Should we be skeptical or optimistic about the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles?
Both feelings seem appropriate. Not buying into the Eagles? We can’t blame you. No team has disappointed more in the last two seasons. The much-hyped 2011 squad finished .500, while last year’s club managed a mere four wins in a playoffs-or-bust year for coach Andy Reid.
With Reid gone, Chip Kelly inherits a roster that’s lately looked better on paper than on the field. But let’s look on the bright side. Can you imagine Kelly’s fast-paced offense with the Eagles’ skill-position players?
And let’s consider the Eagles’ division. The NFC East doesn’t have one team that stands above the rest. Every one of the clubs seems capable of playing that role in a given week, but in recent years, this division has been contested all the way until the end.
Of course, if the Eagles are to be competitive down the stretch, they must improve on their surprisingly poor recent form.
The Eagles’ depth chart has some top-end skill players at running back (LeSean McCoy) and wide receiver (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin). Their offensive line could be very good if left tackle Jason Peters stays healthy and rookie right tackle Lane Johnson proves a quick study. The Eagles will be strong inside, with guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans an above-average tandem. This could be a dynamite running team; McCoy and Bryce Brown are a nice 1-2 punch, and Kelly oversaw impressive rushing attacks at Oregon.
Even in areas where the Eagles don’t have clarity, they at least have some viable options. Case-in-point: Michael Vick or Nick Foles each have the potential to be serviceable at quarterback — and perhaps more than that. Also, the Eagles should be able to get a solid pass rush from outside linebackers Connor Barwin, Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, even with Cole and Graham transitioning from defensive end.
The Eagles have committed a combined 75 turnovers in the last two seasons. One positive: Eagles quarterbacks threw 10 fewer interceptions in 2012. Prudent passing and better ball security could give the Eagles — who outgained opponents last season despite finishing 4-12 — a bit of a lift.
The Eagles also need to get better in the red zone; they scored touchdowns on just 44 percent of their trips inside the opposition 20 a season ago, fifth-worst in the NFL.
From a personnel standpoint, quarterback is the greatest concern for Philadelphia, which enters training camp without a clear-cut starter. That’s never a particularly comforting feeling. Also, the Eagles’ pass defense could be vulnerable even after investing in the secondary in free agency.
The Eagles’ changes aren’t just confined to offense. Their defense is different, too, with a new coordinator (Bill Davis) and a new base scheme (the 3-4). The scheme change necessitated a couple front seven additions in free agency, as the Eagles signed the ex-Texan Barwin and former 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. However, the Eagles are trying to run the 3-4 primarily with the personnel brought in for various versions of the 4-3 the club employed under Reid and his defensive coordinators.
The Eagles are starting over in the secondary. Cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are gone after disappointing two-season stints, replaced by Cary Williams (ex-Baltimore) and Bradley Fletcher (ex-St. Louis). At safety, the Eagles signed Patrick Chung from the Patriots and Kenny Phillips from the Giants to push incumbents Nate Allen and Colt Anderson. Considering how lackluster the Eagles were against the pass in 2012, wiping the slate clean would be perfectly understandable, but with so many new faces comes the prospect of everyone needing time to get on the same page on the back end of the defense.
On offense, there’s great anticipation about what Kelly has planned. At the very least, the Eagles are likely to play at a quicker-than-average pace. They would also figure to employ some read-option concepts, too. That said, the Eagles’ new offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, is grounded in the West Coast scheme. Philadelphia would seem to have the schematic and personnel flexibility needed to show numerous looks on offense.
Vick and Foles are the primary contenders for the starting quarterback job, with rookie Matt Barkley seeming likely to hold down one of the reserve roles. Vick, 33, has just one year left on his contract, and he took a big paycut earlier in the offseason. Miscues (15 turnovers in 10 starts in 2012) are the major concern with Vick.
Foles, who’s nine years younger than Vick, got some valuable experience late last season. While Foles did show some potential in a six-game starting stint, he too had some issues with turnovers, and he faltered against a very good Cincinnati defense late in the campaign.
Other positions where there could be competition are safety, cornerback, outside linebacker and defensive end. The Eagles need stability to develop at the secondary positions.
Every team could use 1) a good start to the season and 2) some injury luck. Well, the Eagles really could use these things. Half of the Eagles’ road games are in the first six weeks of the season, including three straight games away from Philadelphia, with trips to the Broncos (Sept. 29), Giants (Oct. 6) and Buccaneers (Oct. 13) in Weeks Four through Six.
The Eagles open the season at defending NFC East champion Washington on Sept.9 — the first of three games in 11 days for Philadelphia. Home tilts vs. San Diego (Sept. 15) and Reid-led Kansas City (Sept. 19) are games the Eagles have to believe they can win — and they may very well need to win them with that challenging road stretch thereafter.
The Eagles do not get their bye until Week 12 — hence the need for that run of good collective health — but they do have the benefit of having their week of rest sandwiched between three home games: Washington (Nov. 7), Detroit (Dec. 1), Arizona (Dec. 8).
By then, we’ll have a good idea of how Kelly’s offense looks. If Kelly’s personnel takes to his scheme and opposing defenses are caught a little off-guard, the Eagles could be a sleeper in the NFC East. However, if the Eagles sputter early, they could be left with too much work to do down the stretch.
The other major storyline to watch, of course, is whether a quarterback emerges as a solid starter. If not, the focus turns to how the Eagles address the position in 2014.
For now, though, there’s the matter of whether Kelly can get more out of a team that’s left us wanting more the last two seasons.