The 2013 Philadelphia Eagles are a fun team with an innovative new head coach, a promising young QB having a historic season, and a roster that is not lacking for playmakers. However, they have their share of holes and are generally considered a work in progress. We can't realistically expect them to compete for a Super Bowl this year... right?
Don't be so sure.
The 2013 Eagles are playing a style of football that has worked for 4 of the last 7 Super Bowl winners. First, let's ask ourselves what the Eagles are from a statistical standpoint. On the down side, they give up a lot of yards on defense. On the positive side, they have a good turnover differential, they get more explosive plays (plays of 20+ yards) than any team in the NFL, the defense tightens up when opponents enter their red zone, and with Nick Foles at QB, they're converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns.
That basic formula worked for the 2012 Ravens, 2011 Giants, 2009 Saints, and 2006 Colts, all of whom won the whole fricken thing. Here is where those 4 teams (plus the 2013 Eagles for comparison) ranked in the NFL in total defense, turnover differential, red zone offense, red zone defense, and explosive plays the years they took home the Lombardi trophy:
(*2013 Eagles red zone number is where the Eagles would rank if you only used Nick Foles' red zone numbers. The Eagles actually rank 29th if you include Michael Vick and Matt Barkley's red zone opportunities.)
A look at each category individually:
As you can see above, you don't necessarily need to have a great defense to win it all. None of the 4 past Super Bowl winners listed above were in the top half of the league in total yardage allowed, although none gave up as many yards as the Eagles have this season. In fact, only the woeful injury-plagued Dallas Cowboys defense has given up more yards than the Eagles this season.
However, the number of yards the Eagles allow is somewhat misleading. Because the Eagles move so quickly on offense and score at a rate of less than 2 minutes per TD drive, the defense faces more snaps than any team in the NFL:
If you look at the two teams right in the middle of the pack, the 49ers or Packers, you'll see that both faced 779 snaps on defense this season. The Eagles defense has faced 113 more snaps, which almost like two extra games.
Therefore, the stat that is probably more relevant for the Eagles is yards allowed per play. On the season, the Eagles allow 5.5 yards per play, which puts them at a more respectable 17th in the NFL, and more in line with those past Super Bowl winners
With the exception of the Chargers game, when the Eagles win the turnover battle, they win the game. When they lose the turnover battle, they lose the game:
The 2013 Eagles are +7 in turnover differential. They're 12th in takeaways, and tied for 6th for the lowest number of giveaways. They are +8 during their 4 game win streak.
Last season, the Eagles turned the ball over 37 times. That was tied for worst in the NFL. They only forced 13 turnovers on defense. That was also tied for worst in the NFL. Overall, they had a turnover differential of -24, which once again, was tied for worst in the NFL.
The Eagles' ability to win the turnover battle has been the single most important improvement from last year to this year, and it all starts with Nick Foles taking care of the football.
Red zone offense:
Technically, the Eagles are 29th in red zone offense. However, that's mainly due to Michael Vick's inefficiency inside the 20. With Nick Foles at the helm, the Eagles are 10 of 17 in the red zone, which is good for 58.8%. If you only used Foles' red zone opportunities, that would put the Eagles at 9th in the NFL in red zone efficiency.
But the numbers don't tell the whole the whole story on the Eagles red zone efficiency with Foles. As Tommy Lawlor pointed out at Bleeding Green Nation, several of Foles' red zone "failures" are bogus:
The first red zone "failure" came in the Giants game. Foles came off the bench late in the first half and led the offense from the Eagles seven-yard line down to the Giants 18. The drive didn't stall. The Eagles just ran out of time and kicked a field goal.
The next "failure" came late in the Tampa game. The Eagles held a 28-20 lead and drove the ball from midfield down into scoring position. The goal was to work the clock and control the ball. The Eagles didn't throw a single pass on the drive. They kicked a field goal and won 31-20.
Tommy's article was published before the Green Bay game, in which the Eagles had their 9+ minute clock killing drive that entered the red zone, but ended with the Eagles kneeling on the football form the victory formation.
The Eagles also had a set of kneel downs to end the game against the Cardinals to seal the win.
In reality, the Eagles are 10 of 13 (76.9%) in the red zone with Nick Foles, not 10 of 17. That would put them at 2nd in the NFL, behind only Denver.
Red zone defense:
As noted above, the Eagles are 31st in the NFL in yards allowed. However, they are the only team in the NFL to have not allowed more than 21 points in their last 8 games. That is due in large part to their ability to stiffen up when opposing offenses enter the Eagles' red zone. The Eagles are allowing TDs on 48.7% of their defensive red zone chances. That's good for 6th in the NFL. Since Jim Johnson died, here is where the Eagles ranked defensively in the red zone:
• 2012: 19th
• 2011: 28th
• 2010: 32nd
• 2009: 23rd
We're not used to seeing the Eagles make stops in the red zone, but that is what is happening this year.
I've sort of beaten this metric to death here at Philly.com, but the Eagles have the most explosive plays in the NFL by a wide margin. They have 72 plays of 20+ yards. The next closest team is the Broncos, with 59.
More specifically, the Eagles have 61 pass plays of over 20 yards. Here is how that number compares to past NFL leaders in that metric:
And the Eagles have 4 games to play! Note the 2001 Rams, or "The Greatest Show on Turf." They had 82 pass plays of 20+ yards. The Eagles are on pace for 81.3.
For the Eagles to make an unlikely Super Bowl run, Nick Foles would have to continue to be near perfect, and I'm just not so sure how sustainable that is. But when you look at how some recent teams got there, the Eagles' style of play really does seem to emulate the same formula.
Talent-wise, there are better teams in the NFC, but if I were the Seahawks or Saints, I sure as hell would not want to draw the Eagles in the playoffs... if they even get there, that is.