A Team Building Theorem

Peyton Manning

Peyton is not the rule, he’s the exception.

Building a winning football team isn’t about focusing on certain spots, there is no special forumla. There is one formula that, in my opinion, is the only winning forumla there is: acquire the best football players you can and things will take care of themselves*. That seems super simple, right? Elementary, my good man! But, apparently not in the silly season we call the NFL offseason.

*this is completely dependent on having a competent coaching staff and/or Peyton Manning

Once the calendar flips to March, every single NFL pundit, fan and scout lose their minds over one position: Quarterbacks. They go crazy. The QB spot is like a drug, almost like the dopamine of sport. Everyone looooves the QB and that is under selling it. This thirst for the QB position, this desperation, leads to mistakes. It’s how Mark Sanchez got drafted fifth overall. It’s how Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman went in round one and it’s how teams give up bounties for guys like Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith.

This, in a nut-shell is what the overriding football theory is at this point:

It essentially boils down to this: Pass the ball and make the other QB uncomfortable and that’s how you win games. But I don’t think that’s the case. To make my argument, I’m calling upon four case samples as evidence: the Detroit Lions, the San Diego Chargers, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.

The Detroit Lions:

They’ve got a #1 pick lined up as their QB and he’s quite good. Matt Stafford has thrown for 9734 yards and 61 touchdowns the past two seasons. They have potentially the most talented WR to ever play the game lining up on the perimeter in Calvin Johnson. They’ve invested three top-two-round picks in pass catchers in four years. And as far as making QBs uncomfortable, they’re pretty set with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley who they spent top-13 picks on and prior to losing him to NFL free agency, they had Cliff Avril as well.

By football theory standards, the Detroit Lions should be the crown jewel of the football world. In my eyes the Detroit Lions poke a pretty big hole in the “pass the ball and rush the passer” theory. They haven’t done anything despite following the new-wave football model to a T. The reason I bring up the Detroit Lions is this: Winning football games isn’t as simple as passing the ball and rushing the passer and having a great QB with a great passing game doesn’t just magically win you games. Which brings me to the next point in my argument: the San Diego Chargers.

The San Diego Chargers:

philip_rivers_009Philip Rivers is funny, isn’t he? In 2009 and 2010 Philip Rivers threw for 8964 yards, 58 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. In 2011 and 2012 Philip Rivers threw for 8230 yards, 53 touchdowns and 35 interceptions. His yards and touchdowns decreased by 9.1% while his interceptions increased by 15.9%. His team also won seven fewer games in the same two year span.

So what happened? Did Philip Rivers the QB get worse? Because it appears the decline of the Chargers and Philip Rivers closely correlates with the mass exodus of talent from their roster. From the start of 2009 to the start of 2012 season the Chargers lost Ladanian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, Mike Tolbert, Vincent Jackson, Kris Dielman, Marcus McNeil, Antonio Cromartie and Shawne Merriman amongst others.

What’s my point? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Philip Rivers has slipped as his supporting cast has made their way out of San Diego. The supporting cast matters more than you think unless you’ve got a rare QB like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Rivers is a good QB, they spent a high pick on him and they gave him a coaching staff tailored to him and it didn’t translate into wins.

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks

These two teams have created some serious buzz in the past two seasons. The 49ers have been to one superbowl and two NFC Championship games. And the Seattle Seahawks have had a rapid ascension that ended with a last second loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs last season. Both teams appear to be destined for big things in the coming seasons, but here’s the kicker: their starting QBs are second and third round picks, respectively. Last season Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson combined for 4932 yards, 36 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 904 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns. That sort of production and efficiency is astounding from young QBs, but they weren’t highly regarded when they entered the league as day two picks. So, what gives? They have fantastic supporting casts and schemes that fit them, they landed in perfect situations.

As talented as Kaepernick and Wilson are, would they be as successful if they were in Oakland and Jacksonville? Absolutely not. Would they still be good for those franchises? I’m sure they could be but they certainly wouldn’t be enjoying the early success they’re currently enjoying if those defenses weren’t putting them in position to win games, if they weren’t handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore, if they weren’t standing behind Russell Okung and Max Unger and Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and they didn’t have great coaches. Just like Philip Rivers is struggling without Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles and Marcus McNeil.

So what?

Build a foundation.

If you’re a bad team and a QB just happens to be the best player on the board (Colts, Redskins etc.) then good for you, the starts aligned and you’re in a great position to build a team. But more often than not, the QB isn’t going to be the best player left on the board and you end up reaching for a guy because traditional wisdom says that finding a great QB is like finding the golden god of football to come and save your team.

Finding great passers like Matt Stafford, Robert Griffin III and Matt Ryan is really, really hard. Finding great QBs who are great passers but also elevate the level of play around them like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and soon-to-be Andrew Luck is even harder. If you’re not careful, you’ll get caught with quarterback-goggles (the NFL equivalent of beer goggles) and end up chasing ghosts.

