricks has shown flashes of brilliance in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, but he was annoyingly (at least to me) inconsistent. This year, he looks like a total stud across the board. Now, we don’t really know the extent of the calf injury he suffered Monday night, but before he left, he had put in 7 incredible quarters of football in 2014 – making plays all over the field. He can cover tight ends and even some slot receivers when needed, but he can also get to the QB and is a killer against the run. Now, I haven’t been as high on him as most in his first 2 years, but right now, he looks like the centerpiece of a potentially outstanding defense for the next decade.
The other budding superstar is a guy that I have actually been higher on than most since being drafted #11 overall in 2012 – Fletcher Cox. I know that he didn’t exactly “pop” in either of his first two years, but it is happening now right before our eyes. He still leaves a little to be desired in his ability to get to the QB (which is always going to make the casual observer mark him down a peg), but his ability to set the edge in the run game and pursue ballcarries (or scrambling QBs) is incredible. And, I think that his lack of consistent QB pressure has more to do with the fact that he is still learning the ins and outs of the 3-4 (he is much more natural in the 4-3). This year, however, he is starting to eat up multiple blockers in the pass game, which will, hopefully, lead to more QB pressure across the defense. Either way, Fletcher Cox is becoming a real star in this league and, along with Kendricks, the ridiculously underrated Connor Barwin and the ever-steady Demeco Ryans, could be the centerpiece of a defense that has actually looked very, very good through two games.
3).They do miss D-Jax…schematically…but are a significantly better football team without him
This is no real surprise, as he is a dynamic playmaker who makes a lot of things happen even when he doesn’t get the ball. All his big plays aside, maybe the true value of DeSean Jackson on the field was the impact he had on everyone else in the passing game. Countless D-coordinators have said, flat-out, that they used to completely tailor their defensive gameplans around containing DeSean. Safeties would always have to cheat his way, and the #1 corners that “travelled” would always find their way to his side. Without him out there, the safeties are more free to roam in pass coverage and help in the run game.
HOWEVER…while Chip & Co. are too classy to come out and say it, I think that the team is much better because he is gone. If you ever get a chance to hear guys like Adam Caplan talk about it (and, very few know more about the inner workings of the Eagles than Caplan), the real problem with Jackson came down to attitude. Now, that seems like an obvious comment, but Caplan puts a different spin on it and provides stark examples. Caplan talks about how Chip Kelly had decided midway through last season that they were going to move on without Jackson because he was holding back a lot of what they wanted to do around there. It wasn’t the gang ties; it wasn’t the cursing out of the coaching staff; it wasn’t even his stark refusal to buy-in to the smoothies and sleep monitors. It was simple – the thing that Kelly’s offense gets the most press for is its tempo. And, Jackson was slowing them down. That tempo doesn’t just come from “hurrying up” on Sunday afternoon when you have the ball. That tempo comes from intricate practice schemes, where the players practice over and over getting tackled, jumping up, throwing the ball to the ref, and running back to the line. Jackson never wanted to do that – particularly in practice. Kelly believes (according to Caplan) that Jackson’s refusal to take this uptempo style at practices (and oftentimes games) seriously enough slowed the whole team down. So, he cut him. And, the tempo is soaring through two games and is possibly the reason that this team is the only team in NFL history to be 2-0 after trailing both games by 14+ points in the second half.
4). Practice matters
With today’s CBA, practice times have been slashed. Coaches have less ability to mold their players the way they want. But, the Eagles and Genius Kelly have found a way to combat this. While practice “time” is regulated, there is no restriction, obviously, on practice “reps.” And, by all accounts, Chip Kelly’s practices are the most efficient practices this sport has ever seen. Dick Vermeil estimated that Kelly gets 3x as many reps in any given 2-hour practice than Vermeil’s teams ever did. And, what does this do? Well, for one, it allows Chip’s teams to get more work on their gameplans than anyone else in the league, but, secondly – and maybe more telling so far – is that it makes the Eagles the most well-conditioned team in the league. You look around the league in these two weeks, and you will see an avalanche of games that turned drastically in the second halves. Both Eagles wins, the Bears on Sunday night, the Patriots loss in Week One, the Browns nearly winning two games after bad first halves, etc., etc., etc. Early in the season, conditioning matters at the end of games, particularly in the heat. Late in the season, it matters in keeping guys healthy (the Eagles were the healthiest team in the league in Chip’s first year). This stuff matters – and that is why this coach makes more of a difference on his team than any coach I have ever followed closely.
5). These WRs are not very good
I know we are only two games into his shiny new contract, but Riley Cooper looks like he is straight stealing $25 million out there. He is not getting open and not making plays. He looks like the lost, mediocre receiver that he was his entire career other than the second half of 2013. Why do we think that he “figured something out” again?
Jeremy Maclin looks a little better, but he does not look anything close to a #1 receiver right now – nor does it look like he ever will be, to be honest. He has good speed, but nothing game-changing, and he has a willingness to go get the tough catch, but I am not sure he has the ability. I said it all offseason, they should have given Houston a 2nd-rounder for Andre Johnson – and, I really value high draft picks and do not value WRs on the wrong side of 30 – I just think that was the last piece of this offensive puzzle. But, again, this is the top-scoring team in the NFL, so who’s complaining.
6). That “silent killer” is gone this year
People talk about return and coverage production as “hidden yardage.” Well, does anyone notice how much better the special teams’ coverage is this year than last? The front office made significant free agent investments in Bryan Braman and Chris Maragos as well as personnel decisions seemingly driven completely by coverage ability. And, through two games, it seems to have paid off. And, by “paid off” I mean that I have not noticed the coverage teams…at all. Coverage teams are like referees or offensive linemen – typically, the more you notice them, the worse they are. Just think back to last year and just how hair-pullingly frustrating the coverage teams (and lack of touchbacks, by the way) were. You don’t have that same feeling this year, do you? Ya, me neither…and, I like it.
7). How can we go this far without mentioning…?
Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz! No, seriously, how amazingly do these two fit into this offense? The personnel matchups are so hard to defend. Such versatility combined with brilliant play design means that, short of playing nickel or dime packages, it is almost impossible to avoid having LBs covering either Ertz or Sproles or both – and that is the perfect recipe for big play after big play. And, the more that Ertz and Sproles dominate games this way, the more teams will have to go into sub-packages meaning LeSean McCoy may be running into nickel and dime packages…yes, please. This offesnse is just going to get harder and harder to defend as it goes.
8). And, the heartbeat of this offense continues
All of these great matchups and brilliant play design is great and all, but this offense (and most offenses) begins and ends up front. Jason Peters continues to be one of the best tackles of this generation, and certainly the best left tackle in football right now. Now, I am no expert on O-line play, but I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a center better in the league than Jason Kelce. And, there are a lot of people who believe that Evan Mathis is the best guard in the league. That means that when (if) Mathis comes back, 3/5 of this line will be the best in the league at their position. Throw in the solid veteran of Herremans and an athletic Top-4 pick in Lane Johnson (who will be back Week 5), and you have an ELITE offensive line – probably the best in the game – which is enabling all of that magic to happen around them. And, I can’t wait for the next act…