Week 2: Eagles vs. Chargers Pre-game Notes

This is a very good matchup for the Eagles; they should win this game.

I’d have said that (and did) before last week, so now I’m even more confident.  I’ve seen a few articles and commentators talking about the danger of being “overconfident”, and it’s a valid concern.  However, the Chargers just do not match up very well with the Eagles.  Outside of one specific vulnerability, which I’ll get to in a minute, I’m not seeing a lot to be concerned about.

- The Chargers run game isn’t very good.  Last year, the team ranked 28th in the league according to Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA stat.  Ryan Mathews, the Chargers’ #1 RB, averaged just 58.9 rushing yards per game in 2012.  It’s always tricky when comparing a team’s performance year-over-year, so these stats should be taken with a grain of salt.  The team does have 3 new starters on the O-Line (though one is King Dunlap).  The point, however, is that San Diego doesn’t have anywhere near the rushing attack the Redskins do.  As a result, we should see the Eagles focusing mainly on pass defense, at least until the Chargers prove they can threaten with the run.  Last week, Ryan Matthews had just 13 carries, and I don’t see any reason to believe he’ll be a larger focus this week.

 – The Chargers passing game is just OK.  Similar caveats apply (year-over-year comparison, roster changes, etc…), but Football Outsiders had the 2012 Chargers ranked 16th overall in Passing DVOA.  Philip Rivers is obviously the key here.  He’s a very good QB.  It seems like people are down on him, but look at his stat line from last season:

64.1% Comp., 26-15 TD-INT ratio, 88.6 Passer Rating.

Now he only threw for 225 yards per game, but if the Eagles are going to lose, it’s going to be because Philip Rivers beat them (or they beat themselves).

- The Biggest Vulnerability for the Eagles.  The shallowest position on the Eagles team is CB.  Bradley Fletcher, a starter, will not play.  That’s a problem.  Brandon Boykin will start in Fletcher’s place, and I’m confident he can fill in adequately.  However, behind Boykin and Williams, the Eagles don’t have anyone I trust.  Further, if Boykin or Williams goes down with an injury, we could see some fireworks (not good ones).  That brings me to…

- The Key to the Game (the only one).  As I just explained, the Eagles CBs might have trouble defending the Chargers passing attack.  How does the team counter?  With a disruptive D-Line.  Given the lack of rushing threat, I expect to see Trent Cole in full pass-rush mode for most of this game.  I hope Vinny Curry will be active, that would help. I also expect to see Kendricks on multiple blitzes and Brandon Graham for more than 16 defensive snaps.  Basically, Bill Davis will do everything he can to get to Rivers before Rivers can get to the CBs.  

Did I mention that King Dunlap is starting at OT for the Chargers?

I did?  Good.  Then you’re already smiling.

As I mentioned in the week 1 post-game notes, I’d like to see Davis use a 4-3 alignment more often.  It allows the team to get its best pass-rushing line-up on the field and will help keep offenses off balance.  I don’t think he’ll do it, but it makes a lot of sense to me, so I’ll be keeping a eye out for it.

- Vick’s accuracy.  He needs to be better.  He left a lot on the field in game 1, on throws that shouldn’t have been difficult to complete.  For the offense to truly “take off”, he needs to hit those consistently.  As I explained in the Rewind, Chip Kelly’s packaged plays will scheme receivers open.  That works as long as Vick can get them the ball.  If he can do that consistently, the team will be extremely difficult to defend.  

- Where’s Damaris?  Good question, I’m hoping we’ll see him soon.  

- More Bryce Brown.  Brown had 9 rushing attempts in game 1.  I expect that number to climb into the 10-15 range as the season progresses.  It’s tough to get him on the field when the offense is moving at warp-speed, but Kelly has to know that keeping Shady healthy is vital to making a playoff run.  Given Brown’s talent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take the RB role for entire drives, but that might not happen until later in the season.  Still, expect to notice him more this week, with a few more touches, and more importantly, more effective running.

