By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — And, now, for the encore.
Looking back on last season – the first for Chip Kelly after what seemed like an eternity of peaks, which included being turned away at the gates of the Promised Land, and valleys of falling off the map under Andy Reid – the new coach’s papers were stamped with a free pass.
Coming from the collegiate ranks, with as much NFL experience as a beer vendor going up and down the aisles plying dime-store experts with libation, he was bringing in a system and approach from Oregon that many doubted would work –at least without serious modification – in the big time.
The general vibe was that Kelly would need to find his players to fit in and fall in line, which would likely mean roster turnover – before, during and after a season of trial by fire and error.
But, as long as he spoke in full sentences and showed more emotion than Mr. Spock during press conferences following agonizing losses, the restless Eagles Nation was going to go easy.
Even another 4-12 campaign would have felt like a breath of fresh air.
Anything above and beyond that was a true fall romance novel for those aching to fall back in love with their football team.
In the Nick of Time
After stunning the Washington Redskins to open the season, the Eagles fell to 1-3 after the first four games and were 3-5 at the midway point.
Although Michael Vick went into the season at the starting quarterback, the all-too-familiar injury bug led to Nick Foles moving into the limelight and becoming one of the league’s surprising story lines as a second-year quarterback.
Foles threw 27 touchdown passes (29, counting the postseason) against two interceptions and led the entire league in passer rating (119.2). He had the luxury of handing the ball off to LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing (1,607 yards) and yards from scrimmage (2,146), and throwing to reborn mercurial wideout DeSean Jackson (career-best 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine TDs).
Up front, Foles benefitted from an offensive line that avoided injuries and asserted its will on opponents. Left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis were All-Pros. Center Jason Kelce seemed unscathed from the knee injury that shelved him in 2012. Veteran Todd Herremans slowly adjusted to right guard playing alongside rookie Lane Johnson, who had the best year of the three rookie tackles taken high in the draft.
In the process of posting an 8-2 regular-season mark (as opposed to 2-4 for Vick), Foles developed instant chemistry with receiver Riley Cooper (left), who was kept on the team after a controversial off-field incident involving Copper using a racial slur was caught on video.
Cooper, who had a grand total of 46 catches and five touchdowns his first three years in the league, overcame a slow start to collect 48 catches for eight touchdowns. He was among the league leaders in yards per reception (17.8) and, along with hauling in some highlight-reel catches, pulled in a five-year deal worth a reported $25 million to stay put.
Foles also developed a feel for rookie tight end Zach Ertz as the season progressed. Ertz is being looked upon to have a breakout year in 2014.
The defense, initially a sieve that couldn’t get off the field with much success on third down, improved from awful to acceptable as the season wore on.
After taking the division with a 10-6 mark, a crown even more fulfilling because it was captured in Dallas on the last night of the season with the division on the line, the same team that no one expected much from was hosting New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs. After Foles rallied the Eagles from behind, the Eagles fell, 26-24, on a last-second field goal.
A season later – with a vital loss from the core and two key additions, ironically from New Orleans – the expectations couldn’t be any different.
Foles is expected to pick up where he left off at the controls of an attack that, because of its dizzying pace, appears more complex than it is.
The defense is expected to improve from the confidence it gained the second half of last year, but more from the presumption that players like defensive end Fletcher Cox and inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks will evolve into stars while veterans such as outside linebacker Trent Cole and inside DeMeco Ryans don’t decline.
Last year, there may have been some modicum of beginner’s luck – or it was case of karma being overdue.
Aside from Vick going down – a blessing in disguise, as it paved the way for Foles – the Eagles were not beset with an unusual amount of injuries. Yes, accomplished receiver Jeremy Maclin was lost for the season with a knee injury, but that torn ligament was sustained early in training camp, with plenty of time to circle the wagons.
And the Eagles seemed to catch some fortuitous breaks. Opponents came into games battered and bruised, and the bounces – the fumbles, the ball dying near the goal line on punts – seemed to go their way.
While you could argue that you make or break your fate by making your own luck, there is no automatic reset button from year to year.
But don’t tell that to the average diehard.
Don’t dare say that this remains a young team – one with only nine players, including punter Donnie Jones and long snapper Jon Dorenbos, above the age of 30 – even though there are 35 players (including nine rookies) with three, or fewer, years of NFL experience.
