It should be about progress for Kelly, Barkley

Posted: October 29, 2013

JEFFREY LURIE often tours the locker room after games, to offer congratulations after wins, encouragement after losses.

Lurie's last locker-room stop yesterday was Matt Barkley, the rookie quarterback who played just badly enough in successive weeks to ensure the Eagles would lose a record ninth and 10th consecutive home games.

Lurie needed to bolster his franchise quarterback.

Make that his franchise's only quarterback.

"Keep your head up," the owner said. "You're doing great things."

Great things? No. Not yet.

Better things? Yes.

With starter Michael Vick and backup Nick Foles injured last week, Barkley debuted against Dallas and threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter in a 17-3 loss.

Yesterday, Foles was inactive with concussion complications, a situation that could linger for weeks. Vick aggravated his hamstring injury. He took his last snap midway through the second quarter; perhaps his last snap for weeks.

The rest of the game - perhaps the season - was Barkley's to lose.

Yesterday, he did.

Barkley completed 17 of 26 passes for 158 yards and no touchdowns. His inconsequential interception came on a last, desperate shot.

But earlier, he fumbled away the Eagles' best touchdown chance in 2 weeks, and for most of the game his throws lack big-league zip. The Giants won, 15-7.

The Giants scored just once after Barkley entered. The game was there to be won. All that was needed was some competent quarterbacking.

Barkley is getting closer to competence.

"There are probably a couple of throws he wants back, but there were a couple of times he gave us a little spark, a little energy," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "He sets his feet and gets the ball out quick. He made some good decisions."

Barkley might not be competent in time for the Eagles to make a playoff run, but he took a step in that direction.

The play that will define Barkley's second NFL game involved all of the worst components of inexperience.

First, the situation: The Eagles had moved to the Giants' 2 with three consecutive positive plays. There, with the Giants reeling, with 74 seconds left in the half, inexperienced Kelly called timeout.

"I wanted to get Matt settled," Kelly said. The Giants gratefully settled themselves as well.

Second, the play call: a naked bootleg to Barkley's left. The Eagles feature the most dynamic back in the NFL, LeSean McCoy, whom they ignored.

"It's the play I called," Kelly stonewalled.

"I'm not going there," Barkley said, testily.

Instead, Kelly called a play on which his slow rookie quarterback rolled out to his left and tried to hit small wide receiver DeSean Jackson; or, as a second read, tight end Brent Celek; or, as an abortive measure, throw the ball away.

Third, the counterattack: The Giants blitzed veteran safety Terrell Thomas.

Thomas sprinted into the backfield, leaped and obscured Barkley's vision, landed, then pursued Barkley, who saw his targets covered as he fled to his left. Barkley raised his arm to throw the ball away, but Thomas caught him and stripped him of the ball.

Defensive backs aren't that fast and that smart in college.

"I was about to throw it away," Barkley said. "He just got there a second too early."

In the NFL, he always will.

Lesson learned, by both player and coach, you would hope.

That said, Barkley did not look overwhelmed by the moment. The Eagles think they have something valuable in him. They believe he is better this week than last week.

They are right.

"He was more efficient. He went through his progressions in a smoother way," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "Took some checkdowns. Did a good job on some of the balls we were trying to throw up the field, making the right throw, making the right read. He executed in a way that was urgent.

"I feel like, watching him play, he made some progress."

Progress, really, is what 2013 should be about for the Eagles.

Shurmur is one of the few coaches on Kelly's staff with NFL experience, and that includes Kelly. Sixty percent of the offensive line is coming off injury, and the right tackle is a rookie. The defensive backfield and the D-line is comprised of a mishmash of talent ill-suited for its role, and the two best returning pass rushers now play linebacker.

Offensive success in five of the first six games and a 2-1 record in the abysmal NFC East raised expectations for the Eagles, which now are tempered with two losses.

A record-setting college career raised expectations for Barkley, who slipped to the fourth round of the draft. Perhaps the expectations would be less if Barkley was not, well, Barkley. But he is.

His combination of intelligence, knowledge and talent made him the most prolific passer in Pac-12 history, a USC legend who, in high school, out-Marinoviched the ill-fated Todd. However, after three superlative college seasons, Barkley did not enter the NFL draft early. He suffered a shoulder injury late in his senior season and questions about his arm strength amplified.

He said his arm now is healthy, but those questions remain. He has done little in the past 2 weeks to quell those concerns.

He threw a 13-yard humpbacked liner to Jackson on the sideline that could have been oil-painted. His 14-yard butterfly over the middle to Jason Avant actually drew Avant out of the end zone.

"A couple sailed on him a little bit," Kelly observed.

Well, it doesn't always take a Howitzer to win football games. Ask Jeff Garcia.

It does take timing.

As it turns out, Barkley got virtually no practice with the first-team offense. Lay this at the feet of Kelly, whose optimism outstripped his pragmatism. Barkley's training came on the job.

By the fourth quarter, Barkley had figured out the game's tempo well enough to fire a 15-yard laser into Avant's belly, the best of his 46 NFL attempts.

"That's progress, yes. He's learning on the run," Avant said. "On the play when I had to come back out of the end zone, there was miscommunication on the route concept that caused Matt to move a little bit, and just throw it up there [softly]. He's going to learn, and get better. We believe in him."

Barkley might have thrown at least one more interception, a route on which it appeared Jackson ran into coverage that he should have run away from.

The last pass, Barkley's interception, was underthrown to Jackson by about 5 yards. Will Hill drifted over, leapt and caught it. Maybe a couple of days of practice, actually throwing to Jackson and not a backup, will help Barkley better understand how far he has to throw it to equal Jackson's amazing speed.

"Anytime you have a talented player like Matt going through it again and again, he learns as he goes. The more situations he gets the ball, the more plays he runs, the better he'll get," Shurmur said. "I think we'll let the dust settle, until we go back to work Tuesday. Any work he gets in practice with the [starters] will certainly help."

"I think it is valuable to practice with those guys and see their timing and know their breaks in a full-speed environment," Barkley said.

Perhaps, with a few full-speed sessions, Barkley can move forward even faster.

"I felt comfortable that I did improve [this week]," Barkley said.

The Eagles had better hope so.

Right now, they have no other option.

As Lurie well knows.


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