Chip Kelly did a lot of special things in 2013. He helped turn third-round sophomore quarterback Nick Foles into something resembling Dan Marino circa 1984 while also getting career years out of wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper, running back LeSean McCoy and offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis.
Without making more than a few personnel changes, he took an offense that ranked 29th in scoring in 2012 and moved it to the No. 4 spot.
And most importantly, in turning the Philadelphia Eagles from worst to first in the NFC East, he became only the third first-year head coach with no prior NFL experience in the last 30 years to lead his team to the playoffs.
At times, because they were a team that dominated both on the ground and through the air—while being the only team in football to average more than 5.0 yards per carry in 2013, PhillyMag.com explains the Eagles also had more 20-yard completions and runs last season than anyone else in the last 18 years—it felt as though that offense was simply unstoppable.
The tricky thing about this league is that coaches and players are remarkably quick to adjust to new trends, which means that everyone else in football has spent time this offseason working to neutralize Kelly's difficult-to-defend system by either copying it on offense or finding new ways to shut it down on defense (or both).
Most of them will fail.
The reality is that Kelly's offense is bound to dominate again in 2014, quite possibly to more of an extent than it did last season.
Momentum Is Building
Keep in mind that this year, Kelly's had a chance to add new layers to the playbook. Ten of 11 offensive starters are back and presumably more comfortable than they were one year ago. Oil has been added to the machine, and Kelly has been able to add pass-catching running back Darren Sproles along with the healthy Jeremy Maclin. Jackson's gone, but the Eagles obviously feel as though he's replaceable.
You already saw those guys getting more comfortable as the 2013 season wore on. Think about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule, which essentially claims it takes 10,000 hours of practice in order to master a task. This offense hasn't spent 10,000 hours working on Kelly's playbook, but it becomes closer to perfection with each rep.
That explains this:
|Metric||First 10 games||Final 6 games|
Source: Pro Football Reference
The Eagles have been killing it in the preseason with a deliberately vanilla offense, and now they enter the regular season healthy as can be and ready to take things to a whole new level.
Simple but Vast
When people ask me about Kelly's offense, that's the phrase I resort to.
Again, defensive coordinators might be better prepared this time, but they can only do so much. The thing about this offense is it's what we'll call uber-eclectic, changing from week to week, quarter to quarter, play to play. This isn't a solo magic trick waiting to be solved. It's a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces to handle.
"We run the See Coast Offense," Kelly said back in November, per PhiladelphiaEagles.com. "If we see something and we like it and we think it fits, we're going to run it."
The reality is that this offense isn't even remotely as zany as many blindly believe.
Dozens of X/O-oriented breakdowns have been conducted in order to analyze this offense, but Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen hits the nail on the head with his assessment that Kelly differentiates his system by the way he dresses up fairly basic concepts.
These aren’t routes drawn up in the dirt.
|Team||Seconds between plays|
Source: Football Outsiders
But aside from the odd wrinkle and some extra attention paid to pre-snap reads and packaged plays, this offense basically utilized elementary and ubiquitous concepts—no-huddle, shotgun, play action, zone read, spread, West Coast—but it mixed and matched like nobody else, and it did it better than pretty much everyone else in the game.
It seems Kelly's primary goal is to disorient defenses by keeping them guessing, and since he's got a brilliant football mind, it usually works. The Eagles go no-huddle all day, rarely subbing and hardly ever giving their opponents the ability to do the same. They wear down defenses while keeping them clueless by preventing them from huddling.
Nothing works to cause that defensive confusion like a good old unbalanced line, which is something Kelly utilizes on occasion in order to complicate things while also manipulating the defensive box. Want to dictate the coverage and use numbers to your advantage? Just throw your right tackle out into the abyss like so:
Assuming your tackle is athletic enough to throw a strong block in the open field—and Kelly prefers athletic offensive linemen for a reason—alignments like these will give you an automatic numbers advantage on a bubble screen. Or, if the defense decides to bring an extra defender over to deal with an ineligible receiver, you've freed up the box for the league's reigning rushing champion.
Again, this is the kind of stuff anybody can do, but that's what brings us back to the well-oiled machine and Kelly's famously fast-paced and meticulous practices. Not everybody can prepare his players like he can, and few have the weapons he possesses.
Who to Cover?
Kelly is all about creating mismatches. Speed, size, athleticism and versatility are prerequisites, which is why it wasn't overly surprising to see him essentially trade in Jackson for Sproles this offseason.
It sometimes felt as though receivers were constantly open last season, but that wasn't because Kelly had some magic potion. It happened because he used the 6'4" Cooper and the blazing-fast McCoy and Jackson in order to pick on ill-prepared defenders who often couldn't be substituted due to the pace.
And because—as Field Yates of ESPN.com (subscription required) points out—the general consensus among defensive coordinators is that the best way to limit the damage done by this run-first offense is to bring an extra man into the box, you wind up with a near-comical amount of situations in which one or more pass-catchers is running wide open.
But Kelly has made no secret of the fact his personnel takes precedence when it comes to scheming. Football is the ultimate chess match with one key difference. Unlike in actual chess, the pawns in football weren't all created equal.
Right now, even with Jackson gone, the Eagles have one of the most skilled sets of chess pieces in football. Two great backs (McCoy and Sproles), two great receivers (Maclin, Cooper, maybe three if rookie second-round pick Jordan Matthews can deliver immediately), two great tight ends (Brent Celek and Zach Ertz) and an offensive line that features two Pro Bowlers (Mathis and Jason Peters), a Pro Football Focus superstar (Kelce) and a No. 4 overall pick with an out-of-sight ceiling (Johnson).
Since 2011, Sproles has more receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns than any back in the game. The thought of him and McCoy together in the backfield running wheel routes has to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Same with that Celek-Ertz combination. Celek is the reliable vet, but Ertz, who had four touchdowns in the last six games of his rookie campaign, looks primed to have a breakout sophomore season after tearing it up this summer.
Matthews, who shined during OTAs and should be at least the No. 3, and Maclin, who had 857 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 before losing 2013 to a torn ACL, are both technically additions as well.
|LeSean McCoy||RB||26||Reigning rushing champion|
|Jeremy Maclin||WR||26||Four 750-yard seasons|
|Riley Cooper||WR||26||835 yards, eight TDs last year|
|Zach Ertz||TE||23||Four TDs in last six games|
|Darren Sproles||RB||31||Most prolific pass-catching RB since 2011|
|Jordan Matthews||WR||22||Rookie second-round pick|
|Brent Celek||TE||29||26 career touchdowns|
Kelly handpicked a few of those guys, which makes things even scarier headed into Year 2. He has undoubtedly ensured that the guys he's building this offense around are able to handle such a far-reaching system featuring packaged plays and complex pre-snap reads. This is a cerebral offense in a cerebral game, which might explain why Philadelphia has been targeting college graduates in the draft.
When you bring it all together and you consider how smart, healthy and prepared this offense is, you begin to wonder if it might have merely been scratching the surface in 2013. We're all wondering if Kelly can deliver an encore in 2014, but it's possible last season was simply an opening act.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.