- Kelly Challenges.  A minor issue, but given how horrendous last week’s challenge was, it bears watching.  This is such a simple part of the game, it’s astonishing so many coaches/teams struggle with it.  It won’t come into play often, but losing a TO on a foolish challenge is an unforced error.  That holds for both unwinnable challenges (last week) and low reward challenges.

- Guys I’ll be focused on:  Sopoaga, Logan, Johnson, Boykin.  

- Prediction:  Eagles 31 – Chargers 20  

Lastly, from ColdHardFootballFacts:

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See that second line there?  There’s obviously more to this data than just the time/location of the games, but the fact remains: it’s very tough for anyone to play a road game on the opposite coast.

Rest assured, the Eagles will “come down” at some point this season.  However, it’s very unlikely that it happens this week.

Week 1: Eagles vs. Redskins Rewind

First, I need to let everyone know about a structural change to the weekly Rewind post.  Last season, I typically posted at least 2-3 plays per game, with accompanying diagrams and breakdowns.  As you all have undoubtedly noticed, now everyone is doing it.  I’ve repeatedly stressed that my overall objective here is to provide analysis that ISN’T offered anywhere else, so the proliferation of All-22 Breakdowns puts me in a tough spot.

Therefore, this season, I will still be doing a weekly “Rewind” column, but I will likely focus on particular aspects of the game that I think are going unreported.  That will usually be accompanied by screenshots and/or illustrations when appropriate.  However, I will reserve the play diagrams for only the most important situations.  For now, if you want really good play diagrams, see Derek Sarley at Philly.com or Sheil Kapadia at Birds 24/7.  If you’re at this site, you have probably already seen those breakdowns for this week, but if not, definitely take a look; it’s really high quality stuff.

Now to the game.  After re-watching with the coach’s film:

- RG3 was CLEARLY not 100%. That’s not meant to decline detract from the Eagles’ defensive performance (you can only beat who you play), but it’s an important thing to remember as the season progresses.  For example, look at this picture:

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This play occurred on a 3rd and 11 with 4:47 remaining in the 2nd quarter.  Connor Barwin rushed upfield, beat the RT outside, and chased RG3 down from behind.  Above, you can see Griffin as he begins to leave the pocket, as well as Barwin as he turns the corner.  The result of the play was a 2 yard gain.  To be fair, RG3 was not running full speed.  However, it’s a good example of what I saw throughout the game.  Namely, RG3 played differently than he did last season (when fully healthy).  Consequently, the Eagles were able to defend him differently.

The Eagles did not have to “spy” or “mush-rush” or run any sort of QB contain scheme with the D-Line.  They attacked RG3 as though he was just another  “normal” QB.

As we all know, what makes the Redskins dangerous is RG3.  Put simply, if RG3 is playing like “just another QB”, then Washington is no longer a division favorite.  As the season moves on and this game recedes into our memory, it will be tempting to say “the Eagles D handled a great offense under RG3″.  That’s a mistake.  Monday Night, the Eagles defense did NOT play against a great offense.  So it was a good performance, but hardly indicative of what we can expect against powerful offensive teams or mobile QBs.

- One of my assumptions about Chip Kelly’s offense was clearly wrong.  I expected the Eagles to focus more heavily on creating “matchup advantages” with their personnel groupings and formations.   However, It looks as though the Eagles offensive options and read progressions will not change depending on the pre-snap defensive alignment.  The Eagles will run the play called no matter what, and just force the defense to expose a weakness.  There aren’t any pre-snap reads or adjustments for Vick to make (allowing the offense to move more quickly).

From a spectator’s perspective, it’s not a big deal.  However, from my perspective, it clears up some of what Chip Kelly’s overall philosophy is.  It’s less about maximizing the “weapons”, and more about the design.  The upshot is that the game-plan should be more resilient in the face of injuries.  The loss of a guy like D-Jax won’t have nearly as big an effect as it would in a more playmaker-focused system.  If the QB makes the right decision, SOMEONE will be open, meaning the marginal difference in skill between receivers becomes less important (scheme gets them open rather than individual skill).  For example, this play (from Bill Barnwell’s breakdown) would probably work with anyone at TE:

The run fake draws the LBs, the bubble screen draws the safety, and Celek is left with an open seam, all he has to do is run straight and catch the ball.  By comparison, think back to Brian Westbrook and all the moves Reid made specifically to get him the ball.  Chip doesn’t appear to work that way.

