Eagles won't let inexperience be another foe on the field

Posted: January 06, 2014

EAGLES COACH Chip Kelly explained it the best the other day when asked about his team's unfamiliarity with being in the NFL playoffs.

"Depends on who wins, right?" Kelly said when asked about the difference in experience between the Eagles and the New Orleans Saints, tonight's opponent in an NFC wild-card game. "If we lose, we were inexperienced. If we win, then there will be another story.

"We are concerned with how do we prepare to play a really good Saints team, and that's all we can really be concerned with."

Experience is an intangible, and intangibles come into play only when the tangible parts of a matchup are played at an even or near-even level.

I'm not saying that playoffs experience and knowing how to deal with distractions and increased senses of urgency can't be a factor. I just think it is generally an overrated one, elevated by those looking for another story line going into a game.

I'll take a team with more talent or a team playing at a high level going into the playoffs over one relying primarily on veteran postseason guile every time.

The only true time that inexperience vs. experience becomes a determinant is when the supposedly inexperienced team lets that belief take it away from the routines that got it there in the first place.

I just don't see Kelly's Eagles letting that happen.

They might lose to New Orleans because Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a future Hall of Famer who could light up the scoreboard at Lincoln Financial Field like a pinball machine.

They could lose because the Saints, with five Pro Bowl selections (Brees, offensive linemen Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Cameron Graham), make more impact plays.

The Eagles could lose because they simply don't perform well enough, but that won't happen, because young players such as quarterback Nick Foles, tight end Zach Ertz, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox and cornerback Brandon Boykin are not overwhelmed by the momemt.

Remember, this team was 3-5 at one point, and going through the transition to Foles from Michael Vick at quarterback. It can be argued that the Eagles have been playing what amounts to playoff games since the midway point of the season.

And last week's "win-or-go-home" game at the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East title undoubtedly had all the intensity, drama and high stakes that the game against New Orleans will have.

"Every week for us, I think, going back to when we were 3-5 has kind of been the same situation for us," Kelly said, "but we have not spent any time talking about dealing with anything differently.

"We know last week's game, we lose to Dallas, we go home. So it's the exact same situation we are in this week."

On one hand, it is true that only 14 current Eagles were on the active roster the last time the Birds made the playoffs, in the 2010 season.

On the other hand, eight players on the Eagles offense who will start or see significant action against the Saints - running back LeSean McCoy; wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper and Jason Avant; offensive linemen Jason Peters, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans and tight ends Brent Celek and James Casey - have been in the playoffs with the Birds or other teams.

On defense, linebackers Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans and defensive backs Cary Williams and Patrick Chung have playoff experience.

The Eagles have playoff experience in some key areas, which can help the inexperienced get comfortable quickly.

Considering the salary cap and free agency, few teams are the same from season to season, so, as a whole, few have a long string of playoff consistency as complete units.

New Orleans will have 11 anticipated starters - offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Ben Grubbs, wide receiver Kenny Stills, defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Broderick Bunkley, linebackers Junior Galette, David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton and Parys Haralson and defensive backs Corey White and Keenan Lewis - who were not on the team for the 2012 playoffs.

Sure, you would like to have a team with a ton of playoff experience, but it is not necessary for success.

The New England Patriots had missed the playoffs for two seasons when second-year quarterback Tom Brady made his playoff debut in 2001 and led them to a win in Super Bowl XXVI.

The Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs in 2007 but rebounded in 2008 and reached the AFC Championship Game with rookie head coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

In the 2010 season, rookie head coach Rex Ryan and rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez took the New York Jets, who had missed the playoffs for two seasons, to the AFC Championship Game.

In the 2011 season, rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh came directly from Stanford University and led the San Francisco 49ers, who had missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, to the NFC Championship Game with a quarterback in Alex Smith, who had never posted a winning record in five previous seasons.

Last year, the Seattle Seahawks won a game in the 2013 NFL Playoffs with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

"We're made for the playoffs," Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said. "We prepare hard every game, and we have talent on this team.

"We're prepared to win this game. The Saints are a good team, for sure. But I think the guys in this locker room, the coaches we have, we can get the job done."

If the Eagles continue to take care of the things they can control, an intangible such as playoff experience won't be a factor.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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