In the meeting rooms of defensive coaches around the league, where the offseason is at least partially for examining the new tricks and trends of their offensive counterparts, you can be sure that coming up with a way to handle Chip Kelly and the Eagles was high on the to-do list for teams on the regular-season schedule.
Kelly was hyped as an offensive guru when he came into the league last season, a master of up-tempo spread offense whose ideas might eventually change a lot about how the NFL game is played. If there was grumbling in those defensive rooms about the attention given the college hotshot, it had mostly dissipated by the end of the 2013 season.
The Eagles finished the season ranked among the top five in the league for points, total yards, first downs, yards per play, rushing yards per game, rushing yards per attempt, and net yards per passing play. If Kelly was doing it with mirrors, he must have brought along a magic calculator, too.
Now, in year two, it gets serious. Defenses have a lot of tape to study, and coordinators find they don't have to fast-forward between plays very much. If that is all they notice, however, Kelly's scheme will be fine, according to the Eagles' own defensive coaches.
"I think most people just view it as a speed game. I don't think they view it in its entirety," defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro said Monday when the team's position coaches met with the media. "When you see a problem initially, you look at the solution to the problem and you don't really investigate the problem. Most people are looking for solutions when there really are no solutions."
It is the equivalent of putting a bucket under a leaky roof rather than finding the leak. Teams tried a number of different buckets against the Eagles last season, but it was difficult to find one wide enough to contain the offense.
"I'm glad we don't have to play them," defensive backs coach John Lovett said. "Last year, teams basically put a man in the middle of the field and then manned everybody up. That has shortcomings, too, because if you don't have favorable matchups, you're going to give up big plays, and you don't have a guy to account for the quarterback. You really have to defend the option on every play. Even though our quarterback doesn't run that much, there is the threat of him running, and if you don't have anybody in the vicinity, he's going to make some yards and get you a first down."
Because the Eagles use the full width of the field with their short routes and flood some of the zones with receivers, even teams that normally play mostly zone defense are wary of the handoff in responsibility from defender to defender. That's why many of them tried more man-to-man coverage. But then Kelly would devise a matchup of, say, Riley Cooper on an undersized defensive back, or DeSean Jackson on a slower one, or he would empty an area and run the ball into that unoccupied zone. It didn't work every time, but it worked enough to amass those statistics for the season.
"It think it's a new challenge for every team. Chip makes you defend the width and depth of the field at all times and he knows how to put stress on you," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "How do you work through those problems? Who is your personnel? How much do you practice playing man-to-man? Chip makes you defend a lot more than regular run/play-action pass offenses."
"It spreads the field. You're not allowing people to play in a phone booth anymore," said outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern. "Now they have to play in space."
According to the coaches, the tempo of the offense is designed mostly to test the conditioning of the opposing defense, its ability to play without substituting for down and distance, and its ability to communicate and get set rapidly.
"Getting lined up is the first thing. If you're not in position to play, all you're doing is playing catch-up the rest of the play," Lovett said.
The true beauty of Kelly's offense, according to the coaches, however, is not how quickly the ball can be snapped, but what happens after the snap. If the other team is thinking about merely getting to the line, the Eagles already have the advantage.
"Defenses that are partnered on their own team with traditional, slow-paced offenses, it's a real challenge in a week's time to get ready for Chip," inside linebackers coach Rick Minter said. "That advantage comes into play when you only have two or three good working days and, another element, can their own scout team simulate that? I think you'll find that's the biggest challenge out there."
Still, it will be interesting to see what opponents have devised. Those teams have definitely been thinking about it, but, undoubtedly, so has Kelly. The Eagles defensive coaches don't envy their counterparts the task. They know about it better than anyone.
"You have no idea," McGovern said. "I have that headache all year long. Let somebody else have it for a while."