- Don’t worry too much about the 2nd half defense.  The Eagles didn’t go into a full “prevent” D, but it wasn’t far off.   Allow me to illustrate.  Washington has the ball, 1st and 10 on it’s own 24 yard line.  The score is 33-20, and there is 8:51 remaining on the clock. This doesn’t look like a “prevent” defense (instant after the snap):Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 1.07.43 PM

It’s certainly conservative, but still fairly “normal”.

Running the play forward, we get this:Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 1.24.27 PM

This is one step before RG3 makes his throw.  Notice the 30 yard line, which I’ve highlighted in red.  There are 5 Eagles beyond it, and NO Redskins. Nate Allen, deep at the start of the play, backpedals even more, despite all of the underneath routes from Washington.  Clearly, the Eagles were content to allow short completions at this point.  We can argue about the correct time to shift into this type of defense, but the point is that the 2nd half “rally” was largely a function of the score/time, and less a result of the Eagles not playing well.

- I would have liked to see a bit more scheme flexibilty from Bill Davis.  Given the big lead, and obvious passing situations, I hoped to see the defense shift to a 4-3, putting both Cole and Graham in a position to attack.  Graham ended the game with just 16 defensive snaps.  Going forward, I’ll be keeping an eye on this.  In theory, if you believe the offense will score a lot of points, then the defense should be more concerned with the passing game.  Here’s where Vinny Curry’s inactive/active status becomes interesting.  In general, I don’t have a problem with Curry being inactive, since I assume it’s because he’s missing assignments that we can’t see.  However, he is clearly on of the most disruptive pass rushers the Eagles have.

With a late lead and in passing situations, being able to play a 4 man D-Line composed of Cole and Graham on the ends, and Cox and Curry in the middle, seems like a very valuable option.

That’s all for now.  There were some other players I was watching, but whose performance necessitates a “not enough info” or  “incomplete” grade, particularly the Sopoaga/Logan situation and the Safety play.  I’m sure we’ll get a better look at them next week, in what will probably be a more “normal” game.

4th and 1; Gaming out Chip Kelly’s first big decision

There is a LOT to get through from Monday night’s game, but I wanted to dedicate a post to something extremely important.  Remember when I said that Chip Kelly’s biggest opportunity for truly “changing the game” lies in his 4th down decisions?  Well…

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Less than 2 minutes into the first game, Chip Kelly gets his first test.  Obviously, Chip went for it.  In fact, what I liked most about this play was that he continued to use the no-huddle.  Many coaches would have kicked a field goal in that situation.  Several other coaches would have gone for it, but would have called a TO or at least huddled up first, giving him some time to think about a play call.  Few, if any, would attack it the same way Chip did (no-huddle, no hesitation).

I’ve provided the high-level analysis for why, in general, going for it on 4th and 1 is better than kicking a field goal.  Here, though, we have a fresh, real-life example.  So let’s game it out:

Using Pro-football-reference’s play-finder, I searched for all 4th and 1 plays since 2008 season in which a team went for it.  Also, I included only regular season plays beyond the opponents’ 25 yard line and EXCLUDED all 4th quarter plays, since presumably the scoring incentives are a little different that late.  Using that search, we see:

- Teams were successful 63% of the time.

- The average gain for a successful play was 3.31 yards.

I won’t go through the step by step process again, other than to again cite AdvancedNFLStats.com for its Expected Points Concept.  For the step-by-step process, see here.  I’ll illustrate this in a table below, but for now, just know that, using the numbers above, going for it has an expected value of 2.52.

Meanwhile, the Eagles could have attempted a field goal from the 21 yard line.  Given the 10 yard end zone and the additional distance between the LOS and the hold (roughly 8 yards for Henery), that means the actual distance of the kick would have been about 39 yards.