And even though Kelly is a second-year coach that the league has had a full offseason to figure out, the expectation level is now as high as it had been in the best of the Reid era.
There will be no free passes this time around.
Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man
At the barest minimum, failure of another repeat performance with what looks – on paper – to be a more troublesome schedule, will give life to second-guessing.
This will come even though the Eagles remain, on many levels, a work in progress.
This is still a franchise with a rabid following that is 54 years removed from a championship.
The dice has been rolled, and a vibe of self-love is starting come off of Kelly. It is still endearing, but duly noted by wolves dressed in the midnight green clothing.
The Eagles restrained themselves from chasing after prime-time free-agent safeties, including some with the Oregon connection, to fill the glaring weakness present since Brian Dawkins left after the 2008 season (an eternity in football years). Instead, they sold Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints as the ideal fit to settle down a secondary where the corners were often left without timely help downfield.
While the Eagles also brought in vintage utility back Darren Sproles from the Saints for the price of a fifth-round pick, it seemed to pale in comparison to letting Jackson walk – for nothing – to the rival Redskins for reasons that have yet to be sufficiently explained/revealed.
Any dreams of a three-head receiver tandem of Jackson, Cooper and a fully recovered Maclin were dashed.
Come the draft, Kelly & Co. continued using “My Way” as its theme song. Instead of filling the void of Jackson with someone like receiver Marqise Lee in the first round and coming back with Jordan Matthews in the second, the Eagles rolled the dice with outside linebacker Marcus Smith in the first round (but still took Matthews, the team’s prized rookie, in the second).
The ripple effect of tabbing a player who cannot be cut but can’t help out this year, put them into a box when it came to shaping a final roster that will feature one more gamble – an undrafted rookie kicker, Cody Parkey, supplanting veteran Alex Henery on the basis of one good week of practice and a strong showing in one preseason game.
They also raised eyebrows by keeping only two healthy running backs – the potential lethal tandem of McCoy and Sproles – on the roster, as third back Chris Polk nurses a troublesome hamstring. Two backs that stood out in the preseason, Matthew Tucker and Henry Josey, were both jettisoned. Tucker was signed to the practice squad, while Josey joined the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Difficult Road Ahead
The Eagles open at home with those Jaguars, who are coached by the same Gus Bradley who would have been hired here if Kelly hadn’t reversed his field and accepted the Eagles’ overtures.
Jacksonville started last season 0-8, won four of its next five and then ended the season with three straight losses.
Playing at the Linc, with stop-gap quarterback Chad Henne under center, the Jaguars shouldn’t be much of a test. Then again, the first week of the season usually features plenty of upsets. The Eagles are living proof. A year ago, in Washington, they were a nonentity playing a playoff team with high expectations.
To put it more succinctly, the Eagles need to soar out of the gate because the first six games – heading into the bye week – include a Monday night challenge at Indianapolis and, after a home meeting with the mysterious Redskins and Jackson, a trip to the left coast to face San Francisco. The first six games conclude with visits from a Rams team that lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford for the season but features a defense that could keep the Foles-led Birds in check, and then the New York Giants.
Anything less than 4-2 after the first six games would be a bad omen.
Following a bye week, during which is realistic to expect suspended right tackle Johnson to resume bookending that top-shelf offensive line, comes a difficult six-game stretch that begins on the road at Arizona and then at Houston.
They return home to face Cam Newton and his Carolina Panthers on a Monday night, and then travel to Green Bay on a short week before coming home to play Tennessee and then playing at Dallas on even shorter week in a Thanksgiving Day tilt.
Realistically, it may be hard to find three wins in that stretch, making the first half-dozen games all the more important.
The last month of the season? Home on a longer rest with Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champ, and then Dallas again. The season ends on the road with two more divisional foes in the Redskins and Giants.
Two of four in December, again presuming at least four wins in the first six, would mean a 9-7 mark that should give them at least a one-game edge on any team in what projects to be another down year for the NFC East.
That would mean a home game in the playoffs, assuring an encore performance.
But the “ifs” – some self-created by calculated risk – remain as prevalent as cheez whiz dripping from a cheesesteak.
This article originally appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com