Less than two years ago, during that tumultuous 2012 season, the Philadelphia Eagles were one of only five NFL teams to score fewer than 18 points per game. Their offensive line was a mess, their quarterback situation was dreary and their Pro Bowl running back was coming off his worst season as a pro.
How quickly things change in this league.
Only 14 months since that season came to an end, with news breaking last week that four key offensive cogs—Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin—have all received new contracts, I found myself looking at the roster and wondering if in fact this had become the best offensive team in the NFL.
Let's break it down.
First, the raw numbers
Technically, the Eagles entered the offseason with either the second- or fourth-best offense in the league. They averaged 417.3 yards per game in 2013, which was second to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos but was also the 11th-highest total in NFL history. They also averaged 27.6 points per game, ranking fourth.
Let it be noted, though, that the Broncos ran 102 more plays than the Eagles. Each offense averaged exactly 6.3 yards per play, while nobody else in the NFL was above 6.0 in that metric.
But then consider the fact that they had to operate without new franchise quarterback Nick Foles early in 2013. Foles was of course one of the league's most impressive surprises last season, and he looks like the quarterback going forward, so it's not totally fair to compare Manning's Broncos with Michael Vick's Eagles.
Here's what happens when we compare the league's top five offenses from 2013 but then add a second Eagles offense which only includes games in which Foles started and finished. To be fair, we also weed out games in which the star quarterbacks on the other teams didn't start and finish (Aaron Rodgers missed half of Green Bay's season, for example). We also included the New England Patriots, who ranked third in scoring but out of the top five in total offense.
|Offensive comparison, 2013|
|Broncos, with Manning||38.1||457.3||1.7|
|Eagles, with Foles only||33.0||436.0||0.7|
|Packers, with Rodgers||30.6||443.1||2.2|
|Patriots, with Brady||27.8||384.5||1.3|
|Eagles, any quarterback||27.6||417.3||1.2|
|Saints, with Brees||25.4||323.8||1.1|
|Chargers, with Rivers||24.8||393.3||1.3|
|Original stats via Pro Football Reference|
See how much closer that brings the Eagles to the Broncos? They still take a back seat in terms of total points, but look at that turnover advantage. And on a points-per-play basis, they have everybody beat.
OK, now add Maclin
And technically, Maclin was re-signed, but in 2014 he'll feel like a brand-new weapon because he didn't play a single down last year after tearing his right ACL in training camp. But he expects to be 100 percent by July, according to CSN Philly's Reuben Frank, which could put the Eagles over the top on the offensive side of the ball.
With Peters and Kelce locked up long term, the Eagles now have their entire starting offensive lineup signed for at least two more years. That doesn't include Maclin, who is signed for only one year but is only a borderline starter due to Cooper's emergence.
The Eagles are pretty much done signing their own free agents, with money to spare. The Broncos are in a much tougher spot. They'll have about $17 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, but they're one week away from the start of free agency with seven starters slated to hit the open market.
On that list: top back Knowshon Moreno, who had over 1,000 yards rushing, left guard Zane Beadles (who played all but a handful of snaps) and wide receiver Eric Decker, who was second on the team in receptions and yards and third in touchdowns.
Last we heard from general manager John Elway at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, he indicated, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold, that he expected both Moreno and Decker to test the open market.
Take either of those players away from the Broncos (but especially Decker) and add Maclin to the Eagles and the gap closes that much more.
They also have the second highest-rated quarterback of all time
OK, small sample size. But still, among qualifying signal callers, Foles' 2013 rating made him the third highest-rated single-season passer in NFL history and the second highest-rated passer of all time with at least 350 attempts.
|Highest career passer rating (min. 350 attempts)|
|1. Aaron Rodgers||Packers||104.9|
|2. Nick Foles||Eagles||101.0|
|3. Russell Wilson||Seahawks||100.6|
|4. Peyton Manning||Colts/Broncos||97.2|
|5. Steve Young||Bucs/49ers||96.8|
|Pro Football Reference|
We're not pretending that Foles is a Hall of Fame lock. But we're talking about a poised 25-year-old who can make any throw, climb the pocket like a veteran Pro Bowler and deliver when it matters most. Dude had a 127.5 passer rating in the fourth quarter last season, throwing zero interceptions. He's clutch, and players usually get better in their third season.
Manning broke records for passing yards and touchdown passes in 2013, but Foles still drew a higher rating and was much less prone to turnovers. Can a 38-year-old Manning really improve on what he did in 2013? Probably not. History indicates that in 2014, Foles should be better and Manning should be worse.
Oh, and the league's reigning rushing champion
It's easy to forget that in 2013, the Eagles averaged a league-high 5.1 yards per rushing attempt and 160.4 rushing yards per game, thanks mainly to LeSean McCoy, who won the NFL rushing crown by a silly 268-yard margin over Matt Forte.
