The issues that have come to the front of the line in the last few weeks as the Eagles struggled to hold their playoff position don't really represent anything new or anything the coaching staff and players haven't been trying to fix all season.
Because the first portion of the season provided as many wins as it did despite those issues, the view from the outside was that Chip Kelly's methods and culture could overcome obstacles that would derail lesser teams.
The league statistics don't support that view, if they ever did. Without knowing the identity of the team, if you saw one that was ranked 25th in red-zone offense, 26th in red-zone defense, and tied for 25th in turnovers vs. takeaways, it would be hard to understand how that team could be 9-5 right now and favored to finish with 11 wins. (Just to use the turnover deficit as an example, the Eagles are minus-8 in that category. The other seven teams that are as bad or worse are the 2-12 Titans, Jags, Bucs, and Raiders; the 3-11 Jets and Redskins; and the 5-9 Bears.)
The Eagles didn't overcome those problems with mirrors. They won - even with a tattered offensive line, instability at the quarterback position, and an occasionally porous defense - because they were able to score points in ways that can never be counted on; predicted; or, unfortunately, sustained at the same rate.
Was it luck or design that the Eagles have 10 return touchdowns this season, including six from the special teams? They have scored on two kickoff returns, two punt returns, two blocked punts, two fumble recoveries by the defense, and two interceptions. Along the way, the special teams also blocked another punt and blocked a field goal.
"I don't look at it as an unexpected benefit," Kelly said. "When we got Darren Sproles, we thought he could be a really good returner for us. We have some really good special-teams players for us. You know, we're pleased with where those guys are, but they'll also tell you that they think they should be able to do it every game."
That would be nice, but that isn't the way it works in the NFL. Last year, the Eagles had just two return touchdowns and none from the special teams. This season, the Eagles are so far above the norm it goes beyond the anticipated benefit of simply adding a return man or recruiting free agents with an eye toward special teams. The average for the NFL is 2.8 return touchdowns. Only two teams have more than five return TDs, and those two have exactly six.
Maybe the Eagles deserve to be better than the rest, but nearly four times better than the league average? That's a lot to expect when talking about plays that have a large component of good fortune involved. Maybe not as fluky as the 9-iron kickoff that stuck weirdly against the Eagles at the start of the Dallas game on Sunday, but fluky enough that it isn't usually so commonplace.
"No, it's not something you can count on, but a turnover is a turnover," said Kelly, who knows that the giveaway habit will kill this team eventually if not corrected. "Every individual group is still kind of their own separate entity. The offense doesn't say, 'Hey, the defense or special teams scored a touchdown, so it's OK, we can turn it over.' It's something we need to fix . . . because you're giving the other team an opportunity, and you're also not giving yourself an opportunity."
The opportunities and the big return plays have slowed in the second half of the season, and so has the Eagles' momentum. In the first five games, when the Eagles were 4-1, they collected seven of their 10 return touchdowns. In the next nine games, when the Eagles went 5-4, they had three return touchdowns. The last one came Nov. 23, a 107-yard kickoff return by Josh Huff to start the game vs. Tennessee and ignite a rout.
It's not that every big play on that list was a game-changer, but some might have been. In any case, they made things easier for an offense that has struggled all season to find its stride.
In the opener against Jacksonville, the Eagles would have fallen behind by 20-0 if not for a blocked field goal. Later in the game, Fletcher Cox scored a touchdown on a Jacksonville fumble. The Eagles came back and won the game, 34-17, but it could have been a much tougher afternoon if the offense had to go it alone.
Against Washington in the third game of the season, the Eagles won, 37-34. Could the Redskins have won the game if Chris Polk didn't take a kickoff back 102 yards with the Eagles trailing, 7-0? A reasonable question, as is the question of whether the 34-28 win over St. Louis would have happened without a Cedric Thornton fumble recovery in the end zone.
Even a tough 26-21 road loss to San Francisco, one that helped boost the Eagles' national image as a legitimate contender, was possible only because of three return touchdowns on a day in which the offense was shut out.
All those plays were legitimate and all of them counted, but none of them could be scripted or anticipated. The Eagles needed them, however. That's a dangerous way to play football. Now, in their absence, we might be finding out how dangerous.