Preseason Focus

I was hoping to do a full All-22 Rewind (like I did for each game last season) for the 1st preseason game.  I’ve got some new ideas regarding format that I wanted to try and I was anxious to see a few of the younger players on tape.  However, apparently the NFL Game Rewind subscription does NOT include All-22 film for preseason games.  As you can imagine, that throws a fairly large wrench into my preseason plans.  As a result, until the regular season, I won’t be able to post play or player diagrams.  If any of you know an alternate source of All-22 film, please let me know.

In light of that, here is a quick review of the first preseason game.  First, though, I want to remind everyone of the overall goals for this season.

Goals for 2013

– Install the offense and prove that it can work.

– Install the new defensive scheme.

– Fix the special teams, ideally bringing the unit at least close to league average.

– Identify a few young players that can fill long-term starting roles.

That’s really it.  Obviously the goal is also to win, but considering how bad the team was last season and the fact that there is a new coach and entirely new system to install, this season’s main purpose is as a stepping stone to future success.  This is the filter through which I’m viewing the preseason.  I encourage everyone else to do the same.

So…Preseason game 1, through the lens that I just described:

Install the offense and prove that it can work.

The Eagles were successful with both Vick and Foles at the helm on Friday.  Not only that, but we also saw perhaps the perfect distillation of the QB battle overall.  Vick led a very quick TD drive, built around 2 great throws, one to Avant and the other the bomb to DeSean.  That’s the explosiveness and deep-throw ability that has tantalized coaches since Vick entered the league.  We saw a bit of the option game, but not enough to get a great feel for how it will be run.

Foles, on the other hand, also looked great, though in a much different way.  The first drive turnover was obviously a low-light.  Remember that Foles knows he’s in an intense QB battle, and likely sees himself as slightly behind.  Therefore, throughout the preseason, I expect to see Foles “force” things more often than we saw last season.  The first turnover was a prime example.  The protection broke down (most of the blame lies here), at which point Foles has to either hit a check-down/someone’s feet or pull the ball down and take a sack.  He did neither, and fumbled.

The next drive though, was as perfect a view of the “Foles Offense” as the first scoring drive was of the “Vick Offense”.  More methodical, more first downs.  Reliant on short-to-intermediate throws.  Foles was very accurate on this drive, especially his throw to Avant on the 3rd down out.  I’m not sure Vick makes that play.  The ball was delivered in-stride, allowing Avant to turn upfield and get the first down.  I think this will be a VERY important aspect of Chip Kelly’s offense, and Vick does not do this particularly well.

Overall, it was a positive night for the offense.  We did not see anything close to the full “system”, but both QBs looked comfortable, and the O-Line looked decent, especially considering Jason Peters (the best OL) did not play.  Add a healthy LeSean into the mix, and this “goal” looks very achievable.

– Install the new defensive scheme

This side of the ball didn’t go so well.  However, I think many are overreacting.  Having your first test in a completely new defense against Tom Brady is not exactly an ideal measure of progress.  There are a lot of players (in the front 7) changing positions, meaning this will likely take longer to install than the offense.

Also, we can’t overlook the fact that NOT EVERY PLAYER IS GOING TO WORK OUT.  Shifting from the 4-3 to the 3-4, we can expect that at least a few players will not make the change successfully.  This year, hopefully this preseason, is about identifying which players can’t make the switch so that they can be replaced.

So, don’t be disappointed if the defense looks like crap for a few weeks (and possibly for this season).  In fact, expecting anything better than league average this year is way too optimistic.  This is the defensive progression:

Terrible —> Bad —> Mediocre —> Solid, if unspectacular —> Good —-> Great

After last season, we’re just looking for at least “Bad”.

– Fix the Special Teams

Looking good on this account.  Still some weakness obviously, but very encouraging.  The punt coverage/return looked at least competent, which is a HUGE improvement over last year.

Remember that the Eagles had, by far, the WORST net starting field position in the league last year.  That was partially due to turnovers, but was also largely the side effect of terrible special teams.  Fixing this unit will, by itself, help both the offense and defense A LOT.

On the offensive side of the ball, in 2012 the Eagles were actually about average in terms of yards/drive.  The problem was that the team started farther back than everyone else.

It won’t be as popular, and I don’t expect to see beat writers focusing on it, but bring the STs up to average would be a major accomplishment for this year.

– Identify a few young players that can fill long-term starting roles.

Lastly, we have what may actually be the most important long-term goal.  Basically, the Eagles have a lot of holes/question marks right now.  Some of these are being filled by older players who will not be here much longer (Trent Cole?).  The team needs to start filling positions with players who can hold their spots for at least 4-5 years.  Once those “core pieces” are identified, it becomes much easier to improve the roster, simply because there is something to build from.