For a vast majority of teams that don’t have the luxury of drafting the Andrew Luck-s and RGIII-s of the world it’s a matter of manufacturing good QB play and developing passers. By drafting the best player available (assuming it works out) you’re building a foundation. A foundation that gives the QB you decide to take a chance on the best chance at succeeding. So when the Eagles draft “Joe Rugged, Trench Player from ‘Really Tough School'” this Thursday know that it’s going to improve the roster and help give whatever QB we trot out on Sundays a better shot at winning.

Note, this is a team building theory. This theory applies to teams that are building because as a a team gets more and more successful and the needs become more particular the drafting methodology should definitely shift towards more of a need based system in my eyes. But for a team like the Eagles that doesn’t have many long term solutions on the roster, the only theory that applies is the “Best Player Available” theory.

It’s a simple concept that a lot of smart people forget in April.

So you drafted Matt Elam.

Matt Elam
Typically I’ve only highlighted round one targets with this little series of posts but Matt Elam is a guy that I feel really strongly about and would absolutely love at the top of round two. He’s a personal favorite of mine.

Everyone knows Cris Carter, the hall of fame wide receiver who played the vast majority of his career as a Viking, but did you know he had a son in the draft? Duron Carter is taking the Bryce Brown road. Carter reportedly hated school and it led to him being a part of four programs in four years: Ohio State, Coffeyeville Community College, Alabama and Florida Atlantic University. Gil Brandt says reliability is a huge question and Carter only compounded the problem when he missed the regional combine with the flu. People that know Duron seem to believe that the younger Carter is riddled with a sense of entitlement and his twitter bio, “Like father like son I’m destined to be great, it’s in my blood”, doesn’t do much to dispel that. Carter doesn’t lack talent, he wouldn’t have been given so many opportunities if he did. So what is Carter’s problem? He doesn’t appear to have the “stuff”. He says he loves the game but he hasn’t overcame anything, he hasn’t been through the grind and he hasn’t shown the desire and hunger to be great.

Why do I mention Duron Carter in a Matt Elam piece? Because I want you to realize just how different they are. While Carter goes from school to school and Matt Elam is sacrificing his body in the SEC, it’s not just a difference in temperament and circumstance. Matt Elam’s story and background are the complete antithesis to those of Duron Carter. Elam’s story, what’s he been through, really lends itself to the fire and intensity Matt Elam has on constant display between the sidelines.

So You Drafted Star Lotulelei

Last year I did a little series of posts that were based on the premise of drafting a certain player. I’d highlight a particular player’s skills and then explain how I thought they’d fit in on the Eagles. You can see them here: Melvin Ingram, Mark Barron, Chandler Jones (don’t click that link unless you’ve got a lot of patience), Quinton Coples, Luke Kuechly, Michael Brockers, Dontari Poe and Ryan Tannehill. I’m pretty happy with the way those turned out so I’m going to do some again this year leading up to the draft starting with my man-crush, Star Lotulelei. 

In 2007 the University of Oregon was sniffing around the state of Utah looking for the next Haloti Ngata. They ended up recruiting a big Samoan defensive tackle from Cottonwood High School, a guy who was touted as the best DT prospect from the state of Utah since Haloti Ngata. They weren’t recruiting Star Lotulelei, they were recruiting, Simi Fili. Coming out of high school, Star Lotulelei was a 240 pound, 3 star recruit who had committed to BYU but didn’t qualify academically. He ended up moving furniture, not in college or playing football. Nothing Star Lotulelei has today was gifted to him, he’s a man from humble beginnings and he’s earned everything he’s about to get; born in Tonga, failing to qualify for college and playing second fiddle to Simi Fili in high school.

It’s kind of funny how these things work out, two high school players whose paths started similarly but ended wildly different. Star’s counterpart, Fili, also failed to qualify for college out of high school and he never made it to Oregon. As a matter of fact, the best thing since Haloti Ngata never even made it to division one football. Fili, was billed as the next Haloti Ngata coming out of high school but it was the 3 star, 240 pound DT who ended up blossoming into the Ngata-type player. Simi Fili now reportedly competes as a competitive lifter after toiling in JUCO for a few seasons. I think it just goes to prove how difficult Star Lotulelei’s path has been, he could’ve floundered around and foiled a great chance like Fili but he didn’t. And yeah, Star Lotulelei remembers Fili [1], he knows how close he was to flying off the figurative rails, “It’s a real thin line,” he says. “For me, it really all depends on what your motivation is.”

Now, some guys who “started from the bottom” and made it might settle in and rest on their laurels but by all accounts, Star Lotulelei is a hard working and unassuming player. In the 3 years before he made it to DI football, Star Lotulelei really bulked up almost to the point of being out of shape. As a JUCO player, Star Lotulelei ballooned up to about 350 pounds and reports I’ve seen consider that a conservative estimate. He cut weight and by the end of his first season he was a starting defensive tackle that weighed 325 pounds and he hasn’t stopped working since, saying at the end of his pro-day, “No time to rest. It’s the most important time of my career” [2].

