Surprise: Birds doing just fine with deep ball
There's a misconception that Chip Kelly's NFL offense doesn't have much of a vertical passing element.
After six games, even some Eagles don't consider their offense one that takes many shots downfield.
But among the top 10 passing offenses in the NFL, only the Steelers (16.1) and the Packers (15.2) attempt a higher percentage of passes beyond 20 yards than the Eagles (14.5), according to numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus.
The Saints (14.3), New York Giants (12.9), Chargers (10.8), Broncos (9.9), Redskins (9.6), Lions (8.8), and Falcons (6.4) all take fewer chances deep.
And it isn't just with throws beyond 20 yards. At 28 percent, the Eagles are second to only the Giants (31.8) on intermediates passes between 10 and 19 yards, ahead of the Falcons (22.8), Chargers (22), Saints (21.5), Lions (20.9), Broncos (20.6), Redskins (18.7), Steelers (18.7), and Packers (15.8).
Kelly's passing scheme is dominated by short throws - screens, pop passes, quick hitches - but so are most NFL offenses. However, it was overwhelmingly the focal point of his aerial attack at Oregon.
What he has done in short time is successfully incorporate pro-style passing plays into his offense and utilize the skills of game breaker DeSean Jackson.
Kelly would say that he's just taking advantage of what defenses are giving him. And that is true. Opponents are giving Eagles receivers space deep because the success of the running game and the screen game has forced defensive coordinators to pinch safeties up into the box.
But the limits of the ground game at the NFL level - the Eagles lead the league in rushing and only Buffalo and Seattle run the ball more - have made it necessary for Kelly to stretch his offense.
"We could run the ball all day at Oregon," said receiver Jeff Maehl, a former Duck. "We'd hit 400 yards rushing without even trying. In the NFL, guys are so good they can stop the run. Four- or five-yard runs are really good for us as opposed to 10-, 20-yard runs at Oregon."
It's not just that Kelly has had quarterbacks Michael Vick and Nick Foles air it out as much as most teams. The Eagles have been connecting on a good percentage of their deep throws, as Foles did Sunday at Tampa Bay when he hooked up with Riley Cooper and Jackson for long touchdowns.
Overall, the Eagles have completed 14 of 28 attempts over 20 yards for 457 yards and seven touchdowns. The Packers, at the top of the scale, have hit on 15 of 28 throws for 569 yards and two scores.
When Kelly hired Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator, it was believed by some that the former Browns head coach was added to help his new boss with NFL passing concepts. That theory may have been right.
"I think that's more of Pat's realm with the downfield passing," center Jason Kelce said. "I think that's what he was familiar with for so many years."
Shurmur said Kelly fosters an environment in which all the offensive coaches can offer insight and ideas for that week's game plan. A list of plays is then gathered and Kelly calls the offense as he sees fit.
"Most of what we do is along the lines of what Chip did at Oregon, although there are some things . . . he would probably say that he's changed or added," Shurmur said. "But for the most part, the inspiration for a lot comes from him. I'd like to think all the offensive coaches have had some contribution."
Kelly would be the first to say he isn't innovative. But the combination of the up-tempo attack, the read-option, run-pass package plays, and the efficiency of his play-calling has the Eagles offense among the most proficient in the league.
So even though some of the deep passes look similar to plays run in the league for years, Kelly's influence can make them click.
On Cooper's 47-yard touchdown, he and Jackson ran simple go routes against man-to-man defense, but the offensive line was unbalanced, with two tackles on one side and tight end Zach Ertz in the backfield along with running back LeSean McCoy. Those aren't new ideas, but Kelly can call myriad plays out of his many formations.
"We can do so many formations," Kelce said, "whereas with [former Eagles coach Andy Reid], some of the formations were limited to 'We're going to run these plays out of this formation.' "
Jackson's 36-yard score followed a 44-yard catch-and-run by Cooper. The Eagles took little time in between and Kelly called a play in which Foles was under center - a rarity - and he ran a play-action fake to McCoy.
"The tempo really helps. We can get the defense's head spinning a little bit," Maehl said. "Most teams think that we're going to come up when we tempo and hand it off."
But Foles chucked a long one to Jackson, who beat the safeties over top. Some thought Kelly would pull back on deep routes with Foles at quarterback. But Foles showed he had enough arm, if not quite Vick's strength.
Maehl said Kelly is adding new receiving routes every week to an ever-evolving offense.
"He had an idea coming in here what he had to change, what he had to shift to be successful," Maehl said. "You're starting to see it."