IN THE LATE nineties, Jeff Stoutland spent 3 years as an assistant on Paul Pasqualoni's coaching staff at Syracuse. Coached tight ends for 2 years and the offensive line for a year. Also was Pasqualoni's recruiting coordinator for all 3 years.
Both of them favored athletic offensive linemen who could move over slow, big-bellied road-graders.
"Coach Pasqualoni would say, 'You know what? Let's go find tight ends and defensive linemen and let's make them our offensive linemen.' '' Stoutland said.
"That's what we call 'big skill.' Some of the best players I've ever coached in all my years were guys like that - tight ends, defensive players [who were switched to the offensive line]. They were very athletic."
Now, in this, his first season in the NFL and his first season as the Eagles' offensive-line coach, Stoutland is in charge of one of the best - and most athletic - offensive lines in the NFL.
His two starting offensive tackles, Jason Peters and rookie Lane Johnson, both are former tight ends. Johnson even played quarterback. Center Jason Kelce is a former linebacker. And Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans are as quick as any pair of guards in the league.
"The thing about this group is they're very explosive," Stoutland said. "They're explosive people. For big guys, it's rare to find."
Peters, Johnson, Kelce, Mathis and Herremans have been a perfect fit for Chip Kelly's offense, which is third in the league in net yards, first in rushing and tied for ninth in scoring heading into Sunday's game against the Vikings.
"There's a lot of tools in our tool box because of these guys," Stoutland said. "We can pull guys to the secondary. We can pull them to the perimeter. We can put them on different screens. We can do so many different things with them because a lot of teams, even at schools I was at before, you'd say, 'Well, we can't do it that way because that guy might not get out there. Like, if you put odds on it, he probably isn't going to make that play. So let's go run it this way instead.'
"You don't have that issue with these guys because they're really athletic guys. And I think they're having fun with it. They've embraced the offense. You can see each week we're growing. And there's still a lot of improvement, believe me."
Peters, Kelce and Herremans all were recovering from career-threatening injuries when Kelly and Stoutland arrived in Philadelphia. Peters had ruptured his Achilles' tendon not once, but twice. Kelce tore his ACL. Herremans had a broken foot.
But none of them has missed a start this season. Neither has Mathis or Johnson. Herremans has played every snap. Kelce has played all but six snaps. Peters has missed 85 snaps because of an assortment of injuries (dislocated finger and quad, pectoral and shoulder injuries), but there's been no problem at all with his Achilles'.
"I don't want to say I put my head in the sand on it, but when you're in this business for a while, injuries can happen at any time," Stoutland said. "So I try real hard to not even think about that whole situation, and just focus on the task at hand and what we're doing.
"It's been amazing. Jason Peters was saying to me this week that it's like it [the ruptured Achilles'] never happened to him. He said, 'I feel great, coach.' I think that's just a credit to what Chip is doing around here, what he has brought with the sports science and all we're doing to keep players healthy, fresh and energized."
An offensive line, especially an offensive line with three thirtysomething players - Herremans and Peters are 31, Mathis is 33 - shouldn't be feeling this good in mid-December, shouldn't be playing this good in mid-December. But they are. And it's a very big reason why the Eagles are leading the NFC East with an 8-5 record.
"We could not have come to a better place that's more suited to this style of offense because of the bigger players," Stoutland said. "These guys haven't even batted an eyelash. They're tired when they come off the field. That's how you know they're working. But I haven't seen one of them say, 'Hey, I gotta tap out here. I can't make it. I can't run this many plays.' I've never seen that one time.
"I've seen defensive players [from other teams] do that on the other side of the ball, but not our guys."
The Eagles have held nine straight opponents to 21 points or less for the first time since 2001 when Jim Johnson's defense went the entire regular season without giving up more than 21 points.
Anybody outside of the NovaCare Complex who says they saw that coming after the way the defense played in the first four games is lying through their teeth.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis will be the first to tell you that his unit still has a lot of room for improvement - "We are nowhere close to where we want to be yet," he said. The Eagles still are 30th in the league in yards and first downs allowed and still give up too many third-and-longs. But they are forcing turnovers (12 in the last five games) and are keeping people out of the end zone and that's what it's all about.
