What’s ailing the Eagles

Philly is struggling on both sides of the ball, but all is not lost

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It’s easy to get caught up in the best-case scenario from April to August.

“The quarterback is a really good fit for his new offensive scheme. Sure, the offensive line lost a player or two, but there’s ways around that. No deep threat? It’s OK. They’ll succeed in the short and intermediate game. Besides, they just spent a ton of money on running backs. They’re going to run the ball all the time! And have you seen that defense?! Oh man. Super Bowl contenders, for sure.”

At least half, if not all of that, was written about the Philadelphia Eagles at some point from April to August. Sam Bradford was going to thrive with the best coach he’d ever had at the NFL level and a real supporting cast for once. There were holes at both guard spots, but center Jason Kelce and tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters and Chip Kelly’s scheme were enough to overcome a lack of talent. And if LeSean McCoy can rush for nearly 3,000 yards over two seasons under Kelly, imagine what DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews can do. Their north-south running styles were perfect fits for what Kelly wanted from his backs. With a revamped secondary and a frightening, fast and athletic front seven, the defense would be the best Kelly’s had in the NFL.

Four games in, the Eagles instead look like one of the worst teams in the league, beguiled by missed kicks, poor play-calling, a shell-shocked quarterback and a dismal offensive line. But are they actually a bad team or just a team playing poorly?

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The rushing game that was supposed to propel and pace this offense is essentially non-existent outside of a 123-yard effort in Week 3. At the heart of the failure are several factors, none of which hold priority over the others but rather swirl and intermix like water and soap in a sink.

It starts with an offensive line that ranks 32nd in Football Outsiders’ stuffed metric and adjusted line yards, which means the line is helping its backs the least of any other unit in the league while also allowing the most runs to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Kelly’s decision to jettison veteran guards Todd Herrmans and Evan Mathis, while failing to significantly invest in their replacements, has come back to haunt him. Allen Barbre, Andrew Gardner and Matt Tobin have been liabilities in both the run game and pass protection and their inexperience has led to communication issues across the five-man. Normally reliable veterans Jason Peters and Jason Kelce are having their worst seasons in recent memory, with Peters struggling to stay on the field.

The inconsistency up front rendered Kelly’s preferred inside zone plays mostly ineffective. The sight of Barbre, Kelce or Gardner being pushed back into the ball carrier has become a regular occurrence. On Sunday against Washington, the Eagles showed signs of gaining ground inside, with Murray running for a season high 30 yards on a first-quarter jaunt between the tackles. It looked like a continuance on the work Mathews did the week before against a strong New York Jets defense, when he ran for 85 yards on 17 carries in between the tackles. Instead, Kelly spent much of Sunday’s eventual loss calling for sweeps and stretch plays or ignoring the run altogether. It was a curious decision that illustrates another problem in Philly’s run game – the play-calling.

In Kelly’s first year in Philadelphia, the Eagles were unpredictable on offense. Kelly was just as likely to call a run as a pass and from any formation. The Eagles finished the year with 500 rushing attempts and 508 pass attempts. Last season, that ratio sank to 57-43 in favor of passing, part of the change due to an abysmal secondary that often had the Eagles playing catch-up. This season, the Eagles are running the ball just 38 percent of the time and after Sunday’s loss, Murray complained about not getting the ball enough.

This is in itself, a catch-22. Due to Kelly the GM’s poor roster management – namely forcing Mathis out of Philadelphia over a philosophical disagreement – Kelly the coach is forced to make due with a sub-par group of interior linemen. This has forced him to shy away from interior runs, despite the fact that both Mathews and Murray are at their best when they stay between the tackles.

The run game should be the base of Kelly’s offense. It’s needed to provide manageable down and distance situations for a passing game that succeeds mostly within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. Without it, Sam Bradford has been nothing short of terrible.

Part of the problem is Bradford’s lack of mobility coming off a twice-torn ACL. Defenses are testing him with blitzes in the A gaps and forcing Bradford to move within the pocket. Instead, Bradford often chooses to abandon the pocket, running to a side of the field and eliminating half of his reads. Bradford also appears to be having difficulty reading his progressions before the pocket collapses. Several times in the first half Sunday against Washington, Bradford failed to identify or anticipate an open receiver, thus resulting in a sack, a throwaway or a completion for far fewer yards than was actually available.

