Eagles Preview/Analysis: No instant cure for 53-year itch

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By GORDON GLANTZ

Gordonglantz50@gmail.com

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — The country elected its first Roman Catholic president.

The movie “Psycho” gave moviegoers thrills and chills.

A postage stamp cost four – yep, four – cents.

It was the year of the underdog. The Pirates topped the Yankees, 4-3, in the World Series while the U.S.A. Olympic hockey team believed in their own miracles at Squaw Valley by outlasting the likes of the Soviet Union and Canada to win the gold medal.

How many of you remember where you were for all these events in 1960, which, fittingly, was a leap year? Probably not too many. That was 53 years ago, so you were probably too young to fully comprehend what was going on, or not yet with us.

This is the hard historic fact facing the restless Eagles Nation, as 1960 was also the last year Philadelphia’s beloved professional football team – not counting the Stars (1984) of the USFL or the Soul (2008) of the Arena League – laid claim to the championship.

Heck, to put 1960 in historical perspective, there wasn’t even a Super Bowl yet. That didn’t come until 1967, when Vince Lombardi’s vaunted Green Bay Packers toppled the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.

The Packers would go on to win second Super Bowl (33-14 over Oakland). The trophy for winning the Super Bowl is named after Lombardi. Despite two appearances in the big dance, it is a trophy the Eagles have yet to hoist in front of their fans.

It should be noted that the 1960 Eagles, with a 17-13 win on Dec. 18 of 1960 at Franklin Field, were the only team to ever to beat Lombardi in a championship game.

That factoid, along with the ongoing wait, has made names like Bednarik and Van Brocklin and McDonald take on mythical proportions, like Greek gods who earned their legend in an ancient stadium.

In 1960, Eagles fans – our grandfathers and fathers – likely didn’t think it would be another half-century and counting until the Birds would win another championship. The franchise had won titles in 1948 and 1949 after coming up short in 1947, but the Eagles had become one of the worst teams in football by the end of the 1960s.

Until another Eagles’ team comes along to win it all – thus ending the longest championship drought of the city’s four major professional teams – that ghost of 1960 will continue to haunt.

A Super Bowl win – not just an appearance (1981, 2005) – remains at the top of the bucket list for the war-weary members of an Eagles Nation that is known more for its snowballs than its patience.

But here they are, with a new coach and new five-year plan to cross the desert and reach the Promised Land.

The new Moses figure is Chip Kelly, the coach the current ownership sweet-talked out of his college fiefdom at the University of Oregon.

Kelly said no to the initial prom invite, but changed his mind when owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman were about to pull the trigger on Gus Bradley. The defensive coordinator in Seattle, Bradley has since been hired as the head coach in Jacksonville, locking himself with Kelly forever as a point of comparison.

Kelly arrives with a promise to revolutionize the sport, with what amounts to a hurry-up offense that will be fun to watch – at least until defenses catch up to it – and provide more frank talk than his droll predecessor, Andy Reid.

Will the entertainment lead to the ultimate prize, or will the ghost of 1960 loom ever larger as the years flip on the calendar?

The first step begins Monday night in Washington, where their Redskins run a bastardized version of Kelly’s read-option attack.

The 16-game grind of Year One of the Kelly Era will likely be strewn with peaks and valleys and growing pains. The success will be measured by knowing how close, and yet how far, the team is from 1960.

Kelly enters this season with a mixed hand. Some of the cards were dealt to him by the last coach, while others he and Roseman culled together from the draft and the street corner.

As of Tuesday, there were 21 new players on the 53-man roster. There are nine rookies and 15 others with two or fewer years in the NFL.  Still, many familiar faces are being counted on to play key roles in any possible taste of future glory.

Let’s take a closer look:

OFFENSE

Coordinator: Pat Shurmur (Kelly will still call the plays).

Key Assistant: Jeff Stoutland (the offensive line coach from Alabama brings in a new blocking scheme vastly from that of Howard Mudd).

System: Read option, with some West Coast elements in passing game.