"Our third down has to improve," Davis said. "I know the red zone is solid right now [they've given up just four TDs in their last 14 red-zone challenges], but it can be better. I'm disappointed we gave up a touchdown after the turnover the other day.
"There are so many little things that we can communicate better in our fundamentals. There's just so much growth out there. Our run defense is getting better and better each week. Keeping the deep balls and the big extra-yardage plays off of us is getting better as we go.
"But we're nowhere near the top of the NFL with a lot of those statistics, so you can always grow."
1st 4 Last 9
Points/Game. . . 34.5 18.1
Yards/Game. . . 446.8 376.4
First Downs/Game. . . 28.0 20.9
Opp. Passer rating. . . 107.2 71.7
TD Passes/Game. . . 2.2 1.1
Third Down Pct.. . . 44.2 38.3
Completion Pct.. . . 70.2 55.4
Yards/Attempt. . . 8.1 6.7
Red Zone Pct.. . . 58.8 42.8
Takeaways/Game. . . 1.2 2.2
Turnover Diff.. . . -2 +11
Eagles receivers have dropped just 19 passes this season, only four in the last six games. The only two teams in the league with fewer drops are the Cardinals, who have 13, and the Seahawks, who have 14. Four other teams - the Saints, Panthers, Chargers and Raiders - also have 19 drops. The Lions lead the league in drops with 51.
A breakdown of the Eagles' 19 drops:
Targ. Rec. Drops
D. Jackson. . . 101 65 4
R. Cooper. . . 70 37 3
J. Avant. . . 63 29 3
L. McCoy. . . 49 40 3
B. Celek. . . 41 25 2
J. Maehl. . . 9 4 2
Z. Ertz. . . 42 26 1
B. Brown. . . 12 8 1
Jackson and Celek haven't had a drop in the last six games. Cooper has had one in the last 10 games. McCoy has had one in the last nine.
Celek is having one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. With just 25 catches and 348 receiving yards, he's on a 31-catch, 428-yard pace. Both numbers would be the lowest since his second year in the league in 2008.
But that doesn't mean the 28-year-old Celek is having a bad year. The truth is, he may be having one of the best seasons of his career. While his pass-catching numbers are down, Celek's blocking has been an important part of the Eagles' No. 1-ranked run game this season.
Pro Football Focus, which grades every player in the league, has Celek ranked as the seventh best run-blocking tight end in the league this season. It's the first time in his career he's ever been in their top 10.
"We're a big part of the running game," Celek said. "Tight ends can really help the run game out big-time. I've been trying to still get better. I can still do more."
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles clearly were a pass-first team. He sprinkled in the run in the second half after they secured a lead. But Reid felt you had to pass early and often to win in the NFL.
Under Kelly, the Eagles have run the ball 48.4 percent of the time this season, which is the third highest percentage in the league behind only San Francisco and Seattle.
Celek was a big part of the passing game under Reid. Caught 76 passes for 971 yards and eight touchdown in 2009. Had 62 receptions for 811 yards and five TDs 2 years ago.
But he has embraced his blocking role in Kelly's offense.
"I was a blocking tight end in college [at Cincinnati]," he said. "You go back and watch my film, we ran a lot of power play-action. My tight ends coach there was an offensive-line coach. That's what it was about. Run, run, run, play-action. Run, run, run, play-action. That's what I was used to.
"Then, coming here, it was a little different deal in the West Coast [offense] because we used short passes as our running game almost. Getting back to my fundamentals and focusing on the blocking has really helped me. I like it."
Rookie right tackle Lane Johnson has the second-best season grade of the five rookie offensive tackles that were taken in the first round of the draft, behind only the Giants' Justin Pugh, according to Pro Football Focus. A look at PFF's grades of the five first-round tackles:
Sel. Team Grade
J. Pugh. . . 19th NYG +4.8
Johnson. . . 4th PHI -2.4
L. Joeckel. . . 2nd JAX -6.1
D.J. Fluker. . . 11th SD -8.3
E. Fisher. . . 1st KC -16.6
* Eagles left guard Evan Mathis is PFF's top-rated interior lineman through 13 games. His 32.7 run-blocking grade is 15.5 points higher than the next closest guy, Texans center Chris Myers (17.2).
