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).

Pre-Season Review

The final preseason game has been played, roster cuts are finalized, and barring any last-minute surprises, the team we see now is the team we’ll see on opening night,  Consequently, it’s a good time to review the preseason.  Basically, I’m looking at what units/players surprised and disappointed and how that might affect the overall team’s performance.  I’ll start with what I felt were the biggest surprises.

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Special Teams – Terrible last year, this unit looks to be SIGNIFICANTLY improved.  The kick/punt coverage looks like it could actually be a STRENGTH of the team, though we’ll need to see the regular season play before we know that.  Regardless, I’m now confident it will be much better than last year.   Similarly, the return game looks solid.  Remember that for the Eagles, just getting league-average play from this unit would be a big improvement. As a reminder, here is Football Outsiders’ Special Teams Rankings from last season:

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Click to enlarge if you want.  I’ve highlighted the Eagles in green.  I’ve also highlighted two specific measures, “Punt” and “Hidden Pts”, by bolding them in red.  Both of these stand out as the 2012 Eagles’ biggest ST weaknesses.  The “Punt” category is self-explanatory, and we’ve seen significant improvement in the preseason.  The “Hidden Pts” measure refers to elements of the game that are outside the Eagles’ control.  So things like opponents’ field goal %, opposing kick distance, etc… That category is likely to improve as well.

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Defensive Line

Throughout the preseason, the defensive line looked a lot stronger than I thought it would be.  Perhaps I had lower expectation than everyone else, but I did not think the team would make the 3-4 transition as well as it has along the line.  We knew Cox would be good (despite some early issues), but beyond that, there were a lot of question marks.  Now, aside from Sopoaga, I’m legitimately happy with the overall group.  In fact, I think it’s the deepest unit on the team.

Vinny Curry still confuses me; he’s consistently disruptive but the coaches didn’t seem to even consider elevating him on the depth chart.  He must not be doing something he’s being asked to, but that’s hard to see on the tape.

Bennie Logan, if you recall, was the Eagles draft pick I liked the least.  From all accounts, it seemed like the Eagles chose him almost a full round early.  However, he’s definitely showed signs of being a valuable contributor.   I don’t know if he can hold up as the starting NT over a full season, but if he can, he’ll supplant Sopoaga by the end of the year.

Regarding Sopoaga, I’d like to remind everyone that he is exactly as we expected him to be.  HE WAS NOT GOOD LAST YEAR.  We knew this.  Nobody should be surprised by his underwhelming play.  However, the team was converting to the 3-4 and it was imperative that they added someone with NT experience.  That’s what they got.  I’ve seen some speculation that he’s “saving it” for the regular season, but that seems like wishful thinking to me.  At best, he’s a mediocre NT.  Rather than be disappointed by that, remember that he’s just a place-holder until the team can fill his role permanently (maybe with Logan).

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Starting Linebackers

Again, we’re talking about performance relative to expectations.  Essentially, I expected very little from this group.  Barwin was a “big” addition, but is recent play didn’t seem to match his reputation.  He’s looked good, and should provide at least competent play at the OLB position.  Mychal Kendricks might be the team’s biggest potential “surprise” this year.  We all saw his potential last year; at times, he looked GREAT.  However, he also struggled with poor tackling.  Shifting to the 3-4, he’s now moved to the ILB role.  As of right now, it looks like it suits him pretty well.  Depending on how the D-Line plays, I think Kendricks can be an EXCELLENT pass-rusher/blitzer.  Outside of Cox, Kendricks has the most “upside” of any defensive player on the team, and nothing he did this preseason has changed that analysis.

The Cole/Graham experiment has worked out about as well as everyone thought it would.    Both guys can be passable OLBs.  However, given Graham’s potential as a pass-rusher, I still believe his “future” lies with a 4-3 team.  He’ll be a valuable DE in Nickel situations, but I just don’t see him playing a big role in the team’s OLB plans beyond this year.  Trent Cole, by virtue of his age, doesn’t really have a “long-term”.  He’s in a similar situation to Graham, in that his best use is clearly as a 4-3 DE.  The good news is that attempting to shift both from DE to OLB could have been a DISASTER.  The preseason dispelled some of those concerns.