McCoy, who is only 25, bounced back from a tough, injury-hindered 2012 campaign with a breakout season. And like Foles, he proved to be as clutch as they come, averaging an unbelievable 5.9 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter.
|LeSean McCoy, 2013|
|Yards/game (rank)||Yards/attempt (rank)|
|Games 1-9||86.3 (3rd)||4.6 (3rd)|
|Games 10-16||118.6 (1st)||5.7 (1st)|
|Min. 13 carries per game (Pro Football Reference)|
Overall, only four backs this century have averaged more yards per carry with at least 1,000 attempts. Throw in that he also had over 50 catches and 500 yards as a receiver, and it's hard to consider anyone but McCoy as being the best back in football heading into 2014.
A three-headed monster at wide receiver
On paper, it sure looked like the Broncos had the best all-around receiving corps in the league in 2013. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Decker had a combined 252 catches for 3,496 yards and 35 touchdowns, which is off the charts. Plus, tight end Julius Thomas added 65 catches, 788 yards and 12 scores.
But remember, we're adding Maclin to Philly's receiving corps, and we might be subtracting Decker from Denver's.
The Atlanta Falcons have Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. The Chicago Bears have Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Aside from those two sets of receivers and that of Denver's, there's not another receiving group in the league that compares to Philly's trio of DeSean Jackson, Cooper and Maclin.
|Top three receivers, last full season combined|
|Pro Football Reference|
Green Bay and Pittsburgh are both there, too, but there's a decent chance the Steelers lose Emmanuel Sanders in free agency while the Packers let James Jones walk. Jerricho Cotchery and Jarrett Boykin (who would replace Jones) aren't as special as any of Philly's wideouts.
Even looking at the Falcons, White and Jones are coming off seasons derailed by injuries, and White will be 33 this season. In Denver, Decker could be a goner, and Welker will also be 33 before he plays another game.
Marshall and Jeffery are as good a starting duo as you'll find, but the Bears don't have a No. 3 like Cooper or Maclin. The New Orleans Saints are deep, especially when taking their backs and their tight end into account, but they don't have a top-end weapon like Jackson in the receiving corps.
And as far as the Seattle Seahawks goes, Sidney Rice is no longer on the roster.
Meanwhile, Jackson is 27, Cooper is 26 and Maclin is 25. They're supported by a rising stud tight end in Zach Ertz, as well as the steady Brent Celek.
And what has to be considered the best offensive line in football
Peters is the big name, with six Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro nods. But this has to be the steadiest line from left to right in the league.
Left guard Evan Mathis is a superstar, at least according to advanced stats, and he finally earned an All-Pro honor in 2013. Center Jason Kelce has been so good only three years into his career that the 2011 sixth-round pick has already received a raise to over $6 million a year. Todd Herremans is a rock at right guard, and 2013 No. 4 overall pick Lane Johnson is well on his way to becoming a star after a stellar second half as a rookie.
|Philly's line at a glance|
|Left tackle||Jason Peters||32||4th|
|Left guard||Evan Mathis||32||1st|
|Right guard||Todd Herremans||31||26th|
|Right tackle||Lane Johnson||23||39th|
|Pro Football Focus|
Three of their five starters were graded in the top five at their position by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and two were first. Herremans was actually ranked second in terms of run-blocking (behind only Mathis), which is your first priority as a guard anyway.
And if you took Johnson's grade from the final nine games of his rookie year and spread it out over the first seven games (where he was still getting acclimated), he'd rank fourth among all right tackles.
No wonder they were so good on the ground while giving up a respectable 176 pressures, despite blocking for two quarterbacks who held onto the ball far too long.
Plus, what else does Chip Kelly have up his sleeve?
The Eagles ran a play every 23.4 seconds last season, according to Football Outsiders, which was the quickest pace in the NFL. This is the league's most unique offense, thanks to that speed combined with a wide array of play-calling wrinkles, and Kelly didn't even have a completely full offseason to implement his schemes.
Now he has everyone in place, including the right franchise quarterback (Vick was the starter until October of last year) as well as a healthy Maclin. I don't know if the Broncos, Saints, Packers or Patriots can take anyone by surprise at this point, but the Eagles certainly still have that ability.
It only adds to the danger this offense brings to the table.
No weak spots
Even if you find a better line or a better quarterback or a better receiving corps, you won't find an offense that is as good as this one across all those areas. The Broncos don't have the running game that Philly possesses. The Patriots don't have the targets in the passing game. The Packers can't stay healthy and don't have the pass protection.
Nobody is as balanced and steady as Philly, and that includes the record-breaking Broncos.
Ironically but not surprisingly, the Eagles appear to be emulating what made Denver so successful offensively in 2013. From general manager Howie Roseman, via PhillyMag.com's Sheil Kapadia:
When you look at how many offensive plays that you have over the course of the season, there’s a lot of opportunities to spread the ball around, get people involved. I don’t think you have to look further than when you look at the Denver Broncos and how many options they have in their passing game and how big of an advantage that is when you have guys all around the field and you can get different personnel groups and that’s what we’re looking to do.
On the pace they're on, it'll only be a matter of time before teams start emulating the Eagles, who in 2014 might end up scoring more points and accumulating more yards than anyone else in pro football.