From Bill Barnwell, we can see that the odds of making that kick are about 82%.

We also have to note that a missed kick in this situation gives the Redskins the ball at its 29 yard line (spot of the kick, not LOS).    So a missed kick, expected 18% of the time, is “worth” -0.85 expected points.

Putting that all together, we get this table:

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2.52 > 2.31

As you can see, going for it carried a higher expected value, and hence was the correct play at that point in the game.

At this point I have to note the caveat that we are using AVERAGE success rates.  For example, it’s possible (likely?) that the Eagles, by virtue of having McCoy and Jason Peters, have a better than average chance of converting 4th and 1.  It’s also possible that Alex Henery carries a significantly different average success rate (though I don’t think so).

So what we have here is a foundation, you can shift the analysis any way you like from there.  If the Eagles are better than average rushers, the expected value of going for it goes up (higher success rate).  Similarly, if the team was playing against a very good defense, we can assume that expected value would decrease (lower success rate).  Those moves, though, are all subjective, I’m merely setting the baseline.

Decisions like these are hugely important from a strategic standpoint.  The 0.21 difference in values above might not seem like much, but it’s significant.   If we think of the “gain” there in terms of an extra possession from the Eagles’ 17 yard line (worth 0.22 EP), it’s a lot easier to recognize the importance of making the right decision.

If Chip Kelly can consistently makes these calls, he’ll already being changing the game, regardless of what his offense does.  Coaches overall should be doing this, but it’s clear that, given the external pressures involved, they’re waiting for more cover.  Chip doing it successfully can serve that purpose, allowing everyone in the league to do things the “right” way, which would result in more entertaining (and optimal) football.

Or maybe it was just a one time thing and Chip will prove to be more conventional after all…

 

Eagles v. Redskins Review, Quick Notes

So….that was fun.  Rather than do my typical post-game review, I’m just going to mention a few player-specific notes and address a larger points.  I’ll have more detailed comments later this week after the All-22 tape is available.  I’ll start with the larger point.

How nervous were you during the second half?

My guess is very.  Put simply, the game ended up feeling closer than it should have.  The “momentum” clearly shifted in the second half (meaning the Redskins played better than the Eagles then).  However, the game was really never in doubt after the initial offensive explosion.  Here is the Win Probability chart from AdvancedNFLStats.com (if you follow me on twitter you saw a version of this last night).

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 7.11.34 PM

First, let me plug AdvancedNFLStats.com.  The site has live graphs like this for every game each week.  If you usually watch with a computer in front of you, add this to your game-watching experience. Above, I’ve highlighted the point in the 2nd half at which the Eagles Win Probability was lowest.  If you look closely, you can see that according to this site (which I tend to believe), the Eagles still had a 90% chance of victory.  Were you that confident?

The reason I highlight this is because it helps to contextualize just how big the Eagles lead was (and how well the team played early on).  It also helps to counter the “momentum” story that is so easily derived from a game like that.  It felt close and looked ugly, but after halftime, the result was really never in doubt.

The Eagles probably went to a prevent-light defense too early (I’ll check on the film).  That allowed the Redskins to score a few times and make the final score competitive.  Overall, though, this wasn’t really a contest.  Bottom line: The Eagles went on the road and demolished the defending division champion.

Quick Thoughts:

- Vick missed a number of wide-open receivers.  Tough to dwell on it too much, but in a closer game those plays will matter.  He needs to be better.

- The O-Line was all over the place performance-wise.  That, as I explained before the game, needs to change.  The O-Line needs to be a consistent strength of the team.  I’ll get a better idea after review, but it looked ilk Herremans and Johnson in particular had some isues.

- Trent Cole had a great game.  I have to check to see if his big plays came out of a 4-3 alignment or not, but regardless, that was a much better performance than anyone was projecting.  If he can again be a disruptive pass rusher, the whole defense will look a lot better.