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Offensive Line

I don’t think this unit is getting enough press for underwhelming play.  To be clear, they’ve been mostly GOOD, and nothing to be concerned about.  HOWEVER, I thought this would be a real strength of the team.  Getting Jason Peters back healthy, adding a top 5 OT in the draft, and moving Herremans back to guard all seemed like very positive moves.  All told, I thought we might be looking at one of the best OLs in the league, depending on how well Lane Johnson played.  I think it’s time to ratchet those expectations back a bit.

Peters didn’t play much in the preseason, so he’s got the most “uncertainty” regarding his expected level of play.  Still, I think everyone might be putting too much weight into his 2011 performance.  He was DOMINANT, especially in the run game.  Is it possible that a ruptured Achilles tendon robbed him of some of his explosiveness?  Absolutely.  I still expect a very good year from him, but it’s dawned on me that expecting him to again be among the best OTs in the game may be too optimistic.  Hopefully I’m wrong, and he’s just gearing up for the regular season, but it’s possible.

The Herremans/Kelce combo is a larger concern.  Everyone seems to remember Kelce as a very good center, but in fact, his rookie season was fairly inconsistent.  He certainly showed the ability to be consistently good, but I think his “rep” surpassed his actual play.  Similarly, Herremans at G was expected to be VERY GOOD, not just solid.

Lane Johnson is too tough to evaluate at this point, but he looks to be playing in-line with expectations.  He’s going to look great at times, and struggle every now and then as he adjusts to the NFL.

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The TEs (really Chip Kelly’s use of them).

This might be premature, since it’s likely that Chip Kelly hasn’t even come close to revealing his main playbook.  However, I have to say I was disappointed by the overall use of the TEs throughout the preseason.  I expected that to be a focal point of the offense, and it wasn’t. I really liked seeing Harbor/Ertz lined up in the slot (and targeted), but it just didn’t happen as often as I thought it would.  Ertz, in particular, seemed underutilized in the passing game (6 catches total), though it was hard to tell if that was based on coverage or play-design.

On the other hand, Celek looks good, and could finally put up statistics that match his purported “ability”.  With D-Jax on the outside and a heavy rushing attack with Shady/Brown, I doubt many defenses will be able to pay much attention to Celek.

Finally:

Just 7 Days until Game #1…

QB Fumbles; Providing some Context

The reaction to yesterday’s post was pretty strong, not here really, but over at BGN.  I realize that type of breakdown is far from perfect, but I thought it was a good illustration of the overall point I was trying to make (after seeing the data):

Yes, Vick is “inconsistent”. However, a lot of QBs that are considered “good” are also just as inconsistent if not more.  I hope to take a look at the standard deviation of performances to get a better sense of things, but the fact is, QBs, in general, have many more bad games than most fans realize.  Case in point:

Tom Brady, over his career, has recorded a passer rating of less than 80 in 31% of his starts.  Consider that for a moment.  Tom Brady is one of the best QBs of all time (if not THE best).  Still, nearly one of every three starts of his can be considered a “poor” performance (Rating less than 80).

Among the most often cited counterpoints to yesterday was the issue of Vick’s propensity to fumble.  That’s a fair point, so today I took a look at the data.  Again, it will surprise you (in a good way).

Here are the active leaders in QB Fumbles (besides Peyton Manning, who’s not included for reasons that aren’t really important here):

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Vick, as expected, leads everyone with 87 fumbles (stats are from Pro-Football-Reference.com and, I think, only represent Fumbles Lost, not all fumbles).  However, look at the complete rushing stats.

In context, things look a lot better for Vick.  Yes, he’s fumbled more than anyone else.  However, he has also provided a LOT of additional production on the ground.  Looking at the stats a little differently, we can see the differences more clearly:

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 10.47.10 AMThis is an admittedly simplistic view of things, but it provides necessary context for the whole “Vick fumbles so much” debate.  I feel like I need to remind everyone here that I’m far from a #TeamVick member.  I still think Foles makes more sense.  However, the Vick-Haters have gone too far.  As you can see above, Vick’s fumbles, while damaging, are not necessarily “worse” than any other QB’s.  In his career, he has run a LOT more than almost any other QB in NFL history and provided a lot of offensive production with his legs.  AS a result, he should be expected to fumble more.

We can certainly argue over how much “production” is necessary to counteract the negative value of a fumble.  Unfortunately, our data isn’t nearly as granular as it needs to be to provide a definitive answer in that respect.

What happens, though, when we view it purely in terms of TDs and TOs?

