For a coach who a year ago delivered a line for the ages, who used five words to energize a city that loves to be loved for its pugnacity, Chip Kelly made a strange and sad decision near the end of the Eagles' 24-14 loss Sunday to the Seahawks.
There were the Eagles, facing a fourth and 11 from their own 26-yard line, down 10 points with more than four minutes left in the game. If ever there was an opportunity for Kelly to reaffirm the rallying cry he'd offered last season - "We're from Philadelphia; we fight" - here it was. You're down and desperate against the defending Super Bowl champions. You have nothing to lose. You go for it. Don't you?
Kelly did not. He had Donnie Jones punt. "I just didn't think we were going to convert," Kelly said, "and I didn't want to give them the ball right there."
It was a stunning concession, a white flag that ran counter to Kelly's swashbuckling instincts, but in context - in this game, against this opponent - it was also a recognition of reality. The Eagles aren't at the Seahawks' level, and none of Kelly's well-crafted play calls or formations, none of his beliefs about athletes' pace and conditioning, would change a few simple truths: The Seahawks' secondary could handle the Eagles' receivers, and the Eagles' defense couldn't handle Russell Wilson. So he punted and moved on to next week . . . to the Dallas Cowboys, and the game that will decide the NFC East.
"Chip's always positive," said running back LeSean McCoy, who hurt the Eagles badly by fumbling on the first play of the third quarter - a turnover that the Seahawks turned into a touchdown and a 17-7 lead. "He let us know that we played [lousy] today. He let us know that, because we did. We've got to move on. We've got to win this division. That's the most important thing."
Look, the Eagles' loss Sunday doesn't mean that they can't or won't beat the Cowboys next week or win the NFC East for the second time in two years under Kelly. But it does mean that the hopes and expectations for this team, for this season, have to be tempered. Within the division, Kelly's presence gives the Eagles a substantial advantage over Jason Garrett, the Giants' Tom Coughlin, or the Redskins' Jay Gruden - all of whom are in charge of rosters with comparable overall talent to the Eagles'. But there's enough evidence to show that the Eagles are a rung below the best of the NFC - the Seahawks and the Packers - and they have a ways yet to go to make up that gap.
The shortcomings that Kelly is working with, particularly at quarterback, ought to be obvious by now. When Mark Sanchez plays a clean game at quarterback, it is a gift, and Sanchez was not clean Sunday. He threw a dying-balloon interception. He missed open receivers. Worse, though, is that Kelly has to contour the offense to accentuate Sanchez's strengths and minimize his weaknesses, and primary among those weaknesses is his erratic accuracy and timing on deep, difficult passes.
Consider just the two touchdown passes that Sanchez threw Sunday. On the first, Kelly did a marvelous bit of play-scheming, putting Jeremy Maclin in motion to free him from cornerback Richard Sherman. Sanchez flipped a screen pass to him, and Maclin slipped into the end zone from a yard out. On the second, tight end Zach Ertz, the player on the Eagles offense who presents perhaps the greatest mismatch in coverage, found himself lined up against linebacker K.J. Wright, and Sanchez found him wide open for a 35-yard score.
Put simply, those are relatively easy throws for a quarterback to make, and the Eagles offense relies on Kelly to create the conditions for those plays to happen. That's fine against the lesser lights of the NFL, and it might even work again against the Cowboys next week, just like it did throughout that 33-10 rout on Thanksgiving. But against the Seahawks - a team that pretty much commits pass interference on every play and dares officials to call it, that has become the template for building an elite defense in an era when offense is afforded every advantage - the Eagles weren't physical enough on the outside or along the line of scrimmage to keep up.
So now, Dallas. "Yeah, I don't think anybody has to get revved up to play the Cowboys," Kelly said. "It's a division game. It's an opportunity to establish yourself in the NFC East, and that's what this season's about right now."
Actually, it looked like Chip Kelly understood that fact with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday, when he waved his punter on to the field and appeared to admit what was already clear: We're from Philadelphia. We're not quite ready yet.
While the Eagles were brilliant on Thanksgiving Day against the Cowboys, they saved their turkey for 10 days later at home against the Seahawks on Sunday. Here is a comparison of their offensive numbers in the last two games:
At Dallas Statisic Vs. Seattle
33 Points 14
464 Yards 139
256 Rushing yards 57
6.2 Yards per play 3.1
8 for 15 Third-down conversions 2 for 11
3 Punts 8
26 First downs 9