Taking A Sad Song And Making It Better





GORDONVILLE — Former Eagles head coach Andy Reid had a saying – on those rare occasions when he decided to speak in full sentences – that nothing happening was as good or as bad as it seemed.

Sounded a bit like fortune-cookie wisdown, which “Big Red” is surely using on the unsuspecting Kansas City media, but it made more sense that “I need to do a better job.”

Or so it seemed.

That was until the era of enlightenment that is the tenure of second-year coach Charles “Chip” Kelly. Now, you can take the baby that was one of Reid’s more semi-lucid comments and throw it out with the pickle juice.

With Kelly bending and breaking unwritten rules of pro football, we have learned that we can have both extremes.

And it can still be all good.

Look no further than the breather that is the bye week in a schedule that is about to become a lot more relentless for the next half-dozen games, which will then set the stage for December homestretch of what will surely be four telltale clashes.

There were times when the pre-bye set of six games seemed as bad as it could get for the Eagles.

The question of whether or not Nick Foles could continue to be nearly flawless at quarterback was quickly answered as a nay (a lower-rung QB rating of 82.0 after a league-best 119.2 in 2013). The team’s strength – the offensive line – was so ravaged by the types of injuries that kill seasons that even defending rushing champion LeSean McCoy looked more like Heath Sherman for whole games.

Defensively, the play in the secondary remained, to be kind, inconsistent.

With all that as the back story, one would think that Kelly’s apparent beginner’s luck from the previous season had run out.

You would think they would be off the pace.

And yet life in the Eagles Nation could not be any better.

Most residents of Expertville had the Birds – even with Foles picking up where he left off, and McCoy still running like the wind  behind an injury-free offensive line – sitting at 4-2 right now. It was reasoned that they would drop road games in Indianapolis and San Francisco and win the others, or maybe steal one of the perceived tougher games but come up short in another.

Either way, 4-2 at the break would put them on schedule to finish in the the 9-7/10-6 range seemingly required to take what we all expected to again be the lamest division in the league.

And here they sit, not only at 5-1, but less than two yards away from 6-0.

Yes, the same Dallas Cowboys the Eagles had to beat in the season finale to take the division a year ago are keeping pace, but it is too early for scoreboard watching.

The Eagles are already 2-0 in the division, having outlasted DeSean Jackson and the Washington Redskins in a shootout and spanking the New York Giants. The Birds control their own destiny, with two meetings remaining against a Cowboys team that has a recent history of implosions during the second half of seasons.

How and why did the Eagles arrive at the station a game ahead of schedule?

You could point to a lot of players who have led the way – like running back/return man Darren Sproles and left tackle Jason Peters on offense and safety Malcom Jenkins (3 interceptions, including a touchdown) and a young-and-hungry defensive line on defense – and not be wrong.

But the kudos should really go all the way to the top.

General Manager Howie Roseman and Kelly and his assistants are, plain and simple, head and shoulders above Joe Banner and Andy Reid and the likes of the assistant coaches who moved on when the new staff arrived.

Kelly, who says his team “trains” more than it practices, gave the players a few days off to self-scout the roster and evaluate.

It would seem the best self-scouting took place in the offseason. While fandom pined for big-time safeties, the Eagles went right to Group B and grabbed Jenkins, who is doing all he can without much around him – save nickel back Brandon Boykin.

The other signees were not starters, but top-notch special teamers like Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman. For the price of a fifth-rounder, Sproles was acquired from New Orleans and has been the Eagles’ most explosive player thus far, as a mercurial change-of-pace back (6.6 yards per carry, 3 TDs) and punt returner (15.6 yards per return, TD).

Before the season, Roseman sent a sure-to-be-cut running back named David Fluellen to the Colts for the rookie kicker Cody Parkey who, through six games, is on a Pro Bowl track. He has made 12 of 13 field goals, including a game-winner against the team that traded him away, and has been a touchback machine on kickoffs.

The special teams units are probably at their best since maybe the Dick Vermeil era, and credit has to go to the unit’s coordinator, Dave Fipp, for making the pieces fit. Those pieces include the likes of undrafted rookie tight end Trey Burton, handyman Brad Smith and many others.

In addition to Sproles’ punt return for a touchdown, Chris Polk returned a kickoff for a score and two blocked punts have been turned into touchdowns.

And then you have to give kudos to the coaching staff. Behind Fipp, you have offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.

The offensive line began the season without right tackle Lane Johnson, who was suspended for the four games. His backup, Alan Barbre, was lost for the season. All-Pro left guard Evan Mathis went on the shelf for eight weeks. He was followed to the M.A.S.H. unit by high-end center Jason Kelce.

Matt Tobin, who was the best offensive lineman in the preseason, was injured in the final preseason game wasn’t able to immediately help in Mathis’ spot until the last two weeks. David Molk, who was out of football last year, has held down the fort at center.  Games were won with the likes of Dennis Kelly and Andrew Gardner starting.

While the defensive line – with starters Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan backed up by designated pass rusher Vinnie Curry (4 sacks), role player Brandon Bair and rookie Beau Allen – has thrived under Jerry Azzinaro, defensive coordinator Billy Davis, and inside linebackers coach Rick Minter, have made it work with Mychal Kendricks out of the lineup since the second game of the season.

The much-maligned Casey Matthews had fallen off the radar quicker than a Malaysian airliner, and may not have even made the team if Travis Long were not injured, has played his best football as the primary replacement for Kendricks, recording 17 tackles (10 solo) along with a half-sack and a fumble recovery. Emmanuel Acho , who began the season on the practice squad, and work-in-progress first-round Marcus Smith II have been pressed into service, particularly when DeMeco Ryans got dinged up as well.

Meanwhile, Bill McGovern is getting the most of out of the outside linebackers. Connor Barwin (6 sacks, 2 passes defensed, forced fumble) is playing at a Pro Bowl level and the combination of Trent Cole (3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) and Brandon Graham (2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) are solid on the other side.

All a coincidence, or has the old axiom about it never being as good or bad as it looks given way to something more indicative of the regime that took over a program lost at sea and turned around?

Is it truer that even when it looks as if it couldn’t get any worse – vital players dropping like flies to injury, the star running back average two inches per carry until a breakout game before the break, the quarterback proving to be fallible – it couldn’t be any better?

So far, as we arrive at the Bye Week Station ahead of schedule, the latter explanation would seem to be the case.

This column first appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com.

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