YOU CAN ARGUE that it is better this way. The draft pick will be better and the imperatives will be clearer now that the Eagles have been eliminated from the playoffs, and that isn't all bad. I would still argue that another trip to the playoffs, however doomed, would have been better because of the sense of uninterrupted progress it would have attached to Chip Kelly and the team. But, oh well.
You wonder what Kelly was thinking as he watched the Dallas Cowboys steamroll their way to the division title yesterday. On Saturday night in FedEx Field, he was clearly downcast but still mouthing the proper platitudes, talking about preparing for the Giants and controlling what he could control. Of course, that all ended last night when the Cowboys beat the Indianapolis Colts, 42-7. There was nothing left for Kelly to control then, not even his reputation.
It is funny, the whole reputation thing. Kelly arrived as a college coach with too many newfangled ideas, destined for a comeuppance. By the end of his first season, he was successful enough that competing teams were adopting his methods wholesale and pretending that they weren't. By the middle of this season, the world was convinced that the man could win games with you or me playing quarterback. Now, this.
The arc of this story was always as real as you wanted it to be. In the end, there were only two established facts: 1) That Kelly is a smart, innovative football coach, and 2) That smarts and innovations can only take you so far in the National Football League. Which is another way of saying that, if you are an Eagles fan, you should be very happy that Kelly is the guy in charge of fixing your football team - and that there are, indeed, a couple of things that still need to be fixed.
Everybody knows that we are all wasting our breath, and our expectations, until Kelly gets his quarterback. We know, with some certainty, that Mark Sanchez isn't the guy. We know that Nick Foles still has at least a chance of being the guy. What we don't now know is what Kelly really thinks, and how the step back that this season represents will affect that thinking.
Make the playoffs a second straight time and you buy some patience with the paying customers. Miss in the second season, after a stunning collapse, and patience is in much shorter supply. So, does Kelly dare hand the job to Foles in Year 3 of his program after the disappointing end to Year 2? And if not Foles, who?
If this sounds overly simplistic, so be it. But the real truth of 2014 is that the Cowboys are going to the playoffs and the Eagles aren't because the Cowboys have Tony Romo and the Eagles don't.
If Kelly had his quarterback, it wouldn't matter that the Eagles' secondary does not have enough talent and that the talent it does have was not deployed wisely by defensive coordinator Bill Davis. This Bradley Fletcher thing blew up on Davis in a very big way. Why was Fletcher still playing? And, if he had to play, why was he left alone against DeSean Jackson on Saturday night as he had been left alone against the Cowboys' Dez Bryant the previous Sunday? These are very big questions, and they make you wonder if Kelly is going to have to violate his own stated preference of giving his coordinators autonomy and get more involved with the defense - but, again, a real starting quarterback would have been able to cover this.
A quarterback, too, would have been able to cover for the running game. That running game, and its breathtaking explosiveness, was the reason Foles had such a good year in 2013. But some combination of injuries and ineffectiveness by the offensive line and running back LeSean McCoy hurt the running game badly in the early stages of this season. Even as health and cohesiveness returned, you rarely saw the same explosiveness - and that was true even as teams played more zone defense against the Eagles in 2014.
This run business is a very big deal, the difference between success and struggle for a guy like Foles. But a legitimate, top-echelon quarterback - and especially a mobile one - covers this problem, too.
One other simple truth: The Eagles likely would have made the playoffs if Foles had stayed healthy. They likely wouldn't have been good enough to win a playoff game, but they would have been good enough to get in - mostly because Foles has more of an arm than Sanchez, and a better chance of making just a couple of plays down the field.
But, you know, Foles did get hurt, and the running game was ordinary, and the pass defense regressed, and the special teams stopped scoring a touchdown every week, and here they are - pretty good but not good enough, not until Chip Kelly gets his quarterback.
On Twitter: @theidlerich