This was a season Philadelphia Eagles fans won't soon forget. And this is our attempt to summarize, in narrative form, what happened that made the 2013 campaign so special in Philadelphia, despite the disappointing conclusion. We'll tell that story by focusing on 10 specific dates that spanned three calendar years.
Apr. 26-28, 2012: Andy Reid's Final Draft
To tell the story of the 2013 Eagles, you actually have to go back to the fourth month of 2012, well before Chip Kelly was leading the franchise. That's when Reid left a parting gift for the team from which he'd be fired at the end of the upcoming season by helping general manager Howie Roseman put together what is beginning to look like a phenomenal draft.
|Eagles: 2012 NFL draft|
|DL Fletcher Cox||Round 1, pick 12||16 starts, top-15 3-4 DE (PFF)|
|LB Mychal Kendricks||Round 2, pick 46||15 starts, played at star level in Dec.|
|DE Vinny Curry||Round 2, pick 59||4 sacks, 1 missed tackle, 13.3 PFF grade|
|QB Nick Foles||Round 3, pick 88||Highest-rated passer in NFL|
|CB Brandon Boykin||Round 4, pick 123||2nd in NFL with 6 picks in only 2 starts|
|RB Bryce Brown||Round 7, pick 229||4.7 YPC as McCoy's righthand man|
|Pro Football Reference|
Can you imagine where the Eagles would be right now if not for Fletcher Cox, Nick Foles and Brandon Boykin? Vinny Curry and Bryce Brown are fantastic role players, and Mychal Kendricks finally broke out during the second half of the 2013 season, becoming a solid starter.
This draft helped save the franchise from digging a much deeper hole than the one it was already in when Reid's reign ended. Roseman reportedly played a larger role, and that might help explain why things were so much better than in 2010 and 2011.
In the two years prior to 2012, the Eagles fell flat on their face in the draft, taking guys like Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Curtis Marsh, Casey Matthews, Alex Henery, Nate Allen, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Trevard Lindley, Mike Kafka, Keenan Clayton and Clay Harbor in the early rounds. Even 2010 top pick Brandon Graham failed to live up to expectations.
A lot of credit has to go to Kelly for what he did to revive this team, but the core was already in place when he arrived, and it was strengthened by what Roseman and Reid did in that 2012 draft.
Jan. 16, 2013: The Chip Kelly Era Begins
It really didn't look like it was going to happen. It was no secret that the Eagles were infatuated by the apparent offensive genius from Oregon, but 10 days passed between his interview and the rather sudden, shocking announcement that Kelly would move from Eugene to Philadelphia to take the reins of a franchise that was suffering in the midst of a half-century-long championship drought.
Some headlines from that 10-day period:
And even after the hiring was announced, a lot of people feared Kelly would be another Steve Spurrier or Nick Saban at the NFL level. Many wondered if his offense wasn't suited for the NFL and figured he'd be too stubborn to adapt.
Heath Evans wrote at NFL.com that the hiring could be the "worst ever" in the NFL. Articles proclaiming why he'd fail or "fail miserably" weren't uncommon. And there were many tweets like these (thanks to the Southern Philly blog for rounding everything up):
Hell, Kelly himself wasn't convinced this would work.
“I wasn't confident,” he admitted Monday, per CSN Philly. “I had a system and a plan that we were going to go in, but I didn't know what the outcome was going to be until it was all finished.”
But almost everything worked.
His mysterious sports science regimen—the one with a ban on junk food, an emphasis on dietary education and customized smoothies—helped keep the roster healthy and happy. They lost zero players to injured reserve during the regular season and only one starter all year, and their weekly injury reports were barely worth the paper they were printed on.
The offense was an utter success from the start. The Eagles finished with the 11th-highest single-season yardage total in NFL history, leading the league in rushing by a 250-yard margin. They were fourth in the league in scoring, and they moved quicker than any offense we've ever seen at this level.
As a result, Kelly would become the first head coach in team history to win the division in his first year and only the second coach in the last 30 years to make the playoffs in his first NFL season in any capacity (Barry Switzer, 1994).
March 14, 2013: Cary Williams and Connor Barwin Join the Defense
Kelly and his defensive coordinator, Bill Davis, were able to start adding players they preferred when free agency started in mid-March, and the two key acquisitions came on the same day.
