As always, one half-decent win (especially over the Cowboys) sends the hopes of Eagles Nation soaring, inevitably to be dashed. Chip Kelly was very quick to throw cold water on any thoughts of the season turning around at his Monday press conference.
He correctly pointed out that last year, the Birds were 9-3 after they DESTROYED Dallas on Thanksgiving, leading to all kinds of NFC Championship Game talk. And then they lost three straight to miss the playoffs entirely.
Yet, there are some good reasons to think this season can get a lot better, and there is precedent for that sort of thing.
Last year sucked, but in 2013 the Eagles managed an incredible turnaround at this exact same point in the season. They were actually worse in the first half of Chip’s first season– 3-5 after eight games. Mike Vick was hurt and erratic, Nick Foles had been hurt and stank out loud against Dallas in week 7, and third-stringer Matt Barkley managed to be even worse than Foles in his two appearances.
Then the Eagles went on a miracle 7-1 run, losing only a bizarre game to Matt Cassel’s Vikings, as Foles unleashed his 27-2 masterpiece season, rookie Lane Johnson got comfortable with the four veteran linemen, and another rookie named Bennie Logan surprised everyone with his rapid growth at nose tackle.
Sure, you say, but that was Chip’s first year, with a new coaching staff, a lot of new players and a radically new scheme. All that change needed to be digested. There’s no excuse this time. Plus Sam Bradford sucks.
Those are strong arguments, but the Birds did not actually have that many new starters in 2013. Most of the 23 roster changes were at the bottom of the roster, the Roc Carmichaels and James Caseys of the world. There were only a handful of new faces among the starters — rookies Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz and Bennie Logan, punter Donnie Jones, LB Connor Barwin and ill-fated DBs Patrick Chung, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams.
Also, Foles had — up to that point — sucked as much as Bradford has this year. There was no reason to think he would end the year with the NFL’s best QB rating (119.2, better than Tom Brady has done this or any other year).
Foles had started only nine games before mid-season 2013, and he had looked pretty rough. His rookie year, he threw six touchdowns and five interceptions in a string of losses after Vick got injured against Dallas. Foles was just 11-29 for 80 yards in that miserable 17-3 loss to Dallas before getting knocked out of the game. Afterward, ESPN wrote:
“At least there won’t be a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia after this one. Nick Foles was awful and left with a head injury.”
Then Foles came back two weeks later against Oakland and threw seven touchdown passes. He remained awesome for the rest of the year, seizing Vick’s job without any argument, only to become mortal again in 2014. Bradford has been bad this year, there’s no question about it. But he’s comparable to Foles before the Eagles’ 2013 turnaround.
I had actually predicted in the summer of 2013 that Chip would take a half season to get the team together, but I had no clue the turnaround would be so stunning.
In many ways, the changes this last off-season were as big or bigger than those in 2013, with a new starting quarterback, two new running backs, three new starting defensive backs, two new guards, and a new top wide receiver. It should have been obvious that this team would need time to gel.
There’s obviously no guarantee that it will continue to get better. But the offensive line has been solid since week 4, and the running attack is rivaled only by St. Louis right now as the best in the NFL. They’ve averaged over 173 yards per game during that stretch, and very consistently: 186, 158, 177 and 172 yards, respectively. With three strong running backs, they have insurance against injury and schematic changes that might stop a single star RB.
Bradford was accurate Sunday, showing a strong arm and finding his open receivers. He clearly has upside, but with a steady 170 yards of rushing, he can be pretty mediocre and still win.
Plus, the Eagles have an easy schedule. New England and Arizona are likely losses, but the rest of the schedule is a row of cupcakes: Miami, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and (somewhat tougher) Buffalo.
Put it all together, and it’s very reasonable to think that this team could go 5-3 the rest of the way, winning the division at 9-7. The real question is whether the offense can improve enough to beat anyone in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, if they get there.