The Eagles struggles directly tie back to their unsuccessful and inept strategy at building a championship caliber team.
The Eagles season is in a tailspin right now. The loses are piling up, with each one becoming worse than the one that preceded it, fingers are being pointed, and anonymous agents for anonymous players are saying Chip Kelly lost the locker room.
It has been an unmitigated fall from grace since the Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys and pulled to 4-4 and right in the thick of the NFC East title race. The expectations of winning these last three games, which represented the soft underbelly of the Eagles schedule, seems like a lifetime ago. It has gotten so bad that Eagles fans can’t even revel in the Cowboys’ misery.
Now, the Eagles are left wondering how a season once filled with so much promise is left in ruins. As the Eagles shift through the rubble and try to regroup before this week’s anticipated beat down at the hands of the New England Patriots, let’s take a step back and look at how we got here before we come up with a plan for fixing this mess.
Our focus does not start this past offseason, nor does it start in 2013, when Chip Kelly was first hired as head coach of the Eagles.
It starts back in 2010.
The 2010/2011 NFL Drafts
Surprised we started here? You shouldn’t be.
It’s easy to use the change of guard in coaching staffs as a natural delineation point for judging Chip Kelly’s tenure as a head coach. But it would be a mistake. Because under the new structures of the CBA, with a hard salary cap and cheap rookie contracts, maximizing draft picks has become critical to the success of a franchise.
But the Eagles approached the 2010 and 2011 offseasons with reckless abandon, targeting players which filled a need that would help the Eagles “get over the hump” instead of targeting the best player available. It was a dangerous philosophical departure from a franchise that had shown good discipline in drafting during the early part of the 2000s.
The results were catastrophic:
- Brandon Graham, OLD/DE, Mich
- Nate Allen, S, USF
- Daniel Te’o-Nesheim DE Washington
- Trevard Lindley CB Kentucky
- Keenan Clayton LB Oklahoma
- Mike Kafka QB Northwestern
- Clay Harbor TE Missouri State
- Ricky Sapp DE Clemson
- Riley Cooper WR Florida
- Charles Scott RB LSU
- Jamar Chaney LB Mississippi State
- Jeff Owens DT Georgia
- Kurt Coleman S Ohio State
- Danny Watkins, G, Baylor
- Jaiquawn Jarrett, S, Temple
- Curtis Marsh, CB, Utah State
- Casey Matthews, LB, Oregon
- Alex Henery, K, Nebraska
- Dion Lewis, RB, Pitt
- Julian Vandervelde, G, Iowa
- Jason Kelce, C, Cinn
- Brian Rolle, LB, OSU
- Greg Lloyd, LB, UConn
- Stanley Havili, FB, USC
24 draft picks yielded only two above average starters (Brandon Graham and Jason Kelce). The remaining picks vacillate between league average starters (Coleman, Lewis) to serviceable backups ( Cooper, Allen, Matthews) to players no longer in the league (pretty much everyone else). In all, only three players remain from those 24 picks: Graham, Kelce and Cooper, the latter of which arguably is undeserving of his roster spot.
It’s hard to put in perspective just how bad these drafts were, but let’s give it a shot. Consider the following players that were drafted in the first round after Brandon Graham in 2010:
- Earl Thomas, S, Seattle (4 Pro Bowls, 3 First Team All Pro)
- Maurkice Pouncey, C, Pittsburgh (4 Pro Bowls, 2 First Team All Pro)
- Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver (3 Pro Bowls)
- Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas (2 Pro Bowls, 1 First Team All Pro)
- Devin McCourty, S, New England (1 Pro Bowl)
In the second round, the Eagles took Nate Allen over T.J. Ward (2 Pro Bowls), Rob Gronkowski (3 Pro Bowls, 2 First Team All Pro), and Sean Lee, to name a few.
The 2011 Draft was more of the same: the Eagles took Danny Watkins ahead of Muhammad Wilkerson, Andy Dalton, and Cameron Jordan, while they reached for Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round ahead of Randall Cobb, Justin Houston and DeMarco Murray.
Of course, the draft is an inexact science; hitting on 50% of first round picks is considered a great average. So the Eagles could have just as likely drafted Tim Tebow or Arrelious Benn in those spots.
But the simple fact remains that these were historically bad drafts that created a void of players aged 26-30 — i.e., in their prime and capable of carrying this current team. Those misses have forced the Eagles — Chip Kelly included — to spend the last four offseasons looking to fill holes on this roster via free agency.
Perhaps if the Eagles drafted Earl Thomas instead of Brandon Graham, they wouldn’t have needed to splurge on Byron Maxwell to help shore up the secondary (and yes,I know they play different positions). Rob Gronkowski’s presence would have mitigated the loss of Jeremy Maclin. And of course, the 43 sacks Justin Houston has tallied over the last four seasons (22 last year alone) would have helped an otherwise underwhelming Eagles pass rush.
Danny Watkins is a pick still hurting the Eagles franchise.