- Didn’t see much from Sopoaga, but that could be a good thing.  The Eagles handled the rushing attack surprisingly well, and Spooky is hardly being counted on as a pass rusher.   Note that he actually played fewer snaps (1 less I believe) than Bennie Logan, so we might actually be seeing a big early depth chart move here.

- The Eagles CBs looked competent, in some cases even good.  Cary Williams had a spectacular interception, as well as a sack.  That’s the type of impact you expect from a “true” #1 CB, which nobody really believes Williams can be.  For one game at least, he was close.  Until I review the tape, I’m giving the 2nd half defense a bit of a pass.  It looked like the DBs were playing back, meaning they weren’t really trying to break up the passes. It’s possible the D just fell apart as the Redskins offense (i.e. Griffin) warmed up, but I think the score and situation had a lot to do with it.

- Special teams looked GREAT.  We’ve discussed how just getting average STs play would be a huge help.  It looks like the Eagles will get that and more.  Frankly, I don’t remember a better all-around game from the Eagles on STs.  Damaris had just one kick return, but it was for 27 yards.  Alex Henery hit just one field goal, but it was from 48 yards (though he kicked it twice).  Donnie Jones had 4 punts downed within the 20 yard line, including 2 within the 10 yard line and one the was Fair Catched at the 11 yard line.  He also had just 1 touchback.

I’ve been harping about field position a lot, so it was nice to get such a clear example of its importance in the first game.  Defense is a lot easier to play when the other team has to go 90 yards for a TD.  Overall, Washington started just 2 drives beyond its own 20 yard line, and one of those began at the 21.  The Eagles had 8 such drives, ignoring the final one (note some of those were the result of TOs, not STs).

Finally, it’s been brought to my attention that FO has now raised it’s Win projection for the Eagles to 9 games, bringing it exactly in line with my own…better late than never I guess.

Much more later this week.  For now, enjoy the best game the Eagles have played in a long time and help yourselves to another round of the Chip Kool Aid.

Eagles vs. Redskins; Setting the stage

Finally.

As much as I enjoy discussing the strategic and statistical sides to the game, I was getting anxious for the Eagles’ season to start.  In a moment, I’ll go through a few things to watch for Monday Night.  First, though, let me just highlight what has been the best development of the offseason.  Eagles fans, no matter how cynical or pessimistic, must be feeling at least a bit hopeful and not just for a decent season.  Chip Kelly might fail spectacularly, but it sure feels like we could be looking at the start of something special.  It’s been a while since any Philadelphia team has had similar circumstances, and I encourage everyone to enjoy it while they can.

As far as Game 1 goes…

- Watch Isaac Sopoaga.  If he’s terrible, it’s going to be very difficult for the Eagles to field at least a mediocre defense.  The problem here, is that the two defensive players with the most potential (Cox and Kendricks) both need an adequate NT.  If Sopoaga can’t hold his ground in the run game, Kendricks’ speed won’t mean much.  Similarly, as far as the D-Line goes, we have to assume that Cox will draw to bulk of opposing attention.  Sopoaga, Thornton, and whichever LB rushes need to take advantage of that.  Complicating matters is that the only other NT on the roster is a rookie, and we’re not yet sure if he can even play the position.

- Is the offensive line good, or great?  If the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot this year (or even mediocrity), the offensive line has to be better than “good”.  Jason Peters is healthy.  The team just spent its #4 overall pick on Lane Johnson, the other OT.  If that doesn’t translate to one of the better O-Lines in the league, the team’s in trouble.  Specifically, watch for Peters getting to the second level (can he still dominate?).

- Play-action defense.  The Eagles were among the worst defenses last year against Play-Action passes.  Granted they were among the worst defenses against pretty much every type of play, but still.  The combination of the wide-9, below-average LB play, and terrible S play led to the repeated victimization of the team with the play-fake.  The wide-9 is gone, so that should help a bit (Ss don’t have as much run responsibility).  If the Safeties don’t play it better, though, we’re going to see a lot of deep completions by the opposing team.