The Importance Of A Nose Tackle, Not What You Think?

In the coming weeks you’re going to hear about two spots over and over and over again. You’re going to hear about the QB spot and justifiably so but you’re also going to hear a lot of talking about a nose tackle, perhaps unjustifiably so. People are going to bust out the cliches. They’re going to talk and talk about how we need a “power pig” (I’d be impressed if they actually used that term, it’s awesome) to “anchor” our new 3-4 defense. They’ll talk about Vince Wilfork. They’ll talk about BJ Raji. They’ll talk about Haloti Ngata. If they’re older they might bust out a Ted Washington reference. Why? BECAUSE THE NOSE TACKLE SPOT IS IMPORTANT THATS WHY! Or is it…

  • Dan Williams (6’3″, 327) played 41% of snaps
  • Terrence Cody (6’4″, 341) played 32% of snaps
  • Antonio Johnson (6’3″ 310) played 49% of snaps
  • Sione Pouha (6’3″ 325) played 37% of snaps
  • Casey Hampton played on 49% of snaps
  • Cam Thomas (6’4″, 335) played 37% of snaps
  • Isaac Sopoaga played 30% of snaps

And do you want to know a secret? The Patriots don’t play a 3-4 defense and Vince Wilfork isn’t a 3-4 NT. Haloti Ngata is a 3-4 DE. BJ Raji plays all three spots across the line for Green Bay. So if you’re arguing with someone you can have that up your sleeve. Do you want to know the only two nose tackles that racked up a significant amount of snaps? Barry Cofield and Dontari Poe. That’s it. It would appear that these behemoths are little more than two down run stoppers in today’s NFL. Is this an important function? Absolutely. Is a two-down-run-stopper something we need to sell out to get? I’m not so sure…

Quite frankly, given what I’ve seen from Antonio Dixon I’m almost comfortable with having him as our designated “fat man” in the middle of the defense. He was quite the run stopper before Jim Washburn came in and kicked him out of town because he didn’t fit his scheme. Dixon was so good in fact that after the 2010 season, ProFootballFocus highlighted him as a “Secret Superstar” (link).

Dixon flashed during his rookie year. As a run defender, he accumulated a +3.9 grade in 119 snaps. He wasn’t making a lot of plays, with just ten stops, but he’d more than shown he deserved a roster spot already.

With an expanded role in 2010 – a torn bicep for incumbent Brodrick Bunkley against San Francisco gave Dixon a chance to start in Week 6 – he did not disappoint. He ended the year ranked 8th overall in our run defense grades for interior defensive linemen, surrounded by players like Antonio Garay, Haloti Ngata and Kevin Williams. His playmaking was once again lacking (just 21 stops), but this is understandable considering the 2-gap scheme that asks Eagle defensive tackles to eat up blocks.

As a matter of fact, if you look at all the nose tackles from last season you’ll see that there isn’t much of a correlation between overall and run defense performances and the size, draft position, salary and performance of a nose tackle.

Does anyone else find it comical that Casey Hampton is listed at 325 pounds?

Of the 3-4 defenses that placed in the top 10, only two had nose tackles that were graded positively by ProFootballFocus, Earl Mitchell and Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers, a team highly regarded for their defense, had one of the worst nose tackles in the NFL last season.

The 49ers are actually a great example of the diminishing importance of a NT. They ran an under-front defense that ranked 3rd in the NFL and 4th against the run despite pretty bad nose tackle play. If you turn on the Green Bay v.s. San Francisco game you’ll notice that Sopoaga isn’t even on the field most of the time. Against a passing team like the Packers, the 49ers opted to have Isaac on the sideline and roll with a four man front of Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks.

Without a doubt the nose tackle has it’s role and having a good one would be nice but I’m starting to believe the importance of getting a “true nose tackle” is being overblown.

Billy Davis’ Defense

So we hired Billy Davis. What does it mean? What should you expect?

Well for starters, lets start by explaining Billy Davis. Billy Davis has been in the NFL for 21 years and he’s coached in an array of defensive schemes. He’s coached with Bill Cowher, Dick LeBeau, Dick Jauron, Mike Nolan, Tim Lewis, Wade Phillips, Dennis Allen, Vic Fangio, Dom Capers and Keith Butler. It’s quite the list of peers and it’s sort of interesting how inter-connected they all are.

Kendricks is primed for a break-out in the new scheme.

Up to this point, Davis hasn’t been anything special as a coordinator. In four years of coordinating defenses, Davis’ units have been in the bottom three in points allowed 75% of the time. He’s only coordinated one top 20 defense and one top 15 scoring defense, both in 2009. On the upside, in both years’ of Davis’ tenure in Arizona the Cardinals won playoff games. So he’s got that going for him. Not all experience is good experience, sometimes you learn the hard way. Hopefully Davis can learn from his previous failures and put together a strong unit here for the Eagles.

