Running game reborn in Kelly's offense

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles gets some advice from head coach Chip Kelly.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles gets some advice from head coach Chip Kelly. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 11, 2013

During his day-after news conference Monday, Chip Kelly quoted Winston Churchill: "Problems in victory are more agreeable than problems in defeat, but no less difficult." Kelly was talking about the way his coaches and players reviewed film, particularly the film from those games they win - such as Sunday's.

The Eagles scored four fourth-quarter touchdowns and routed the Detroit Lions, 34-20, and have won five straight games now, and Kelly was making an important point: A team must be as meticulous about correcting its in-game mistakes after it wins as it is after it loses.

It was a good line quoted fairly accurately, and it's fun to hear Kelly pluck these sayings and quotations from the past and sprinkle them into monologues about zone blocking schemes and red-zone strategy. (This is a man, remember, who referenced Cortes and "burning boats" at the news conference to announce his hiring as the Eagles' coach. Does he keep a copy of Bartlett's stashed in a secret compartment in his podium or what? And who will he reference next? Douglas MacArthur? Deepak Chopra?)

But in reviewing Kelly's first 13 games in the NFL - a stretch that has the Eagles a game clear of Dallas atop the NFC East - it becomes apparent just how different his approach is from what we got used to over Andy Reid's 14 years at the helm, how Kelly is flouting what was once conventional football wisdom around here. In that context, another Churchill quote might be more appropriate to describe the Eagles' season so far:

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."

So how much has Kelly changed things on offense for the Eagles? Consider:

At their current pace, the Eagles would finish the regular season with 513 rushing attempts. That would be their most in any season since they had 516 in 1992 - when they had Herschel Walker and Heath Sherman at tailback, when they had Randall Cunningham at quarterback, and when NFL offenses on the whole were more run-oriented than they are today.

They lead the league in rushing yards (2,061) and yards per attempt (4.9) and are second in attempts (417), just two behind the Seattle Seahawks.

They already have 16 rushing plays this season that have gone for 20 yards or more, the second-most in the NFL. They had 14 all of last year and 19 in 2011 and in 2010, thanks in large part to Vick's ability to improvise.

They lead the league with 64 passing plays of 20 yards or more. That's as many as they had in any season during Reid's pass-happy tenure.

They still rank seventh in points scored (334), despite ranking 27th in pass attempts (408) and despite what Kelly has described as "instability" at the quarterback position. (That is, Michael Vick was the starter. Then he got hurt. Nick Foles replaced him. Then Foles got hurt. Matt Barkley replaced him. Vick came back. Vick got hurt. Barkley replaced him. Foles replaced Barkley and has kept the job since. Yes, instability is the proper word.)

What we've seen, really, is a repudiation of the philosophy that guided Reid's and Marty Mornhinweg's systems and play-calling. Their belief was that an offense has to throw the ball to score the piles of points necessary to win in the modern NFL. Yet Kelly has made the Eagles as potent as they ever were under Reid, perhaps more so.

"I think we're balanced, to be honest with you," Kelly said. "We're a we-do-what-we-have-to-do-to-win-this-week [team], and that's always our focus every single week as an offensive staff."

Reid and Mornhinweg would say similar things, but at their core they thought like quarterbacks, and they put their trust in those players' talents - Donovan McNabb's and Vick's, in particular. Kelly came here with a reputation as a quarterback-centered coach, too, but in that narrative, his quarterback had to be mobile. He had to be fast. He just had to.

And here the Eagles are at 8-5, efficient and productive and balanced on offense, with LeSean McCoy having a career season, with the lead-legged Foles running the show, and Chip Kelly hasn't just been a change from Andy Reid. He's been a change from who Chip Kelly was supposed to be.

"I didn't write the narrative," Kelly said.

That's right. He didn't. If he had, footnotes would be required.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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