So, the guys who are MOST IMPORTANT to the Eagles long-term future are:

Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz, Mychal Kendricks, Bennie Logan, Jason Kelce, Brandon Boykin, Vinny Curry, etc…

Lane Johnson and Fletcher Cox stand out as perhaps the biggest “pieces”.  The Eagles really need both of these guys to be stars.  I’ve been very surprised at the lack of attention Johnson has drawn.  Considering he was the 4th OVERALL pick, you’d think Eagles fans would be all over him.  As I have shown before, it’s near impossible to become a title contender in the NFL if you don’t hit on your 1st round picks, ESPECIALLY if those picks are in the top 5.

Without the All-22, it’s tough to do a fair evaluation, but:

Lane Johnson looked promising.  Given what we heard pre-draft, I was mainly looking for how “comfortable” he is.  He did not look lost, which is a big plus.

Zach Ertz was mixed, but we should have expected that.  Good receiver, suspect blocker. If I were Chip, I’d think about essentially making Ertz a WR this year.  Teach him how to block during practice and put him on the line occasionally during non-competitive games.  In the meantime, use him out wide to supplement the depleted WR corps.  Putting Ertz in the slot and asking a CB to cover him on a slant seems like a tall order for the defense.  I’d force that matchup all game long and see how the defense reacts.

Cox did not have a good game.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him to see if it was an aberration or if the scheme change will affect him more than any of us thought.

Kendricks was also mixed, which is more troubling.  We got a full season of up-and-down play from him last year.  The hope for this season is for him to find some consistency.  The scheme change might slow that progression down, but the leash just can’t be as long this year as it was during his rookie campaign.

Boykin was tough for me to see, so I’ll defer to other evaluators here.  Sounds like he was solid, though he spent most of his time in the slot.  I’d love to see him get a change outside, even if it’s just temporary to see if he can hang.

Curry and Kelce both looked good from my vantage point.  Curry, in particular, stood out.  Not sure what he did in the offseason, but he looks about 50% larger this year.  Of all the players making the D transition, it looks like Curry made the biggest actual physical adjustment.  Wasn’t expecting much from him, so this might be a nice surprise for the long-term roster.  Just one game though, so we’ll have to see if he can keep it up.

I don’t expect all of the players I listed above (and any similar profile guys I left off) to become long-term starters, but for the Eagles to return to prominence, at least a few of those guys have to pan out.  If you’re wondering what to watch for during the rest of the preseason action (and throughout the regular season), this is it.  Can any of these guys turn into valuable starters or even star players?  If not, it’s not going to matter what kind of system Chip Kelly runs or who the QB is.

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Jeremy Maclin Reaction – “Meh”

I got side-tracked by the McNabb debate, and therefore have not yet commented on the relatively large injury hit the Eagles took when Maclin went down with a torn ACL.

My reaction?

As far as potential injuries go, this one isn’t that big of a deal (to the team, it’s obviously devastating to Maclin).  Allow me to make a two quick points, then add some detail:

– Maclin is a good receiver, not a great one.

– The Eagles, in particular, are well-positioned to handle a serious injury to the WR corps (as long as it isn’t to D-Jax).

Maclin is a good receiver, not a great one.

This one probably doesn’t need much explanation, I think just about everyone is in agreement here.  However, let’s take a look at Maclin’s contribution, in context with the rest of the league.

For his career (4 seasons), Maclin’s average per season numbers are:

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 9.19.42 AM

Take a close look.  He’s only played all 16 games once and has actually averaged closer to 14 games per season.  He averages just over 4 catches a game.  He averages just UNDER 60 yards per game.  4 catches, 60 yards.  Not a stat line that jumps off the page, is it?

His season averages (remarkably consistent from his rookie year) obviously look the same.  65 catches a year for 860 yards are good numbers, but how good?

Well, last season:

– There were 33 receivers who caught more than 64.5 passes.  Maclin, with 69, was among them (though 27 receivers caught more).

– 30 receivers registered more than 860 yards.  Maclin ranked 31st, with 857 (told you he was consistent).

As I said, Maclin is a decent receiver, but he’s far from irreplaceable.  Compared with the rest of the league, he’s nearly the definition (statistically) of an average starting WR (assuming 2 starters per team).

The Eagles, in particular, are well positioned to handle a serious injury to the WR corps.

The biggest point here is that the Eagles, prior to the injury, were likely to be running a lot of 2 WR sets anyway (presumably the result of multi-TE sets).  That means the team does not need to be quite as deep as has been necessary in the past.  Desean Jackson is a key player, because the team needs his speed to help stretch defenses and open up the underneath game (or hit home runs if defenses commit low).

Outside of that, the Eagles WR needs mainly consist of guys who can produce at a league average level.  They don’t need game breakers, just a couple of players who can catch the ball and take advantage of limited defensive attention.  Between Avant, Cooper, maybe Damaris, and the rest of the potentials, I think the team’s covered.

Remember, the Eagles aren’t trying to replace a top-flight guy here.  In fact, it’s not all that difficult to replace a large portion of Maclin’s production.  Let’s say 80%.  That means, based on Maclin’s career averages, 51.6 catches and 690 yards.