Now, despite a bad track record I must preach patience. Defensive coaches ebb and flow, much of their results are circumstantial. Often times, their success is dictated by the circumstances that they’re stuck with. As my example, I’m going to use Vic Fangio. Despite coaching a defense that has been top five in both scoring and yardage the past two seasons, he is still in the 45th percentile in yards allowed and 51st percentile for points allowed on his career. Prior to joining San Francisco, Fangio had coached one top ten defense and five bottom ten defenses.

But enough about who the expect as our coordinator, what scheme are we going to run? Well, if Billy Davis actually does end up getting hired we’re likely going to see a 3-4 defense brought to Philadelphia. Most of Davis’ NFL experience has come in a 3-4 defense, in both previous stints as a coordinator he ran a 3-4 and signs have indicated that’s the direction we’re headed in. Just on the most obvious of levels, Chip Kelly is seemingly a guy who prefers the flexibility of a 3-4 defense, he did run that at Oregon. And when talking with prospects at the senior bowl players said that the Eagles expressed interest in their ability to move to a 3-4 (source).

But why are more and more teams moving towards a 3-4 defense? Why Chip Kelly? North Carolina associate head coach for defense / inside linebackers coach Vic Koenning makes his case for the 3-4. Link.

Koenning said in regards to the spread, pistol and option offenses being shown off in the playoffs, “Look at the NFL scores from last week’s playoff games, that will wake everybody up to what us college defensive coaches have been facing for the last few years now.”

“If (offensive coordinators) know what you are in, they have answers to stuff,” Koenning said. “The old days of lining up in the I formation and saying our Jimmys are better than your Joeys, and we want to beat you into submission, nobody wants to do that anymore. Everything is about space. If you have guys that can’t compete in space then you’re going to be struggling.”

As defensive coordinators adjust to keep up, Koenning thinks we’ll see more 3-4 defensive alignments.

“I am not saying that teams that play a traditional 4-3 can’t be successful, but I will tell you that it puts stresses on a lot of different positions with what today’s college football offensively has become,” he said. “I kind of think it forces you to look at what you have personnel-wise and scheme-wise.”

Essentially, it allows you to disguise what you’re doing more. The 3-4 alignment allows you to get one more athlete out on the field and match-up in space a little bit easier. And it allows to our defense to get more creative with the pressure and blitz angles that we bring. Chip, as a connoisseur of the spread offense knows this and he knows what gave him trouble. It’s why he chose to run a similar 3-4 defense at Oregon.

Under Front:

The next logical questions circulate around the schematics of a 3-4 defense. What type of 3-4 defense are we going to run? Well, if Billy Davis’ history as a coordinator is any indication we’re going to run what is called an under front defense and it looks like this:

Davis called his weakside pass-rusher “predator” which I think is pretty sick so I’m rolling with it.

All an under front is, is a defensive front alignment. This may seem insignificant, I mean, after all it’s only a shift of a few inches or feet so what’s the big fuss? It may seem silly and trivial but those few inches make a big difference in how a defender must approach his job.

Here’s what’s different about the under front 3-4 defense:

-The nose is shifted a few inches so they’re playing over the shoulder of the center (shading) instead of lining up directly over them as a 0-technique. In this scheme the defender is lined up as a 1-technique defender as opposed to a 0-technique defender. It affords them a little bit more “aggressive-ability” because now they’re less subject to what the center does and able to press their gap more directly. They’re now more than just an enormous speed bump. Brandon Mebane at 6’3″ and 311 pounds is a notable 1 technique defender. These guys are typically barrel-shaped, squatty types.

-The RE, typically a 5-technique, is shifted inside over the outside shoulder of the guard, making them a 3-technique defender. A 3-technique lines up between the guard and tackle, is usually lighter and quicker at the point of attack. They are asked to shoot their gap and pierce the middle of the offensive line. You’ll notice that both the center and tackle next to the opposing guard are occupied. This makes it much harder for the offense to double the 3 technique, thus facilitating more one-on-one match-ups. If players have the athleticism to take advantage of the 1-on-1 match-ups they can ride this spot to pro-bowls. Hell, Warren Sapp rode it to a hall of fame career. Calais Campbell, Justin Smith, Muhammad Wilkerson and Haloti Ngata (he moves around) are guys who play this spot today.

Eagles Related Note: Fletcher Cox should have no problems filling this role. As a defensive tackle in the SEC the only player to get the best of him was Chance Warmack and in his rookie year he was giving offensive guards all they could handle. He absolutely obliterated a good Ravens’ offensive line and the Bengals’ line as well. Fletcher Cox is an elite athlete at the DT spot whose change of direction skills are rarely matched. 

-The “Predator” also shifts over and he plays over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, a 5-technique or 6-technique spot. This essentially makes it so that the weakside pass-rusher (the Predator) is  just stand-up 4-3 defensive end who rushes the passer a majority of the time. In Arizona Davis rushed Bertrand Berry over 80% of the time. In San Francisco the 49ers rushed Aldon Smith 85.8% of the time. In Dallas the Cowboys rushed DeMarcus Ware 87.1% of the time. In Baltimore the Ravens rushed Terrell Suggs 87.8%.

