Birds: Break Breakdown

By GORDON GLANTZ

Gordonglantz50@gmail.com

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — Want a conspiracy theory? The NFL tried to sabotage to 2013 Philadelphia Eagles.

How and why the league would do this to one of its larger-market franchises makes far less sense than the plausible case for shots coming from the grassy knoll, but the evidence is there for those wishing to don tin-foil headgear.

The Eagles began the season with three games in 11 days, after which they found themselves at 1-2 and with more questions than answers about new coach Chip Kelly making the transition from his college fiefdom at Oregon to putting the Eagles back on the path to relevance.

The league wasn’t done with the Eagles, not giving them a breather in the schedule until Week No. 11. Such is life for a team that fell off the map after going 4-12.

But here they are, none the worse for wear.

If there was a force trying to keep them from being a storyline on ESPN or the NFL Network, it didn’t achieve its objective.

There were times, like a midseason skid in which the Eagles failed to score an offensive touchdown in two divisional home losses and fell to 3-5 at the midway point, when Kelly’s crew was left for dead.

But whatever didn’t kill them has made them stronger.

Here they sit at their long-awaited break with an opportunity to recharge their engines, dip in the healing waters of the whirlpool and enter the final five games of the season –  including three at home – controlling their own destiny in the NFC East with a 6-5 record and riding a three-game winning streak.

Now, at a rest stop on this journey, it’s the perfect time to take a breath and survey the landscape with an analysis of the team.

FRONT OFFICE

People like to mock general manager Howie Roseman, mainly because he isn’t a battle-scarred ex-player. Roseman is often the fall guy for assembling the nightmare “dream team” of 2011 that was the beginning of the end for former head coach Andy Reid. He has been blamed for horrid errors on draft day. With a clean slate to work with Kelly, Roseman has seemingly made the right moves. There has been impact from the rookie crop, and most of the no-frills free agent additions have contributed. It should also be noted that the draft class of 2012, which owner Jeffrey Lurie says was the first with Roseman’s true fingerprint, has come up huge this season. Grade: B+

COACHING

Chip Kelly has made some curious decisions in the heat of battle and seems red-flag challenged. The game plans in home losses to Kansas City, Dallas and the New York Giants seemed lacking in vision. Overall, though, we can’t argue. It’s hard to get a clean read on offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur because Kelly calls the plays that the quarterback has the freedom to alter, so Shurmer is twice removed from the process on game day. However, as a planner in the pre-game strategy and an eye-in-the-sky, it would seem this NFL lifer has been a positive force. He is allegedly in charge of notifying Kelly of when to challenge a call. If true, or partially true, we hope he has visited an eye doctor during the bye week.

Defensive coordinator Billy Davis was in line to be tied to the whipping post after his unit looked like a sieve early on, falling to the bottom of the league stats in almost every category. But they have either grown into his scheme or he has shaped it around the players’ strengths and weaknesses. Whatever the reason, it seems to be working well enough that they hold their own enough to complement the high-powered attack. When it all shakes out after 16 games, we could be looking at  a middle-of-the-pack unit that is ascending. The special teams, under Dave Fipp, have endured some ups and downs – namely in the blowout loss against Denver – but has generally been consistent in all phases. Grade: B+

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Kelly named Michael Vick the starter over Nick Foles heading into the season, possibly to keep the peace in a locker room of veterans loyal to Vick. Foles maintained a positive attitude and answered the bell when Vick went down with the inevitable injury. He has not only established himself as the short-term starter, but also the quarterback of, at least, the immediate future. He proved an atrocious outing against Dallas was the exception, not the norm, as he has been named the conference’s offensive player of the week twice and tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a game against Oakland. He entered the bye with the best passer rating in the league (128.0), boasting 16 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He is 4-1 as a starter and also helped secure victory in relief of Vick on the road in the Meadowlands. In the midst of the quarterback shuffle and injuries to both Vick (hamstring) and Foles (concussion), rookie Matt Barkley saw some time that could prove helpful to his evolution as a career backup. He looked ill-prepared to play meaningful snaps. Having Vick suiting up again after the bye will be a welcome sight.

Individual grades: Foles (A), Vick (B), Barkley (D). Overall grade: B-plus 

Running Back: Not much to say about LeSean McCoy (left), other than that he has taken the ball and run with it. Having more consistent chances under Kelly than Reid, who would often go whole quarters of game without calling McCoy’s number, McCoy has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Add in yardage on 34 catches, and McCoy has more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage. A disappointment has been backup Bryce Brown, who has failed to pick up where he left off as a force carrying the ball. He has had some nice catches and runs on swing passes and has yet to fumble, but lacks the consistent carries a bigger back needs to find his groove. He would need another McCoy injury, like last year, to prove that he can get stronger as a game wears on. But nobody wants to see that. Third back Chris Polk has scored a touchdown and been solid, when healthy, on special teams. Matthew Tucker, an undrafted rookie out of TCU, was added to the roster from the practice squad but has yet to be on the field for any offensive plays.