Last season, 57 receivers had more than 690 yards receiving.  73 WRs had more than 600 yards receiving.  Not exactly an exclusive club.

Also, 67 players caught more than 51 passes last year.  Again, not that exclusive, not hard to replicate.

In other words, Brandon Gibson-level production from last year gets you 80% of Maclin.

Basically, if this season goes poorly, it will NOT be because the team was missing Maclin.  Comparing to last year, this injury loss isn’t even on the same planet as losing Jason Peters last season.

It sucks for Maclin and gives beat writers a storyline to run with, but isn’t actually that big of a hit for the team.  Want to know how the Eagles will replace Maclin?

– Change the offense to emphasize the RB and TE spots (already being done prior to injury)

– Find a league average WR to take the #2 spot on the field.  Wait, do we still have Jason Avant?  Yes?  Then we’re done.

The Jason Phillips injury, on the other hand….

More McNabb (lets talk about Eras)

Didn’t really mean for this to become a multi-day subject (naive), but given what I’ve seen in the comments and on Twitter, it’s clear my job isn’t finished yet.  To refresh, I posted yesterday about McNabb’s career and why he deserves a lot more credit than he gets.  I made a few player comparisons with other great QBs to show McNabb is not out-of-place in that company.

In response to this, several people mentioned that the players I cited (Jim Kelly for example) played in a different era, and therefore it is not fair to compare things like QB Rating.  McNabb’s habit of throwing the ball into the ground was also mentioned.  I’ll address both of those “weaknesses” now.

QB Rating and other stats across Eras

Before I even try to account for this, let me say I remain unconvinced by this argument.  The formula for QB Rating has not changed.  It’s an apples-to-apples comparison.  This argument is most compelling when we talk about advanced statistics.  In baseball, for example, you could argue that previous eras should not be judged with stats like on-base percentage or WAR, because the players in those days did not know what those stats were.  If they did, it’s logical to believe they would have adjusted their individual games to improve.

However, this argument doesn’t hold for many NFL stats.  The importance of throwing many more TDs than INTs is not a new concept.  Similarly, I wasn’t there but I’m pretty sure everyone knew that completing a high percentage of your passes was a good thing.

Regardless, that’s the argument I’m facing (QB Rating inflation, offensive inflation, etc…), so let’s take a shot at it.

First, let’s adjust for league-average play.  I’m going to lean heavily on Pro-Football-Reference.com today.  If you don’t visit that site, you’re missing out.  In fact, if I had just one website to choose for NFL access, it’d be that one.  Anyway, among the valuable stats on there is Rate+.  Basically, this compares each QB’s rating each year to league average.  100 is average, with higher numbers equalling better performance.  So this accounts for changes in the league.  Here are the season breakdowns for 3 different players.  See if you can guess who they are.

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.26.07 AMScreen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.22.48 AM Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.25.18 AM

Any ideas?  Obviously one of them is McNabb, but which one?

The point isn’t that any one of these careers is better than the others; the point is that it’s very difficult to discern which is best.  What do you value?  Is it the # of above average seasons?  Is it the highest “peak”?

The three players, in order from left to right, are Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, and Troy Aikman.

Notes:

– Kelly had 10 seasons of 100 or better (average or better).  Aikman had 9.  McNabb had 9 (and a 99 and 98).  Keep in mind that the key here is longevity.  Obviously, HOF QBs need to be well above average.  However, being above average for a decade is very difficult to do.

– How about “good” seasons?  Let’s look at seasons in which each player recorded a Rate+ measure of 110 or greater.  Kelly has 5, McNabb has 5, Aikman has 5.

Again, the point is not that McNabb is BETTER than either of these players (though he was, definitely better than Aikman), it’s that they clearly belong in the same category.  The reason I typically don’t use Aikman for comparison is because his SB rings distort the argument (everyone values titles differently).

Also, remember that this is just PASSER RATING.  It does not take into account the 29 TDs that McNabb ran for (or the 3400+ yards).  That’s a huge part of McNabb’s resume that people are overlooking in the QB comparisons.

So that’s QB Rating, adjusted for league changes and different “eras”.  What else can we look at?

Remember Approximate Value?  That’s the PFR statistic that attempts to create an apples-to-apples comparison for every player, regardless of position.  I used it for the draft skill vs. luck series.  It’s far from perfect, but since we’re comparing players of the same position, I’m very comfortable using it.

So here’s our next mystery game.  Guess who?

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 8.37.14 AM  Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.01.08 AM  Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.03.38 AM  Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.02.37 AM

Rather than just reveal the names, I’ve put them in a chart (below) so you can see the career progression of each QB.

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 9.15.27 AM

I realize that Bradshaw and Aikman both get bonus points for SB wins, but if that’s the point of differentiation, then Kelly is still unexplained and you’re saying McNabb was 4 points away from being a HOFer, a ridiculously fine line to draw.  Overall, using Approximate Value, it’s clear that McNabb, once again, belongs among this group.

