The Eagles at midseason
Not A disaster, but at least slightly disappointing.
That's how I'd rate the Eagles at midseason. The 3-5 record is more or less what most of us figured. The way they got here is not.
After a summer of frantic-paced practices and blaring music and player excitement about Chip Kelly's offense, we were expecting bears riding unicycles and 49-47 scores and offensive linemen lined up with the wideouts - which actually happened, but only in the opener. What we've gotten in Year 1, since that giddy Monday night at FedEx Field, has been less thrilling. Not without promise, but less thrilling.
I think this is going to be a write-off year, with the team drafting a franchise quarterback next spring and starting over. Next summer, we might be wondering what 2013 was all about, beyond getting Kelly's feet wet in the NFL.
Right now - and the second half could change my view - I see Kelly's decision to bring Michael Vick back last winter as a huge impediment to building much from this season. It is working out exactly as we feared it would. Vick showed up with fresh legs and that big arm, gobbled up most of the starter's reps from the third week of the preseason on, played really well at times, got hurt, came back, got hurt again. Now, the Eagles are scuffling with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley. Foles hasn't played enough to be ready to win consistently, even if he has the talent, which is looking real dubious. Barkley hasn't even practiced enough with the first team to be ready to play at an acceptable level. Vick? Odds on him ever playing more than 5 weeks in a row again, at 33, are not good.
I guess the second half is about being sure Foles or Barkley can't be the quarterback of the future, seeing what's good enough to move forward with on defense, and convincing decision-makers the offense absolutely must add another weapon, ideally a big-bodied, dynamic wideout.
It would have been nice if Kelly had been a miracle worker. He isn't. Now we wait to see what he is, exactly.
The 76ers know what they are, which is a bad basketball team, and they know what they have to do to change that, which is lose often enough this season to get the best shot at getting the first pick in next year's draft.
But it doesn't work that way in the parity-laced NFL, where the difference between a good football team and a bad one often isn't all that big, and where a 2-14 team such as the Chiefs can find itself unbeaten the following Halloween just by bringing in a new coach and quarterback.
The Eagles have lost five of their first eight games under Chip Kelly and haven't scored an offensive touchdown in the last two games, and yet, and yet, and yet, still are only a game out of first place in the NFC East. Is this a great league, or what?
When I looked at the Eagles before the season, I saw an 8-8 football team. As we get ready for the second half of the season, I still see an 8-8 football team. And if the Cowboys cooperate, that just might be good enough to win the NFC East.
That said, the Eagles' roster still needs a lot of work. No matter how good a coach Kelly turns out to be, it won't matter if general manager Howie Roseman and his scouting staff don't get him the players he needs to compete for a Super Bowl.
The defense is playing a lot better than I thought it was capable of playing. But they still need to go out and get a big-time pass rusher and a playmaking linebacker and another starting-caliber cornerback and some depth at safety.
On offense, the line that was supposed to be one of the best in the league has underachieved and has some guys getting up in age. They need to find a wide receiver with Riley Cooper's size but better speed. And, first and foremost, they probably need a quarterback.
That's a lot. But the Eagles will be in pretty good cap shape next March. If they make smart decisions in free agency and smart decisions in the draft, maybe they'll be 8-0 on Halloween next year.
People thought I was being a wiseguy or a typical Philly pessimist when I listed Matt Barkley as the Week 10 starting quarterback in our preseason predictions.
But I really wasn't trying to be. I just thought of all the variables being mixed in: an oft-injured 33-year-old starting quarterback, an immobile and inexperienced second-year quarterback behind him, each trying to master or at least operate an offense unlike any he had ever run. Playing behind an offensive line that had its own injury issues a year ago, and alongside an inexperienced defense that was also learning a new system.
Anyway, the surprise is not that Nick Foles may be one more body slam on the hard turf in Oakland away from making my prediction come true. The surprise is that the offensive line has remained relatively healthy, that the tight ends are all healthy, and it still hasn't been enough for Kelly's quarterbacks to avoid injury, or for his offense to run smoothly.