Individual grades: McCoy (A), Brown (C), Polk (C), Tucker (I). Overall grade: B+

Wide Receiver: Give Kelly a gold star for making DeSean Jackson matter again. While Reid seemingly just told No. 10 to go deep and be a decoy, Kelly has made an effort to get the ball in the explosive receiver’s hands on short, medium and long passes. The result is that he is on a Pro Bowl track. Jackson entered the break with a team-high 58 catches and was 15 yards from 1,000.

When Jeremy Maclin went down early in training camp with a serious knee injury, Riley Cooper moved into the starting lineup. Perhaps because his head was not completely in the game because of his regrettable off-field controversy or because he just didn’t click with Vick, Cooper was a non-factor and ranked as the least productive starting receiver in the league. A free agent after this season, he was considered a sure bet not to be retained. And then, as fast as you can say Nick Foles, Cooper turned on the jets and took off. He is tied with Jackson for the team lead with seven touchdown catches and is averaging a team-high 19.1 yards on 31 catches. It is at the point now that if Foles is christened as the starter, Cooper has to be kept, meaning Maclin and/or Jason Avant, may not be back. Avant, still a reliable safety valve, has not been as much of a factor since Cooper and Foles developed their chemistry. Going further down the depth chart, Jeff Maehl has made some catches. Damaris Johnson, mainly a return man, has been a non-factor. Versatile veteran Brad Smith was signed recently and it will be interesting to watch how he is integrated after the bye week.

Individual grades: Jackson (A), Cooper (B+), Avant (C+), Maehl (C), Johnson (I), Smith (I). Overall grade: B

Tight End: The presumption was that since New England coach Bill Bellichick previously elicited Kelly as a consultant, the same heavy usage of tight ends there was going to be deployed here. That theory gained more validity when Zach Ertz was drafted in the second round and put in a stable with the tenured veteran Brent Celek (left) and free agent James Casey. While Celek and Ertz have made some key catches, there have also been some bad drops when the chains were crying out to be moved. The trio has combined for a modest 43 catches on 71 targets. Give Celek props for solid blocking, which has become a strength after it being a flaw in his game early in his career.

Individual grades: Celek (B-), Ertz (B-), Casey (D). Overall: C+

Offensive Line: With left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce returning from serious injuries, this unit was hyped as being one of the best in the business. It hasn’t been that seamless, as players don’t just regain form by fans wishing upon a star. Peters is still good, but not quite as dominant. Kelce is smart, but has been overwhelmed by 3-4 teams with powerful nose tackles. Left guard Evan Mathis has been solid. Right guard Todd Herremans, shuffled back inside after playing tackle and left guard in the past, seems to be improving after some early struggles. Right tackle Lane Johnson, drafted fourth overall, has played as expected. He has shown he has a high ceiling, but has made some mistakes. Johnson seemed to hit a midseason wall, but fought through it. The only sub to have played much is journeyman Allen Barbre, who has held his own when Peters has been dinged. If the Eagles have to go any deeper on their bench, beyond Barbre, it could spell doom. In the final analysis, when a team has the league’s leading rusher and top-rated passer, the line deserves credit.

Individual grades: Peters (B), Mathis (B+), Kelce (B), Herremans (B-), Johnson (B), Barbre (C+). Overall grade: B

DEFENSE

Defensive Line: After dealing away Isaac Sopoaga, one of the few free agents who pulled a Houdini, the unit was left with six young-but-hungry battlers. Defensive tackles Fletcher Cox (three sacks) and Cedric Thornton (team-leading four tackles for losses) come from opposite ends of the pedigree spectrum, as Cox was last year’s first-round pick and Thornton is a self-made undrafted guy. However, they are combining to be a formidable tandem. Rookie Bennie Logan moved into Sopoaga’s nose tackle spot and plays with a lot of hustle. Give him an offseason to add 10 more pounds and he could be a keeper. It is no coincidence that the line got a lift once second-year man Vinny Curry wasn’t inactive on game day. Curry, a pass-rushing specialist originally pigeon-holed as a bad fit for the new 3-4 alignment, shares the team lead with four sacks. Damion Square, an undrafted rookie out of Alabama, has worked his way into the rotation. Why Clifton Geathers is on the team remains a mystery. Aside from Geathers, who is simply as placeholder on the roster for now, all the others in this group are in their first or second seasons in the league.

Individual grades:  Thornton (B+), Cox (B), Curry (B), Logan (B-), Square (C), Geathers (D+). Overall grade: B-

Linebacker: If not for San Francisco’s Patrick Willis and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, DeMeco Ryans would be looking at a Pro Bowl nod. While emerging as a team leader in the locker room, Ryans has silenced doubters who said he was strictly a traditional 4-3 middle linebacker. His stats across the board – 96 tackles (76 solo), three tackles for losses, two sacks, two interceptions – speak for themselves. Not far behind is the other inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. While he is not quite as disciplined as Ryans, Kendricks has been productive – 68 tackles (54 solo), three tackles for losses and three fumble recoveries – while also often drawing the short straw and having to “spy” on the more mobile opposing quarterbacks.

