Pope Francis came to Philly and blessed the Eagles with a sainted victory. Let’s count the many miracles:
1. The Eagles’ offense showed up
Clearly the NFL now runs on anti-logic. Whatever a normal, rational person thinks is going to happen, you can count on the opposite.
The Eagles had the worst offense in the NFL this year going into game 3, despite playing two teams not expected to shut anyone down. The Jets had one of the most fearsome defenses with 10 takeaways in the first two game, an excellent front line and arguably the league’s best secondary (Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist).
So naturally, the Eagles came out running with a lot of success. Ryan Mathews had 67 yards in the first half alone, and added a 23-yard reception. (He ended up with 108 yards on the ground, and a pass reception TD). There were still a number of plays that didn’t work, and Sam Bradford looked erratic at best with 118 yards on 14-28 passing, but it was night and day after the first two miserable games.
Chip Kelly seemed to rediscover half of his playbook, even with DeMarco Murray and Josh Huff out injured. (Maybe there wasn’t room for it all on the new, smaller S8 cards?) He ran outside zone, used unbalanced front lines and even took a shot or two down field (without much success). One of the best things he did was to mix up the tempo, sometimes running out the play clock, then suddenly going tempo when they started relaxing. It was enough to keep New York off balance and get the offense rolling.
2. The Jets defense didn’t
OK, that’s a little overstated. The Eagles had a number of runs stuffed for no gain or a small loss, and Sam Bradford didn’t exactly carve up the Jets secondary. But that had more to do with Bradford’s shaky accuracy and drops by Eagles receivers — sometimes both on the same play — than with any defensive brilliance by New York.
I counted at least three plays that should have been touchdowns or at least very long gains, that were dropped. One was a wheel route to Mathews that was thrown behind him, which he bobbled and dropped. Bradford threw a better ball out in front of him a little later, and even with better coverage, it was touchdown Philadelphia.
This provides a bit of evidence for Chip Kelly’s comments last week, which seemed defensive at the time, that the issue was execution, not a poor scheme or opponents having figured out the Eagles’ playbook.
3. The Birds won the turnover battle
Coming into the game, the Jets led the NFL with a +8 turnover margin, boasting an incredible five takeaways per game. Today, they didn’t get one until there were seven minutes were left, with a helmet hit right on the ball that would have been hard for any running back to hang on through.
Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had given up two INTs in each of the first games, which was agonizing since his low turnover percentage was one of his main selling points. That all changed today. The famous Jets secondary didn’t have a single interception, which was clearly part of the Eagles’ game plan. Bradford seemed to be under orders to avoid interceptions at all costs, favoring dirt-diggers over catchable — but interceptable — balls.
The final TO tally? 4-1 Eagles, with three interceptions and Brandon Marshall’s gift fumble on a weird lateral making a huge difference in the game.
4. Saints help us
Where would this Eagles team be without Darren Sproles and Malcolm Jenkins? That’s true generally, but even more so today, between Sproles’ punt return TD and plays from scrimmage. Meanwhile, Malcolm Jenkins was smothering the Jets’ offense from the first drive, where he stopped Jeremy Kerley a yard short of the first down on 3rd and five.
Unbelievably, the Saints were going to toss both players in the trash. Luckily, the Eagles got wind of their plan to release Sproles and rushed through a trade (5th rounder) to make sure they got him. Brian Solomon wrote in the Eagles Almanac this summer that Chip Kelly was allocating too much money to Sproles, specifically objecting to the $1.5 million guaranteed portion of the Pro Bowler’s $3 million salary. I think that cash is returning the best value on the team’s entire payroll.
5. Jordan Hicks steps up
It’s easy to criticize Chip Kelly for not drafting an offensive lineman in the third round this year. Instead, with none of the OL they liked left on the board, they took ILB Jordan Hicks even though they had three starters (Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks, and Demeco Ryans) plus Najee Goode, a solid sub.
That “best player available” choice is looking pretty smart today, despite the disarray on the OL. Hicks has jumped right in as a solid backup and a major playmaker. Last week he strip-sacked Tony Romo while breaking his collarbone. Today, he caught one of Bair’s deflected passes for an interception and scooped up (Connor Barwin’s header of) the failed Brandon Marshall lateral, adding a nice little eleven-yard return.
Rookie CB Eric Rowe also had a good game, with two pass breakups on likely touchdown passes to Devin Smith and an interception. He also shared the tackle on the opening kick return.
6. The battle of the mountain men
One of today’s key matchups was 6’6″ Idaho mountain man DE Brandon Bair, starting for the first time ever in place of the injured Cedric Thornton, vs. Jets QB
Gizzly Adams Bon Iver Ryan Fitzpatrick, the most famous Harvard-educated beardo since Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Fitzpatrick had his moments, including two touchdown passes, but Bair was the clear winner with two batted passes (on caught by Hicks for an interception), another play where he forced a throw into the dirt near Fitzpatrick’s feet, and a full afternoon harassing the much smaller (6’2″) journeyman QB. He will haunt Fitzpatrick’s dreams this week.
7. The Eagles missed Andrew Gardner
The Eagles two new starting guards, Allen Barbre and Andrew Garnder, have been roasted and ridiculed all season long, blamed almost single-handedly for the Eagles’ offensive woes.
A lot of this is unfair, or at least exaggerated. While both have struggled, they’re not the only ones. Future Hall of Fame tackle Jason Peters and Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce have played poorly as well, and the guards that the noobs replaced — Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans — have been equally bad with their new teams. Besides, they’ve looked decent in pass protection, though run blocking has been rough.
Today, the team looked a lot better. We’ll have to study the tape to see how much of this is technique by the new guys, versus a bigger playbook, versus communication between the offensive lineman, but there was one clear sign of the improvement. Gardner left the game in the second half with an injury, and the Eagles’ offense clearly struggled from that point on. I never thought I’d be saying this, but they clearly missed Gardner’s presence in the run game.
Put it all together, and this weekend’s divine intervention produced one big miracle out of these seven smaller ones: everything has changed for this floundering Eagles team. The offense is moving again, the defense was very stout (at least in the first half), and in the crappy NFCE East, the Eagles are right back in the thick of the playoff race.