- Chip Kelly’s playbook.  The team, and the coach, have certainly intimated that we haven’t yet seen anything close to the whole playbook.  I expect to see a lot more multi-TE sets as well as a big emphasis on the run game with McCoy.  We don’t yet know how often the team will run no huddle, or how fundamental the read-option will be, but this game should quickly lay out what we should expect the offense to look like.

- Chip Kelly’s Play-Calling.  Here, I’m mostly talking about FG/Punt/Go-for-it decisions on 4th down as well as run/pass play selection on 3rd down.  I’ve covered this in detail, but NFL coaches do not go for it on 4th and 1-2 yards nearly as often as they should.  I’m hopeful that Chip Kelly, man of “science”, will hew more closely to “optimal” play-calling.  Forget the offense, this is where Chip Kelly can really make his mark.  The math is there, the concept is well-understood.  The only question remaining is whether Chip truly has the guts to go against conventional wisdom when it counts.

Obviously there are a lot of other interesting things/players to watch, but that’s my focus.  Also, remember that this game is essentially a bonus.  Opening on the road, on Monday night, against the presumed division favorite (regardless of what Vegas said recently) is a very tough matchup.  The Redskins have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, which will be a huge challenge for a defense still learning the new alignment.

In short, don’t freak out if the Eagles lose, even if they lose big.  They’re supposed to.  This game is more about putting the pieces together and setting the stage for a good season.

Refreshing the keys to the season

The Eagles open the season on Monday night against the Redskins.  Before looking to that game specifically, I wanted to refresh our list of keys to the season.  The first thing to remember is:  This season is a building block, not the finished product.  The purpose of this season is not necessarily to win at all costs (which is usually the goal). Here’s my list of goals and points of focus for this season:

- Install and prove the offensive scheme.  It’s Chip Kelly’s specialty.  I think it’s safe to say that if Chip’s offense doesn’t work, he isn’t going to be here for very long.  The offense (especially with Vick) will sputter at times, but overall, Chip, the players, and the FO/Lurie need to come away from this season feeling confident in their offensive philosophy.  Expectations are very high, so any significant struggles will likely be accompanied by some very loud external pressure (press/fans).  Here, I’ll just say that we should really be judging Kelly’s offense on a curve.

Everyone needs to remember that he’s had just one offseason.  This roster (on both sides) is probably far from what Chip really wants.  We haven’t discussed it much, but there is the potential for a “square-peg / round-hole” aspect on offense, similar to what we’ve seen on defense, most notably with the Cole/Graham transition.  So the offense doesn’t need to be explosive; it just needs to prove that it can reach that level in the near future.

- Identify Defensive Foundation.  Everyone’s covered the 3-4 shift in depth, so I don’t have much to add here.  The important point is that the Eagles need to start identifying defensive playmakers.  The best Eagles teams of the Andy Reid era were actually built on defense (despite the McNabb attention) with guys like Hugh Douglas, Brian Dawkins, and Troy Vincent.  More recently, the only defensive player on the team that even approaches that level is Trent Cole.  That needs to change.

The defensive roster this year is not very talented (relatively of course).  It will get torn apart and repeatedly torched.  However, this season will be a success if we can look through the defensive wreckage and see guys like Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks making plays, or at least doing their jobs very well.

Nearly every defense in the NFL has weak spots.  The key is that if you have a few “studs”, you can use them to mask the holes.  The Eagles need to find a few of those “studs”.  Guys I’m looking at specifically are:

- Cox, obviously.  I actually think he’ll have an “underwhelming” year statistically.  The key will actually be the play of Sopoaga (or Logan).  If neither of those players can make an impact, Cox will probably see a consistent double team.  If that’s the case, he’s doing his job, but won’t show up on the stat sheet.

- Kendricks.  Covered him already.  Consistency is the key.  Similar to Cox, he needs the NT position to be decent, otherwise he’ll have a lot of blockers to fight through in the run game.

- Brandon Boykin.  Maybe the biggest surprise on the team thus far, Boykin looks like a potential long-term contributor.  He’ll play the slot this year.  However, keep in mind that Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher aren’t exactly pro bowlers.  It wouldn’t surprise me if a suspension or injury presses Boykin into service on the outside.

