When Chip Kelly said he wanted to win now, he was not kidding, and what looked to be patience testing “rebuilding year” is suddenly an exciting season. It is not quite a “Chipism” but every season Bill Belichick tells his team, which always seems to go through a stretch of play where they look average, that the goal at Thanksgiving is to be in position to make the playoffs. And they always do. By then the team knows what its strengths and weaknesses are and can focus on maximizing and minimizing them. Today’s game is the biggest game of the season until the next biggest game of the season. Win today and it could be time to raise expectations, immediately and dramatically. A win puts the team in first place after Thanksgiving, with the bye week to tighten ranks. Play one game better than the Cowboys the rest of the season, or just as good with a lot of breaks, and the Eagles are hosting a playoff game in January. A win puts another coal in the fire. If the iron is hot, strike now.
Like, right now. If there is such a thing as a “window” the Eagles’ very well might begin now, and it might not be this open in the near future. I know that sounds crazy, but they are in some very favorable situations this season that are not guaranteed to exist next year. Every year in sports is different, opportunities must be taken advantage of.
Health. It is a great equalizer in the NFL. The Packers might miss the playoffs due to Aaron Rodgers’ injury, the Bears might too if Jay Cutler misses significant time. Injuries to multiple key players on both sides of the ball has ruined the Falcons season. Any chance the Rams had of a playoff run ended when Sam Bradford went down. The loss of Sean Lee has the Cowboys defense in a tailspin again and may cost them the postseason. Phrases I never thought I would write but that are true: the Titans and Browns would be in the mix for a playoff spot if their starting QBs were not done for the year. The Eagles on the other hand, aside from Earl Wolff, Patrick Chung and Bradley Fletcher being banged up and the inevitably hurt Mike Vick, have been relatively healthy during the season. Yes, Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn blowing their knees out hurt, but they occurred in the pre-season, giving the team ample time to cope with it compared to an in-season injury. It is possible that a key player gets hurt, but with six games (and a bye week) to go, the opportunities are decreasing.
The division. The NFC East has been bad in recent years and this year is no different. Someday it is going to get better, but today is not that day, so the division is still ripe for the picking. Next year probably will not be that day either, but again every year is different. In 2010 the NFC West was pitiful, the worst division ever. Overnight it went from producing a 7-9 division winner to producing an NFC Championship Game team, with 7-9 only “good” enough for 3rd place. 8-8 won the AFC West in 2008, in 2009 it would have finished 5 games back. Closer to home, the NFC East has not had a team win consecutive division titles since the Eagles in 2003-2004. Would anyone be surprised if that trend continues next year?
Career years. The offense that pundits said would not work at the NFL is having two top players and a third starter have the best years of their careers, and a QB playing out of his mind. I believe that next year the offense will be even better, but like everything else it is no lock. Given an off-season for the league to break down Chip Kelly’s offense, the league might figure it out. It will not be the first or last time it has happened. The NFL is a vicious closed environment, what is new and worked today rarely works tomorrow.
LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper are having career years, Nick Foles is too but being a second year player that is a low bar. Can they repeat this performance next year? For McCoy, an elite running back and Jackson, a top tier deep threat, absolutely they can. While they are having their best years, they are also not unexpected. But can and will are not the same, they are called “career years” for a reason. Maybe in Chip Kelly’s offense these are the norm, but we do not know yet. Running backs have short shelf lives and if the team upgrades his backup or Bryce Brown improves then McCoy will have less touches, he is also having a career high in rushes per game. Jason Avant has been useless in the slot and will be upgraded, passes thrown to whoever that will be are passes Jackson can not catch, yards he can not gain and touchdowns he can not score. It is entirely possible and realistic that McCoy and Jackson will be less effective (though still excellent), or even worse get hurt. Cooper is another matter. Thrust into a starting role due to injuries, he has flourished with Nick Foles throwing him the ball. It has brought a chicken or the egg question to the Eagles: are Cooper’s big games because he has Foles throwing him the ball, or is Foles having big games because Cooper is playing great? The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in the middle, and we are not going to know until next season.