Quarterback: Michael Vick seemed like the epitome of the Andy Reid regime and the player least likely to return. But here he is, after accepting a cut in salary and winning a battle with second-year man Nick Foles, to run the show. He is the clear-cut team leader, which is likely the hidden reason Kelly gave him the keys to the car with hopes he doesn’t get into too many fender benders. The system is quarterback-friendly, in terms of safety valves and options, but it remains to be seen if the 33-year old Vick will make the right choices. If the 12-year veteran is the proverbial leopard that doesn’t change his spots, Foles and rookie Matt Barkley are waiting in the wings. Grade: B

Running Back: The Eagles have one of the best groups in the league, boasting a top-five back in LeSean McCoy (above). Bryce Brown, the second-year backup, has starter talent, but is still working to cure his fumbilitis. Chris Polk, also in his second-year, is the most physical runner and best blocker of the group and should get a few totes each game. All will benefit from running behind what is generally considered one of the league’s 10 best offensive lines – if healthy – and a consistent commitment to the ground game, which is also something new to Philly. Grade: A-

Receiver: The team was dealt a big blow early in camp when Jeremy Maclin was lost for the season with a knee injury. DeSean Jackson, after several sub-par seasons, claims to be reborn under Kelly, who will likely make it a part of the game plan to use Jackson as more than just a go-deep-kid decoy. Expect a lot of designed bubble screens, quick hitches and reverses to make defenses readily aware of Jackson again. Riley Cooper received a battlefield promotion to the starting lineup when Maclin went down. While he lacks the same explosiveness, he is a stellar downfield blocker, which is a required skill in this offense. With his size (6-3, 222) and hands, Cooper should be a better option in the red zone than Maclin. Jason Avant continues to excel at slot receiver, finding open spaces and making all the catches. Fourth receiver Damaris Johnson may be used a bit in a similar fashion as Jackson and will likely be the primary return man. For now, at least, Oregon product Jeff Maehl is the fifth receiver but may not be activated on game day. Grade: B

Tight End: Kelly must have thought so much of his top three – veteran holdover Brent Celek, free agent signee James Casey and second-round pick Zach Ertz – that he let a legit NFL-caliber player walk in Clay Harbor in the final cuts, opting instead to keep blocker/special-teamer Emil Igwenagu (even though he retained practice squad eligibility). This isn’t a bad group. Expect to see two and three tight ends on the field a lot, but the lack of top-tier threat will not have opposing defensive coordinators tossing and turning at night. Grade: B-

Offensive Line: Keep those fingers crossed, fans. There are a lot of “ifs” around this group, but “if” it all works out, the Eagles can ride this group to some surprising victories by keeping their defense off the field and paving the way to plenty of points. Health is the main concern. Jason Peters returns for the first time in two seasons. When healthy, the left tackle is the quintessential man among boys. The claim is that he is looking good, so … fingers crossed. Center Jason Kelce (left), tabbed by experts at watching centers as a Jeff Saturday clone, is also coming off a knee injury that put him on the shelf last season. With the left-handed Vick winning the quarterback battle, rookie first-round pick Lane Johnson is charged with protecting his blind side instead of Peters. If he gets beat a few times, which is inevitable in the learning curve, will it change how Vick plays? Todd Herremans will play alongside Johnson at right guard. One of the better offensive linemen to have never made the Pro Bowl, Herremans has also battled dents and dings the last few seasons. Evan Mathis, the only starter to make it all the way through to last season’s ugly end, gets the pleasure of lining up between Peters and Kelce and should do well there. The backups are a little shaky. Dennis Kelly, who played a lot of right tackle last season, is currently hurt and won’t be ready for a few weeks. Julian Vandervelde, a guard by trade, was taught to play center in the offseason and it would be a big drop off if Kelce went down again. Rookie free agent tackle/guard Matt Tobin had a good camp and was kept over first-round bust Danny Watkins, but he is still a rookie free agent. Right now, the first man off the bench at tackle or guard will be six-year journeyman Allen Barbre. Grade: B+ (only because of the lack of depth)

OFFENSE GPA: 3.15

How to improve the grade: Stay healthy on the offensive line, allowing the running backs to gallop free in what should be a healthy 50-50 run-pass split in the game plan. McCoy could challenge for the league lead in rushing and yards from scrimmage, even with Brown and Polk getting some carries. If this happens, Vick should find a comfort zone. It he doesn’t, we’re revisiting a past we don’t want to see.

