Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Ways the Team Can Make the Playoffs in 2013
The secondary was repeatedly torched in the second half of the year. The offensive line was decimated by injuries, and the offense was down to its backup quarterback and running back.
All that led to a season to forget.
No one knows what to expect from Kelly and the Birds in 2013. They could finish 4-12, at last place in the NFC East. They could finish right around .500, finishing a game or two short of a postseason berth.
And if all falls into place, maybe Philadelphia can even reach the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
1. Capitalizing on Their Weak Schedule
The Philadelphia Eagles rank 13th amongst NFL teams in easiest schedule in 2013, per NFL.com. That in no way means it’s a cakewalk to the playoffs for the Eagles, although a closer look shows Philadelphia is in good position.
Three of the first four games come against the AFC East.
The San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs should be very winnable games, considering the teams combined to go 9-23 a year ago. Neither has made significant improvements during the offseason either.
A bye week in Week 12 gives the Eagles a chance to prepare for the final five games. Four of those come against teams that missed the playoffs, and the only team that did make the playoffs (the Minnesota Vikings) squeaked in due to a miracle season from Adrian Peterson.
It will ultimately come down to the six division games. If Kelly splits these six, the Eagles may still be playing in January.
2. Heavy Run-First Offense Behind LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown
No one knows who the Philadelphia Eagles will start at quarterback in 2013, but he won’t be asked to throw the ball nearly as much as he would have been under Andy Reid. Reid utilized a heavy run-pass ratio in which he would call for 40-50 pass plays per game.
Chip Kelly won’t do this.
His 2012 Oregon Ducks ran the ball 685 times against just 373 passes, averaging a ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry. Kelly inherits an Eagles team built to run the football. LeSean McCoy is still just 25 years old, and he’s a former All-Pro who has scored as many as 20 touchdowns in a single season.
McCoy has little mileage on him, and he’s backed by Bryce Brown, a future breakout player.
Brown showed glimpses of absolute dominance a year ago. He rushed for a total of 347 yards and four touchdowns in a two-game span, displaying a supreme blend of power and speed. He tailed off as the season went on, too often looking to run outside rather than stay between the tackles.
If Kelly can fix Brown, the Eagles have themselves a tremendous running duo.
Felix Jones could be a dark-horse shot to contribute. He’s a former first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, and he’s still just 26 years old.
In all, this is a unit that could—and probably should—finish in the top five in the NFL in rushing yards as a team.
3. Minimizing Turnovers
If Chip Kelly really wants to limit the Philadelphia Eagles’ turnovers, he won’t make Michael Vick his quarterback. Vick has thrown 24 interceptions and fumbled 21 times in 23 games since ’11.
Nick Foles or Matt Barkley would be the wisest choices for Kelly in 2013. Obviously, limiting the interceptions these two throw can be done by limiting the number of passes thrown.
The 2012 Seattle Seahawks frequently asked Russell Wilson to throw the ball just 20-25 times per game, leaning heavily on Marshawn Lynch on the ground.
Doing the same for the Eagles could be a recipe for success.
4. High-Octane, Hurry-Up Offense Leaving Defenses Confused
One of the more intriguing aspects of Chip Kelly will be the speed of his offense.
Kelly prides himself on a hurry-up offense that can run 75-80 plays per game. He appreciates versatile players (James Casey and Zach Ertz, specifically), as they can line up at multiple spots within the same offensive series. This limits the offense’s need to switch players while keeping the defense on its heels.
What Kelly is attempting to do with his brand of football may work, and it may not.
It hasn't really been attempted at the NFL level, save for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in New England. If Kelly’s offense clicks as it did in the collegiate ranks, opposing defenses may find themselves struggling to match up with players of size and speed like Ertz.
If it backfires due to inefficient quarterbacking, running more plays could actually be a hindrance to the Philadelphia Eagles.
5. Staying Healthy
One of the keys to success for the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles is beyond their control. Chip Kelly will need his Eagles to stay healthy this season.
Look at how some of the previous seasons have been derailed by early injuries. In 2010, Leonard Weaver, Jamaal Jackson and Stewart Bradley were all lost for extended time in the Week 1 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
A year ago, the offense never recovered from the offseason loss of All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. Peters’ season-ending injury led to a rotation of inferior players at left tackle, none more damaging than Demetress Bell. Jason Kelce and then Todd Herremans followed with season-ending injuries of their own, all in the first six weeks of the season.
This year, the entire offensive line should be intact.
Michael Vick has never been able to stay healthy, but he may not even be the starting quarterback.
Other key players that will need to remain injury-free are LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Fletcher Cox, to name a few.
6. A Surprise Performance from a Defensive Back
The secondary was one of the biggest reasons the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles missed the playoffs. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha were torched repeatedly as the season went on, contributing to a franchise-record 33 passing touchdowns allowed.
Chip Kelly has completely overhauled the defensive backs. Gone are Asomugha and DRC, with free agents Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher expected to start in their place. At safety, Kelly added veterans Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung via free agency, each of whom is a high-risk player.
