Where Can the Philadelphia Eagles Improve Most for 2013?

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Where Can the Philadelphia Eagles Improve Most for 2013?
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Out with the old, in with the new for the Philadelphia Eagles.

At least, that is partially true. While Oregon’s Chip Kelly is making the jump to the NFL to replace 14-year coach Andy Reid, the Eagles announced this week they will keep quarterback Michael Vick on a restructured deal.

So it is either the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or an early road block for Kelly’s pro success until he gives Nick Foles a second shot or finds his own quarterback to run his offense.

This news does not automatically make Vick the starting quarterback next season, but you have to figure he has a good chance. In 2011, I bashed the Eagles immediately for the ridiculous $100 million contract they gave Vick following his “12-game season” of magic in 2010.

When has a quarterback ever cost so much to produce so little? The Eagles have failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons and Vick has continued to struggle in the passing game and staying healthy. Vick is just 10-13 as a starter since getting the big pay day.

Kelly is an offensive coach, and that is where he will be expected to have his biggest impact on the Eagles. Given the talent base he has to work with, this is where Kelly needs to improve the team the most right away, but keeping Vick may prove to be one of the biggest hurdles in returning the Eagles to contenders.

 

The offense’s downward spiral

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

For as much criticism as Reid and Donovan McNabb received together in Philadelphia, they once led a consistent winner. A big part of that was the late Jim Johnson’s defense, but the offense was also good at not turning the ball over. Turnovers kill, because not only do you lose possession, but often the field position you give up leads to scores for the opponent.

McNabb was actually one of the best ever at avoiding turnovers (in the regular season at least). Vick is closer to the bottom tier when it comes to active quarterbacks in that department.

For years Reid’s West Coast offense protected the ball well and still generated big plays. When Vick came off the bench in 2010, he was more effective than at any point in his career, setting career highs in many categories.

Vick had even more accuracy issues than McNabb, but he could throw the deep ball and run better at this stage of his career. The risks were high, but Vick was making plays down the field with his legs and generally avoiding mistakes. Vick finished with 30 total touchdowns and nine turnovers in not even 12 full games.

With weapons such as LeSean McCoy in the backfield, Brent Celek at tight end, and receivers like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant, it is no surprise that the Eagles could have an explosive offense behind Vick. This is still true today.

But a lot of Vick’s big performances were coming against below-average defenses, and late in the season with a first-round bye still on the line, the Eagles blew a home game to the Minnesota Vikings with three giveaways.

The Eagles were one-and-done in the playoffs after Vick’s interception in the end zone ended the comeback attempt against Green Bay. That was the only turnover that day, but the Eagles had 10 giveaways in their final three regular-season games that year.

Turnovers have a random quality to them, but they are more consistent for an offense than a defense. Any team can have a bad stretch of games with them, but this carried over into the 2011 season for Philadelphia.

Now Vick was starting to make mistakes, and in 2011, he had 18 turnovers in 13 games. The Eagles finished with 38 giveaways, which ranked 31st in the league.

Another element (and outlier) of Vick’s 2010 success was winning the close games. That season Vick led the Eagles to four comeback wins in the fourth quarter, which actually came in a five-game stretch late in the season. Vick had just five comeback wins in his six-season Atlanta career.

But the close wins also disappeared. After their miracle comeback win against the New York Giants in 2010, the Eagles lost their next eight opportunities for fourth-quarter comebacks, including a 0-6 record in 2011. Those crucial drives also included six turnovers. The only close win was a great game-winning drive led by Vince Young against the Giants.

Fast forward to 2012 and it was late-game magic that returned to mask a recurring turnover problem. Vick led late game-winning drives against the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens to give the Eagles a 2-0 start with a pair of one-point victories, which is a first in NFL history.

Vick’s game-winning touchdown in Cleveland was most fortunate after the Browns dropped a game-ending interception on the previous play. It would have been Vick’s fifth interception of the game.

In fact, the Eagles had nine turnovers in those first two games, which led this writer to wonder if the Eagles were the worst 2-0 team in NFL history. In researching 2-0 starts even with such a small sample size, it was still clear that how you play matters as 2-0 teams with bad statistics went on to win fewer games than those 2-0 teams who played well.

Sure enough, the Eagles would not continue winning this way. They lost 27-6 in Arizona, eked out another close win over the Giants, but lost close games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions with five turnovers in the process.

Then something interesting happened after the bye week. The Eagles fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and went on to suffer the worst six-game stretch of pass defense in history known as “The Todd Bowles Movement.”

The offense cut back on turnovers after a horrific start, but the Eagles only won one more game the rest of the season: another last-second comeback win by two points led by Foles in Tampa Bay (Week 14).

At the end of the year, it was a 4-12 season with 37 more turnovers, ranking 30th in the league. Guess that’s some progress if you think having one fewer giveaway than the previous season is progress. Vick had 15 turnovers in the 10 games he played.

