MINNEAPOLIS - The plan was passive from the start. The Eagles won the toss Sunday and deferred, allowing the Minnesota Vikings to go on offense first. That's not the first time Chip Kelly has made that choice this season, but the way the Eagles played the opening kickoff was a tone-setting decision on a day that dissolved into a momentum-squashing disaster, not to mention a massive missed opportunity.
Intimidated by rookie return sensation Cordarrelle Patterson, the Eagles ordered Alex Henery to drop the opening kick around the 20-yard line, a wedge shot of sorts that he had practiced all week back in South Philadelphia.
"We were really concerned going into the game with Patterson," Kelly said after the Eagles came undone in a 48-30 loss to the last-place Vikings. "Obviously he's the best returner in the league. If you look at what he's done during the season, even if you make a good kick he takes it out. He's got a 109-yard kickoff return . . . and we were just trying to keep the ball away from him."
Patterson, a first-round pick out of Tennessee, has had an amazing season. He leads the NFL with a 33.3-yard return average and has covered 109 and 105 yards on touchdown returns. But this game was being played indoors, where there was no wind and it was 65 degrees warmer than the bone-chilling, 3-degree temperature outside. That made it much easier to boot the ball deep into the end zone. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, in fact, blasted seven of his nine kicks for touchbacks.
"Of course I would [have liked that opportunity]," Henery said. "But that's not what we worked on all week. Yeah, I think we could have got touchbacks, but it's not about the ones you get the touchbacks on. It's the ones you miss just a tiny bit . . . and it gets in his hands. You've seen the stats. He's an explosive guy, and you have to respect that, so that's what our coaches wanted to do and we stuck to our schemes."
Ultimately, the kickoff scheme did not work. The Vikings' average starting position this season on kickoffs was the 26.3-yard line, which was the best in the league. On this day, without Patterson ever touching the ball, the Vikings' average starting position was just beyond the 33-yard line.
"I don't think so," Kelly said when asked if he had sent a negative message to his kickoff coverage team. "We hit the ball a lot better during the week and covered a lot better during the week."
Patterson's perspective on the Eagles' approach was interesting.
"I won [the battle]," the Vikings' returner said after his returning the ball zero times for zero yards. "Of course I did. We're getting the ball on the 35, the 40 . . . who wouldn't want to be in that kind of position? It's great seeing them not wanting to kick it to you."
Patterson said this was the first time all season that a team didn't try kicking deep at least once against him.
"I've seen [the strategy] a lot, but that's the first time I've seen it every kick," Patterson said. "I thought they were going to at least slide one to me, but we made them pay for it."
The most debilitating kick return moment came late in the third quarter. The Eagles, after falling behind by 27-9, had just scored on a pass from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz to get within five points. Henery's wedge kick landed at the 31-yard line and Vikings tight end Chase Ford returned it 15 yards to the 46.
Minnesota took advantage of that field position and punched in a touchdown that stifled the Eagles' comeback threat.
The Eagles' submissive approach to kickoffs was only part of the reason their five-game winning streak came to a halt against a banged-up, three-win team. And it was only one of several decisions that did not go Kelly's way.
There was the decision to go for it on a fourth-and-less-than-a-yard play on the Eagles' own 24-yard line midway through the third quarter. LeSean McCoy was stopped for no gain. Kelly challenged the spot, lost the challenge, and lost a timeout.
"I thought that we could have made it, and I also thought if we don't make it, we're in trouble," Kelly said. "If you can't get half a yard, maybe it tells you what the day is all about. You have to think in fourth and a half-yard, we can get a half yard."
The Vikings settled for a field goal that put them up by 27-9 before the Eagles briefly made things interesting. But then Kelly kicked scared again, and the Eagles got their derrieres destroyed during a fourth quarter in which he burned a timeout because he had the extra-point unit on the field when he needed to be going for two.
"It was just a miscommunication upstairs," Kelly said. "We should have gone for two, and that's on me, so we called a timeout to make sure we were in the right situation."
By the end of the day, receiver DeSean Jackson had been involved in a sideline tirade and Cary Williams had been pulled from the game after a taunting penalty.
"That will be straightened out," Kelly said. "That's not how we're supposed to play, and it's obviously unacceptable."
Meanwhile, down in Dallas, the Cowboys self-destructed again, blowing a 23-point halftime lead in a loss to Green Bay. That allowed the Eagles to remain in first place in the NFC East, but it also accentuated a lost opportunity to win the division next week against the Chicago Bears, regardless of what the Cowboys do in Washington.