The other surprise, of course, is that defense. You can argue all you want about looking good against second-tier competition, but that can't completely discount the growth seen since that harrowing second half against the Redskins, or its inability to rein in the likes of Alex Smith after that.
So there's your bright light for the second half, which includes next week's game against the Packers and matchups with Detroit, Chicago and Dallas beyond that. If the defense can continue to improve, if just one of those quarterbacks can stay healthy for even a couple of games in a row, maybe the Eagles can win more than half of their remaining games, which may be enough to land a playoff berth.
How's that for optimism?
Fortunately, a visit to Denver and a visit from Big Red and the Chiefs have served to root Eagles observers into this reality:
The Birds are nowhere near contending for anything besides a meaningless playoff spot that comes with an NFC East division title.
Unfortunately, sporadic play by fragile quarterbacks Michael Vick and Nick Foles has served to keep those same observers wondering whether either is suited to run Chip Kelly's offense.
If either is, the Eagles are one season away from relevance; a season spent seasoning right tackle Lane Johnson; a season spent re-signing or replacing injured wideout Jeremy Maclin; a season spent evaluating safeties Nate Allen and Earl Wolff, converted linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham and linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
Why one season away? Because the defense is flawed; the offensive line is inconsistent; neither LeSean McCoy nor DeSean Jackson can make rain by himself; and, most of all, because Kelly makes egregious errors in time management, in red-zone play-calling, in field-position strategy and in game preparation.
As he should, having never before coached in the NFL.
If neither Vick nor Foles is the answer, then it's a 3-year project, anyway.
Halfway through Chip Kelly's maiden voyage, we can no longer see the shoreline. Things are very different from when Andy Reid was here, and that is a given, but we cannot use the past as a navigation point anymore. That time is no longer relevant.
At the same time, we cannot see the destination, either - and anybody who says they can is just saying it to say something.
But in the search for clarity, there is this:
Kelly's approach to the business of football is solid - you know this because so many teams have begun to copy elements of it. It is also solid because it incorporates one of the great sporting truths: that success is often not in the punch, but in the counterpunch.
Kelly sees defenses zig, and he zags. He sees problems, and he fixes them. He inherited a defense that could not tackle, but this defense tackles. They did not used to be able to stop the run, but now they do. And when they have had even a hint of quarterback stability, they have used tempo and matchups - maybe not a total revolution but a clear change - and been very productive.
But here is the other thing that has become clear: that even as they embrace Kelly's concepts, this is still about the players - and, specifically, about identifying a long-term solution at quarterback. He won big at Oregon because of well-deployed talent. He will win or lose with the Eagles because of well-deployed talent. Key word: talent.
Kelly has never pretended otherwise, by the way. We just did not listen. It has taken us all a few weeks to see.
Except for that stellar performance in the first half of the season opener against Washington, the Eagles have been what most people had expected: a rebuilding team with no quarterback, a rookie coach and limited talent.
This is what rebuilding looks like. It's up sometimes. It's down a lot of times. It generally results in something mediocre, at best.
I don't see much of that changing during the second half of the season, primarily because the issues at quarterback remain the same as when they broke training camp.
Michael Vick is currently the best option But at 33 and having yet another injury-riddled season, Vick can't be counted on to lead the Eagles through the rest of the season - much less into the future.
Perhaps if Vick had not gotten hurt - as he always does - the Birds would have had a quarterback capable of taking advantage of a poor NFC East.
But I don't see coach Chip Kelly trusting Vick to stay healthy to give him back the starting job.
So Kelly is left with one quarterback, Nick Foles, who may not be suited to run his offense and another, rookie Matt Barkley, who in reserve action has yet to show he is suited to play in the NFL.
Foles will get three more starts to show Kelly something. Otherwise Barkley, who was drafted by Kelly, will get a chance to finish out the year.
With the exception of a game at Green Bay and one at home against Detroit, the second-half schedule appears manageable - if either Foles or Barkley can get this offense to operate with some manner of consistency.
Still, it will take a supreme performance from one of these guys to convince Kelly that the Eagles shouldn't use their first pick in 2014 to draft a quarterback.