This is a unit that could conceivably be worse than last year’s group.
Williams played a key role on the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, recording four interceptions and 17 passes defensed. He also gave up the fourth-most passing yards of any cornerback in the league, per Pro Football Focus’s stats (subscription required).
Fletcher is untested as a starter, having played nickel and dime back last year. Phillips has knee issues already, and Chung fell out of favor with Bill Belichick in New England.
Someone will need to step up and make an impact in 2013.
It may be fifth-round rookie Earl Wolff, a safety who will be given every opportunity to start. It may be last year’s nickelback Brandon Boykin. It could be this year’s seventh-round steal, Jordan Poyer. It could be Nate Allen, now that he’s fully recovered from his knee injury. And it could even be one of the four free-agent signees.
7. A Successful Transition to 3-4 Linebacker for Brandon Graham or Trent Cole
The Philadelphia Eagles are transitioning to a 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly, which means defensive ends Brandon Graham and Trent Cole will change positions. No longer will Graham or Cole be asked to rush the quarterback with their hand on the ground; instead, they will be lining up several yards off the line of scrimmage from a standing position.
It’s likely Graham is listed as the backup, considering Cole is a two-time Pro Bowler and Connor Barwin has played in a 3-4 before.
If Cole and Graham can sustain success from their new positions, the Eagles will have a much-improved defense. Graham has loads of potential, having led the NFL in hurries per snap a year ago, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The key will be Cole’s ability to adapt. He is 30 years old now and coming off a career-worst season that saw him post just three sacks.
8. The Rest of the NFC East Steals Wins from Each Other
Last year, the 3-6 Washington Redskins captured seven straight wins to steal the crown. This year, the health of Robert Griffin III will be influential in how the Redskins perform. Outside of RGIII, this does not appear to be a playoff team.
The offensive line is particularly weak on the right side. The front part of the 3-4 defense has a slew of adequate players, none of whom can occupy multiple offensive linemen. The secondary is young and inexperienced, and expecting Alfred Morris to duplicate his rookie rushing totals is unreasonable.
The New York Giants have started 5-3 every year under Tom Coughlin, but perennial late-season slumps again led to a postseason miss in ’12. Eli Manning is back, and the Giants have the weapons to score 400 or more points.
Then again, New York hasn’t won double-digit games in the regular season since 2010.
And the Dallas Cowboys have won one playoff game in seven years with Tony Romo. Coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons, the Cowboys may be looking at a third straight .500 or worse year. Their offensive line could disastrous protecting Romo, and switching to a 4-3 defense may lessen the results from both Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.
Staying in contention for the Eagles could be hitting the midway mark at 4-4 and starting December at 6-6. In that case, winning three of the final four games would give Philadelphia nine wins, and this may be enough to win the NFC East.
9. The 2-Tight End Set Thrives
Chip Kelly loves tight ends. He made Zach Ertz the 35th overall selection in the NFL draft, giving the Philadelphia Eagles a weapon that can line up at tight end, H-back, slot receiver and even wide receiver.
That’s in addition to an offense that already included veteran tight end Brent Celek. Add in hybrid fullback/tight end James Casey to the mix, and Kelly will have fun lining up his players everywhere on the field in three-tight end sets.
Clay Harbor is a three-year backup who could make the team as the fourth tight end and depth at the position.
The New England Patriots were the prime example for the success of a two-tight end offense, but other teams like the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers have thrived as well. The Cincinnati Bengals have now drafted two first-round tight ends in four years, showing they plan to use the same kind of two-tight end offense.
Imagine opposing defenses trying to keep up with the speed of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy while Ertz lines up wide and Celek at a traditional tight end spot.
10. The Offensive Line Jells
If all goes according to plan, the Philadelphia Eagles could have the single most talented offensive line in the game. Three of the five starters are returning from injury, and reports say all are full participants in practice.
Jason Peters is the MVP of the bunch. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler with a supreme blend of speed and athleticism. He’s a master at getting to the second level to open up holes for the running backs, and he’s quick enough to lead on screen passes.
That’s essentially why Lane Johnson was drafted, as he’s a poor man’s Peters. Johnson possesses an even higher upside than Peters, and one need look no farther than his ridiculous 4.72 time in the 40-yard dash. That’s tight end speed, and when it comes from a 310-pound man, it allows the Eagles to run a variety of offensive plays.
Ultimately, it will be Johnson’s ability to pick up the pass-blocking intricacies of the NFL that will make or break his career.
Aside from the tackles, Evan Mathis is a Pro Bowler in the making. Jason Kelce is poised for a breakout season, and he’s a fine fit for the offense as a quick, undersized center. Todd Herremans is a much better fit at right guard than right tackle, which is why drafting Johnson (allowing Herremans to move inside) actually upgraded two positions.
The great unknown about the offensive line will be the team’s ability to withstand the hurry-up offense.
No-huddle offenses will take their toll on the linemen if they are not in peak physical condition. It will be quite an adjustment from the norm under Andy Reid. But if this clicks with the five linemen, Kelly’s offense will be one of the best in the league.