Williams became the team's new No. 1 corner, while Barwin came from Houston to ease the transition from the wide-nine-oriented 4-3 attack they ran under Juan Castillo to a 3-4-oriented attack under Davis.
Williams is far from being a shutdown corner, but he brought some much-needed physicality and attitude to a soft unit. He started all 16 games, holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 59.0 and a passer rating of 80.6, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Barwin, who also played in all 16 games, had five sacks and a pick while clearly becoming the most versatile defensive player on the team. His performance against Detroit in eight inches of December snow might have been a season-changer.
Williams just turned 29, and Barwin is only 27, so expect those two to continue to be important cogs on the defensive side of the ball for years to come.
Aug. 2, 2013: Kelly Keeps Riley Cooper
Early in training camp, Kelly was probably wishing he had invested more deeply in the receiving corps. Jeremy Maclin went down with a season-ending knee injury in late July, and then Riley Cooper's future became cloudy after video emerged of him making racist remarks at a concert.
Very few outsiders expected Cooper to keep his job, but Kelly must have believed the whole thing would eventually blow over because he stated at practice a few days later that the 26-year-old wasn't going anywhere.
It might not have been Kelly's decision alone, but the point is that the Eagles kept Cooper despite that controversy. And indeed, after a few tense moments in August, the team moved past the incident.
Cooper then went out and put together his best season as a pro, catching 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns while developing a hell of a rapport with quarterback Nick Foles. Beyond Week 5, he was a top-20 receiver in terms of yardage and a top-10 receiver in terms of touchdowns, making several circus catches and dropping less than a handful of passes along the way.
Had the Eagles cut Cooper in training camp, they might not have won the NFC East.
Sept. 9, 2013: LeSean Is Back
Nobody benefited from Kelly's presence this year like running back LeSean McCoy, and that was evident from the very start of the very first game. Against the defending NFC East champion Redskins on Monday Night Football in Week 1, McCoy had 61 rushing yards in the first quarter before going for 184 total on a career-high 31 carries.
That meant a lot, because McCoy's 2012 season wasn't easy. Directly after signing a lucrative long-term contract, the Pro Bowl back reached the 100-yard mark only three times in 12 starts while missing a quarter of the season due to a concussion.
There was no doubt now, though, that Shady was back. He'd go on to lead the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage, often carrying the Philly offense on his back in big moments. He finished the year averaging a ridiculous 5.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter of one-score games.
|LeSean McCoy: 2012 to 2013|
|Yards (rank)||YPA (rank)*||TD (rank)|
|2012||840 (19th)||4.2 (19th)||2 (52nd)|
|2013||1607 (1st)||5.1 (2nd)||9 (6th)|
|* min. 200 carries (Pro Football Reference)|
As good as the system is and as well as Brown played, the Eagles wouldn't have come close to the 2013 playoffs without Shady McCoy.
Oct. 6, 2013: The Nick Foles Era Begins
We'll never know where Michael Vick would have led this Eagles team had he not suffered a hamstring injury against the Giants in Week 5, but I don't think we want to know. Nick Foles took over from there and put together the best statistical season in franchise history.
The 2012 third-round pick out of Arizona looked like a completely different player than the guy who posted a mediocre 72.6 passer rating while losing a quarterback battle with Vick in the preseason. He played well in relief of Vick that day, dominated the Buccaneers the next week and—after stumbling against the Cowboys and missing the next game due to injury—never looked back.
Foles finished with the third-highest passer rating in NFL history and the top yards-per-attempt average in the league while becoming the first quarterback in the history of professional football to throw more than 25 touchdown passes and fewer than three interceptions (only Tom Brady has been better than 25 and 5; Foles finished at 27 and 3).
|Nick Foles, 2013|
|All time rank||3rd||19th||3rd|
|Pro Football Reference|
The Eagles basically stumbled upon their new franchise quarterback, and now the Vick era is probably over.
Oct. 20, 2013: Bill Davis' Defense Turns a Corner, Never Looks Back
It ain't easy switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 or vice versa, especially when we're talking about a defensive unit that gave up 27.8 points per game last year, ranking 29th in football. And so the month of September wasn't good to the Eagles on that side of the ball.
During that 1-3 start to the year, only the Giants defense surrendered more points than the Eagles. They had three takeaways against the 'Skins in Week 1 but only two in their next three games. It looked like 2012 all over again, but then everything began to change in October.