The “Worm-Burner” Weakness

The next aspect of the anti-McNabb case I want to address is the point people use to discredit the strongest part of McNabb’s resume.  Donovan McNabb has one of the most impressive TD/INT ratios of all-time (2.0).  He also has one of the lowest interception rates ever (2.2%, 4th overall behind Rodgers, Brady, and Neil O’Donnell).

The man did not throw interceptions.  That’s a very good thing.

However, in response to this, people frequently mention that McNabb played too conservatively.  Many times, he threw the ball into the ground, giving nobody a chance to catch it.  The common refrain is that he didn’t “give his guys a chance”.

Is this a fair critique?

Well let me put this a different way.

Imagine you are McNabb.  Your best receivers each year are: Chad Lewis, James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis.  No joke, those were the Eagles leading recievers from 2000-2008, with TO excluded.

Now tell me, with those WRs, how comfortable would you be throwing 50/50 balls?  Do you think it’s an admirable decision to let James Thrash fight it out with a DB for the pass? Reggie Brown?

Donovan McNabb had just one full season with an elite WR, 2004.  That year, he completed 64% of his passes, threw for 31 TDs with just 8 interceptions.  He also led his team to the Super Bowl, losing by 3 points to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Given just one chance, McNabb took full advantage of having an elite WR, putting up historically great numbers and getting to the Super Bowl.  Also note, he played with the same roster in the playoffs as in the regular season.

Compare that to Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills, with Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed.  Or to Troy Aikman’s Cowboys, with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin (among others).

McNabb put up similar numbers (better if you include the running stats) with a FAR inferior cast around him.  That has to count for something.  His reticence to “force the throw” is completely understandable, and in fact was likely the optimal play the vast majority of the time.  Not sure I can make it any clearer: based upon the standard set by the current HOF QBs, McNabb definitely belongs.  At least the Eagles franchise has recognized that and will retire his number.  Forget all the bullshit (you’d be bitter too) and focus on the numbers, it’s not nearly as “borderline” as people make it.

What else you got?

Donovan McNabb; a Defense of an Unappreciated HOFer and the Greatest Eagles QB Ever

Lot’s to talk about, but I’m going to limit today’s post to Donovan McNabb.  Given his “retirement” and the fact that others are running McNabb columns today, I figured the time was right to finally put my thoughts about McNabb into post form.  As I’ve alluded to before, I believe McNabb is the greatest Eagles QB ever AND a Hall of Fame caliber player. 

As usual, I will not be rehashing all the draft-day stuff or the TO event, you can go elsewhere for that.  Here, I’ll just give you what I believe is often missing from McNabb discussions: CONTEXT.  I have much more to say about all the external crap, but I’m already at 1500+ words, so that’ll have to wait.

The Stats

Given all the noise and drama surrounding McNabb’s career with the Eagles, it’s almost understandable that many commentators/fans don’t fully appreciate how good #5 was.  Here are some major statistics, followed by the comparable numbers for other QBs.  Again, just trying to provide objective context.

Career Record (regular season): 92-49-1, .647 win percentage

P. Manning with the Colts – .688 win percentage

B. Favre with the Packers – .632 win percentage

J. Elway with the Broncos – .641 win percentage

Passer Rating with the Eagles: 86.5

D. Marino – 86.4

B. Favre with GB – 85.8

J. Kelly – 84.4

T. Aikman – 81.6

– 9 Playoff Wins

P. Manning – 9

J. Kelly – 9

D. Marino – 8

– 2.16 TD/Int Ratio with the Eagles

P. Manning – 2.08

D. Brees – 1.96

J. Montana – 1.71

D. Marino – 1.66

Donovan McNabb’s career with the Eagles was among the best QB/Team runs of ALL-TIME.  Look at the names above and how McNabb with the Eagles compares.  My guess is that, if asked, most fans wouldn’t place #5’s run in this company.  However, it EASILY belongs, and in some cases exceeds the statistical greatness of some legendary players.

So what’s the problem?

I’m guessing most people don’t consider McNabb a HOFer because of the ridiculous concept of his “big-game” performance.  McNabb did not win a Super Bowl.  NFL writers typically cling to this criteria when measuring greatness, despite its obvious outrageousness.  First off, this is not basketball, one man can not win a ring single-handedly.  This should be obvious, but the importance of winning titles is so ingrained in hack-writing that it’s frequently glossed over.

Ascribing such importance to titles is how you get fans seriously arguing that Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman are among the best QBs ever.  It’s a complete joke, yet it will probably lead to a HOF that includes Eli Manning while excluding McNabb (also a complete joke).

However, regardless of how stupid I think it is, playoff performance is an important criteria for evaluating a QBs career.  Let’s look at McNabb’s.