Even with all the talent this offense possesses, the Eagles scored more than 24 points just once all season, and that was 33 points against Dallas that included a punt return touchdown.

In Reid’s 14 seasons as Eagles’ head coach, the 2012 team is his only one to exceed 24 points just one time in a season. It was just a few years ago where he had his best teams at doing that: 11 times in 2010 and 10 times in 2009.

Reckless ball security has been a real thorn in the Eagles’ side, and it has to stop immediately.

 

How the Eagles turned the ball over in 2012

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Here is a breakdown of how the Eagles suffered 37 giveaways in 2012.

For the 15 interceptions, you might think a lot of them were on deep balls, but that was not the case. Pressure was also not that big of a factor. It was more about bad decision making.

Four of the 15 interceptions were on passes of 21-plus yards, and only four were under pressure (all Vick). At least three of those plays under pressure were still terrible decisions to force a throw from Vick as well.

Each quarterback had three of their passes tipped before being intercepted. That does not mean the throw was fine in every case, but it is a little bit of bad luck as well.

No team in the league lost more fumbles (22) as that was really the bigger problem than interceptions. The first drive of the season actually ended with a fumble by McCoy. Just by random fumble luck, this should improve itself in 2013.

Of the 22 fumbles, 17 were lost because of contact from the defense knocking the ball free. Otherwise you had two botched handoffs from quarterback to running back, an early snap from Dallas Reynolds when Vick was not ready, a muffed punt return by Damaris Johnson, and a muffed kick return by Cedric Thornton.

Vick struggled to hold onto the ball early in the season, and he also had a botched handoff against Baltimore. Vick has fumbled at least nine times in every season he has started at least 10 games, so this is something he simply does all the time.

Bryce Brown showed a lot of impressive rushing late in the season, but he also had some really bad fumbles. One that was credited to Foles came against Cincinnati when Brown simply could not secure the handoff and lost control. This was returned for a touchdown, and it gets charged to Foles since he was the last player to technically have possession of the ball.

Bryce Brown can't secure the handoff vs. Bengals (NFL.com).

But that fumble is all on the rookie. Philadelphia expects to use Brown more this season, but he better undergo some Ahman Green/Tiki Barber/Adrian Peterson level of improvement with his ball security.

Sometimes a skill player just tries to do too much for an extra yard that is not there, and you get a fumble. A number like 22 is alarming but fixable.

Seven of the 37 turnovers were returned for touchdowns. No surprise the Eagles went 1-5 in the games where those occurred. It is hard enough to win with turnovers, but when you pair it with a defense that only had 13 takeaways (nine in the last 15 games), you get a minus-24 differential, which tied Kansas City for worst in the league.

Andy Reid went to Kansas City to turn around that mess. Let’s see how Kelly picks up the scraps Reid left behind.  

 

When will it be sunny again in Philadelphia?

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

After an 8-8 “dream” season in 2011 and a 4-12 finish last year, the Eagles have fallen on hard times despite putting a lot of money towards this roster in recent seasons. The last playoff win came in the 2008 season.

Now Kelly must face the tough expectations from the Philadelphia fan base as the guy to turn things around. His college offenses were so successful at Oregon, and he is known for being a master of controlling tempo with a lightning-fast attack. Networks enjoyed tracking the duration of the Ducks’ scoring drives.

Plain and simple, this likely will not work in the NFL. You can be a no-huddle team, you can run the hurry-up, but if you think you are going to continuously snap the ball with an average of 30 seconds on the play clock then there will be some Steve Spurrier-like lessons for Kelly to learn the hard way this season.

All it takes is a few quick three-and-out drives followed by a demolition of your struggling defense before you find yourself down big.

Vick is also not exactly the quarterback you want to run such an offense. He will exert a lot of energy in a game with his rushing, and a fatigued Vick behind this offensive line is a bad mixture.

Hiring recently fired Pat Shurmur from Cleveland to be offensive coordinator also does not seem to jive with Kelly’s aggressive approach. In typical Cleveland 2.0 fashion, Shurmur was fairly conservative and unimaginative with his offense. The Browns scored 20 or fewer points in 26 of his 32 games as a coach; tied with Jacksonville for the most such games since 2011.

Right now it is hard to see what exactly the plan is in Philadelphia, or what Kelly’s NFL offense will actually look like. This has the feeling of either being an instant success (double-digit wins in 2013) or a total failure.

The only certain thing is the talent is already there for the Eagles to be scoring a lot more points than they did this past season. One of the best defenses against them has been themselves the last two years with all the giveaways.

Improving the offensive line and finding ways to get the ball out quicker from Vick should help cut down his turnovers. The young and talented Brown really needs some lessons on ball security. Kelly’s system will not matter if the offense continues to be one of the leaders in turning the ball over.

Building a foundation on the fundamentals of possessing the ball would not be a bad start for Kelly’s offseason program. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the first step is admitting your biggest problem.

How bringing in Shurmur and keeping Vick solves that problem remains to be seen.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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