By Bruce Marshall
Every year, there seems to be a team du jour that catches the fancy of the fans and media and is subject to intense overhype. Meet this year's candidate, the Philadelphia Eagles (2013: 10-7 SU, 8-8 ATS, 9-8 O/U). Among other projections, none other than NBC's Cris "Aw Shucks" Collinsworth has suggested that Birds fans ought to be readying to welcome the Lombardi Trophy next February.
Collinsworth, however, is only one of many media voices who have been touting the Eagles since the end of last season. All of which not lost on the many listeners of venerable 610 WIP and 97.5 FM The Fanatic in Philadelphia, where Birds talk began to dominate the airwaves even before the Phillies would fall out of the NL East race.
Andy Reid? Who's he? Callers to WIP and The Fanatic would rarely mention the former coach after talking about nothing else for the preceding 13 years.
For us, however, we suggest that Eagles backers pump the brakes a little bit. We're not yet convinced that Philly is a Super Bowl contender. Call it our lengthy exposure to various false alarms over the decades. While we do believe the Eagles are definitely on their way up for 2nd-year HC Chip Kelly, we're simply suggesting some caution.
That's partially because there's a bit suspicion on our part about some of the Eagles' accomplishments last season, when they unexpectedly rallied down the stretch to win the NFC East. Which looked unlikely at midseason when Philly was sitting at a ho-hum 3-5. In retrospect, however, the Birds were helped by a variety of factors, among them collapses from division enemies Washington and the Giants.
Philly also caught unexpected breaks in a handful of games last season when facing backup QBs, as was the case in road tests against Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay and Tony Romo-less Dallas in the finale that decided the NFC East. The Birds were also getting whipped by the Lions when a blizzard hit the Linc last December and the Motown bunch suddenly forgot how to generate traction in the inclement conditions. Philly also beat Tampa Bay when the Bucs were still winless in the first half of the season, caught the Raiders when they were in the midst of collapse, and ran into Minnesota long after the season had slipped away from the Vikings. They were also fortunate to beat the Cardinals 24-21 in a late-season game at the Linc. Those sorts of schedule breaks are not likely to recur again this season.
Then, given the opportunity to host a playoff game, the Birds lost at home in the final seconds to the Saints. No shame in that effort, but an indicator that Philly still has some ground to make up if it wants to climb into the elite class in the NFC.
Of course, Kelly's progressive offense generated lots of headlines a year ago, and QB Nick Foles deservedly won accolades with his shock performance that included 27 TD passes and only 2 picks despite starting only 10 games. The Birds also led the NFL in rushing. But the defense was hardly championship caliber, ranking 29th overall, which could potentially undermine any fireworks provided by the Kelly offense this fall. The stop unit was also one of many in the league to get torched by the Broncos, who scored a franchise-record 52 points in a Denver blowout early last season.
The pass rush remains a question mark after managing just 37 sacks last season, and Bill Davis' stop unit could sorely use a dominant interior run-stuffer. The front three of Fletcher Cox,, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan made progress last season, and Vinny Curry is in the process of emerging as a valued pass-rush specialist, but improvements must continue. Though Kelly and GM Howie Roseman believe the "D" has upgraded through free agency with the addition of ex-Saints FS Malcolm Jenkins, who could give the Birds their first lockdown safety since Brian Dawkins departed after the 2009 campaign. The Birds went defense with their first pick in the draft, tabbing Louisville OLB Marcus Smith, who could also provide pass-rush help. But this platoon still has a long way to go before it resembles a Super Bowl-caliber stop unit.
Perhaps the Birds can simply outscore everybody while the defense matures. The Kelly offense would figure to have a chance to do so with one of the best lines in the league and now adding ex-Saints RB Darren Sproles to spell LeSean McCoy, who gained 1607 YR last season. For those who believe the Kelly offense is simply pass-oriented, note those league-leading rush stats and the fact Philly ran the ball on more than 47% of its plays, the sixth-highest percentage in the league.
It's Foles, however, who needs to take the next step, which might seem a bit snarky on our part after the ex-Arizona Wildcat posted such gaudy numbers last season. Foles, however, was a bit too glad to take sacks, suffering 28 while throwing only 317 passes. The strategy of not forcing the ball worked out pretty well in 2013, as Foles finished with the third lowest interception percentage in league history. Offseason and summer camp work, however, has stressed a quicker release and getting the ball out of his hand earlier, avoiding so many sacks. "This year, I really want to not take as many sacks, get rid of the ball faster, dump it down to the back earlier," Foles recently said. "That's something I'll continue to work on the next few weeks (of training camp and the preseason)."
With Michael Vick finally out of the picture, Kelly and Roseman have brought in ex-Jet Mark Sanchez to battle another former USC Trojan, Matt Barkley, for backup duties. Safe to say that keeping Foles healthy will be crucial if the Birds want to get back to the playoffs this fall.
Roseman and Kelly also raised a few eyebrows when they decided to show WR DeSean Jackson the door in the offseason, and we applaud the braintrust for apparently responding to Jackson's alleged ties to gangs back in his native L.A. area. It was a bold move, because Jackson led the team with 82 receptions last season and was their main deep threat. Jackson's release is a calculated risk, because Kelly believes Jeremy Maclin, who missed last season with a torn ACL, can fill Jackson's downfield role. Rookie WRs Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) were the second and third-round draft picks, respectively, and will be expected to make immediate contributions.
The offense could also use PK Alex Henery converting with a bit more consistency from long distance; while near automatic inside of 40 yards, Henery was only 5 for 11 from 45 yards or beyond last season.
The Eagles should be good and are are a good bet to get back to the playoffs. But we are much more skeptical of all of the Super Bowl talk that remains nonstop in the Delaware Valley, or at least as far as the WIP and 97.5 FM signals can travel.