Again, simplistic but informative.  Here is a table showing a selection of QBs with their Rushing TDs, Passing TDs, INTs, and Fumbles.  I’ve also totaled the TDs and TOs and provided an overall TD/TO ratio.

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I included McNabb just to remind everyone how good he actually was.  We’re concerned with the active players though.

Vick does, in fact, come in at the bottom of the list.  However, look at his ratio (right-most column) compared to guys like Cutler and Manning.  My sense is that a lot of Vick-haters would jump at the opportunity to trade him for Eli Manning or Jay Cutler.  I wouldn’t.  In fact, the more a did into QB stats, the worse Eli Manning looks.

The point, of course, is that complaining about Vick’s fumbles may sound right, but if we put it in context, his “problem” isn’t really that bad.  He runs more than any other QB, he should be expected to fumble more.  His fumbling rate is higher than most QBs, but he also produces a lot more rushing production; perhaps we should judge his fumbling rate as though he were a RB.

Also, consider the following points:

- Vick’s TD/TO ratio with the Eagles is 1.05, the same exact ratio as Joe Flacco.

- Vick’s more than 5500 rushing yards presumably led his team to a number of field goals, meaning there’s additional upside to his rushing that isn’t accounted for here.

Hopefully that shed some light on the whole “fumble problem”.  Yes, Vick fumbles a lot.  However, focusing on that without accounting for the corresponding rushing production is an incomplete (and unfair) view.

Vick isn’t a great QB.  It does appear, though, that he’s good enough.

Finally, no posts for the rest of the week (school orientation).  4th Preseason game should be fun, but relatively inconsequential as far as the team’s 2013 performance goes.  Things to watch:  Nick Foles (of course), Matt Barkley, and the DBs.

How Inconsistent is Vick?

Occasionally, I start to write a post with an end-point in mind, only to find out that what I expected to be the case was actually far from reality.  Today is one of those occasions.  I was hoping to provide an illustration of Vick’s “Boom-or-Bust” nature.  Indeed, I have done that, but I also found some very surprising results when I compared him to other prominent QBs, albeit with a serious caveat that I’ll explain at the end.  First, let’s look at Vick by himself.

Here is a chart showing Vick’s QB Rating by start.  I’ve only included games from his Eagles career (34); he simply isn’t the same player from his Falcons days (mostly a good thing).  All numbers are from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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To make things easier, look at this table:

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Before we talk about that table, we need some context.  Last year, Tony Romo finished 10th in the league in Passer Rating with a rating of 90.5.  Also, last year the median Rating for starting QBs (does not include spot-starters) was 84.

In light of those stats, I’m going to define “Good” play as anything about 90.  Anything less than 80 will be defined as “poor”.  Everything in between is mediocre.

See any issues?  Vick, in his time as the Eagles’ starting QB has delivered Good (or better) play 56% of the time.  However, he’s played poorly 35% of the time.  Interestingly enough, he’s had “mediocre” play in just 9% of his starts.

That’s about what I expected to find.  I assumed Vick would provide a higher percentage of Good and Poor starts, with a very low percentage of Mediocre starts.  While that appears to be the case on an absolute basis, comparing him to other QBs leads to some huge surprises.

Here is the same table (I’ve combined the 90-100 and 100+ lines), but with several other QBs included.  To keep the comparison fair, I’ve only included starts from the 2010-2012 season (between 46 or 48 games for each other QB).

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Looking at Vick’s “consistency” in context with other QBs, we can see some very favorable comparisons.  During Vick’s time with the Eagles, he has delivered “Good” performances more often and “Poor” performances less often than Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Tony Romo.

Vick has similar numbers (slightly worse) to Matt Ryan.

Lastly, I just want to highlight the remarkable play of both Brady and Rodgers.  That’s what having an “elite” QB gets you.  75% of the time, you know you are getting “Good” play from the position.  Also note Rodgers’ incredible avoidance of “poor” performances.  This is probably the subject for another blog post, but Aaron Rodgers might be quietly putting together the greatest QB career ever…

Summing things up, it seems as though Vick’s “inconsistency” is somewhat overblown.  On an absolute basis, that may be true.  However, it’s also true that, since coming to the Eagles, Vick has delivered “Good” QB play in an impressively high percentage of his starts.  Outside of the true top-tier of QBs (Brady, Rodgers, Brees, P. Manning), Vick compares favorably to his competition.  Additionally, looking at QB Rating ignores Vick’s rushing stats, which can only help his case in comparison to most NFL QBs.

