Hayes: Maligned center Jason Kelce might be least of Eagles' problems

SOMEONE has to bear the blame. Why not Jason Kelce?

Well, probably because he doesn't deserve it.

The charm of Jason Kelce, overachieving former hockey player and onetime Twitter god, lies as much in his candor as in his background. Kelce was an Eagles sixth-round pick out of Cincinnati in 2011 who won the starting center job as a rookie and improved steadily through 2014.

Kelce hasn't played as well the past two seasons. He seldom seems to make those jarring, second-level blocks on linebackers and safeties. Only 295 pounds, he seems ever more vulnerable to bull-rushing defensive linemen. This drop-off has earned him the derision of the type of football nerd who rewatches games and tries to grade the center. You know: sports writers.

He often operates amid a ton of writhing flesh, which usually makes him hard to notice, but everyone has noticed his shortcomings lately. A 4-2 start inflated expectations, but set up fans for a crushing collapse following losses to the Cowboys and Giants. In particular, at Dallas, Kelce couldn't catch linebacker Sean Lee on a key play, which brought howls from the Philadelphia faithful.

Perhaps the Eagles would be better with Kelce on the bench. His backup, veteran Stefan Wisniewski, is playing left guard right now in place of Allen Barbre, but when Barbre's hamstring heals . . .

This sounds like heresy. After all, Kelce made the Pro Bowl after the 2014 season and signed a six-year, $37.5 million extension. Still: This is what the Birds get for their money?

Bring it on, Kelce said.

Just bring it right.

"I think people expect me to play at a higher level now. I expect myself to play at a higher level. I didn't play up to my standard. This year, so far, I'd say I've played below that standard as well," Kelce said. "Especially early on in the season, the first two games."

Wait. They won the first two games. It's hard to be angry at the center when they win his bad games. He continued:

"Against the Giants, I didn't play very well, obviously."

OK. There you go. Indeed, on Carson Wentz's doomed fourth-and-2 run, Kelce failed to hold his block . . . except, so did everyone else; and besides, three other guys went completely unblocked. No, Kelce wasn't referring to the Wentz run. He was referring to the second play of the game.

Kelce snapped the ball, took one step back, engaged lightly with 350-pound defensive tackle Damon Harrison . . . and collapsed on his keister. Harrison, with the speed of a land-bound manatee, waddled toward Wentz, who panicked and threw off his back foot into the arms of a defender.

That interception led to a Giants touchdown, and, said Kelce, it contributed to the interception Wentz threw on the next possession, which led to yet another TD.

"Obviously, I tripped up early on, which rattled Wentz early on," said Kelce, who also was rattled. "That affected my set lines later in the half."

Hmm. What about Dallas, then?

"Dallas, minus one or two plays, I think I played pretty well," Kelce said.

He must be referring to the play where Lee hit Sproles for a 6-yard loss late in the game, right?

Nope.

Between that play's dubious design, terrible timing and imperfect execution, Kelce won't take the blame for that one.

"It's my responsibility to get out in front of Darren, but the receiver is supposed to come in and at least (impede) him, so I have time to get out in front of Darren," Kelce explained. "They also put a nose (tackle) on the right side of me, which made me have to run a little bit longer to try and get there. Although it looks really bad, I don't think there's much else I could have done on that one."

Coaches cannot expect Kelce to win a footrace with Lee, certainly. Kelce also was less than two weeks' removed from receiving a cortisone injection for plantar fasciitis in his foot, and he has a nagging calf strain.

"I don't think it's the plantar fasciitis," he said, "and my calf was hurting earlier in the game. I don't really notice it when I'm out there playing."

Neither injury affected Kelce on the play he did own: Wendell Smallwood's fumble earlier in the fourth quarter. Terrell McClain brushed past Kelce's right shoulder as Kelce dived left, hit Smallwood three yards in the backfield before Smallwood had a chance to take a second step.

"I expected (McClain) to slant," Kelce said. "He didn't."

That led to the first three points of the Cowboys' 10-point comeback and their overtime win.

Kelce's other play, and his other games, keep him high in coach Doug Pederson's esteem.

"He's still playing at a high speed," Pederson said. "He's the glue of that offensive line. He makes all the calls. He and Carson are on the same page."

That's the crux of the matter.

Kelce and Wentz study together quite a bit. They have done a fine job of recognizing pass rushes and blitzes. Wentz has been sacked only 17 times in eight games. He's mobile and he's big, which helps keep the sack totals down, but the Birds have done a pretty good job keeping him upright in a time of need. The Eagles have been without right tackle Lane Johnson for the last four games, as he serves his 10-game PED suspension.

Perhaps Kelce has played imperfectly, and perhaps his half-season should be cleaner, but he seems an odd target. It's just that everyone else has a viable excuse.

There have been questionable strategies, yes, but Pederson is a rookie. There has been poor execution, true, but it is a remade roster. There have been egregious mistakes from Wentz, granted, but he's a rookie from an FCS (I-AA) school who missed most of the preseason with an injury. As cooler heads emerge, it seems unrealistic to expect too much from a receiving corps without a No. 1, or from a four-man running back rotation whose most dependable component is 5-6 and 33 years old.

So, the blame settles on Jason Kelce. Bring it on. He might have the broadest shoulders on the team, but he can handle this weight.


hayesm@phillynews.com

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