IT'S OFTEN been said that the only time people really notice offensive linemen is when they screw up.
Four games into a season that is just one more loss away from being placed on life support, everyone is noticing the Eagles' offensive line.
Their poor play in the first quarter of the season is at the heart of what's wrong with the Eagles' offense.
"The only reason we're losing football games right now is because of offensive mistakes, penalties and us not being able to run-block well," center Jason Kelce said yesterday.
Chip Kelly's offense is essentially a run-fueled offense. When it was operating on all cylinders two seasons ago, the Eagles averaged 31.3 rushing attempts per game, which was the fourth most in the league. They ran the ball 47.4 percent of the time, which was the sixth highest run percentage in the league. This season, their run percentage has plummeted to 36.9.
In Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Redskins, the Eagles rushed for 87 yards on just 18 carries. That's an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. But 30 of it came on the first of DeMarco Murray's eight carries, and 14 more came on a third-quarter scramble by quarterback Sam Bradford. Take those away and you're left with 43 yards on 16 carries.
"I don't think Sunday was particularly worse than it has been," Kelce said. "What's frustrating is that it isn't getting any better.
"You go back and look at the film through the first four games, there have been positives and there have been negatives. There have been things to take from the film. The problem is that it's not getting any better.
"That's what's frustrating. That's what's a disgrace right now. That we're not getting it fixed."
The line was playing poorly when it was healthy, and now, well, it doesn't even have that going for it.
Seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters injured his quadricep early in the Redskins game and played just six snaps. He didn't practice yesterday and his status for Sunday's game at the Linc against 1-3 New Orleans is up in the air.
Right tackle Lane Johnson sprained his knee in the third quarter. He stayed in the game, but essentially played on one leg. He said yesterday he will play Sunday. How effective he'll be is another question.
Oh, and left guard Allen Barbre, who played every snap against the Redskins, didn't practice yesterday with an undisclosed injury.
"We've struggled all season long," Kelce said. "We've struggled with the guys that we planned to be out there starting from the first half of the very first game (against Atlanta). I don't think (injuries) are anything to put blame on. I think, quite frankly, we just haven't gotten it done."
The million-dollar question, of course, is why. Coach and general manager Chip Kelly, who released both of his two starting guards - two-time Pro Bowler Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans - in the offseason, insists he has the right players, they just aren't executing.
Others aren't so sure and have questioned the NFL validity of Kelly's offense and blocking scheme.
"I hate it," ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, a two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman who played 12 seasons in the league, said last week in an interview on 97.5 the Fanatic.
"Everything is man-blocking on the front side. So now, everybody says, 'Oh, Jason Kelce can't play anymore. What's wrong with Jason Kelce? He's too small. He's undersized.' You try to run when the defense knows the snap count, and they're driving you four yards into the backfield on every play, and you're helping your guard to help secure the nose guard before you work your way up to the middle linebacker because you want man-blocking on the front side of everything.
"They're the only team in the league that does it that way, and the reason they're the only team in the league that does it that way is because they're stupid. They don't understand NFL principles. You cannot do that. I don't care who you are."
They did it pretty well in Kelly's first season as the Eagles' head coach in 2013, finishing first in rushing yards per game (160.4) and yards per carry (5.1) as LeSean McCoy ran away with the league rushing title.
But NFL defensive coordinators aren't dummies. They devised ways to defend Kelly's zone runs.
Last year, with Kelce, Mathis and Herremans missing a total of 19 games because of injuries, both their rushing yards per game average (124.5) and their per carry average (4.2) dropped significantly.
This year, they've been spinning their wheels as opposing defenses have leased space in the Eagles' backfield. The Eagles are averaging just 3.1 yards per carry through the first four games. Murray, the 2014 league rushing champ who signed with the Eagles in March, is averaging just 1.6 yards per carry. Seventeen of his 29 carries have gained two yards or less.
Kelce said the Eagles typically will see a couple of looks from opposing defenses that they didn't see on film. But for the most part, he said there have been few surprises.
"We're not facing anything this year that we haven't faced before, in my opinion," Kelce said. "Teams have tried to stop our inside-zone play for the last three years. And that's been the No. 1 thing that we've been great at.
"When they try to stop that, there are other plays that are open. The problem is, we're not executing on the other plays. We're not executing on our sweep play that we've done really well at when teams want to take away our inside-zone play.
"We're not executing on our outside-zone play, with the exception of the Jets game. If we can execute on those plays that are kind of our counter plays to teams trying to stop our inside-zone, then we'll start running the ball effectively. But right now, we're not doing a great job of that. And that's what we're trying to fix."
Defenses have been attacking the Eagles' run game with a lot of movement - slants, angles and stunts. The offensive line just hasn't dealt with it very well, allowing defenders to get penetration and blow up many of the run plays.
"Those slants and angles have killed us since Dallas," Kelce said. "We've got to do a better job of that. We've got to do a better job of being on the same page with (pass) protections. There are a lot of little things that every single person can do on their own to get better at. And I think that would make a huge difference in the outcome."
When things start to go south like they have for the Eagles' offensive line the last month, a couple of things can happen. One is good, one is bad. They can bond together and stop the bleeding and turn things around. Or they can start pointing fingers.
"Once you start losing, on some teams you have guys - and I've been on teams like this before - (saying), 'Oh, the coaches aren't doing this. My teammates aren't doing this,' " Kelce said. "Every single time that happens, it never ends up well.
"When you have guys who are accountable to themselves, accountable to making sure they improve each and every day on the practice field and in every game, which is what I think we have here, you're going to get better. It's just the natural process of it."
We'll find out soon enough whether Kelce is right.