- Bradley Fletcher.  He’s been under the radar for most of the preseason, but I think he could end up being a key piece.  He’s never going to be a top-flight CB, but I think he can be a solid #2.  Health is the hurdle here.  He’s torn the same ACL twice, so I’m skeptical that he’ll stay healthy over the long term.  However, he’s just 27 (CBs have longer life-spans than most positions), so if he can stay healthy, it’ll allow the Eagles to spend the next 2-3 offseasons focusing elsewhere.

- Fix the Special Teams. Perhaps a bit strange in light of yesterday’s post, but this is absolutely a key step for this team to take.  They don’t need to be great; they just need to be average.  It looks like Chip has this as a priority as well, so I’m fairly confident that this goal will be met.  Keep an eye on Alex Henery though.  Eagles fans were spoiled for a long time by David Akers.  Many teams do not have nearly as positive an experience with their kicker.  Similar to the rest of the unit, Henery just needs to be average.  His kickoffs have looked good in preseason, so I’m optimistic, but let’s see how he does when it gets a little colder.

- Remember how great Shady is.  This one isn’t really a goal.  It’s just what I’m looking forward to doing.  LeSean, in my opinion, is the second best RB in the league.  He’s also one of the most entertaining players at any position.  That was lost a bit in last year’s debacle.  He’ll be THE focal point of the offense.  Additionally, the read-option game seems to suit McCoy particularly well.  He thrives on space, so the moment of hesitation the read-option creates will likely be VERY good for him.  I also expect Chip to find some more creative ways of using him whenever defenses stack the box.

Lastly, I’m hoping to see a few of the dots in this chart (standard deviations) move to the right:

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Is Chip Overweighting Special Teams?

I was out for a few days (apparently law school involves going to classes and reading a lot of stuff).  The only thing I really haven’t addressed is the “controversial” decision to cut Acho (presumably instead of Matthews).  So here it is, in a larger context.

There are a lot of ways to think about the move, but the simplest is:

- It’s a minor change at the bottom of the roster; it’s unlikely to affect the team in any significant way.

That’s probably true. The specific move to cut Acho, who looked good in the preseason games, while keeping Matthews (who looked terrible in his REGULAR season games) will NOT have any large effect on the overall team performance this year.  

So why am I talking about it?

It may give us insight into Chip Kelly’s thinking.  Namely, Chip appears to be placing MUCH more importance on the Special Teams unit than Andy Reid did.  

From igglesblitz.com:

“It’s about special teams,” Kelly said. “There’s three ways to make this football team: special teams, special teams, special teams. …If you’re going to be the fourth or fifth receiver, it’s the value to Coach Fipp and our special teams.” Kelly said that’s the reason the Eagles acquired Najee Goode, because special teams outweighs a player’s production on offense or defense because that’s how they’ll contribute in games.

With Andy Reid, STs frequently felt like an afterthought.  Part of that was because the Eagles were blessed with David Akers, who held the kicking job (special teams’ most visible role) down for 10 years.  Coverage units and the return game were rarely a problem and sometimes a weapon (Brian Westbrook as PR for example).  As a result, little attention was paid (in the media at least) to the overall STs unit.  Andy rarely made any substantive changes and the biggest decision in recent years was simply whether or not D-Jax would return punts.  

Last year shocked many of us out of our STs complacency.  The team’s STs unit was AWFUL, particularly in the punt coverage and return game.  I’ve quoted the statistic several times before, but the Eagles Net Field Position was -6.67 yards last year, which was nearly a full yard worse than the 31st ranked team last year (STL) and the third worst measure of any team over the last 5 seasons.  TOs also factor into that measure, but the overall message remains:

- Last year, the Eagles’ Offense and Defense were basically playing the game on a higher difficulty level than the other team (as a result of STs and TOs).

