In the high-speed world of Chip Kelly football — where players are encouraged to get nine hours of sleep a night, drink their individually engineered energy shakes without question and endure eardrum-slicing music during “training” — success is measured not just by wins and losses but also by style points. The Birds must not just defeat their opponents; they must impose their will through tempo. They must create havoc.
Year 2 of Kelly’s regime promises more jet-fueled offensive success and some games in which the Eagles appear to be working at a connection rate much faster than their opponents. The question is whether 2014 will feature an improvement on Kelly’s debut, when the Eagles overcame a 3–5 start to finish 10–6, or if the rest of the NFL catches on to the team’s outscore-’em philosophy and controls games by beating up on an overworked Philadelphia defense.
From the moment the Birds smacked Washington in the face during the first half of their debut, they employed the same lightning-fast attack that Kelly favored while in the college ranks. One would suspect the 2014 Eagles would be even more capable of shredding defenses, thanks to a greater familiarity with the system. Their one loss, however, is a big one. DeSean Jackson, who caught a team-leading 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine scores last year, was cut loose, leaving the Eagles’ receiving corps thin and somewhat inexperienced. But Kelly believes in the power of tempo and his ability to create matchup advantages, and fans must hope that can overcome the loss of a gamebreaker on the outside.
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Triggering it all will be third-year quarterback Nick Foles, who took over for Michael Vick midway through last year and tossed 27 TD passes against just two picks. Foles may not be Kelly’s ideal at the position given his lack of foot speed, but he makes good decisions, delivers the ball on time and doesn’t turn it over. Now, he must improve his ability to avoid sacks while continuing to complete a high percentage of passes (64.0 percent in 2013). Vick is gone, and former Jets starter Mark Sanchez has assumed the backup role, with second-year man Matt Barkley in the hole. Should Foles regress, the Eagles are in some trouble.
Kelly hopes Jackson’s departure is offset by the return of Jeremy Maclin from a torn ACL that forced him to miss all of 2013. Maclin is a reliable target but hardly the deep weapon Jackson can be. Riley Cooper overcame some self-induced stupidity to have his best season and was rewarded with a fat — and some say undeserved — contract. He is now expected to be a prime target, rather than a complement. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will be expected to make immediate contributions, with the 6'3", 212-pound Matthews likely to be ready sooner.
Although veteran tight end Brent Celek showed signs of slowing down last year, Zach Ertz demonstrated great promise and should become a more valuable part of the passing game.
LeSean McCoy returns after a season (1,607 yards, nine TDs) that established him among the league’s elite backs. McCoy thrived in Kelly’s spread system and was often stronger at the end of games, despite a career-high and NFL-best 314 carries. When healthy, he is one of the best. Former Saints all-purpose standout Darren Sproles has joined the team and will be expected to spell McCoy but also see heavy work in the passing game and help as a returner.
The line returns intact after a great 2013 season that featured no serious injuries and tremendous continuity. Left tackle Jason Peters remains one of the best in the business, and guard Evan Mathis emerged as a standout. Jason Kelce has become one the league’s more reliable pivots, while Todd Herremans is comfortable at guard, and second-year right tackle Lane Johnson should build on a solid debut. There isn’t a lot of quality depth, which could be tested early given Johnson's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the front five is stout.
The Eagles did little during the offseason to bolster a unit that finished 29th in total defense. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was signed from New Orleans, but he won’t help much against the run. Top draft pick Marcus Smith addresses the need for an edge-rusher in the team’s 3-4, but he isn’t likely to be a starter right away. The other additions are backups, mid-to-late-round rookies and special teams players. Part of the problem is personnel, but Kelly’s insistence on playing offense at 100 miles per hour means less possession time and more pressure on the D.
The three-man front had its moments last year but isn’t a fire-breathing unit. Ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton can stuff the run, but neither is a pass-rushing specialist, and it’s too early to determine whether second-year nose man Bennie Logan will be the plug in the middle the team needs. Backup end Vinny Curry can get to the quarterback on occasion.
Smith’s arrival promises no immediate salvation for an ordinary group of linebackers. Trent Cole had trouble adjusting to life as an outside man after a career as a 4-3 end, while his counterpart on the other side, Connor Barwin, has his moments but is not a consistent standout. Kelly hopes Smith can be a situational pass-rusher as a rookie and mature into a full-time player.
Inside, veteran DeMeco Ryans showed he could handle work in a 3-4 better than he did while with Houston. If nothing else, he provides energy and leadership. Third-year man Mychal Kendricks has sideline-to-sideline speed and plenty of potential but needs to be more consistent.
Jenkins’ arrival should help a secondary that was vulnerable last year. He’ll team with Nate Allen in a back line that won’t scare many people. Second-year man Earl Wolff can provide help in reserve. Cary Williams, Brandon Boykin and Bradley Fletcher are not great cover men, but they comprise a relatively solid crew that could get some help from former Dolphin Nolan Carroll.
Punter Donnie Jones had a great 2013, averaging 44.9 yards per kick, and was rewarded with a new contract. Placekicker Alex Henery did not have a similar glowing season, struggling a bit from beyond 40 yards and failing to kick off deep consistently. The loss of Jackson hurts the return game, and Kelly is hoping Sproles can be a weapon in that area. Another potential option could be running back/return specialist Kenjon Barner, who Kelly coached at Oregon and the Eagles acquired from Philadelphia on Aug. 19 for a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick.
The Eagles are the favorites in the NFC East almost by default, thanks to problems in Washington and New York and the Cowboys’ history of self-destruction. The question is whether Philadelphia can be more than a first-round playoff participant. That will depend on whether the offense continues to crackle and even surpasses last year’s efficiency. Foles must grow at quarterback, and the outside weapons have to produce. It can’t just be about the scheme. The defense could improve, thanks to the development of the younger players, but it will never be a raging outfit, at least not in this iteration. The Eagles are contenders, but the level of achievement depends on whether they can outstrip the league’s efforts to slow them down.