Chip Kelly’s Mistakes as a GM
To their credit, the Eagles refocused their approach and committed to drafting the best players available in 2012 and 2013. By almost any measure, these drafts were a resounding success: Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Nick Foles and Brandon Boykin in 2012, Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz and Bennie Logan in 2013.
Six legitimate starters (not including Foles) — four of which, Cox, Logan, Kendricks and Johnson — that have Pro Bowl talent. They were foundational drafts. Drafts which could have set the Eagles up for years to come, infusing the team with young talent that already included the likes of LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis and Jason Peters.
Obviously, the 2013 Eagles team was not without holes, most importantly at the quarterback position. Foles 27/2 turned out to be a mirage, and if the Eagles didn’t figure out that position, it would take creating a defensive juggernaut that could mitigate his limitations to carry this team to a Super Bowl. In other words, they would be the exception to the rule, hoping to replicate the one off successes of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But it is easy to see that with some shrewd free agency signings, another good draft, and a little bit of luck, the Eagles could have found a quarterback and been on their way to competing for Super Bowls.
All that changed this past offseason when Chip Kelly sought to rebuild this team in his image. Kelly’s radical, and some would say foolish, approach to rebuilding this roster would have been viewed with incredible skepticism but for the capital he built up by having two good seasons as a head coach.
Let’s examine the chief problems with his approach.
Questionable Personnel Moves
There are certain truisms to building an NFL roster. One of the principle tenants is that you build through the draft and supplement through free agency. That is the approach advocated by smart organizations like the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
During Chip Kelly’s first two years, the Eagles largely adhered to this approach, eschewing large free agent signings and finding good fits at reasonable prices. Instead of overpaying for Jairus Byrd — who signed a massive six year, $54 million contract — the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins to a three year $16.5 million deal. Byrd has been a colossal disappointment, appearing in only 12 of 27 games, while Jenkins has developed into one of the best safeties in the league.
Connor Barwin was another smart signing, inking a six year, $36 million deal in 2013, a bargain price for a quality OLB in a league starving for such versatile playmakers. They flipped a fifth round pick for Darren Sproles and locked him up to a team friendly three year, $10.5 million contract.
These shrewd signings had Howie Roseman’s fingerprints all over them, who was quick to remind us that the contrary approach led to the disastrous 2011 and 2012 regular seasons.
In other words, winners of free agency rarely win when it matters most. If Malcolm Jenkins didn’t pan out, his contract would not hinder the Eagles long term. It’s a low risk, high reward approach that is best given the relative unknowns that are inherent in signing free agents.
Large money free agent contracts, on the other hand, are a risky proposition. In a league governed by a strict salary cap, teams have only so much money to spread around. If you’re going to contribute a significant percentage of your salary cap towards a handful of players, you better be sure they are going to validate their worth. When they don’t, it can set a franchise back for years, since they are robbed of that valuable capital to invest and improve their team.
For whatever reason, Kelly decided drastic change was needed to the Eagles roster. A quick review of his moves shows a worse batting average than Ryan Howard on a breaking ball low and away:
- Signed Byron Maxwell to a 6 year, $63 million deal, making him a top five paid corner in the league. Maxwell ranks 92nd overall according to PFF.com (8 spots behind Cary Williams), with quarterbacks completing 69% of their passes throwing at Maxwell, good for a 105.1 quarterback rating.
- Signing DeMarco Murray to a five year, $40 million deal: also making him one of the five highest paid running backs in the league. Murray is 22nd in the league with 545 yards on 155 carries and four touchdowns. And his 3.5 yards per carry ranks 43rd in the league out of only 48 qualified running backs.
- Trading LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso: Do I even need to address this? Let’s just move on.
- Letting Jeremy Maclin walk: The common narrative is that the Chiefs simply blew Maclin away with a huge contract that the Eagles could not match. However, according to at least one report, Maclin left because Kelly wouldn’t take his calls during free agency while the Chiefs made Maclin feel “like he’s the greatest thing on earth.” Obviously, Maclin’s departure has been a significant issue, with the Eagles having to rely on the likes of Miles Austin and Riley Cooper, two of the worst receivers in the NFL.
- Failing to Address the Offensive Line: You already know the story here. The Eagles failed to draft a single offensive lineman in the last two seasons, and are relying on two guards that have been career backups.
- Signing Miles Austin, Playing Miles Austin, Not Cutting Miles Austin: The Eagles compounded their mistake signing Miles Austin by still playing him and relying on him in key situations. His presence on the Eagles roster can only be described as dumbfounding.
Outside of the smart signing of Walter Thurmond, has any move that Kelly made this offseason panned out? That was a rhetorical question, of course, because the answer is obviously no.
Not Finding a Quarterback
No, I didn’t forget about trading Sam Bradford when discussing the questionable offseason moves Kelly has made. But before I get to that, riddle me this: what is the Eagles record since Donovan McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins?
Let that set in for a moment.
The following cast of characters have been called on to solve the Eagles quarterback position since McNabb was unceremoniously traded on Easter, 2009: Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford.