Alright everybody, back on the bandwagon…

Eagles vs. Jags Review

Following Saturday night’s game, there were two major issues I wanted to address.  One is Vick’s performance, the other is the overall defensive performance.  Vick first:

Vick

If anything, Saturday’s game was a good illustration of what we should expect from the team this year.  The previous two games, the offense had looked very good.  There were a few miscues but, overall, the unit moved quickly and consistently.  That, of course, was not the case on Saturday.

I’m not that concerned, but that’s because my expectations were already different from many commentators/analysts.  I’ve said it several times, in several different places, but:

56.3%

80.6

1.5

What are those?  Michael Vick’s career completion percentage, QB Rating, and TD/INT ratio.  To be clear, I think the offense will be very good this year with Vick at QB.  However, the guys has played 10 seasons in the NFL; our expectations for his performance this year should be made in reference to that sample.

The upshot?  The offense is going to be good, but inconsistent, if Vick is the QB.  Derek Sarley, formerly of IgglesBlog, has a great breakdown here. (Promo code Q42B).  The reason I like his analysis so much is that it perfectly highlights two of the biggest issues I have with Vick (both of which I’ve mentioned before):

- He doesn’t anticipate routes, he waits for receivers to be open.

- He often turns down the open short throw (and primary option) in hopes of getting something downfield.

That second point, in particular, is a major reason why I was hoping for Foles to be named the starter.  All of Chip’s schemes and the entire idea behind the “simple math” option design, by definition, requires the QB to consistently take whatever the defense gives him. That’s definitely an attribute of the offense, not a drawback, but it means Vick needs to be willing, for example, to throw a quick screen rather than wait for a downfield throw.

Part of this might be confidence.  Vick’s strength is overwhelmingly in his deep throw accuracy and power.  Therefore, it makes sense that those would be the throws he looks for most often.  However, that mindset is going to result in some missed opportunities (like the missed screen in the link above).

With Vick as QB, there are going to be a lot of stalled drives.  The flip-side is that there will also be a number of deep-strikes.  The hope, obviously, is that the “explosiveness” more than compensates for the weaknesses.  Time will tell, but I’m hopeful.

Remember when I said that Vick as the starter is BAD for the O-Line?  I don’t have the All-22, but I suspect that played a role in the unit’s relatively poor performance on Saturday.  He holds the ball for a long time (partly because he doesn’t take the open short routes consistently), and he’s prone to rolling out of the pocket rather than stepping up in it.  Again, that’s NOT GOING TO CHANGE.

So far, this probably sounds like an “I told you so” post and a likely overreaction to one preseason game; that’s not my intention.  So let me repeat:

I expect the offense, under Vick, to be very good this year.

My overall point here is that, over the past two weeks, I’ve tried to remind everyone that Vick’s game has several large, and well-known weaknesses.  Over the first two preseason games, those weaknesses were largely hidden, which led some to suggest they were no longer there.  Saturday’s performance should have dispelled that notion.

The Defense

I’m guessing a lot of fans were disappointed with the defense, particularly on the long TD run.  Again, this goes back to expectations.  Odds are, the Eagles’ defense will not be “good” this year.  We’re going to see some ugly play, there’s simply no way around it.  The overall talent level on defense is low.  As a result, I’m not going to get upset over the occasional 60 yard run.  It’s terrible defense, and the team won’t win a SB until its fixed, but expecting better, at this point, is just foolish.  It’s going to take at LEAST another offseason to address the defense.  Until then, we all have to hope that the huge breakdowns can be minimized.  Whereas last year, the team was destroyed by long passes, I expect this year’s team to be attacked on the ground.  That should be a net positive, but it’s going to be frustrating anyway.

The Roster

Look for the Eagles to add a CB and/or S after league-wide cuts are made.  The DB depth is, by far, the biggest current roster construction issue.  Right now, the team is one or two injuries away from being in serious trouble on the back end.  As I said last week, if anything is going to blow this season up, it’s an injury or injuries to guys like Fletcher/Williams or Chung.  The Eagles desperately need some insurance there.  As cuts get made, that’s the only position group I’m really looking at around the league.