-The 5-technique on the left remains a 5 technique. Ideally your 5 technique is going to have enough athleticism to threaten the offensive line when rushing the passer but they’re going to have the core strength to hold up in the running game because they’re ability to hold the POA is critical in defending the run. You’re looking for a player with the length to “bench-press” and lock out blockers. Richard Seymour was the proto-type 5-technique.

-The strong-side linebacker is lining up in a nine-technique pre-snap position most of the time. This player is going to rush the passer plenty, in Arizona Davis rushed the SLB upwards of 65% of the time. Other similar schemes often rush their SLB upwards of 80% of the time. But even with that being said this players is going to be more coverage oriented and will man-up with the tight end more often than the “predator” opposite them. How many people remember when Jim Johnson was around? The SLB in Davis’ scheme will be playing in the same alignment, they’ll just be blitzing more often. So we’ll be headed back towards the Chris Gocong and Carlos Emmons variety of strong-side linebackers.

-If you look at the diagram of the under front again you’ll notice that there is no player shading the offensive RG, the MLB is left uncovered. That being so, the MLB is going to take on the offensive guard more often that the WLB next to him. This player is going to be a thumper. Jeremiah Trotter and Stewart Bradley played similar roles in Jim Johnson’s under-front defense. Brandon Spikes is a modern example of a player who fills this sort of role really well.

-This scheme is a weakside linebackers paradise. It’s designed to keep them clean and allow them to run around and make plays. Notice that the WLB has the NT and DE in front of them and the thumping MLB beside them to eat up blocks. Mychal Kendricks is going to blow up in this scheme, he’s a perfect fit. He’ll be the next in the line of beasts in this scheme, guys like Ray Lewis, Lawrence Timmons, Sean Lee, Navarro Bowman and Daryl Washington have thrived in this scheme at this spot. Hell, Derrick Brooks became a hall of famer in the 4-3 alignment and Lance Briggs has become a star in it as well. Mychal Kendricks played in this scheme in college and he was the Pac-12 DPOY.


1. The ‘under’ front protects the WLB well.
If the nose tackle engages the center at all, the weak side backer is free to flow to the ball after ensuring that his gap (the weak side center-guard gap, or A gap) isn’t threatened. With the SLB and MLB dealing with potential blocks from the TE, FB and an OL, the WLB will be in position to make a lot of plays.

2. Ballcarriers are “spilled” toward the WLB.
Dungy and Kiffin’s philosophy preaches a turn back or spilling concept in run support. That is, a defender taking on a block knows where his most likely help will be and turns or spills the ballcarrier in that direction. Since the WLB is often free in an under front, he’s frequently the teammate to whom the running back gets sent.

3. The WLB has more coverage opportunity.
Traditional 4-3 schemes leave most of the man coverage responsibilities to the strong side linebacker or strong safety. The WLB needs to watch certain routes on early downs and will frequently defend a screen pass, but doesn’t usually make bunches of tackles or on-ball plays in coverage. With the underneath zone responsibility, including some of the area vacated by the MLB that drops toward the deep middle, the WLB in a Tampa-2 4-3 gets more coverage opportunities.

The list of weak side backers who have parlayed their time in Tampa-2 schemes to great success is growing longer with each passing season. Derrick Brooks, David Thornton, Mike Peterson, Cato June and Lance Briggs have all had big impacts on their respective defenses in Tampa, Indianapolis and Chicago.

So that’s that… That’s the defense we appear to be heading towards. I’m particularly excited about Mychal Kendricks and Fletcher Cox in this new defense if you couldn’t tell. I think the new scheme suits them both incredibly well and I think both are primed to take off if everything goes right.

I like the scheme. I think we’ve got some exciting fits. But at the same time it all depends on Bill Davis and despite people already writing him off, I’ll give him a chance. Remember that Jim Johnson wasn’t exactly the most well regarded guy when Andy Reid hired him and remember that he wasn’t Andy’s first choice, Andy tried to hire Marvin Lewis. I can’t wait to watch it play out.

What To Expect – Offense

Chip Kelly – Man of mystery. What is he going to do?

One of the pressing questions at this point is, what kind of systems will Chip Kelly run? Obviously he came out and made sure it was entirely clear that he was a “equal opportunity scorer” and that he would adjust to whatever he had. But, at the same time the Eagles did hire Chip Kelly and I doubt he’s just going to abandon everything that has made him who he is.

So, what does that mean? Chip Kelly’s identity at Oregon was molded by his running game. Yes, he would occasionally throw the ball around the yard but when it came down to it, his teams were built around the running game. And it makes sense because his entire coaching career has been characterized by his running game, all the way back to the days when he coached in high school. “My high school coach was a prototypical old football coach,” Coach Kelly said, “…I told him that in college we split players [out wide] and threw the ball to them. He thought that was a bunch of college bull”. He said that his high school coach, Bob Leonard, would throw the ball five times per game.

Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote this in his Grantland piece about Chip Kelly:

“We spread the defense so they will declare their defensive look for the offensive linemen,” Kelly explained at that same clinic. “The more offensive personnel we put in the box, the more defenders the defense will put in there, and it becomes a cluttered mess.” Twenty years ago, Kelly’s high school coach ran the unbalanced, two–tight end power-I, so he could execute old-school, fundamental football and run the ball down his opponent’s throat. Today, Kelly spreads the defense and operates out of an up-tempo no-huddle so he can do the exact same thing.

I fully expect him to bring his running concepts to the NFL with him. And that means he’s also going to be bringing his zone blocking scheme and his in-game tempo with him. Why? Because those are the things that have defined him as a coach thus far.

Chip Kelly doesn’t discriminate as far as running-backs are concerned, he’s worked with a variety of different runners and had success with them all. He’s coached Jonathan Stewart, Lagarette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. He doesn’t really have a specific mold at RB so long as the player will get upfield and has vision. Nobody on the team will have any sort of problems fitting Chip Kelly’s system as a running back.

Thankfully, the zone blocking scheme isn’t going to be a huge transition thanks to Howard Mudd’s zone blocking scheme. The pieces we’ve got will fit into Chip’s schemes fairly nicely so long as everyone can return healthy. To give you some perspective on how Chip’s lines are going to look, just look three of the more highly regarded offensive linemen that Chip Kelly has brought along:

  • Max Unger – 6’4″ and 309 pounds
  • Kyle Long – 6’6″ and 304 pounds
  • Carson York – 6’5″ and 293 pounds

Chip Kelly’s lines aren’t plodding and enormous, they’re lean and athletic. I’ll let Kyle Long explain:

“You need to have mental toughness, physical toughness and you have to be in condition to play in an offense that moves in such a high tempo. We play at a fast tempo and then when we need to, we kick it into overdrive. He’ll say, ‘We’re going to go tempo here’ and everyone looks around and we all lick our chops because we know the guy across from us is going to be more exhausted than we are because we prepared and practiced at a high level.”

Much like Howard Mudd did, Chip Kelly isn’t looking for undersized guys, he’s looking for athletes. He wants players that are big enough to hold up against NFL players but at the same time he wants athletes that can get into space the way he likes and push the tempo when needed.

To see some of what Chip does with his offensive lines, watch the following videos:

That stuff is going to translate to the NFL. We’ve already seen the Redskins, Seahawks and 49ers use the zone read plays. But we might not even run that, the basis of Chip’s offense is the inside zone, outside zone and power plays. It’s not gimmicky stuff, every single team has some of it in their playbook.

But his passing game isn’t up to par as far as the NFL is concerned. It’s very simplistic and not refined enough for the NFL. This is where Pat Shurmur is going to come in. Shurmur’s experience under Andy Reid and his experience in Andy’s offense should help ease the transition for the pass catchers and quarterbacks that are currently on the roster. Shurmur has 14 years of NFL experience, most of which came under the direction of Andy Reid who despite criticism has been an extremely effective offensive coach. As such, I wouldn’t expect the design of the passing game to change all that drastically. The Eagles attempted deep passes (>20 yards) on 11% of plays last season, the Browns attempted deep passes on 10.6% of plays.

Now, you’re probably thinking “That’s ridiculous, one of the defining elements of Chip Kelly’s offense was his willingness to spread defenses out wide. Why would he ditch that?” Well, he won’t be. As an offense we were already pretty wide open by NFL standards. Stanley Havili only played 21.5% of snaps, nobody would categorize the Eagles as a team that like to pound the ball down your throat. Even when we did run the ball often times the runs were designed to bounce outside and our interior running game was anything but traditional. Spread concepts aren’t going to be a huge change for the Eagles.

The only real questions (in my mind) surround the quarterback position – Will Chip Kelly opt for someone more mobile? After all, having a QB who can run is something that made his offense as effective as it was. It was his option plays that made his offense different from every other spread offense in the nation.  The option is an offensive system which involves choosing an opponent – often a defensive end – the offensive line will not block, but who will be forced to choose between two threats to carry the ball – the quarterback or another ball carrier (mostly the running back, although many variations exist), which in turn puts the defensive player in a position where the decision he makes will always be wrong regardless of which it is. By incorporating the option in his spread attack, Kelly has built a system that, despite its spread look, is built around the ground game.

Will his offense be as effective without a running QB? I’m sure he’ll find ways to score but I find it hard to believe that Chip Kelly would turn down a mobile QB if he found a good one waiting to be taken. Like I mentioned earlier, he’s an equal opportunity scorer but at the same time we hired Chip Kelly and at Oregon he’s always had a mobile QB. Now, I’m not saying that Chip is looking for the second coming of Randall but I firmly believe that Chip would at least like to have a guy who at least threatens the defense with his mobility (Tyler Wilson, Geno Smith?).


