A Chip in the armor
There's much to like after nearly 2 years of Chip Kelly's Eagles. But there also are some noticeable cracks.
ANDY REID won 11 games and lost five in his second season as a professional head football coach.
If all goes as expected - and that's been a mighty dangerous word around here these last few weeks - Chip Kelly will finish with an identical record in his second full season as a professional head football coach.
There are other similarities, as well. Both men were risky choices. Both men were risk-taking, offensive-minded men: Reid a third-generation apostle of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense; Kelly a college trailblazer with his breakneck offensive pace, dictating your personnel as well as his.
Reid won a playoff game that second season, and at the time seemed to have charted a steady track toward a Super Bowl championship. Kelly left that vibe as well with last year's surprising, 10-6 season and playoff appearance.
But Reid drafted his franchise quarterback before his first season and taught him his system, step by step. Kelly, whose offense is harder to defend when the quarterback is a threat to keep and run, has taken the quarterbacks left to him, added a discarded one, and instead adjusted his system to account for the more stationary players at the position, with surprising success.
But that's not how it was drawn up when he was hired, and that makes the last two games of this season not just a last stab at the postseason, but a crossroads as well. Given how he performed before he was injured, is Nick Foles still your quarterback going forward? Has Mark Sanchez played himself back into a backup role here or elsewhere? With the cornerback and linebacker positions still in need of sizable upgrades, can Kelly really afford, in Year 3 of his 5-year deal, to shop for a more read-option-friendly slinger than Foles?
And if the answer to that is no, which it probably is, then isn't Kelly farther from the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl championship than Reid was at this stage?
Reid never seemed to concede how running the ball could help his defense, both in rest and less exposure to hurt. Publicly, Kelly scoffs at the notion that his preferred pace, when defended well or when execution is even a little off, can make his defense full of elite pass rushers look downright awful. But it does. It was noteworthy earlier this season against the Giants when Kelly ran the play clock down in the second half while holding a lead, allowing for a rare NFL shutout.
Kelly has either bet that he can make Foles elite, or that he doesn't need elite to win it all. Either way, it smacks of ego, not entirely unlike Reid's perennial confidence that his pass-oriented, West Coast offense did not need a consistent running game.
Reid bet on Donovan McNabb getting better and better, solving his worm-burning tendencies and overcoming his paper-thin skin, neither of which occurred. Kelly has bet on a rapid-fire offense that many of his rivals already have mimicked, and thus become less unnerved by the pace. This may be one reason the offensive line, heralded as one of the NFL's best as last season ended, has been as inconsistent at times as that maddening secondary has been.
"You try not to get caught up too much in comparing last year to this year," center Jason Kelce said after Sunday's loss to Dallas. "But we're not playing as well as we were last year at this time."
After an amazing run of continuity last season, this year's Eagles team has been a weekly Who's Who of who's in and who's out. (That, by the way, ties Cindy Lou Who's regular-season record of whos in a single sentence.)
Four of their five offensive linemen have missed games. They have lost Mychal Kendricks for several games and fellow linebacker DeMeco Ryans for the season. Foles broke his collarbone in early November.
And yet none of this is an apt explanation for the mountain of miscues this team has made. No team turns the ball over more. Few contenders amass the number of, and type of, penalties they do. Even with most of their offensive line relatively healthy and playing together for a number of games, LeSean McCoy still finds sledding tough and the quarterback has developed a bad case of pocket anxiety - a sure sign of distrust of those blocking in front of him.
"Obviously we haven't had the continuity we had last year," Kelce said after a big sigh. "But . . . I put us in a lot better positions last year, I made a lot better calls, I was a much better player . . . and by this time I should be back in the swing of things . It's frustrating."
Longtime followers of the University of New Hampshire football program recall Kelly's eight seasons as their coordinator as both exciting and frustrating. Twice over a 3-year span from 2004-06, the Wildcats, with the same kind of breathtaking offense the Eagles exhibit on their best days, were ranked as the nation's top 1-AA team.
But each of the three seasons ended with a second-round loss in the NCAA playoffs.
He's a head coach now, of course, picking the coaches, the players, making all the calls, setting the tone. Two seasons into his pro career, the civic sense is not much different than it was about Reid at this stage. Guarded optimism - and more than just a little anxiety about the noticeable cracks already appearing in this latest can't-miss incarnation.
On Twitter: @samdonnellon