Six quarterbacks in five seasons. That’s Cleveland Browns territory folks.
Chip Kelly thought he found the diamond in the rough this offseason when he traded Nick Foles, a 2nd and a 5th round pick to the Rams for Sam Bradford and a conditional 4th. But so far, this trade has not yielded the type of return which Kelly had hoped.
The real kickers here are the 2nd round pick and $12.95 million difference in salary between Foles and Bradford that could have been used to fill a hole on this team. Jeremy Maclin, for example, could have been paid the $11 million he received from the Chiefs with room to spare.
I understand why Kelly moved on from Foles, but he still vastly overpaid for Bradford. Consider that the Arizona Cardinals acquired Carson Palmer for essentially two 7th round picks. Palmer is 25-8 with the Cardinals.
And just to stir up a little bit of controversy, it’s interesting to note that Foles subpar 2014 season was, by almost any statistical measure, superior to what we have seen from Bradford so far in 2015:
But I digress.
The Eagles have tried to take the bandaid approach to the quarterback position since 2009, and it hasn’t worked. Kelly has certainly contributed to the situation. It was Kelly who opted to start Michael Vick in 2013. Kelly who has failed to draft a single quarterback outside Matt Barkley since arriving in Philadelphia. Kelly who signed — and resigned — Mark Sanchez to contracts which he has not come close to validating. And Kelly who overpaid to acquire Sam Bradford.
As I will discuss later this week, the only viable way for them to solve this position is to go back to the draft.
Sam Bradford has not solved the Eagles quarterback riddle
Kelly acquired multiple players with significant injury history this offseason. He gambled that his sports science program would limit their exposure to injury, thus providing the Eagles with a distinct advantage over the rest of the league who shied away from these talented players simply because of the inherent injury risk.
In other words, Kelly thought he had identified a market inefficiency. But so far, the results have been luke warm at best:
|Jordan Hicks||8||3 (on injured reserve)|
Only Walter Thurmond has played every game this year, which is somewhat shocking given that he played in only 36 of 80 career games prior to signing with Philadelphia. Bradford, Mathews, Murray, Alonso and Hicks all came with significant injury histories, and all have missed some time this season. The loss of Hicks has proved especially problematic to a team that has been unable to stop the run since his departure. And it is easy to wonder if the Eagles would have won any of the last three games if Sam Bradford was healthy, which actually says more about how bad Mark Sanchez played than how good Bradford was playing.
Avoiding Large Roster Turnover
A study done by NFL.com back in 2013 suggests that the most successful teams in the NFL value roster continuinty. Teams like the Packers, Seahawks, and Patriots avoided roster turnover like the plague, while perennial laughing stocks like the Jaguars, Rams and Bucs had the most roster volatility.
As we just laid out, the Eagles have experienced considerable roster turnover this past offseason. Put aside whether you agree with these roster moves in isolation, because the net effect of all of the moves taken in totality is the real issue here.
FiveThirtyEight.com foreshadowed the problem to start the season, finding that the Eagles had the fourth highest rate of roster turnover in the league, losing 32% of its Approximate Value. This roster volatility led to a half game drop in the Eagles projected win total of 9.4 games.
Kelly made the fundamental miscalculation that the Eagles would be able to come together as a team despite the heavy roster turnover. In hindsight, it was foolish. Chemistry takes time to develop, and whenever a team turns over 32% of its roster, growing pains are to be expected.
Losing the Game of Inches
About 3,000 words in and a clear picture should finally be starting to emerge: the Eagles are losing because of their departure from well-settled principles on team building, an issue that stems back to the tail end of the Andy Reid era.
These issues matter because, as Al Pacino once famously told us, the margins for error in football are so small that success or failure can hinge on a few inches:
The NFL is, unquestionably, a game of inches. Each game turns on a handful of plays, which in turn has a drastic impact on the outcome of a team’s season. Or as Pacino said, “One half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.” The little things — those inches — add up, and as we have seen all year, make the “fucking difference between winning and losing.”
Or, as Jimmy Johnson said it best before the game Thursday:
Go back over almost any loss this season save for the Lions game, and you can point to a handful of plays that decided the outcome of the game:
- Atlanta: the Jordan Matthews drop leading to a pick;
- Cowboys: the bad interception to Ertz in the end zone;
- Redskins: the dropped pass from Ryan Mathews on the wheel route and the dropped pass from Matthews down the stretch;
- Bucs: 5 chances for turnovers the Eagles missed; 3 of which directly led to touchdowns.
All the penalties at inopportune times. All the dropped passes. All the plays where Bradford throws to one spot while the receiver is running to another. These all tie back to a lack of chemistry, which directly ties back to the Eagles high roster turnover, which was only required because the Eagles failed to build through the draft since 2010.
There are some ways out of this — which I can address later this week — but these are the fundamental issues with the Eagles. And like I said at the start, it goes way beyond just dropped passes or missed tackles. It’s an organizational issue that starts at the top, and won’t change until the Eagles leadership recognizes the problem and fixes it.