EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Maybe it's time to stop hoping for a transcendental experience every time you watch the Eagles' offense. Last evening, nobody in the visitors' locker room at MetLife Stadium seemed to care that they finished with fewer yards than in all but four of Chip Kelly's previous 35 games as an NFL coach. Nor did they care that Sam Bradford's 118 passing yards were the second-fewest by an Eagles quarterback who started and completed a game with Kelly as his coach.
"Gritty" isn't a word you often hear attached to this offense, but it's the word that Kelly himself used yesterday in the wake of a 24-17 win over the Jets that snapped an 0-2 start, and it made a surprising amount of sense.
"It wasn't a pretty win," the coach said. "It was kind of ugly. But we did what we needed to do."
Sure, that sounds a bit apologetic. If you want an objective account of where this team stands, you can't overlook the dropped balls, or the errant throws, or the lack of separation generated by the wide receivers, or Kelly's time management at the end of the first half, when he left the Jets just enough time to score a touchdown after running a couple of plays ahead of the two-minute warning instead of letting the play clock roll down (an arguable quibble, given that the last of those two plays resulted in a touchdown). Still, the process the Eagles used to snag their first win of the season warrants some discussion, because it is a process that used to spell doom for them.
Before yesterday, the Eagles were 0-7 under Kelly in games in which they finished with fewer than 300 yards of total offense. Even more staggering, they were 3-12 in games in which they scored 24 or fewer points. Only eight times in 35 games had they held an opponent under 20 points.
The formula for this team has always been pretty clear: Outscore 'em.
Yet against the Jets, they managed to do it a different way. It started on defense, where the Eagles were aided by the absences of starting wide receiver Eric Decker and starting running back Chris Ivory, both of whom missed the game with injuries. They intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick three times and recovered a fumble that resulted from an inexplicable lateral attempt by superstar Brandon Marshall after a catch. The Eagles' only turnover came on a fumble by Ryan Mathews, whom we should probably forgive after taking into consideration his 128 yards of total offense, 108 of them on the ground.
Is it sustainable? The people who study turnovers will tell you that it probably isn't, just like would have told you that the Jets were probably due for a game in which they didn't finish plus-4 in the takeaway battle. At the same time, the people who play in the NFL will tell you that a win is a win is a win, and that winning ugly can sometimes tell you more about a team than winning the games where everything clicks.
Look, there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether the Eagles are anything close to the Super Bowl contenders we figured them to be at the start of the year. There will continue to be a lot of focus on Bradford, who completed just 14 of 28 passes for 118 yards, with a long of 23 yards. But if you want to concern yourself with something regarding the passing game, make it the wide receivers, who have spent the first three games showing everybody just how good Jeremy Maclin was.
Jordan Matthews continues to do solid work out of the slot, but Miles Austin, Riley Cooper and Nelson Agholor continue to look overmatched on the outside. There was really no reason to expect anything different from Austin and Cooper, and it is always wishful thinking to plan on a rookie wide receiver producing immediately. Bradford missed connecting with Agholor twice down the seam yesterday, underthrowing both balls. (It will be interesting to see if he starts stepping into his throws with more authority as he gets more comfortable with game speed after a layoff of nearly two years.)
For the most part, though, Matthews and the running backs were the only targets who created any bit of separation. Granted, the Jets have one of the best pairs of outside cover men in the league in Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis, but they were barely tested. On one play, Cromartie mauled Cooper so thoroughly at the line of scrimmage that he never even managed to begin his route by the time the ball was thrown. Likewise, Revis looked like he was going at three-quarters speed as he dutifully blanketed Agholor stride-for-stride on a deep attempt by Bradford in the fourth quarter.
On the other hand, you've spent enough time mentally flogging yourself over the last couple of weeks. So let's focus on the bright side of what we've seen so far. The Eagles will likely be favored in each of their next four games, each of them against a defense that is inferior to the last two they've faced (at Washington, vs. New Orleans, vs. the Giants, at Carolina). They came within a missed field goal of beating the Falcons, and if not for a blocked punt against the Cowboys they would have been one possession away in that game, too. That's nothing to brag about, but they could have emerged from these first three games looking a lot better.
They have yet to crack 400 yards of offense, a mark they reached in 22 of Kelly's first 33 games as head coach. Bradford has yet to deliver a performance that makes you step back and say, "Yeah, Nick Foles definitely could not have done that." The $8 million-a-year running back has been ineffective and injured.
Yet none of that mattered yesterday.
"The first couple of weeks, there was a lot of pressure on us," Bradford said. "I feel like we were all pressing a bit. It's nice to get that first win. Now, that pressure is gone. It wasn't perfect today, there are things we need to correct, but this is a great building block for this team."