Bradford has also struggled with accuracy, particularly in the intermediate areas of the field. On passes within 10 to 19 yards of the line of scrimmage, Bradford is completing just 34.6 percent of his attempts and has thrown three of his four interceptions. It’s possible Bradford’s struggles in this area and further down the field are related to a lack of trust in his twice-surgically repaired knee or an inability to generate strength in his lower half. But these aren’t new problems for the former No. 1 overall pick. In St. Louis, Bradford earned the nickname “Checkdown Sam” for his propensity to anticipate pressure and get rid of the ball to the underneath receiver. Since he entered the league in 2010, Bradford’s 5.19 adjusted net yards per attempt and 58.79 completion percentage are 29th out of 32 quarterbacks with at least 32 starts in that span.

It’s worth noting Bradford has been besieged by drops this season. Eagles receivers, including running backs and tight ends, have combined for 14 drops, or 9.6 percent of Bradford’s attempts. Although it’s not reasonable to expect the Eagles to catch all of those passes, even seven more completions would take Bradford’s percentage to a reasonable 65.6 percent. Also, several of those drops have come at crucial points in the game, including Jordan Matthews’ on the game-clinching interception in the opener and a drop by Darren Sproles on third-and-6 midway through the fourth quarter Sunday. Sproles’ drop came at a time when the Eagles’ offense was picking up steam after Bradford and Miles Austin connected for a 39-yard touchdown to take the lead – one of four Bradford completions over 20 yards on the day. It also ended a drive that had moved 34 yards on seven plays and killed nearly three minutes of clock.

The lack of consistency on offense has taken a toll on a defense that has been one of the league’s best at times, but has been hit by injuries at linebacker and suffered from spending too much time on the field. Kelly famously once said that time of possession is meaningless – the Eagles have finished every season under Kelly last in TOP and are 32nd again this year – but the defense has been visibly gassed in fourth quarters this season. On Washington’s final drive Sunday, the Eagles’ defensive line was stood up on most plays and quarterback Kirk Cousins faced almost no pressure during a 15-play, 90-yard drive that left just 31 seconds on the clock.

Part of the issue Sunday, as it has been the entire season, was the Eagles’ secondary. With Byron Maxwell sidelined for all but seven snaps, Washington’s receivers regularly received free releases off the line of scrimmage. Some of that was due to clever designs by Washington coach Jay Gruden, but there were other times, namely on the game-winning touchdown, where Philly’s corners were giving far too much cushion.

That said, given how he’s played so far this year, it’s unlikely Maxwell would’ve helped much. The former Seattle Seahawks cornerback is allowing an opposing quarterback rating of 145.4, just a shade off the perfect rating of 158.3. He’s also 68th out of 68 starting cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ yards per coverage snap metric, which measures how many yards a defensive player allows while in primary coverage. Expected to lead a physical, cover-3 defense, Maxwell has been consistently burned from every position – in press man, off coverage and in zone.

With the secondary scuffling, opposing offenses have taken to quick, manageable passing attacks designed to negate the Eagles’ fierce pass-rush. It doesn’t always work – Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was besieged in the Eagles’ only win this year – but Kelly only needs to look to last season to see how a porous secondary can affect a defense in the long run.

The current that runs beneath it all is Kelly’s unflinching belief in himself and the culture he’s attempted to create and foster inside the Eagles building. Mathis, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson were all victims of Kelly’s ascent in the Eagles’ power structure. With a rough start to this year, there have been more anonymous reports of player unrest and threats to Kelly’s job security. What those reports, and potentially disgruntled players, miss is that Eagles owner Jeff Lurie prides himself on organizational stability and Lurie is highly unlikely to fire Kelly after giving him total control this past offseason.

The key going forward will be how much Kelly learns from Eagles’ struggles through the first four games and whether he adjusts not only as a coach, but as a general manager. It’s fine to prioritize “your guys” and “your system,” but it’s foolish to believe that all a player needs is “your system” to improve. Overall, Bradford has proven to be the same quarterback in Philadelphia he was in St. Louis – not surprising given that players rarely change or drastically improve after five seasons in the league, especially following two torn ACLs.

In the NFL, talent is king above all else and the Eagles still have enough of it to reverse course this season with the right adjustments by Kelly the coach. Whether they correct course in the long term, however, depends on how flexible he is as a GM.