“Big-Game” performance

As I showed above, McNabb has more playoff wins than Dan Marino and just as many as Peyton Manning and Jim Kelly.  Despite that, people cite McNabb’s “clutch” performance as among his biggest weaknesses, pointing to him throwing up in the Super Bowl and his empty ring finger as evidence of his shortcomings.  Once again, though, we need to put his performance in the correct context.

Donovan McNabb lost 7 postseason games.  Lets look at a few of them:

2001 – Eagles (11-5) lose to the Giants (12-4) by a score of 20-10.

This was McNabb’s first playoff lost, in his second playoff game.  The Eagles had defeated  the Bucs the week before.  In this game, McNabb passed for just 181 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.  Not very good numbers (though not terrible either).  How about that context?

– The Eagles rushed just 14 times for just 46 yards.  BTW, McNabb had 17 of those rushing yards.

– The Eagles offensive leaders (other than McNabb) were Charles Johnson, Brian Mitchell, and Torrance Small.

– The Giants went to the Super Bowl that year, losing to the Baltimore Ravens (the historically great defense).

2002 – Eagles (11-5) lost to the Rams (14-2) by a score of 29-24

Donovan McNabb passed for 171 yards, with 1 TD and 1 Int.  He also ran for 26 yards and a TD.  Not great numbers, but again, we need context:

– The Eagles had a lead at halftime.

– Kurt Warner passed for just 212 yards and 1 TD that day, meaning McNabb and Warner had extremely similar statistical games (McNabb had 1 more TD and 1 more Int).

– St. Louis fumbled the ball twice, but recovered both of them.  The Eagles fumbled once, but lost it. (LUCK!!!)

– Putting up 24 points in a playoff game is a pretty good performance.

– The Rams were historically good on offense that year, scoring more than 500 points.  Warner, Faulk, Bruce, Holt, Hakim, etc…(as compared to McNabb, Staley, Buckhalter, Lewis,…)

– The Rams had the best point differential in the league that year and went to the Super Bowl, losing by 3 points to the Patriots, in what would mark Tom Brady’s arrival.

2003 – The Eagles (12-4) lose to the Bucs (12-4) by a score of 27-10

This is a VERY important game in the McNabb/Eagles canon.  The team, playing at home,  only put up 10 points.  Clearly a very disappointing game, and the finger was pointed directly at the offense, and obviously, at McNabb.  However, this game, more so than any other, is misunderstood.  McNabb went 26-49 for 243 yards, no TDs, and 1 interception.  He also fumbled twice.  A bad game, no way around it.  HOWEVER, the context:

– The 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs allowed just 196 points and are among the greatest defenses in recent NFL history.  The Bucs were 44% better than league average on defense that year, second only to the previously mentioned Ravens defense for the BEST in the last 12 years (likely longer than that as well).

– The Bucs defense had 5 Pro Bowlers that year and 3 1st-team All-Pros.  The roster included Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, as well as Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly (who had 8 INTs and 21 passes defensed that year).

– Against this defense, McNabb’s “weapons” consisted of Duce Staley, Todd Pinkston, James Thrash, and Antonio Freeman.  For the 2002 season, those were the Eagles leading offensive players.  Brian Westbrook was on the team, but did not yet feature in the offense.

Suddenly McNabb’s 243 yards and no TDs doesn’t look so bad.  The Eagles only chance in this game was for the DEFENSE (+31% that year) to shut down the Bucs offense as completely as the Bucs did to the Eagles.

This did not happen.

The Bucs did score on the 92 yard Int return by Ronde Barber, but neither of McNabb’s fumbles turned into Tampa Bay points.

Blaming McNabb for this loss is ridiculous.

2004 – The Eagles (12-4) lose to the Panthers (11-5) by a score of 14-3. 

This is the bad one.  This loss is the ONLY time during the “Peak” that the Eagles lost to a clearly inferior team.  McNabb passed for just 100 yards and had 3 interceptions and no TDs (obviously).

No real contextual mitigation here.  McNabb played terribly.  His supporting cast sucked (as usual), but that excuse doesn’t go anywhere near as far as would be needed to absolve #5 of his performance. UPDATE: I forgot that McNabb was injured during the 2nd quarter of this game and missed a play.  He remained in the game until midway through the 4th quarter.  Note that all 3 of his interceptions occurred after the injury.  

If you want to denigrate McNabb’s career, this is THE game to point to.  As I’ve shown above, the other losses aren’t nearly as bad as people remember them being.  This one, depending on how much leeway he gets for being injured, may be worse.

2005 – The Super Bowl.  The Eagles (13-3) lose to the Patriots (14-2) by a score of 24-21.

This, along with the previous 2 losses above, form the bulk of the anti-McNabb “evidence”.  McNabb threw up at the end of the game, and didn’t more the offense as quickly as the situation demanded.  That’s true.  However,

– McNabb threw for 357 yards.  He had 3 interceptions, but he also threw for 3 TDs.

– The Eagles rushed for just 45 yards, meaning McNabb was the entire offense.

