Happy holidays, Eagles
Making note of some gifts the first-place Eagles should be thankful for, and what their holiday wishes should be.
WITH ONE holiday just past and another looming, it seems timely to observe some unlikely gifts the Eagles should be thankful for . . . and what their holiday wishes should be.
GIVE THANKS: For St. Chip.
Most of what has happened this season - a 9-3 record that puts the Eagles alone atop the NFC East - would not have happened without coach Chip Kelly's innovative offense and progressive program. The Eagles have been able to keep most defenses on their heels. They rank among the league leaders in points and yards. They have done this first with Nick Foles playing erratically, then with Jets reject Mark Sanchez running an offense that only lately has seen the full effect of franchise running back LeSean McCoy.
However, while Kelly gets credit for the big picture, the devil is in the details. No one has mastered the details like offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland. "Stout" has, at some point this season, been without every player who started all 17 games in 2013. Still, he has managed to cobble together combinations of blockers to run the offense at a high level.
Consider the clay with which Stoutland worked: career backup Allen Barbre; undrafted second-year guard Matt Tobin; David Molk, a center who was out of football last season and who briefly had to play guard in one game this season, then start four times; Dennis Kelly, whose bad back kept him off the field last season; and Andrew Gardner, who had never started a game before this season and who spent 2010 out of the game.
The offensive line was the best unit on the team last season, and more was asked of it this season. Stoutland is the reason it delivered.
WISH LIST: For the defense to remain aggressive.
Billy Davis' personnel plays best when it is playing downhill; when it sends pass rushers from different angles in different combinations and taxes the back end into playing stiff coverage. It isn't sound enough to be a bend-and-don't-break defense. It's an all-in group that must sack the passer and create turnovers.
GIVE THANKS: That Nick Foles wasn't so bad so often that it cost them games early.
Also, that Mark Sanchez has broad shoulders and great character, which allowed him to move past his disheartening history as a Jet, just up the turnpike. In relief of Foles, out since Game 8 with a broken collarbone, Sanchez has shown a mastery of Kelly's scheme and philosophy that is uncanny, if not unsettling. He's almost the perfect quarterback for it.
WISH LIST: For the Eagles to somehow acquire Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who would be an ideal fit in Kelly's system.
Mariota is 6-4, 220 pounds, fast and smart and, of course, familiar with Kelly's scheme. He doesn't have the huge arm or freakish athleticism of Colin Kaepernick. He isn't quite the Montana-like leader that Russell Wilson appears to be. But Mariota would be worth trading up in the draft, and he would be an upgrade over Foles and Sanchez.
GIVE THANKS: That Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho didn't tank when they found themselves marginalized.
Matthews made the team as a special-teams hanger-on, and Acho got cut out of training camp and placed on the practice squad. However, when injury depleted the linebacking corps, both were ready to first replace Mychal Kendricks, then DeMeco Ryans, at inside linebacker. The outside linebackers and defensive line have played well, but that group is a pedigreed, well-paid bunch around whom the defense was built. Acho and Matthews have been a godsend.
WISH LIST: For a playmaker to emerge on the back end.
The play in the defensive secondary has been sporadic at best. Nate Allen remains the weakest link, but Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams routinely find themselves in excellent position but lacking the skills and athleticism to make plays on the ball. Free agent Malcolm Jenkins has been as good as advertised, but he was never advertised as a playmaker.
GIVE THANKS: That Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews both have played beyond expectations.
Maclin, playing on a knee repaired for the second time last year, should reach the first Pro Bowl of his 6-year career, though he has had fine seasons in the past. He already has reached the 1,000-yard mark for the first time; has nine touchdowns, one shy of his career best; and is among the top 10 wide receivers in every significant category, including big plays and yards after the catch.
Matthews, a second-rounder, entered last night second among all rookies in receptions. His seven touchdowns ranked third, and he was fifth in receiving yards.
WISH LIST: For Riley Cooper to start earning his money.
He blew routes in each of the past two games - one led to an interception, another bounced off his hip - and he was upbraided at Dallas by Sanchez, apparently for lining up in the wrong place, althought Chip Kelly denied it. Eagles coaches continue to rave about Cooper's professionalism, but there is no receiver on earth worth $5 million just for blocking.
GIVE THANKS: That Tony Romo's back is injured.
This is not to rejoice in his misfortune, nor to wish further pain upon him, but the reality is, Romo is a hindrance for the Cowboys as he battles yet another back problem. Say what you like about him, but Romo is very good when healthy. The Cowboys are 8-4 with him diminished. They would be even better with him whole.
WISH LIST: For no return trip to Green Bay.