The preseason hype had Philadelphia poised to be a Super Bowl contender, but things looked different after the first official snap of 2015.
By Mike Diviney
Just as they had done in 2014, Chip Kelly’s Eagles showed up unprepared for first week of the regular season. The only difference from last year is that instead of playing the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars at home, the team was tested against the Atlanta Falcons in Georgia.
The long-awaited 2015 season opener turned out to be a rude awakening for the visiting birds. Faced with an NFL-caliber foe, the Eagles were unable to dig themselves out of a deep hole after another disastrous first half. Both the offense and the defense impotently watched the Falcons build a 20-3 halftime lead and then hold on for the 2-point win, 26-24.
The Eagles expect to battle the Cowboys for the NFC East crown–a team that played poorly in Week 1, but nonetheless came away with a win. In allowing a game to get away against a supposedly inferior team, the Eagles put themselves behind the eight ball, and are virtually compelled now to beat the Cowboys at the Linc in Week 2 action.
The anticipation for this year’s opener was intensified after Kelly wrested personnel control of the team from the previous Eagles GM, Howie Roseman, in the offseason. Despite a lack of evidence that Kelly has the credentials to be an NFL general manager, fans lauded his ascent. They supported him gutting a 10-win team, although such wholesale changes are often disruptive to a team’s chemistry.
The biggest move Kelly made was trading incumbent starting quarterback Nick Foles to the St. Louis Rams for first-round bust, Sam Bradford, who had not taken an NFL snap since October 2013. With the loss, Bradford ran his record as an NFL starter to 18-31. Menawhile, Foles improved his career record as a starter to 15-4 on Sunday, leading the Rams over the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.
In Kelly’s two-plus seasons as Eagles head coach, he is 14-4 with Foles under center and 6-9 with any other signal-caller. Bradford was terrible in the first half, but played better in the second half. If he can stay healthy, which he never has done, he will probably put up numbers in Kelly’s system. Whether he can be winner at the NFL level, which he has also never done, remains to be seen.
More troubling was the complete ineffectiveness of the running game, spearheaded by Kelly’s acquisitions, DeMarco Murry and Ryan Mathews. Lesean McCoy was jettisoned after last season, supposedly because he danced too much, although Kelly’s insistence on robot-like player commitment to his culture seems to have been a factor in the decision.
After spending a great deal of money on running backs, Kelly curiously cut both of his starting guards, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, and replaced them with a pair of journeymen, Andrew Gardner and Allen Barbre, who had been cut by NFL teams six times collectively. Gardner and Barbre were putrid on Monday, unable to open any running lanes for the running backs and getting continually pushed back into the pocket. Murray and Mathews combined for just 13 yards on just 11 carries.
Lack of offensive balance was a problem for the Eagles under former coach Andy Reid; Kelly was supposed to be different. Monday night, he wasn’t. Kelly chose to abandon the run, and Bradford threw 52 passes in his first game in nearly two years.
The Eagles passing game missed Jeremy Maclin as its outside receivers did next to nothing in those 52 attempts. The lion’s share of the receptions were made by tight ends, backs, and slot receiver, Jordan Mathews, who had a very good game until he allowed what became the final pass of the night to go through his hands for an interception.
The defensive side of the ball offered problems that were just as alarming. Kelly’s most expensive acquisition this offseason was cornerback Byron Maxwell. He was pitiful last night, invoking memories of Nnamdi Asomugah and Bradley Fletcher. Not only was Maxwell repeatedly toasted by wide receiver Julio Jones, but he could not even stay with 33-year-old veteran Roddy White. Defensive coordinator, Billy Davis, was unable to help his secondary up front, failing to scheme any pass rush or slow the Falcons offense down.
Two plays were microcosmic of the Eagles’ night. Backed up on a third-and-15 from their own seven-yard line, the Falcons ran a draw play, basically conceding the down and planning to punt. Eagles linebacker Kiko Alonso, among others, missed running back Tevin Coleman, who gained 20 yards and a first down. It was a backbreaking play, born of confusion and a lack of execution.
The other pivotal play was a bad call by Chip Kelly. With under five minutes to go and trailing by two points, the Eagles faced a fourth-and-1 on the Falcons 27. Kicker Cody Parkey was obviously shaky in the preseason. Even had he made the field goal attempt, it was likely the Falcons would have simply driven back down and won the game on a field goal of their own because all game the Falcons had been able to move the ball at will. Not surprisingly, Parkey pushed the kick wide right.
To be fair, the first week of the NFL season is often a little haphazard. This game pretty much followed that rule. The Eagles looked like a team with ten new starters and a quarterback who had not played meaningful football in a long time. The offensive line–and the entire defense–had better improve quickly or the Eagles will not be nearly as successful this season as fans expected. The new acquisitions were poor, almost across the board, and Parkey’s shakiness is worrisome.
A win over the Cowboys next week will go a long way toward making Monday night’s game just a season-opening stumble. Whether Bradford can overcome his rustiness and if Kelly’s talent evaluation being proven are the two most important factors to look for in Week 2.