– The Patriots had a point differential that year of +177, the 11th best measure over the past 10 seasons (out of 320 teams).

– The Patriots allowed just 16.2 points per game that season, the Eagles scored 21 against them.

– In the playoffs that year, Peyton Manning and the Colts put up just 3 points against the Patriots.

– The Patriots may have cheated (Spygate!!!).

Conclusion

After looking at McNabb’s statistics, with the context I provided, it should be clear to any objective observer that #5’s career was remarkable and deserves to be celebrated to a much greater extent that it is.  The “big-game” performances that McNabb takes hits for were not as clear-cut as they seem.  As far as I can tell, there is just one game where McNabb clearly performed far below expectations (Carolina).  Just as evaluating an entire career based on Super Bowl wins is ridiculous, so is ascribing any more meaning to one playoff game versus all the rest.  Remember, I only covered the losses (most of them).  The only ones I excluded were the loss to the Cardinals (the Eagles scored 25 points and lost, again, to the NFC Super Bowl rep) and the 2010 loss to the Cowboys (which was an awful defensive performance and included some Mike Vick).

The man had a Hall Of Fame career, regardless of whether the hack-writers recognize it.   If you had the type of career #5 had and received the same amount of shit for it, you’d be bitter too.  I wish McNabb’s personality was more affable, but everything he’s upset about is 100% justifiable.  He doesn’t get the credit he deserves; not everyone (very few in fact) can be magnanimous enough to ignore that.

Look at the stats, watch the highlights; you’ll see an All-Time Great.  It’s time for everyone to agree on that.

Lastly:

 I’ve used this before, but here is Hall of Famer Jim Kelly compared to Donovan McNabb:

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 1.14.05 PM

Tell me how Kelly is a HOFer and McNabb isn’t?

Salary Cap and Roster Cuts

UPDATE:  I mentioned that GCobb had made a ridiculous assertion about Evan Mathis.  Turns out it was actually Denny Basens, who writes at GCobb.com, so adjust my previous point accordingly.

Focus has shifted to the roster and the salary cap, with everyone putting out a stay/go list and predicting who is going to stay.  Here is my take on it.  Sorry in advance for the lack of data.

First, everyone needs to understand that this is NOT a team that is one offseason away from seriously contending for a Super Bowl.  If everything goes right, the Eagles could certainly make the playoffs, but right now that’s the high-end of where the team can expect to be.

Understanding that, the team needs to be very careful with its salary cap space.  Right now, it’s more important to find the right pieces at GOOD VALUES then it is to pay up in free agency looking for impact players to help immediately turn the team around.

Free agency is essentially an auction, with all 32 teams valuing each player (obviously not all teams go after every player).  However, by definition, signing a FA means you are overpaying, in that you are valuing the player more highly than the rest of the market (winner’s curse).  It’s a dangerous game to play, as Eagles fans will know from recent “dream team” experience.  I believe the Eagles’ focus will (should) be on finding depth in free agency, with specific attention paid to “character” guys who will help Chip Kelly install his own atmosphere (Dennis Dixon seems like a prime example if he signs).

So don’t be disappointed if there are no huge player signings.  Conversely, if there is a big signing, remember it doesn’t always work out the way it seems (Nnamdi anyone?).  I’ll be much more excited with 4 or 5 low-profile “solid” signings than with 1 “big-time” addition.

In the meantime, who stays/goes?

I’ve had a lot of fun reading some articles that suggest nearly the entire defense will be released.  While few of them deserve to start, the fact is you still need to field a team, making it very difficult to cut EVERYONE.

Here is GCobb‘s.  Which is notable because he makes a ridiculous claim that Evan Mathis should go.  He believes that any player that doesn’t “dominate” should be replaced.  Ignoring the fact that Mathis was among the best guards in football this year (for those that actually watch the game), it’s outrageous to believe that any team subject to a salary cap could actually “dominate” at every position, especially at a relatively low-impact one like OG.  Needless to say, I won’t be taking anything GCobb Denny Basens at GCobb.com says seriously ever again, and I encourage all readers to do the same.

Before I go player-by-player, let me say something important when it comes to player evaluation.  As I just mentioned, you can’t expect EVERY player to be great.  The fact is, on a lot of good teams there are bad starters.  However, the overall talent allows the coaches to hide the weaknesses of these players.  The Eagles were so bad this season that there was no cover for anybody.  For example, on a good team, you might be able to sneak Akeem Jordan in there as a starter and compensate with a great MLB and strong D-Line.  So some of the players everyone is sick of may in fact be able to make contributions as role players once the rest of the roster gets upgraded.

Finally, here is my opinion on a selection of potential roster changes:

– Bell (already gone, but he was obvious)

– Nnamdi, an easy cut.  Rather than dissect what went wrong, I’d rather all Eagles writers/fans just agree never to speak of this signing again.