At outside linebacker, Connor Barwin may not have the name cache for Pro Bowl consideration, but he has been a model of consistency. He has four sacks, tying him with Curry, to go along with 10 passes defended and three tackles for losses. At the other outside spot, we have Trent Cole. The longest-tenured Eagle, switching from defensive end to linebacker, picked up two sacks against the Redskins to raise his total to three this season. It appears that Davis is starting to meet Cole halfway, asking him to do what he does well, which is go downhill. Cole, though, is a free agent at the end of the season and the addition of real dynamic force opposite Barwin would make this linebacking corps dangerous. A  name to watch, considering where the Eagles will likely be picking in the first round, is Kyle Van Noy out of BYU. Backups – Brandon Graham, Najee Goode, Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho – have held their own when called upon.

Individual grades: Ryans (A-), Kendricks (B+), Barwin (A-), Cole (B-), Graham (C+), Goode (C+), Matthews (C), Acho (C). Overall grade: B+

Cornerback: The Eagles are 31st in the league against the pass, so it’s difficult to hand out plaudits for those charged with covering receivers. However, we can respond to this bad report card with a note from home. There has been drastic improvement since being singed by the likes of Payton Manning and Philip Rivers earlier in the season. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, each with two interceptions, are effort guys who play with attitude and hustle and take it personally when giving up a big play (a welcomed change from the past two seasons). Nickel corner Brandon Boykin, in his second year, leads the team with four interceptions and is a player on the rise. Roc Carmichael, who was signed off waivers from Houston, and started when Fletcher was out the last two weeks. For the most part, he held his own. Curtis Marsh has returned to the nest but has yet to play on defense.

Individual grades: Boykin (B+), Williams (C-), Fletcher (C+), Carmichael (C), Marsh (I). Overall grade: B-

Safety: A true impact player – via draft or free agency – remains a priority, but the improvement of this group has mirrored that of the defense. That is mostly true of Nate Allen (left). who has 46 solo tackles, good for third on the team behind Ryan and Kendricks. He has gone from target of the boo-birds to at least blending in with the scenery by following his assignments. Patrick Chung’s shoulder injuries allowed rookie Earl Wolff to emerge as a starter, at least until Wolff injured his knee. Kurt Coleman has almost played strictly on special teams. Last game, when Chung exited and Wolff was not in uniform, fans had to have scary flashbacks to last season when Coleman and Allen were oft-burned as the starting safeties. However, the Redskins were kept in check until Chung was hurried back. Colt Anderson, an ace on special teams, has barely played on defense. Only Wolff – out of the entire group – has an interception, and that came on a Hail Mary pass.

Individual grades: Wolff (B-), Allen (C+), Chung (C), Coleman (C-), Anderson (I). Overall grade: C+

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicking: One disappointment has been Alex Henery, who is a pedestrian17-for-22 with a long of 48 yards. While not abysmal, he is not inspiring the confidence that a kicker that was drafted in the fourth round a few years back should. Grade: C-

Punting: The signing of veteran Donnie Jones is proving to be a stroke of genius. He is averaging 45.4 yards per punt with a net of 40.9. On top of that, he has put 22 punts instead the 20, as compared to a mere five touchbacks. Grade: A

Coverage: There have been a few breakdowns, but coverage has largely been a non-issue. Grade: B+

Return Game: Damaris Johnson has seemingly been relieved of his duties after being pedestrian, at best, as the primary kickoff and punt returner. He has a decent average on kickoffs – 25.9 per return – but has used poor judgment by brining many out from deep in the end zone. While Brandon Boykin almost broke a kick while filling in when Johnson was hurt, Brad Smith could be the long-term answer. He has four kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career, although only one since 2010. DeSean Jackson, who established himself as a lethal punt returner in a previous life, has been handling the job lately with mixed results. His average of 9.0 per punt return (pretty much what Johnson had) is largely due to 32-yard gainer in Oakland (he was flagged 15 yards for grabbing the tackler’s facemask). Grade: C-

CRYSTAL BALL

Let’s say the Eagles win three of the next five, making them 9-7, which should be good enough for first place in the NFC “Least.” That would mean a home playoff game, and a likely loss to a team like, say, the Carolina Panthers. No one should or could complain, even if the score is 49-10, but they will anyway. It goes along with the territory.

While Pro Bowl bids – along with All-Pro nods and being named to post-season teams by other publications – come with grains of salt, the Eagles will be well-represented. Earlier in the season, it looked like McCoy, maybe Jackson, would be it. Now, we also have Mathis and maybe Peters (on reputation). Foles would at least be in line for being a Pro Bowl alternate, which would be quite an achievement for a guy who didn’t even begin his second season as the starter. Defensively, Ryans and Barwin will be in the conversation. Ditto for Jones as the punter. Johnson, Ertz, Logan and Wolff could be in All-Rookie consideration.  Kelly? Coach of the Year? Probably second to Reid, proving that fact is stranger than fiction.

This column is also available at http://www.phillyphanatics.com

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