How to fail: Suffering injuries on the offensive line, and/or Johnson struggling, could spell doom. Also, if none of the receivers – including the tight ends — really step up and consistently hold onto the ball and make plays. Several guys in this group have the talent to make names for themselves (or in Jackson’s case, reclaim his place as an elite player), but there is no guarantee. The dink-and-dunk passing game, with the option for select shots downfield, could get predictable in a hurry without everything really clicking.

DEFENSE

Coordinator: Billy Davis

Key Assistant: Bill McGovern (Charged with coaching the suspect outside linebackers, he has coached on the collegiate level for 27 years but has no NFL experience).

System: 3-4 (most of the time, we think)

Defensive Line: This appears to be the strength of the unit, if only by default. If you don’t have a nose guard in a 3-4, you may as well scrap the whole system. Veteran Isaac Sopoaga, signed from the San Francisco 49ers, is not a superstar but he knows how to play the position. Oddly, if we see him taking around 30 percent of the snaps, it means he is doing his job on running downs and getting off the field to give way to others in different packages. Second-year man Fletcher Cox, the first-round pick from 2012, and self-made man Cedric Thornton both look like the real deal. Additionally, 2012 second-round pick Vinny Curry appears to be a better fit for the defense than anyone expected. Rookies Bennie Logan and Damion Square can play either nose or end and have promising futures. Clifton Geathers, perhaps because of his freakish size (6-8, 340), curiously remains on the roster. Grade: B

Linebacker: This is where it gets a bit dicey. Surprisingly, the Eagles kept only three outside linebackers on the roster, jettisoning both Chris McCoy and Everette Brown after strong preseasons. Only Connor Barwin, the free agent, has experience at the position. Longtime defensive end Trent Cole and third-year man Brandon Graham, who was coming into his own at the end of last season as a defensive end, are still learning on the job. They each seem fine going forward, stuffing the run and getting after the passer, but expect opposing quarterbacks to simply audible out of runs when Cole and/or Graham are on the field and throw swing passes to backs and tight ends out in the flat. Until they can prove they can handle the inevitable challenges, expect to see these types of plays a lot early in the season. Inside, DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have looked comfortable. Kendricks, in his second year, is being touted as a three-down linebacker and don’t be shocked if he takes his share of snaps outside to help in coverage. Clay Matthews, rookie free agent Jake Knott and Najee Goode are the backups inside. Matthews and Goode – signed off waivers from Tampa Bay, prompting the semi-shocking release of Emmanuel Acho – may also see time on passing downs. All three should excel on special teams. Grade: C-

Secondary: The Eagles were one of the worst in the league last year, despite some big names at the cornerback position, giving up 33 touchdown passes. Brought in as free agents were Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, and each seem be cast in roles a notch above their comfort zones. Williams was the No. 2 corner with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens and now becomes the No. 1 here, drawing the opponents’ top receivers. His competitive fire is encouraging, but will wear thin with the fans if he reminds them of Izel “Toast” Jenkins. Fletcher, more of a nickel corner after a knee injury derailed a promising career in St. Louis, is the No. 2 corner. The most talented corner, Brandon Boykin, is deemed too small (5-10, 185) to play outside and is ticketed for the slot – for now. Shaun Prater, a special teams ace, was signed off waivers. Rookie Jordan Poyer, the seventh-rounder who seems like a slow-footed hustler, hangs onto a roster spot for now. Ditto for injured Brandon Hughes, who is known mostly for special teams play on what was a horrid unit the last two seasons. At safety, there are more questions than answers. Patrick Chung, the free agent from New England, has been christened the prize possession of the group, which is kind of like being the prettiest girl in Boys Town. Nate Allen (above) is the other starter – again – but only because he temporarily fended off a challenge from fifth-rounder Earl Wolff. Kurt Coleman returns, as does Colt Anderson, with the hopes that they do most of their chasing of the opposition on special teams. Grade: D+

DEFENSE GPA: 2.0

How to improve the grade: Be in the top 10 in the league in every category that equates to pressure on the quarterback – sacks, hits, hurries, pressures, knockdowns – to limit the outside linebackers and defensive backs being exposed. While the Eagles should be able to stop the run, this is a pass-first league and it could get ugly. A player like Cox or Kendricks needs to emerge as a budding star to build around, while Boykin pushes Williams or Fletcher out of the starting lineup.