* With the Seahawks playing the Jets this week, Pete Carroll was asked on a conference call with the New York-area media about his ill-fated 1-year tenure as the Jets' head coach back in 1994. "You sort of resurrected your career as a college coach after your time with the Jets and have now come back to the NFL," a reporter commented/asked. "What are you saying, [my career] was dead and gone?" Carroll said. "Not gone," the reporter said. A pause, then Carroll responded, "You're right. It was [gone]."
* Alabama and Oklahoma will face each other in the Sugar Bowl. Evan Mathis played at Alabama and Lane Johnson played for the Sooners. Might there be a friendly wager on the game? "Nah," Mathis said. "He's too smart to agree to that. He knows [Oklahoma] has no shot."
FROM THE LIP
** "I mean, you know it's baloney. I like Mike Shanahan, and I'm not talking
behind his back. But when you say something like that, you know that's not right. You're not going to sacrifice regular-season games. There's only 16 of them a year. You're not going to sacrifice regular-season games for an offseason program."
— John Madden, on Redskins coach Mike Shanahan saying he is shutting down Robert Griffin III for the
final three games so that he'll be healthy enough to participate in the team's offseason program.
** "The last thing you want to be is embarrassed. This is a team that if you're not ready to play, they will embarrass you — and laugh about it. I ain't in the business of being embarrassed."
— Giants DE Justin Tuck, on the challenge of playing Seattle this week
** "What I'm trying to do is be as honest as I can, and I don't normally do that."
— Redskins coach Mike Shanahan
** "He's a vet. He's been doing this a long time. He's going to get a yellow \[Hall of Fame\] jacket. He's got a lot of money. He's getting more money. And he's trying to help the younger guys."
— Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon on cornerback Asante Samuel being benched in favor of rookie Robert Alford
BY THE NUMBERS
** Five teams still are undefeated at home. The Patriots, Saints and Broncos (before last night) are 7-0 at home. The Seahawks and Bengals are 6-0.
** With 3 weeks left in the regular season, 25 of the league's 32 teams still are in contention for a playoff spot. That's the fourth most this late in the season since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
** NFL games have averaged 701.8 total yards per game, which would be a single-season record if it holds. The record is 694.4 set last season.
** Browns WR Josh Gordon has at least 125 receiving yards in each of the last four games. That's the third-longest streak in league history. Calvin Johnson (2012) and Pat Studstill (1966) have each done it five times in a row.
** Tom Brady has converted 90 of 95 quarterback keepers in situations of 2 yards or less. He's converted 67 of 69 third downs of 2 yards or less, and 23 of 26 fourth downs of 2 yards or less.
** The Ravens' 29-26 win over the Vikings last week featured six different lead changes in the fourth quarter. That's the most fourth-quarter lead changes in league history.
FIGURING THE EAGLES
** The Eagles have turned the ball over just 16 times this season. That's the fifth fewest giveaways in the league. Just as importantly, opponents have scored only 40 points off of those 16 turnovers. That's the seventh fewest points allowed off turnovers. Last season, the Eagles had a league-worst 37 giveaways and gave up a league-worst 140 points off of them.
** The Eagles' 25 takeaways are the fifth most in the league. But they only are 13th in points off turnovers with 68. The Eagles have 12 takeaways in their five straight wins, but have scored just 20 points off of them. Part of that has to do with drive location. Nine of their 12 post-takeaway possessions in the last five games started in their own territory.
** The Eagles have made 11 playoff appearances since Jeff Lurie bought the team in 1994. That's the fifth most in the league during that time behind only the Colts (15), Patriots and Packers (14) and Steelers (12).
** The Eagles used "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) on 45 of their 68 offensive plays against the Lions. Used "12" personnel (two tights) 15 times and "13" personnel (three tight ends) eight times. Prior to Sunday, the Eagles had used three-tight end sets just three times this season. The Eagles have used 11 personnel 74.6 percent of the time.
** The Eagles are 10th in the league in offensive plays per game (66.2), but still dead last in time of possession (26:04). Just 18 of their 165 possessions have eaten up more than 3:30 off the clock. Nineteen of their 39 touchdown drives have been four plays or less. They've had just six touchdown drives longer than eight plays.