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Why Nobody Should Have Been Surprised by Eagles' Turnaround Season

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Why Nobody Should Have Been Surprised by Eagles' Turnaround Season
Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY S

No matter what happens over the final two weeks of 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles already made it a lot farther than most “experts” or fans predicted, doubling their win total from last year and gunning for a playoff spot. The question is, why didn’t more people see it coming?

The Birds were positioned for a turnaround all along. Yes, they were coming off of an abysmal 4-12 season that got the head coach fired. Yes, they had major question marks on both sides of the ball. Even conceding those points though, there were several signs that the Eagles could be a vastly improved team right out of the gate.

Some of the uncertainty surrounded Chip Kelly, who was picked to replace Andy Reid on the sideline in January. Hired away from the University of Oregon, Kelly had never coached in the NFL before, so naturally there was skepticism.

It didn’t help that Kelly’s reputation preceded him. He was hailed as an innovator and a genius, but his offense looked nothing like the pro style. What exactly was he going to do when he got to the NFL? Did he really believe he was going to reinvent the game?

It became quite clear almost immediately, however, that Chip was here to coach a pro football team, and that he understood the difference. He was not going to be overmatched at the next level, as so many predicted.

That being said, nothing guaranteed Kelly’s success. Plus, a head coaching change alone wasn’t going to change Philadelphia’s fortunes—or was it? When you really think about it, maybe the Eagles were never truly as bad as they seemed.

 

Offensive Line Got Healthy

Rob Carr/Getty Images

2012 was effectively over for Philadelphia before it ever got started. Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon during an offseason workout last year, and again while recovering at home three weeks later, ensuring the Birds’ left tackle—and perhaps most valuable player—would miss the regular season.

Overcoming the loss of Peters alone would’ve been difficult enough. The four-time All-Pro is one of the most-gifted run-blockers in the NFL, and capable of shielding off the defense’s best pass-rusher one-on-one.

Then in Week 2, Philly’s offensive line sprung another leak at center when Jason Kelce went down. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, right tackle Todd Herremans followed suit in Week 9. Somewhere in between, Danny Watkins was replaced at right guard, leaving only Evan Mathis remaining of the projected starters.

Few if any offenses could’ve survived those injuries. The situation was beyond repair.

Yet you had to know those guys were coming back. Peters, Kelce and Herremans were all back on the field in time for training camp this summer, and while there was some concern each might be shells of their former selves, if nothing else, their returns would restore some continuity.

The selection of Lane Johnson with the fourth-overall pick in the draft further solidified the line. Johnson took over at right tackle, allowing Herremans' move back to guard.

And voila! With the offensive line healthy and everybody playing more or less around the level we’ve become accustomed, it’s no surprise the offense has got back on track. Kelly will receive the lion’s share of the credit, but that’s not necessarily where he’s made the biggest impact.

 

Culture Change

Andy Reid bred a winning culture in Philadelphia for a long time, but after 14 years, the message can become stale. During Big Red’s final seasons, the foundation began to crack, and the various patch jobs the head coach and vice president of personnel tried only made things worse.

By the end, there were too many “me” guys in the Eagles locker room, a sentiment Michael Vick shared once last season had mercifully concluded, per Pro Football Talk:

It’s all about focus, dedication and commitment. Until you get guys who are willing to better themselves week in and week out and want to win, you’re not going to win. And I haven’t played with guys like that. It’s unfortunate for coach things turned out the way they are. It could have been a lot better. This locker room could have dictated that.

Even the Eagles’ defensive scheme itself was selfish. The defensive line operated as if it were a law unto itself, the Wide-9 front all about selling out for the quarterback, putting undue burden on the linebackers and secondary to do everything else. There was such dysfunction, it created infighting among the coaching staff.

Insert Kelly, who came in and restored balance to the organization. The last remnants of Reid’s disgruntled, big-money free-agent bonanza were cast off, replaced by modestly priced free agents that came from winning organizations and shared like-minded goals.

Philadelphia Eagles 2013 Free-Agent Class
Previous Club 2012 W/L Result
OLB Connor Barwin Houston Texans 12-4 Div. Round
TE James Casey Houston Texans 12-4 Div. Round
S Patrick Chung New England Patriots 12-4 Conf. Championship
P Donnie Jones Houston Texans 12-4 Div. Round
NT Isaac Sopoaga San Francisco 49ers 11-4-1 NFC Champs
CB Cary Williams Baltimore Ravens 10-6 SB Champs

Various

Kelly also installed a brand-new conditioning program grounded in “sports science,” individualizing workout routines, diets and even players’ sleep schedules. By all accounts, the team bought in, with most of the guys admitting they’re in the best shape of their lives.

Kelly’s approach breathed new life into a team that had lost its way. Now it's reaping the benefits of the focus, dedication and commitment Vick lamented was missing last December.

 

Parity in the NFL

Regardless of what preconceived notions folks held about the Eagles coming into this season, the NFL should’ve trained you to expect the unexpected by now. It seems every year, there’s some team going from worst to first.

With all the changes that were taking place, why not Philly?

According to NFL.com, an average of five new teams reached the postseason annually since 2000. Many years, that number jumps as high as six or seven. Playoff turnover is a real thing in football. Between injuries, free agency and the short career span for most players, sudden shifts in the hierarchy are inevitable.

Take 2012 for example. It was actually a down year for turnover in the playoffs, with just four new entrants into the tournament compared to the previous year. Three of them were among the absolute worst franchises in the league in ’11, though.

The Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Washington franchise represented the first, third and sixth overall picks in the 2012 draft, respectively, combining for a 10-38 record (.208 win percentage) the previous season. Indy and Washington were elevated by shiny new franchise quarterbacks, but Minnesota mostly just needed its best player to return from injury.

The Eagles were getting key players back as well. They should’ve been taken more seriously as a threat, especially in the weak NFC East. When there is no clear powerhouse within the division, it’s anybody’s ballgame.

 

The Talent Was Always There

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I suppose it’s only natural to assume a four-win team in the NFL is lacking in talent. More often than not, that’s probably the case, but the Eagles were different. Going into the 2012 season, there was an expectation Philadelphia would at least be in the mix to make the playoffs. There had to be something to the thought process behind that.

There was. The Birds had no shortage talent on both sides of the ball. There was Pro Bowl-caliber talent at nearly every position on the roster, particularly on offense with LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and a strong offensive line anchored by Jason Peters. 2012 also appeared to produce a strong draft class filled with building blocks, especially on the defensive end with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin.

Philadelphia Eagles' Pro Bowlers Leftover From Reid Era
QB Michael Vick RB LeSean McCoy WR/KR DeSean Jackson
LT Jason Peters DE/OLB Trent Cole LB DeMeco Ryans
LS Jon Dorenbos

Philadelphia Eagles Media Guide

The main question was at quarterback, but whether it was Vick or Nick Foles, even that situation was made out to be worse than it really was.

A rejuvenated Vick in a system many believed is tailor-made to the four-time Pro Bowler’s abilities would surely be good enough to win eight-10 games. And what Foles showed in seven appearances as a rookie with a skeleton crew on offense was promising enough that his ascension to starter was not entirely out of the blue.

All they needed was a few peripheral pieces from free agency and the draft—and of course, the right head coach to bring it all together. Give Kelly a lot of credit for skipping over right past the rebuilding year, but it turns out the Eagles didn’t require the complete overhaul to begin with that many fans and experts seemed to anticipate.

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