– Vick, yet another easy one.  For those still thinking he might be on the team, please remember that HE IS NOT A GOOD QUARTERBACK and now he’s old with an extensive history of injuries.  Not happening.

– Jenkins.  Ideally Jenkins would be plugged in as a 3-4 end in the new system, and I’d be happy if that happened, but all current accounts say he has an attitude problem and will complicate the coaching transition.  Normally I discount such things, but with a new coaching regime, it’s perhaps the only chance to complete a wholesale atmospheric change of the team.  If Jenkins isn’t a good soldier, he’s gone without a second thought.

– Peters stays, provided his rehab is on schedule.  This is becoming a popular suggestion for a potential cut, since his cap hit is around $11 million.  However, with the above cuts, the Eagles will have plenty of cap space.  Also, a healthy Peters (even if he comes back at 80% of what he was) is a BIG help to the offense.  While he clearly isn’t a long-term solution, it gives the Eagles an OT bridge until they can get a younger starter in there.  For example, keeping Peters would allow the team to draft Lotulelei and worry about OT either later in the draft (where I’ve shown they can find a starter) or next year.

– Demeco stays.  He is overpaid ($6.7 mil hit I think), but he is definitely a “character” guy and another veteran the Eagles can count on for one more year while they fill other roster holes.

– Trent Cole.  This is definitely the highest potential for “surprise cut”.  His contract makes that difficult, but judged purely on his play, Cole’s not going to win many fans among the new coaches.  Can he transition to a rush-linebacker?  Maybe, but I think Graham is better suited to that role.  Cole might end up staying, but probably gets shifted to a situational player rather than an every-down lineman (a near-lock if the team goes 100% to the 3-4).

– Invisible Man, Akeem Jordan, Casey Matthews.  Pick two of them to get rid of, doesn’t really matter which ones, though Jordan occasionally contributed on special teams in the past.  Only reason you keep one is so you don’t have so many holes to fill.  Matthews may get the nod because of his Oregon ties.

– DRC.  Anyone suggesting DRC should go is out of their mind.  He is inconsistent and will command a big salary, but the Eagles need to keep him (franchise tag if necessary).  It’s hard enough to replace one starting corner (and both safeties), but replacing the entire defensive backfield is a recipe for disaster.  Also, DRC is one of only a few guys in the league that can actually check some of the big superstar receivers in the league.  If I’m going against a Megatron or Brandon Marshall-type, I want DRC on my team.

– Colt Anderson.  This is a surprisingly tough decision, but I say he stays on one condition: He never steps foot on the field as a defensive player.  As a special-teamer and a locker-room guy, I love Colt.  However, he’s shown he clearly doesn’t have the ability to play on defense.  Some teams keep a roster spot for a “special teams ace”.  If Kelly decides to, then Colt stays.  Otherwise, goodbye Colt.

– Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman.  Love to see both of them go, but this will be a case of what’s available.  Most likely scenario is the Eagles sign a safety and draft one, then let everyone battle it out and pick the least-terrible option.  It’s just not easy to go out and find a starting-quality safety now that the NFL is so pass-happy.  I will say that I’d be OK with Allen as a back-up for a year, while I think Kurt Coleman’s weaknesses have been so clearly exposed that he shouldn’t be on the field.

One final point – I cannot overemphasize how important the #4 pick in the draft is, and not just because it needs to be an All-Pro.  Shifting to the 3-4 seems like a foregone conclusion, but the Eagles do NOT have anyone on the roster that can play NT.  That means if the team does not draft Lotulelei, it needs to either sign a FA (only real fit is Kemoeatu of the Ravens, and he’s 34 years old) or hope one of the other NT prospects falls to the 2nd round, which is unlikely.  If the team cannot find a NT, I have no idea what it will do, but odds are it won’t be pretty.

Team Construction: Eagles vs Ravens/Falcons

Now that we know the Super Bowl participants, I thought it might be instructive to examine how each team was constructed and compare it to the Eagles current roster.

I used the depth charts from ESPN for each team, though with the Eagles I put the injured OL and DeSean back in.  Before we pick it apart, here is each starting line-up, with the source of each player listed.  As we’ve discussed, elite players come almost exclusively from the 1st and 2nd round, so I’ve bolded each player that was acquired with either a 1st or 2nd round pick (either through the draft or via trade).

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– We can immediately see the importance of hitting on your 1st round draft picks.  The Falcons have 7 starters who were acquired with 1st round picks.  The Ravens have 5.  The Eagles have just 3 4 (Peters should be listed as “Trade (1)”.  Needless to say, this year’s top pick is hugely important .

– The next BIG difference is the number of starters drafted in the 4th round or lower.  The Falcons have just 3 such players, the Ravens just 4 (including undrafted FAs).  The Eagles have 8!  As we’ve seen, late round picks provide depth players, not stars.  On average, these guys should not be starting.  Looking at the Ravens and Falcons starters, they are either high draft picks or free agents.  (Yes, some of the FAs were originally drafted with late round picks, but the idea is the teams only picked these players up after it was clear they were good.)

