The growth that the Eagles have made under Chip Kelly this season, if they've made any at all, is a hard thing to judge. They're 9-5. If they win their next two games, they will finish a game better than they did last season, when they won the NFC East and hosted a playoff game and rebounded from that 4-12 bus crash in Andy Reid's final year as head coach. That was definitely progress. But even if the Eagles go 11-5 this year, they might miss the playoffs.
Is that progress?
Those next two games are against inferior teams: the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. If there's one thing the Eagles have proved this season, it's that they can beat inferior teams. Jacksonville, the Giants, St. Louis, Houston, Carolina, Tennessee - the Eagles waxed them all.
Teams that are their equals or superiors have been a different story. The Eagles split their two games with the Dallas Cowboys, including that crushing 38-27 loss Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks dominated them statistically, if not on the scoreboard. They lost a close game in Arizona to the Cardinals. They beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, and that win is probably the best of their season. But they really haven't won a game that made you say, Whoa. They outflanked a better team today. That's worth noticing.
Is that progress?
Injuries have hurt the Eagles. That, no one can question. Just look at the list of players who have missed significant stretches of this season, including some who are still out of the lineup: Nick Foles, DeMeco Ryans, Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans, Mychal Kendricks, and now maybe Trent Cole, who broke his hand Sunday.
Still, the Eagles kept winning games, even when Mark Sanchez became their starting quarterback, even when their offensive line was in shards and bits, and their success has been a testament both to Kelly and to the players' collective fortitude.
"I don't think we've got time to stop and think about it," safety Malcolm Jenkins said after Sunday's loss, when he was asked how the Eagles' roster attrition had affected them. "It's just been the next man in, and let's keep moving forward. . . . We practice hard. We've got a lot of depth. We've got a lot of guys playing different positions, and we can't make excuses."
It's admirable that the Eagles will not use these injuries as justification for why they've struggled when they've struggled. And perhaps those injuries have contributed to the Eagles' two main problems: an offense that turns the football over too often (34 times, the most in the NFL) and a defense that spends too much time on the field (the Eagles are 28th in total defense).
But these main problems have hounded the Eagles all season, and for all the harping on fundamentals that Kelly and his assistants have done, for all the drills that they've put the players through during those breakneck practices of theirs, the Eagles haven't solved these problems in any appreciable way.
Is that progress?
Earlier this season, NFL Films recorded Kelly saying something revealing: "Culture wins football. Culture beats scheme every day." The two sentences captured the way Kelly goes about building a team, an organization, and so far in the aggregate he's made an excellent case for his approach. The Eagles have won 19 of the 30 regular-season games he has coached. He has been here less than two years, which means we haven't really seen the full effect of his influence over time yet. What will he do once he has a starting quarterback whom he has handpicked? What will his offense look like then? What changes will he and the team's front office make to the defense? These are reasons to be curious and encouraged about the franchise's future.
Think about Sunday's loss, though. The Eagles, Kelly said Monday, approached the game as if Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray "was their whole team," and they presumed Dallas would again lean on Murray, just as it had tried to do in the Eagles' 33-10 victory on Thanksgiving. "The difference in this game," Kelly said, "is that Tony [Romo] played so much better."
Romo did have a terrific game Sunday - 22 completions in 31 attempts, 265 yards - and the idea that the Cowboys would rely on him more was entirely predictable. He'd had more time to rest his balky back than he did ahead of Thanksgiving, and given the strengths (against the run) and weaknesses (against the pass) of the Eagles' defense, why wouldn't the Cowboys target cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams?
It took Romo's targeting Dez Bryant four times against Fletcher and completing all four passes for 79 yards and three touchdowns before Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis finally adjusted and had Williams cover Bryant in the fourth quarter. Chip Kelly might not like to hear this, but in the most important game of the Eagles' season, the Cowboys' scheme beat his culture.
Is that progress? Is it?
Right here, right now, this season, it doesn't feel like it.