But it is not just those three. The offensive line is playing very well, opening holes for a dominate running game, keeping Foles fairly clean (the Eagles 6.2 sack percentage with Foles would be tied for 10th best) and has been healthy: no one has missed a start. The defensive line is playing great, keying what was a terrible defense at the beginning of the season into a unit that is good enough. Ignore the total yards, it is massively skewed by the number of plays run, it is 11th in yards per play and is 20th and climbing in scoring. Great, no; good enough, yes. Additions in talent in the off-season should improve the team, but it will not matter if the offense can not keep it up.
Which brings us to Nick Foles. Foles is the key to everything, obviously. This team can only go as far as he takes them, and that is where the “window” exists. It is clear that Nick Foles is capable of operating this offense at a high level, 13 TDs in four starts is no joke. What is not clear is if he is capable of doing it consistently. Foles has 5 games, more if they make the playoffs, to establish himself as the man for next year. Plenty has been written on it, there is no need to rehash it. We have three outcomes:
1. Foles is playing over his head in part because of Chip Kelly’s offense, but continues to play well for the rest of the year, for reasons listed above. The team is sold on Foles as the starter for next season and does not draft a QB from this year’s potentially QB rich draft. Given an off-season for the league to evaluate, defenses will adjust to Kelly’s offense and to Foles’ play, he regresses. The team then struggles offensively and the 2013 season, as fun as it is, will have been a waste in the long run. Foles would not be the first or last QB to look like the real thing for about 10 games and then harshly return to earth. Derek Anderson went 10-5 as a starter in 2007, finishing 5th in TDs, 9th in yards and a trip to the Pro Bowl. The next season, he was benched for Brady Quinn. Josh Freeman also won 10 games, like Foles in his second year, looking like the “franchise QB” the Bucs were expecting when they drafted him 17th overall. Matt Cassel went 11-5 in 2008 and then 4-11 in 2009. And we all know about Kevin Kolb. There were warning signs for all these QBs: Anderson was 28th in completion percentage, Freeman had an unsustainable interception percentage of 1.3, Cassel led the league in sacks and Kolb wilted when the pocket collapsed. Foles is no different, his 0.0 interception percentage is obviously unsustainable, his career mark of 1.3 is too, as is his TD% of 11.8. The jury is not out yet on Foles, and the only team that will see him twice, a measure of his ability to handle a team adjusting to him, are the Cowboys, which he played terribly against. The magic of Foles running out next year is the worst possible outcome, because then next season becomes the year where the team struggles, finishes with a top pick and is able to draft a QB, rather than this season.
2. Foles is playing over his head and will significantly regress before season’s end. He is certainly going to experience some gravity and come back to Earth as he has not thrown an interception all year. Like Cooper, the history of football is littered with players who had a handful of good games then did nothing. Foles’ historic seven TD game does not guarantee future success, just as Adrian Burk (7 TDs) and Matt Flynn (6 TDs) or Vince Ferragamo and Elvis Grbac (500+ yards). If Foles is not the real deal, crashing and burning the rest of the season is a better outcome since the team would then not be sold on Foles for the long run and would draft a QB, and put them in a better position to draft one.
3. Foles is the real deal and plays at a high level the rest of the season, is cemented as the starter and continues to play at a high level. If so, then the Eagles best chance to win is in the next two seasons. During that time, Foles has a total cap hit of $1.58M. Total. $770k in 2014 and $815k in 2015. After that he is a free agent and his cap hit would balloon, so like the Seahawks and 49ers now is the time to load up elsewhere while you can. I’m not advocating another 2010 free agency splurge by any means, but massive cap savings on Foles means the team will be able to allocate cap space elsewhere like Seattle and San Francisco have done to give themselves a deep supporting cast. Well, except at receiver, but you get the point. It is not just the cap savings though that are creating the window. At 25 LeSean McCoy is in the prime of his career, at 27 DeSean Jackson is about to leave it. Three starters on the offensive line are 31 and the contracts of Foles’ fellow 2012 draftees Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin, Vinny Curry and Mychal Kendricks are also up after 2015. The clock is ticking.
We’ve seen teams get hot offensively and play just well enough on defense to make a deep playoff run. In four of the past six weeks the Eagles have played like that. Situations change all the time in sports, next year the Eagles may not be as healthy, the division may not be as good, the offense may not be nearly as effective, Nick Foles could regress… nothing is guaranteed.
Just win baby.