In steps Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly cited STs play as the deciding factor in the roster decisions.  If there was a “battle”, the player who was better on special teams won.  In the context of last year’s performance, this makes a lot of sense.  Chip obviously must have known how bad the STs unit was last season.  He perhaps also knew that it was never a “priority” for Andy Reid.  Therefore, it is entirely possible that Chip Kelly is trying, in his first year, to quickly address the overall team attitude towards special teams.  Emphasize it now, make roster decision based on STs play, and players will subsequently know to both value and focus on their STs contributions.

That’s the positive way to put it.  There is also another side.

Special Teams plays a much larger role in the College game than it does in the NFL.  Essentially, the marginal difference between the best STs players at the NFL level is much smaller compared to the corresponding difference in college.  Therefore, there is less advantage to be gained at the NFL level.  Kickers make a higher percentage of their field goals, returns aren’t nearly as easy to “break”, etc…

As a result, Chip Kelly might have an inflated view of the relative importance of STs at the NFL level.  That’s probably surprising to hear, given the 2012 Eagles experience.  However, we have to note that last year was an anomaly.  STs units, across the league, are rarely as bad as the Eagles were last year.  Additionally, there is definitely an aspect of diminishing marginal returns to overall STs play; going from terrible to average is likely to be “worth” a lot more than going from average to good, and even the best STs units don’t effect the game nearly as much as the Offense and Defense.

In clearer terms, what I’m saying is that STs should NOT be used as the tiebreaker for deciding bottom of the roster personnel.  It absolutely must be a factor, but should not be the definitive issue.

Here is where Chip Kelly is running a reasonably significant risk.  In an effort to improve and emphasize special teams, he has hurt the depth on offense and defense (mostly defense).  For example, if a MLB gets hurt, we now have Casey Matthews stepping in instead of Acho.  It’s possible the coaching staff doesn’t see that as a downgrade, but for the purposes of this discussion we will.

If that injury happens, and Matthews is worse on defense than Acho would have been, then the tradeoff is obviously not worth it.  I’ll take a marginal improvement on defense over a slightly larger improvement on STs any time.  The tricky part, of course, is that the defensive side of the equation is POTENTIAL while the STs side is CERTAIN.

We KNOW that Casey Matthews will play on STs and contribute to the overall team’s performance. 

We DO NOT KNOW that a MLB will be injured and require a backup to play for an extended period of time.

Therein lies the risk.  If it was just one position, it wouldn’t be an issue.  However, it looks like STs play may have been the deciding factor in keeping guys like Maehl, Knott, Matthews, Anderson, Goode.  That’s a lot of roster spots.  (BTW, Chip obviously knows how many roster spots he has now, especially compared to how many he had in college, so I don’t think it’s a case of not appreciating the smaller roster, but that’s a possibility.)

With that many, it’s extremely likely that one of them will need to step into a major role on Offense or Defense at some point during the year.  Contrary to Kelly’s quote above, their “contribution” would then not be coming from STs.  At that point, the trade-off (sacrificing depth for STs) becomes negative.

Naturally, it’s possible that the marginal difference in offense/defensive skill for each of these roster “battles” was negligible, in which case deferring to the better STs play makes sense.  If that’s not the case though, Chip’s decisions are likely to hurt the team more than it helps.

There absolutely needs to be 1 or two STs “aces”, guys who are kept specifically for their STs prowess.  However, the rest of the roster needs to be constructed under the assumption that EVERYONE will have to start at one point or another.  Injuries are a CERTAINTY.  The second one of the “STs” needs to contribute on offense/defense (think Colt Anderson last year), the advantage gained by their STs skill is immediately outweighed by corresponding drop in production on offense/defense.

Overall, the point I’m trying to make is that there is a natural trade-off between Offense/Defensive depth and Special Teams.  Chip appears to be tilting more heavily towards the STs side of the equation than most coaches do (certainly a lot more than Reid did).  While I typically am in favor of his decisions to defy convention, this time I’m inclined to agree with the rest of the league (or at least with Andy).

One things’ for sure, though, the Eagles Special Teams better be damn good this year (they’ll likely have to for the team to be good).