Preseason Game #3: What you should REALLY be watching for…

The third preseason game is tomorrow night.  It’s standard at this point for Eagles commentators/beat writers/bloggers to put up a “what I’m watching” post, and I’m no different.  I will say, however, that I tend to look at things a bit differently.  For example, at Birds 24/7, Tim McManus is watching:

- Kenny Phillips

- Cole/Graham

- Watkins

- Herremans

- Russell Shepard

Click the link to see his rationale, but none of those strike me as particularly meaningful, though they’re all of some interest.

Defensive Line, especially Logan/Curry

So far, the defensive line is FAR ahead of where I (and most others) expected them to be.  Preseason performance obviously has to be discounted, but there’s no doubt the group looks stronger than I thought they’d be.  Of note here are Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry.  Both players have shown signs of being very good players in this defense.  However, both have also been predominantly matched up against backups.  I want to see what they do when playing against #1s.

Logan, in particular, is an important piece, by virtue of Sopoaga playing in front of him.  Sopoaga isn’t exactly a world-beater at NT, and isn’t likely to produce anything beyond mediocre play.  Every team needs some draft luck in order to contend, and hitting on a 3rd round NT would certainly qualify.  If Logan can contribute, it eliminates a big hole in the defensive roster.

Rumor has it both Logan and Curry will rotate in early tomorrow night.  If we’re talking long-term (and we should be), that’s the biggest thing to watch.  Can either player be a significant contributor?

Nate Allen

It’s looking more likely that Nate Allen will be starting for the Eagles this year, at least in Game 1.  The question here is, can he be average?  With what is expected to be a very good offense, the Eagles don’t need a GREAT defense, just a passable one.  Last year, the team’s Safety play was horrendous.  Missed tackles and bad angles against the run and broken coverage in the pass game.  I’m confident that Patrick Chung (while he’s healthy) will provide solid, if unspectacular, play.  If Nate Allen can do the same, the Eagles will have filled the biggest hole on the team.

Michael Vick

Now that he’s the unquestioned starter, I hope to see a better representation of Chip’s playbook.  We won’t get it all (he’ll save a lot for the regular season), but we should get a much better feel for how the offense will function.  Beyond that, I’m looking for one thing from Vick:  Can he hit throw the bubble screen accurately?  So far, it looks like the WR screen will be a foundation of the offense.  However, it’s not as easy a throw to make as it looks.  To be successful, the ball has to be delivered quickly and with precise accuracy.  If the throw ends up on the WR’s back shoulder, it essentially ruins the play.  With DeSean especially, it can mean the difference between a huge gain and a negative play.

TEs in the Slot

There might not be an area of this offense I’m more excited about.  With the TEs the Eagles have, specifically Clay Harbor and Zach Ertz, this should be a consistent source of positive match-ups.  I want to see a lot of it.  At the highest level, it forces the defense to change its personnel.  Normally, the defense would be in a Nickel alignment, with 3 CBs to cover the offense’s 3 WRs.  However, a CB won’t be able to consistently cover Harbor/Ertz.

There are a few options for the defense, but none of them are that attractive.  It also plays to both Harbor and Ertz’s strengths, namely the Size/Athleticism combination.

Health Insurance

I’m not overly concerned with the bottom of the roster.  It’s obviously important for the players, but for the team’s overall performance, the last few spots on the roster aren’t going to matter much.  However, I want to remind everyone that a few of the Eagles’ offseason additions and presumed starters must still be considered injury risks.  Specifically:

- Patrick Chung.  He’s missed 14 games over the past 3 seasons.  In all likelihood, he won’t play 16 games this year.  Someone has to be able to step in and provide adequate play.  I’m not sure that person is on the roster.

- Bradley Fletcher. He played all 16 games last year and in 2010, so I’m more confident in him than I am in Chung.  Let’s not forget that he’s torn the ACL in his right knee TWICE (as well as the MCL once).  The Eagles aren’t exactly deep at CB.

Therefore, if you want to watch what’s really important during the second half of the game, keep your eyes on the DBs.  It was the team’s biggest weakness last year, and while it should improve based on the current starters, there’s very little depth.  If the wheels are going to come off this year, it’ll likely have something to do with this position group.

Whether its Wolff, Coleman, Phillips (not likely), Whitley, Lindley, etc… doesn’t really matter.  The Eagles just need SOMEBODY that can step in and deliver non-catastrophic play.