One of the biggest questions moving forward for the Eagles is whether or not Nick Foles is the answer. Can Nick Foles lead the Eagles to the playoffs? Can Nick Foles win us a championship? Well, I’m not going to definitively answer those questions because nobody knows the answer. Instead, I’m going to provide some information that will allow us to better frame the debate. I’ll start by dropping a bunch of statistics and move from there and I’ll eventually get to why I think we should #RollWithFoles and why I think he deserves a shot to prove that he can become good enough.

First of all, we have to look at Nick Foles. Nick Foles’ rookie season looked like this: 1,699 yards, 60.8% completion rate, 6.41 YPA, 6 TDs, 5 INTs, 42 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD. He threw a TD on 2.3% of his throws and an INT on 1.9% of his throws. He averaged 242 passing yards per game. According to ProFootballFocus, 71.8% of Foles’ throws were considered “accurate”.

Now that we’ve gotten that chunk of numbers out of the way, it’s time for another one:

Rookie Passers:

He completed 60% of his passes, something that Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton couldn’t do. Heck, Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning didn’t even complete 50% of their passes in their rookie season. Nick Foles averaged 242 yards per game, a mark that was only matched by Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in this sample. Only RGIII, Sam Bradford, Russell Wilson and Brandon Weeden had a higher accuracy rate in their rookie seasons. And his 1.9% INT rate was only bested by Robert Griffin III and Jake Locker. The one spot where Nick Foles doesn’t measure up is his TD% where he had the lowest percentage out of any rookie QB that was sampled.

What do those numbers mean moving forward? Not much. I just thought it was important to highlight Nick Foles’ performance in comparison to other rookie passers. People seem to hold Nick Foles to an incredibly high standard, which is fine moving forward, but you have to realize that rookie passers all have their warts.

The real challenge for Nick Foles is going to be improving on his rookie season. Yes, he showed potential but potential just means you haven’t done anything yet. It’s all about how he’s going to grow. As you can see, Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez had incredibly similar rookie seasons, Stafford has obviously progressed better. Development is key.

The Eagles

Under Michael Vick, the Eagles offense averaged 15.5 points per game and he was sacked 7.4% of the time. Under Nick Foles, the Eagles offense averaged 20 points per game and he was sacked 7% of the time. The point differential under Michael Vick was -85 while it was -82 under Nick Foles. But keep in mind, Nick Foles only took over after Juan Castillo was fired and Todd Bowles coordinated what would become a historically bad defense.

I think it’s important to note that the offense as a whole played better when Nick Foles took over. I think that bodes well for him, he elevated a really crappy offense to a less crappy offense even though he didn’t really get to play with LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. Impressive. 

And the play of Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper improved under Nick Foles. I’ve long said that Vick’s street-ball, scattershot QB style didn’t fit a WR core that was built for Kevin Kolb, who was supposed to be an accurate pocket passer. And sure enough, play elevated. In 7 games, Maclin averaged 5.2 catches (4 under Vick), 68.4 yards (47.2 under Vick) per game and he had 3 TD catches (4 in 9 games under Vick). Jason Avant put up his only 100+ yard game of the season with Foles and Riley Cooper enjoyed the most prosperous stretch of his career under Nick Foles.

And I think it’s especially important to note how much better the offensive line looked with Foles and that it returned right back to it’s sieve-like state when the Eagles played the Giants. Foles made several noticeable checks and adjustments against the blitz, making us less susceptible to them (something Vick can’t do). And his consistent footwork in the pocket and ability to actually control the pocket, climb the pocket and on occasion get rid of the freakin’ ball helps a little bit… Michael Vick was “under pressure” 41.2% of his snaps while Nick Foles was “under pressure” on 37% of his snaps and yet Darwin Walker, former NFL DT, said the OL looked like pro-bowlers compared to what Michael Vick was playing with. Nick Foles took fewer sacks, threw 5 fewer interceptions when pressured and had the 11th highest accuracy percentage in the NFL when under pressure. Nick Foles made the offensive line look better than it was, Michael Vick made it look worse than it was.

Nick Foles and Michael Vick played with the same supporting cast and Nick Foles did better; fewer negative plays and more points on the board even though Foles didn’t have DeSean Jackson or LeSean McCoy for a majority of his 7 games. Again, I think this bodes well for him. Sometimes you see players put up stats without really elevating the level of play around them (Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Kevin Kolb, Matthew Stafford) but Nick Foles doesn’t appear to be one of those guys, the offense as a whole played better with him at the reigns.

The Playoffs

How good of a QB do you need to make the playoffs? The talking points all suggest you need a good passer to make the playoffs but after watching the playoffs last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t very many good QBs playing.

