Patriots can tell Eagles have come a long way

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - If you don't think the Eagles arrived way ahead of schedule a year ago, you must have forgotten how far behind they looked last August when they invited Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots to the NovaCare Complex for a series of joint workouts.

You also probably don't remember what Belichick, the future Hall of Fame coach with a handful of Super Bowl rings, said about the Eagles and rookie coach Chip Kelly before those workouts commenced. The Patriots' resident genius complimented Kelly quite often, but he didn't think his own team was practicing against a squad that was about to win the NFC East.

"I'm sure that Chip will have them in a very competitive situation next year," Belichick said.

He must have felt pretty comfortable about that comment after his future Hall of Fame quarterback went out and picked the Eagles defense apart later that afternoon.

"Of course I remember that first practice," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said Tuesday after the Eagles and Patriots went through another joint practice on the fields next to Gillette Stadium. "It wasn't good for us. We didn't come out of there feeling good. It felt like they caught every pass that they threw and I think last year we had guys who were just in awe of going against Tom Brady."

A lot more than just the venue has changed in the 12 months since these teams last faced each other. A year ago, the Eagles didn't even have a starting quarterback. The quarterback issue, of course, eventually resolved itself, albeit in a most circuitous way. Nobody, not even Belichick, saw Nick Foles' rise at this time a year ago, but it's all on film now - the 27 touchdowns against two interceptions - and the Patriots' coach has seen it.

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"I think the play that they got at quarterback last year was real good," Belichick said. "I'm not sure that anybody totally saw that coming, but that was a big part of [the Eagles' success]. They had a lot of explosive plays. They're very dynamic on offense and created more explosive plays than anybody in the league."

Foles appreciated the kind words from a legendary NFL coach and defensive mind, but the quarterback is sick of talking about last year's foundation and wants to start erecting the rest of the building.

"I guess [last season] does surprise people," Foles said. "It's one of those things where I don't look too much into it. He's one of the greatest coaches to coach this game and it's a great honor for him to say that, but I want to keep getting better. Everybody wants to keep talking about last year. Last year is over."

Defensively, it would be impossible to write about how the Eagles performed in their first joint practice with the Patriots on Tuesday without referencing last year. In fairness to defensive coordinator Bill Davis and the players, the Eagles were in the midst of implementing a new scheme a year ago, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

"We were like 10 days into our camp when we had to go against them last year, so everybody was kind of trying to figure out each other, the scheme and just the pace and everything," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "Now we've had a full season. We know how each other plays, we know the calls and we know just the way we all play, so we feel comfortable."

It showed. Sure, Brady still had his moments Tuesday, including a connection on a deep pass to Kenbrell Thompkins after the receiver had slipped behind cornerback Cary Williams. But this defensive effort against Brady and the Patriots bore no resemblance to the hideous display we saw a year ago in South Philly.

Davis walked away from those workouts and the first exhibition game against the Patriots thinking he had a lot of work to do.

"Especially after watching Tom Brady rip right through us," Davis said. "But that's what he does on a daily basis. With the quarterbacks like Brady . . . seven on sevens is them just picking you apart. That's what he did to us last year. This year, I think we're a lot better. He's still who he is and with no rush he's going to win more than he loses, but we are so far ahead of where we were [this time last year] even with how much scheme we have in."

The Eagles also have a starting quarterback and the attention of the rest of the NFL. It's a nice place to be and their owner has been around long enough to know it means nothing in the middle of August.

"You're going to be somewhere else three months later," Jeffrey Lurie said. "You see it all the time in sports and in the NFL. It's not about how you did in these practices. It's where you end up in December and January. You could tell halfway through [last season] that we were a very good young team."

Now, the Eagles are trying to become something more. At least for one day in the middle of the August, they were able to look across the practice field at one of the NFL's elite teams and not feel outclassed. They had come a long way in one calendar year.