We’re only one year in to the Philadelphia Eagles’ Chip Kelly experiment, but it’s safe to say his NFL head-coaching debut was a success. In his first season after making the jump from the University of Oregon to the pros, all Chip did was take a 4-12 franchise and lead them to a 10-6 record, division championship and playoffs.
Given all the parity that exists in the league today, more and more teams are doing what the Birds did, going from worst to first. Often, a coaching change is what sparks that turnaround, but it’s always about more than any one man or group.
In the Eagles’ case, it was a total team effort. It was players who were leftover from the Andy Reid era. It was offseason additions from free agency and the draft. It was the coaching staff, schemes and programs Kelly assembled when he arrived in Philadelphia.
Everything made an impact, and in truth, it all started with Chip.
If we look beyond just the person under the headset, though, we can start to identify exactly what steps were taken that remedied the situation. What were the specific reasons that caused the turnaround, and which ones were the most vital to their success? We explored and ranked the most important.
When Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie arrived in Philadelphia in 2011, it became a foregone conclusion the Eagles had assembled the best collection of cornerbacks in the NFL. That line of thinking couldn’t have been more inaccurate.
Asomugha quickly got old. DRC gave a half-hearted effort as the losses mounted. Neither one ever had much interest in tackling. By year two, the Birds’ secondary had devolved into the worst in the league.
The Eagles bounced Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie and signed Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher to replace them, which looked like a less-than-equal swap on paper. On the gridiron, the difference was like night and day.
Williams and Fletcher weren’t highly-touted first-round draft picks. They won’t get many votes for the Pro Bowl. Neither of their free-agent deals broke the bank.
They’re just football players, which is exactly what a rebuilding team needed. Not only did Williams and Fletcher restore a level of physicality to the Eagles’ defensive backfield, but they also didn’t sacrifice nearly as many big plays in coverage as their predecessors.
By doing something as simple as keeping plays in front of them, Williams and Fletcher turned out to be a massive upgrade over Asomugha and DRC. Cornerback play was easily the biggest difference in the quality of this year’s defense, besides scheme change.
When Chip Kelly announced his coaching staff way back in February of last year, there was one name in particular that raised eyebrows. Actually, it was a position: sports science coordinator.
Kelly doesn’t hide the fact that he uses science to give his teams an edge, something he did at Oregon. Upon the head coach’s arrival in Philadelphia, the Eagles invested $1 million into technology upgrades, much of that on gizmos and gadgets which The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas says provide a “data-driven approach to training.”
The array of technology creates a physiological dashboard for each player. Among the equipment: Catapult Sports’ OptimEye sensors… heart-rate monitors from Polar; an Omegawave system that measures an athlete’s readiness for training and competition; and weight-lifting technology from a company named EliteForm, with 3-D cameras that record not just how much an athlete is lifting but how quickly he is doing it.
What all of that does exactly is anybody’s guess, but some of the science is less complex. Players all had individualized workout plans, diets, even sleep schedules.
It worked on two levels.
First, many players, including a lot of veterans in their 30s such as Michael Vick and Trent Cole, said they were in the best shape of their lives. Obviously, having more finely-tuned athletes than the opponent creates an advantage on the playing field.
Second, the Eagles were able to avoid suffering too many injuries throughout the course of the year, which Kelly attributes, at least in part, to sports science. Overall, the program came off as a huge success in its first year of implementation.
The primary cause of the Eagles’ disastrous 2012 campaign was an offensive line decimated by injuries. Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles tendon during the offseason, Jason Kelce suffered torn knee ligaments in Week 2 and Todd Herremans was out by the midseason with a broken bone in his foot.
You can talk all you want about depth, but no team could’ve survived all of that. Add in Danny Watkins losing his job, and that’s four of five projected starters who were out last season.
Not surprisingly, the offense suffered as a result. Philadelphia quarterbacks were brutalized, their 48 sacks the fifth-highest rate in the NFL, and LeSean McCoy’s yards per carry dipped to 4.2, lowest since his rookie his season.
Peters, Kelce and Herremans were all healthy in time for training camp this year, and that alone provided a huge boost. The Eagles also used their fourth-overall pick in the 2013 draft on Lane Johnson, further strengthening a unit that charted among the best in the league until it was crippled by injuries.
Predictably, the group returned to form this season as all five players started 16 games this season. Along the way, they aided McCoy to his first rushing championship with 1,607 yards on the ground, and kept Nick Foles’ uniform clean as he threw for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
No statistic correlates more with winning than turnovers. In the NFL, the team that wins the turnover battle wins roughly 75 percent of the time.
It’s simple. Giveaways end offensive possessions, which means fewer opportunities to score points, plus more often than not, it results in great field position and/or points for the opposition.
So it’s not difficult to understand how the Eagles came to post a 12-20 record over Andy Reid’s final two seasons. Between 2011-12, no franchise had a worse turnover margin at an astounding minus-38. In all, Philadelphia had 75 giveaways during that span, over two per game.
Of course, turnover margin works both ways, which means the Birds weren’t forcing them either. The ’12 season was particularly sparse, as they tied with Kansas City for the least takeaways with 13.
Under Chip Kelly, those numbers took a complete reversal. The Eagles finished tied for fourth this season with a plus-12 turnover margin. The offense committed one or fewer turnovers in all but four games in 2013, while the defense had at least two takeaways in all but five contests.
Obviously, players are executing better than they have in previous years, but credit the coaching staff. Whether it was Nick Foles or Mike Vick under center, the offense did a pretty good job of avoiding mistakes, which speaks to Kelly’s points.
No one player was more responsible for turning the Eagles’ season around than Nick Foles.
The Eagles were 1-3 when Foles first came off the bench to relieve Michael Vick in Week 5, and 3-5 when the 24-year-old took over permanently. From that point on, the club reeled off seven wins in their next eight games to storm into the playoffs, giving Foles an 8-2 record as a starter during the regular season.
Foles appeared in 13 games total, committing just four turnovers in 715 snaps—two fumbles and two interceptions. It’s no wonder his team had a chance to win every week.
Then there were the video game numbers. The Foles’ rating was a 119.2, third-highest in NFL history behind only Denver’s Peyton Manning and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Basically, he threw for the most yards and touchdowns per attempt in 2013, his second season in the league.
Would the Eagles have won as many games with Vick under center? Unlikely. The way things were looking, they would’ve missed the postseason like everybody was expecting.
It was a team effort, from the coaching staff down to the special teamers, but the emergence of Foles changed everything. The only question remaining is whether he can even come close to duplicating this performance next season.
If he does, the Eagles will find themselves right back in the playoffs next January.