Andy Dalton single-handily lost the Bengals their playoff game by missing two wide open TD passes to AJ Green, throwing key interceptions and missing on a 4th down throw late in the game that should’ve been a first down. I watched Matt Schaub do absolutely nothing in the passing game, look anxious in the pocket and rely on his running game to eat up yards. I watched Christian Ponder sitting on the sidelines after quarterbacking his team to the playoffs. And then I watched Joe Flacco go hot/cold all game before dropping a few dimes to Boldin and ultimately winning the game. Then, I watched a hobbled RGIII battle it out with Russell Wilson, neither of whom looked particularly impressive on the day. The only elite QB I watched last weekend? Aaron Rodgers.

I mean, for goodness’ sake, MARK FREAKIN’ SANCHEZ quarterbacked the Jets to TWO, count ’em, TWO AFC Championship Games.

What did I learn? Having an elite QB is sure nice if you can get one but they’re so rare and hard to find that teams make the playoffs and occasionally win championships with QBs who are less than elite *GASP* (see: Ben Roethlisberger as a recent example of a good, not elite QB winning it all). Teams in the playoffs don’t have great QBs, they find QBs who are good enough to win games and they build a roster around them. Ultimately, unless you happen into a #1 pick or trade a huge dowry for the QB of your choice, front offices have to figure out how to do more with less.

Is Foles Good Enough?

I would certainly say that Nick Foles has the potential to be good enough. A Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Joe Montana type rise seems extremely unlikely but becoming a Andy Dalton or Matt Schaub level passer? That’s within striking distance for Foles, in my opinion. We saw this season that he’s capable of being accurate and spreading the ball around. Foles showed better decision making skills than most rookies, he didn’t turn the ball over often. And we saw him command the pocket.

During the season we consistently saw Nick Foles show good eye level and the ability to avoid pressure without running around like a wild goose.

We saw Nick Foles get rid of the ball quickly against the blitz

We saw a little bit of everything from Nick Foles this season. We saw impressive pocket presence. We saw a good enough arm. We saw a QB who threw with anticipation. We saw a QB who had us in position to potentially win games in 3 games, two against division rivals and he won a game on a last second play against a team in the playoff hunt. We saw toughness, poise and moxy. We saw a quick release and accuracy that was a significant improvement of Michael Vick’s. We saw a guy, who at least in my opinion, should develop into at least a good game manager if he continues to develop properly. So yes, if Andy Dalton, Matt Schaub and Christian Ponder are playoff QBs, I think it’s safe to say that Nick Foles could be good enough if his development continues on it’s current trajectory.

What do we do?

I don’t think we hand him the keys and say, “See the Benz? It’s all yours pal”. But, he’s at least got to be given the chance to sit in the drivers seat, even if it’s a student driving car and the passenger controls the brakes. This QB class is incredibly weak and the drop off in talent from the top to the middle isn’t very steep. Finding a franchise QB in this draft is going to be tough, you’re going to have to develop a guy otherwise it’s going to be like trying to squeeze water out of a rock, nobody is ready to go right out of the box. And I do think that Nick Foles is farther along in his development than any QB in this class, why hit the reset button? My vote is to “Roll with Foles” for a season and see what happens. I’d love to see what we’ve really got in Foles, I’d hate to pull the plug on him already. After next season, if his development stalls, the Eagles can then make a move for a QB at the top of the draft in a much stronger draft class. But right now, I think Foles has the potential to be good enough to give us a chance and I would rather build a roster around him than sink immense amounts of resources into the QB spot, especially in this offseason where the QB market is bone dry *watches tumbleweed roll by*.

The Offensive Line

One of the biggest problems the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles have faced is their lack of talent on the front lines on offense. Even now, despite improvements, the Eagles’ offensive line still isn’t anything to write home about. It’s been an abysmal performance up front this season.

As a run blocking unit, the offensive line hasn’t been anything to write home about. Football Outsiders calculates something they call “adjusted line yards” which essentially measures the amount of credit an offensive line’s run blocking gets, the Eagles are 28th in the NFL. This, combined with the fact that the Eagles are ranked fourth in second level yardage and third in open field yardage would suggest that LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown are creating yards and plays largely because of their own skill. And when LeSean McCoy and Brown can’t create yardage, the offensive line isn’t helping them much, the Eagles are stuffed on 27% of run plays, a mark that is 31st in the entire league. All together, the total rushing production from the Eagles has dropped from being ranked 5th in the NFL in 2011 to 12th in 2012. In the 2011 the Eagles averaged 5.1 yards per carry, in 2012 they’re averaging 4.6.

As a pass blocking unit, the Eagles have been one of the worst in the NFL. While we’re not the worst, take no solace in being better than the Arizona Cardinals. The Eagles have allowed 42 sacks (5th worst) and a total of 105 QB hits (2nd worst). ProFootballFocus has attributed the Eagles’ offensive line with the third most combined sacks, hits and pressures allowed in the entire league. It’s been pretty brutal at times.

This dreadful showing appears to correlate with the injuries that have stricken Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans who are going to miss a combined 38 games by the end of our season. It’s going to make a big difference when those three return but it won’t be as smooth a ride as some would have you believe.