They held the struggling Giants and Bucs to just 41 total points in Weeks 5 and 6, which was nice but not mind-blowing. The real breakout performance from this D actually came in a Week 7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. That day, Foles struggled mightily, but the defense kept Philly in the game against a very talented Dallas offense.
Through three quarters, they gave up only 10 points, getting interceptions from Earl Wolff and DeMeco Ryans. It's amazing that they stuck with the 'Boys all day despite how poorly the offense performed.
Ultimately, the Eagles gave up 17 points in that game. The next week, they held the Giants out of the end zone. And between then and the end of the year, they surrendered more than 22 points in a game on only one occasion.
Ultimately, the big difference was the killer instinct that came from guys like Williams, Boykin, Kendricks, Barwin and Trent Cole. One year after finishing tied for last in the league with only 13 takeaways, the Eagles ranked third in the NFL with 31 turnovers forced in 2013.
|Eagles defense: 2012 to 2013|
|PPG allowed||Takeaways||Games with less than 23 points allowed|
|Pro Football Reference|
Davis' unit bent (they gave up a league-high 289.8 passing yards per game) but rarely broke. Expect them to take that to the next level in 2014.
Dec. 8, 2013: They Pass the Mental Test
With eight inches of snow on the ground at the Linc in Week 14, it looked as though the Eagles were finally about to come back to earth. Their four-game winning streak was in jeopardy in a big way as they fell behind 14-0 in the third quarter. Foles was struggling in the first snowy game of his career and those types of deficits aren't easy to overcome in such difficult conditions.
In 2012, Andy Reid's Eagles would have packed up as soon as the deficit reached two scores in the third quarter. That team lacked heart and had given up on its head coach. But this team—even though the personnel was nearly identical—rallied behind its quarterback and its head coach, who you could tell they believed in completely.
McCoy had three runs of 25 or more yards in the fourth quarter, scoring twice, and the Eagles somehow put 34 points on the board in the final 20 minutes to beat a very talented Lions team in a crucial game.
That's when we all realized this team might be special.
Dec. 22, 2013: A Statement Is Made
That notion was reinforced less than a fortnight later when the Eagles—in a game that had absolutely no impact on their playoff chances while meaning the world to their opponent—crushed the Chicago Bears 54-11.
McCoy once again ran wild over a shoddy front seven and Foles was nearly perfect, completing 84 percent of his passes in the franchise's most lopsided victory in 65 years. The defense was solid, limiting Chicago's tremendous receiving duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, and it was hard to find a flaw on either side of the ball. It was truly one of the best all-around games anyone played all year.
|Largest victories in Eagles history|
|1. 1948 vs. Giants||45-0|
|1. 1948 for Redskins||45-0|
|1. 1948 vs. Yanks||45-0|
|4. 2013 vs. Bears||54-11|
|5. 1945 vs. Steelers||42-0|
|Pro Football Reference|
In front of a national audience in prime time on NBC, Kelly and the Eagles were declaring themselves Super Bowl contenders right there. At the very least, they were peaking at the right time.
Jan. 4, 2014: "Tip of the Iceberg"?
They'd of course beat the Cowboys and get to the playoffs before falling short on Wild Card Weekend, providing fans with a rather abrupt ending to an exciting and successful season. But the feeling in the City of Brotherly Love is that this was just step one.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," owner Jeffrey Lurie said after the season came to an end in a two-point loss to the Saints Saturday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It’s a missed opportunity and it’s the tip of the iceberg. I think that everyone in this room knows it. It’s a very young team and at the same time, they already learned what it takes."
Remember: Kelly and Davis and the staff now have a full offseason to leave their mark on this team. There's plenty of progress to be made.
“We're at a different level now,” Kelly said Monday, per CSN Philly. “Literally, last year at this time I wasn't here. I wasn't an employee of the Philadelphia Eagles."
But the NFL is unpredictable and finicky. A year ago, when Kelly was still an employee at the University of Oregon and the Eagles were dusting themselves off after a 4-12 campaign, the Redskins were the emperors of the NFC East. One year later, Philly is on top and the 'Skins are back in the basement, looking for a head coach themselves.
It's been exactly a decade since an NFC East champion was able to defend its division title, so the next challenge is clear.
“I think we have laid a foundation," Kelly said, "but we've got a whole lot of work to do.”