– This brings me to a big lesson for every fan.  Over the past few years, coming out of training camp, Eagles fans have gotten excited because a late-round pick has made the starting line-up (Matthews, Chaney, Coleman, Harris….)  Let’s stop that nonsense.  From now on I want everyone to try to remember:  If a rookie chosen with a late-round pick is starting out of camp, it’s much more likely that it is a glaring weakness than a “draft steal”.  

– The most unfortunate part of this examination is that it appears as though the Eagles will need at least 2-3 years to put a Super Bowl roster together, and that’s assuming they hit on almost every 1st and 2nd round pick.  Roseman really needs to be as good at talent evaluation as Lurie believes he is, because the Eagles can’t afford to waste any more top picks.

Chip Kelly effects…

To date, I’ve avoided most coaching discussion, especially when it comes to comparing candidates.  The fact is, the only people who can begin to have an educated opinion on that subject are those who personally know each candidate.

Needless to say, I don’t have that knowledge, and neither to almost all of the sports writers who have been profiling the coaches.  Ignore everything you hear about who made the best hire…nobody in the press has any real knowledge of how each new coach will do.

However, now that a new coach has been found, we can talk a little about what it means for the team.

Immediately after Chip Kelly was hired, the discussion turned towards the QB situation.  For some reason (likely the need for a column topic), many commentators seem to believe that this somehow complicates the Eagles QB options.  It doesn’t.

– Michael Vick will NOT be the Eagles QB next year.  Much is being made of Kelly’s desire for mobile QBs, particularly those that can run an option-based scheme.  Those making this argument then jump to “Vick is a good runner so maybe Kelly will want him”.  This jump ignores a few aspects that each preclude Vick from being a “Chip Kelly” QB:

Vick takes a lot of sacks and has very poor pocket awareness.

Vick is one of the least accurate QBs in the league.

Vick turns the ball over a relatively high rate.

Ignoring Vick’s contract situation and age, I am confident that Kelly will review game tape of Vick and decide that he isn’t the guy to go with.  Anyone suggesting otherwise is, in my opinion, struggling to come up with things to talk about.

– This is NOT the end of Nick Foles.  While I don’t know how Kelly will adapt his offensive system in the NFL, my guess is that it will be a balanced (run-pass) but very fast paced scheme, much like the NE Patriots run.

People think of New England as a Pass-Heavy offense; this year they ranked 4th in the league in passing yards.  However, the Patriots also ranked 7th in the league in rushing yards.  

Also note that Tom Brady is one of the slowest QBs in the league and does not contribute anything significant to that rushing rank.  Yet, Brady is a perfect QB for that system because he:

– is very accurate with the ball and almost never throws an interception.  His 2.1% interception rate is the second lowest EVER. (Aaron Rodgers is 1st with a ridiculous 1.7% rate.)

– makes good decisions quickly, rarely forcing anything and consistently making the optimal read.

– has limited mobility but excellent pocket awareness, with a sack rate of just 4.84% (20th all-time).

While Nick Foles is obviously not as good as Tom Brady, he has a similar skill set.  As such, there is no reason to believe he can’t run a fast-paced, balanced offensive system (which I believe Kelly will attempt).  Also, with the RB talent that the Eagles have, I’m hopeful that Kelly will be able to construct a playbook that takes a lot of the pressure away from Foles.  I think there is a strong chance that Kelly reviews Foles’ performance this year and decides to make a go of it with him.

– Root for Geno Smith…but not for that reason.  Geno Smith has also begun to gain some traction with Eagles’ writers. Fortunately, by now most have dispelled the notion that Smith is a “running” QB.  He isn’t, although his race appears to be obscuring that fact for some.  However, he is very accurate, and has the size/athleticism/reputation that NFL teams love.  Therefore, with strong pre-draft workouts or a good combine performance, he has the potential to move up draft boards.  If he gets taken in the top 3, that means the Eagles have an excellent chance to get one of the two best fits for the team (Joeckel and Lotulelei, IMO).  Without a QB moving into the top 3, it gets a bit dicey and, as currently projected, there’s probably even odds that both Joeckel and Lotulelei are gone by #4.

If the current rumors regarding a move to a 3-4 defense are true, then missing out on both Lotulelei (the NT we’d need to run that scheme) and Joeckel would be a terrible outcome (fit wise).  Hopefully whoever the Eagles draft will be an impact player, but getting an impact player at a true position of need obviously will lead to a much quicker turnaround for the team.

So every Eagles fan should hope to see very positive Geno Smith stories between now and the draft.  As it happens, Smith’s skill-set would appear to be a great match for Andy Reid’s system, and we all know that Reid started his last job by drafting a QB with a top 5 pick.

P.S. now that I’ve offered completely subjective opinions/predictions, I’m sure Kelly will trade Foles, sign Vick to a long-term deal, and draft Smith to be a wildcat specialist…