Right coach at the right time for Eagles

Posted: January 07, 2014

IN MOMENTS like these, the standard reaction is to display as much affection as one's masculinity will allow, then utter a few heartfelt words that will probably sound corny in hindsight while striding into the offseason with head held high. And so it was that Jason Kelce and Howie Roseman converged in the center of the Eagles locker room on Saturday night and engaged in a sort of man-hug with a standard awkwardness exacerbated by the physical appearance of its participants - one of them 300 pounds and wearing a grimy cutoff T-shirt with a beard that might soon be classified as its own ecosystem, the other in a business suit draped over a frame that might check in at a buck plus 60.

"We'll get there," the general manager said.

"We'll come back strong," the offensive lineman responded.

During the second half of their 2013 schedule, they saw plenty of reason to believe in both proclamations. The Eagles went 10-6, won their division, were second in the NFC in points, and came within a last-second field goal of advancing to the second round of the NFL postseason, all in the first year of a new coaching regime that inherited a team that finished 4-12 the season before. But in a 26-24 loss to the Saints in front of a home crowd that had not witnessed a playoff game in 3 years, both men experienced just how much work they have left to do. One of them, in particular.

In spite of all of the positive feelings that pervaded the Eagles locker room on the last night of their 2013 season, the NFL reality is such that the Eagles will be expected to win these playoff games sooner rather than later. Looking around the league on wild-card weekend, you saw a Colts team that finished 2-14 2 years earlier coming from behind to beat a Chiefs team that finished 2-14 in 2012. You saw a Chargers team that went 8-8 in 2011 and 7-9 in 2012 beating a Bengals team that went 4-12 in 2010.

Waiting for the winners were nouveau powerhouses like Denver (4-12 in 2010, 8-8 in 2011), Seattle (7-9 in 2010 and 2011) and Carolina (6-10 in 2011, 7-9 in 2012), while watching from home were a litany of reminders of just how fast fortunes can change in a league where a team is only as good as the teams it manages to beat. There was Arizona (5-11 in 2012, 10-6 in 2013 under first-year head coach Bruce Arians), but there was also Washington, which went 3-13 a year after discovering its Quarterback of the Future en route to a playoff berth, and Houston (2-14 after back-to-back division titles), and Atlanta (4-12 after going 13-3, 10-6 and 13-3 in successive campaigns). And then there was the poster organization for this National Fickle League, the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who awarded their quarterback a blockbuster contract extension and then watched him turn back into the Joe Flacco who had long made you wonder whether he really possessed what it takes to make a team a legitimate, perennial title contender.

The moral of the disparity between 2012 and 2013 was four-fold. One, the right coach at the right time can make just as much of a difference as the wrong coach at the wrong time. Two, the ceilings of even the rightest of coaches are limited by the talent at their disposal. Three, the right quarterback can trump both of these things. Four, there are only three types of quarterbacks: The right guy, the wrong guy, and the guy who has yet to prove himself to be either one of the other two.

In Chip Kelly, the Eagles have the right coach. In DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and their offensive line, they have the kind of dynamic talent that fits perfectly with their coach's scheme. In Nick Foles, they do not have the wrong guy at quarterback. Everything else is where the fate of this Eagles team resides. Much of the unknown will be difficult for Roseman and his personnel staff to control. For a local punditry and fan base that has spent much of the season pleading for somebody to offer a definitive big picture verdict on Foles, the is-he-or-isn't-he question is largely irrelevant at this point in time. As much as you might want him to be Mr. Right, the only thing that matters is that he is Mr. Right Now. Given the suddenly underwhelming crop of quarterbacks that figure to be available when the Eagles draft, it probably would not make sense to force a change under center even if Foles was coming off a campaign in which he did not produce the kind of numbers that has earned him so much of the public and organizational trust.

It is worth noting again the rate at which fortunes can change in this league. It was only 3 years ago that Michael Vick was the MVP candidate with the chart-topping stats who was declared as having inherited the throne. Vick finished fourth in the NFL in quarterback rating that year, heralded for his efficiency (62.6 completion percentage), economy (21 touchdowns against six interceptions), and electricity (an 8-3 record). Right behind him in the rankings were Josh Freeman (10-6, 25 touchdowns, six interceptions) and Matt Cassel (10-5, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions). You do not pass on Colin Kaepernick because you have Alex Smith. You do not pass on Russell Wilson because you traded for Matt Flynn. But until you find yourself in that rare position of opportunity to land a guy who you think might one day live up to the Manning/Brady/Rodgers/Luck Standard, you build the best damn team you can.

And the Eagles still have plenty of building left to do. At the top of the list is a defense of imperfect parts that Bill Davis somehow managed to piece together into a capable unit that ultimately revealed its flaws against the Saints. It's hard to imagine a team in the NFL more in need of a free safety than the Eagles. If coupled with an edge rusher or two, a legitimate force in the defensive backfield might allow Davis to get away with a corps of linebackers that struggles in pass defense. After Saturday night's loss, Davis took responsibility for the Saints' ability to pound the ball on the ground, saying he concentrated his play calling on Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the Saints' passing game. The goal now is to prevent a defensive coordinator from having to pick between poisons.

Now that 2013 is over, we will have plenty of time to discuss what, exactly, the Eagles can do to upgrade a defense that has taken the field with many of the same vulnerabilities in each of the last three seasons. In the meantime, Eagles fans can enjoy the refreshing feeling that the future holds days even brighter than the present, while at the same time Roseman and his staff prepare themselves for an offseason in a league where each one is as pivotal as the last.


On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

 

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