How to fail: The line must fulfill its preseason promise, both in terms of generating pressure without the benefit of all-out blitzes and stuffing the run. If not, the record numbers of last year will not likely be reversed.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Coordinator: Dave Fipp

Kicking/Punting: Alex Henery is not considered an elite placekicker, but that is mainly because he hasn’t had the chance to put up gaudy numbers. He is accurate, particularly inside 50 yards, and a change in his approach on kickoffs has made him automatic lock for touchbacks on kickoffs (at least until the late-season winds swirl). Punter Donnie Jones fended off a strong challenge from rookie Brad Wing and looks to be the team’s most effective punter in years, maybe since Sean Landeta. Neither should have to worry about dealing with bad snaps. Long snapper Jon Dorenbos is of the best at his craft. Grade: A-

Coverage Units: With Henery looking strong on kickoffs and Jones able to consistently flip the field on punts, games can be stolen if the coverage teams perform an about-face from what we have seen from Bobby April’s units under Reid. With Fipp, there appears to be a culture change. The roster is loaded with players – Anderson, Coleman, Matthews, Goode, Prater, Boykin, Igwenagu, Hughes, etc. – known for being strong special-teams specialists. Rookies like Knott and Poyer and Wolff helped themselves by doing the same. Grade: A-

Return Game: While Johnson has been electric, picking up where he left off last season, ball security and judgment are concerns. Jackson, Kelly claims, will still get opportunities to reclaim the mantle of being one of the game’s most feared punt returners. Boykin, too, will get opportunities on kickoffs, and has some skills. Grade: A-

Special Teams GPA: 3.75

How to improve the grade: A lot of time has been invested in special teams since Kelly took the reins, and the back half of the roster clearly reflects that the units being a priority is not just lip service. All the players have to do is play how they have been coached. This is one spot in the team where the pieces are in place.

How to fail: Henery could hit a wall, but it’s unlikely. And the young players on the field could lead to some mental errors and costly penalties that ultimately turn possible wins into frustrating defeats.

SCHEDULE

The league has done the Eagles no favor with the schedule. After opening in Washington on Monday night, they return home the following Sunday to take on San Diego and, five days later, to welcome back Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs on a Thursday night. That is followed by three difficult road games – at Denver, in the Meadowlands against the Giants and at Tampa – before home games with Dallas and the Giants again. That’s a lot to ask from a young team still finding itself.  What the Kelly-coached Eagles have on their side is the element of surprise, a polar opposite from the last few years when they were painfully predictable under Reid. They also bring an everything-to-gain-and-nothing-to-lose approach, which can be dangerous. If they can get through those first six games at 3-3 and can be 4-4 at the midway point, perhaps a playoff push in a weak division is not out of the question. Realistically, though, it’s not 1960. The next leap year is 2016, a more realistic target to break the spell and recreate the mythology for future generations.

THE CRYSTAL BALL

The X-factor in the NFL is always injuries. If a division foe gets ravaged, like the Eagles were last season, maybe a 9-7 ceiling exists, but that is extreme. This team, tops, is 8-8, with all the bounces and breaks that sometimes accompany beginner’s luck with rookie coaches. That would include the special teams units stealing a game or two and pulling out a few wins by virtue of having the ball last. The bottom, the floor, is 4-12. But that would only be with the injury bug hitting here – again – and/or the first-half schedule proved too tall of a mountain to scale. Realistically, this is a transition year. Despite having a Player of the Year candidate in McCoy, we are looking at 6-10.

Originally appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com.

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