Friday, November 27, 2015

Eagles: Half-full, half-empty?

What did we expect from the Eagles, and how does that compare to what we've gotten?

Eagles: Half-full, half-empty?

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)

I fully intended to write a midseason report on what we expected and what we have gotten from Chip Kelly for the Sunday column in the Inquirer this week. The more I looked at the Eagles situation, however, and dissected what the coach said about his quarterback position and how it has caused the offensive meltdown the past two games, the more I thought that would be more interesting for readers. (And, really, isn’t that the point, darn it?)

So, right here on, on and at newsstands throughout the Delaware Valley – and, hopefully, also on your doorstep and not somewhere in the bushes – you can read that column on Sunday, which comes to the stunning conclusion that Kelly’s preferred use of the quarterback position might never work in the NFL. As in, never. It actually doesn’t come out and say that, but pretty close, and you won’t want to miss it.

Not wanting to waste all that fine research for the midseason report, and fairly sure it can’t be written after the ninth game, here is what the Sunday paper won’t have, but what you, lucky readers, can read right now. This is brought to you courtesy of USAirways’ Go-Go in-flight wifi network, which works a lot better than the fuel valve that caused an hour delay in takeoff today.

Anyway, what did we expect and what have we gotten?

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1. Whatever else they do, the Eagles are going to play fast, mind-numbingly fast, and opponents are going to hate it wicked.

Well, that has been true sometimes, but not wildly so. The Eagles don’t huddle. That much is true. They get the ball back into the hands of the umpire as quickly as possible after a play and line themselves up. Then what happens?

Often, they all turn and look to the sideline, waiting to get and then processing the sequence of wig-wags, hand signals and placards that indicate the formation and the play call. The line gets its assignment from one wig-wagger, the skill positions from another.

In Kelly’s perfect world, this happens really quickly and the Eagles, regardless of time of possession, are going to average 75-80 plays a game. The reality is that the time spent standing at the line of scrimmage, squinting at the wig-wags isn’t that much different from the time other teams spend in the huddle before they clap their hands and come to the line.

Kelly has said that the communication system, like a lot of other things, is a work in progress. The Eagles are averaging 68 plays per game, which is only three more than the league average. They aren’t slow, but nine teams run as many plays or more, so they aren’t reinventing the game in that regard.

Now, it’s hard to rack up a lot of plays when the offense is punting on the fourth play of each series and when the defense isn’t providing a lot of takeaways. Still, the pace is not yet as fast as expected and opponents do not seem to be wearing out at the end of the games. The Eagles have been outscored 115-88 in the second half this season.

2. The offense will dictate to the opposing defense, not allowing opponents to get their preferred deployment on the field.

Because the Eagles don’t substitute often between plays, or don’t like to, that deprives the defense of matching up for a given down-and-distance. That’s the theory, and it works to the extent that opponents aren’t able to substitute as often as they might like. The Eagles probably don’t see as much nickel and dime coverage as they would if they huddled or substituted between every play.

Kelly has stuck to this philosophy and you can see it by the snap counts for the main skill players. Aside from the line and the quarterback, six positions that are supposed to play 100 percent of the snaps, the other five guys have pretty much remained the same, too. DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Jason Avant, Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy have been together on the field for 84 percent of the offensive snaps this season. This base “11 formation,” meaning one running back and one tight end, has been used almost exclusively.

Zach Ertz has been getting more time spelling Celek at tight end, for an entire series or when the ball is dead and substitutions don’t slow things down, but the other skill position subs – Bryce Brown, James Casey, Jeff Maehl and Damaris Johnson – receive only token snaps.

So, Kelly is doing what he promised, putting his best and most versatile players on the field and leaving them there. It is open for debate whether that is actually dictating to the other team, however. Since the Washington opener, opponents have made stopping McCoy their first priority and they are content to keep their linebackers on the field and bring a safety up to the line of scrimmage to aid in doing so. The template for stopping the Eagles, at the moment, is to place a whole lot of guys in the box.

The Eagles could take advantage of this if they could throw the ball downfield better. But teams put the other safety in double-coverage on Jackson, and Avant, Cooper and Celek aren’t getting open against man-to-man coverage. They could just work the underneath stuff and put together drives, but hasn’t been happening, a lot of which is the fault of the quarterbacks.

Yes, the Eagles personnel packages are dictating who the opposing defense has on the field to some extent. But those opponents could just as easily say, “So what?”

3. The Eagles are going to rely on analytics and sound sports science when making in-game decisions.

Kelly got beaten up enough this week about the onside kick, and the field goal he didn’t try and having Matt Barkley run a naked option play – to his left! – near the goal line. And he didn’t know a rule earlier in the season and does some head-scratching stuff in regards to the clock. We know he’s a smart guy, and we know he has studied all this stuff (except maybe the rulebook), but there doesn’t seem to be a greater plan in place during the game than anyone else has. It’s almost as if Andy Reid messed up that sideline so badly, no one can coach there.

4. Expect to see some very innovative plays.

There have been some unique formations occasionally, but no gadgets or wild ideas on display. This is probably not that surprising and, in this case, the expectations were in error. Kelly’s system is fast, but it is also very basic. The run is a huge component of what he likes to do, but not having a second option along with McCoy is devastating.

5. Time of possession doesn’t matter.

This is a recurring mantra of Kelly’s, and he likes to cite an Oregon game in which the Ducks got thrashed on time of possession, but won the game like 112-3 or something. To an extent, he’s got a great point. They don’t keep time of possession on the scoreboard. And if the Eagles had an 85-man roster and were preparing to play UCLA, it would be even a better point. In the NFL, however, it does matter if your defense is on the field too much. (Op. cit., 2nd half scoring).

You don’t have to be a math major to know that the average time of possession in the NFL is exactly 30 minutes. The Eagles are averaging 25 minutes, 30 seconds with the ball. Only Minnesota (24:52) has it less.

OK, what does that mean? Obviously, it means the Eagles aren’t sustaining drives. That’s fine, if they were scoring quickly on big plays and handing the ball back to the other guy. That component of the offense is also missing, however.

So, time of possession doesn’t matter if you don’t need time to score. And it doesn’t matter if your defense is a bunch of interchangeable 20-year-olds Neither is the case right now.

That’s the report. Kelly is still figuring things out and that isn’t a surprise. Reality hasn’t fit the expectations yet, but Kelly will tell you that football isn’t really about innovation or pace or analytics or tricks. It is about calling a play and running it successfully even if the other team knows what it is, even if the other team has all the right players on the field to stop it.

The better team on the field can do that and the bottom line is that the Eagles haven’t been the better team often enough.

Inquirer Sports Columnist
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About this blog
Bob Ford has been writing about Philadelphia sports since 1981, and is still trying to figure it all out. A former beat writer covering the Phillies and the 76ers, Ford became a general sports columnist for the Inquirer in 2003, following in and occasionally falling in the deep footsteps of Bill Lyon, Frank Dolson and many distinguished others. He comes to the blogosphere after award-winning success as designer/editor of the fabulous Pen & Pencil Club softball blog. Likes: Palestra, inside-the-park home runs, sunny days. Dislikes: phony people, cloudy days, rewrites.

Bob Ford Inquirer Sports Columnist
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