Suddenly, great expectations

Posted: December 03, 2013

IN THE National Football League, the universal criticism is about wins - specifically, how many. Only the better teams, the teams with aspirations, get criticized for how. This is happening now to the Eagles.

After a game yesterday where they built a big lead and then hung on to beat the Arizona Cardinals, 24-21, there were many postgame questions about why the Eagles' offense has tended to stall in the later stages of games. They are all fair and accurate lines of inquiry, and everybody involved knows it. When he was asked why the offense has often had trouble regaining any traction after stalling, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said, "I don't know. Good question."

But when you think about it, that question and others like it are the biggest compliment you can pay to the Eagles in their first season under Kelly - because they signal a change in thinking. Most everybody came into this season figuring the Eagles would win six or seven games and try to lay some sort of foundation in Kelly's first year. But now they are 7-5, with the same record as the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East. Now they have beaten a very good Cardinals team - with an offense that got them 24 points against a team that had been giving up only 20 points per game, and a defense that forced three turnovers and had five sacks.

Yes, the referees were friendly when it counted. And, yes, the offense did go silent after building a 24-7 lead after the opening drive of the second half. But every moment spent talking about the details is another voice in the revolution of rising expectations that has begun to surround the Eagles.

With four games to go, people are now beginning to wonder exactly where this thing might be headed. And it really is a sign of respect when the criticism begins to accompany the wins.

"We try to stay out of this situation," said running back LeSean McCoy, when asked about the offense going quiet at the end. "We just have to do a better job of closing out the game. We have gone through this a couple of times and we just have to do a better job."

It is an interesting conversation. The Eagles' offense really is at its best when it is playing fast and aggressive football. When the tempo is a little slower, and the emphasis is a little more on the run, it just isn't the same - not nearly as dynamic or productive. They closed out one game impressively by running the ball, at Green Bay. They also kept at it for four quarters against Tampa Bay. But at least three times - twice against Washington, and now against Arizona - they have seen the whole thing stall almost completely.

In this game, wide receiver Jason Avant said, "We had a couple of mental errors and that was the gist of it. But when plays are called, we have to make them work and go for the gusto."

Or, as quarterback Nick Foles said, "We had our opportunities. But in that situation, when the game is like that, you have to put a dagger in them."

This is true - but only if you think this is more than a rebuilding team in its first season under a new coach. That is the point here. A month ago, making the playoffs was a dream for most. Here and now, missing the playoffs would be a disappointment for those same people. That is how much things have changed around here in a very short time. Everybody is now starting to expect more.

And with that comes a sharper focus, on everything.

"We're going to be hard on ourselves," guard Evan Mathis said. And when it was suggested that it really is a compliment, and a recognition of growing expectations, he acknowledged the line of thinking.

"That's OK," he said. "There will be some lulls every now and then. When you're playing a very good team like that, it might happen more often than not. But to survive that kind of game, against that kind of defense, with a win - it's great."

And now, amid all of the questions and the conversation, this thing just rolls along - even through the lulls.


Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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