Are Eagles' super ambitions realistic?

Running back LeSean McCoy (center) is one reason TV analysts are impressed with the Eagles.
Running back LeSean McCoy (center) is one reason TV analysts are impressed with the Eagles. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 03, 2014

Malcolm Jenkins didn't talk with Chip Kelly before he signed with the Eagles in March. The safety agreed to a contract less than an hour into free agency, so he wasn't afforded the opportunity to meet with his new coach.

Jenkins had done his homework on Kelly and had reached out to Eagles players he knew before signing a three-year deal. But when he first sat down with Kelly, he wanted to know more about the coach's plan, and he wanted to know whether the Eagles were satisfied with just reaching the playoffs.

Jenkins, a Super Bowl winner in 2009 and a member of the New Orleans Saints team that knocked the Eagles out of the postseason in January, liked what he heard.

"If he's the guy leading the troops, then I understand where this team is going," Jenkins said recently. "I've seen teams make it to the playoffs, and in their mind that was a good year. The mentality I got when I interacted with guys here was everybody felt shorted and felt like it ended too soon.

"That's a good thing."

But want-to doesn't guarantee that the Eagles will take the next step, as many have predicted or most fans will take nothing less than. But they have become a trendy pick for some prominent national voices - not only to win the NFC East again, but to challenge the likes of the defending Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks.

"I look at them as a team with real potential," Cris Collinsworth, analyst on NBC's Sunday Night Football, said last week. "I'm watching Seattle and I'm going, 'Oh, my gosh, where's the flaw on this team right now?' But if I had to pick a team to contend with them, I like Philadelphia."

Sports Illustrated's Peter King recently predicted that the Eagles would earn a first-round playoff bye, partly because of the expected weakness of their division. Kelly, of course, dares not look ahead. Last year, he preached to his players to keep their heads down and not look up until the end of the regular season.

He offered only the following when asked about the big picture and how he felt about his team heading into this season:

"I feel like we're headed in the right direction," Kelly said Thursday after the Eagles' preseason finale. "I'm not a prediction guy, but I think we're headed in the right direction is the best way to say it."

The margin of error in the NFL is relatively small. The Falcons, for instance, reached the NFC championship game in January 2013, only to fall to 4-12 last season. Some analysts believe, given the right bounces, Atlanta has enough to return to the playoffs this season.

But there are teams that trend naturally upward as a new coach goes about implementing his program. The Eagles had it, more or less, with Andy Reid during his first six seasons. The Seahawks have gone from 7-9 to 7-9 to 11-5 to 13-3 and champions in coach Pete Carroll's first four seasons.

The optimism about the Eagles, more than anything, seems to be based on Kelly in Year 2 and his players' having another year in his system.

"I've got to think that he probably had about 60 percent of that offense or his system in place," Collinsworth said. "It probably took months for the players to figure out what the heck was happening to them at practice with that breakneck pace."

Al Michaels, Collinsworth's booth companion, mentioned Bill Walsh and Mike Shanahan when he said that Kelly could be the next offensive innovator to win a Super Bowl.

Collinsworth, conceding that it was "a reach," went as far as to compare the Eagles to the early 1990s' Cowboys of Jimmy Johnson, who won Super Bowls in the coach's fourth and fifth seasons. Like Johnson and his aggressive 4-3 defense, teams already have adopted facets of Kelly's offense and his other innovations.

"I do know that I thought Chip Kelly had some fresh and original ideas, and I see a lot of it being copied around the league now," Collinsworth said. "Nick Foles was sensational last year. . . . You would think after a year of starting that he might get a little bit better.

"I think they have the best running back in the league in LeSean McCoy. Certainly one of the best tackles in football in Jason Peters. And a defense that I thought was learning a new system and figuring out how they were going to grow into it."

The Eagles have 18 new players on their 53-man roster heading into the season, but there are only five new starters. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, Allen Barbre fills in for right tackle Lane Johnson until he returns from a four-game suspension, receiver Jordan Matthews steps into Jason Avant's spot in the slot, kicker Cody Parkey supplanted Alex Henery, and Jeremy Maclin takes over for the excommunicated DeSean Jackson.

A handful of role players were added via free agency, trade, or the draft, but releasing Jackson was the Eagles' most prominent move of the offseason.

There are plenty of other potential setbacks. The schedule is the 15th-most difficult in the league, according to the website FiveThirtyEight's calculations. The Eagles, who were among the healthiest teams last season, could hit a patch of ill-timed injuries.

Or maybe the Eagles overachieved last season when few thought Kelly could turn a 4-12 team around so quickly. He could be a victim of his own early success.

"We look at our schedule and I don't think we see anybody on our schedule that we don't think we can beat," Jenkins said. "We look at our division and . . . we have the talent and the skill to win it. Those things right there put you in the playoffs.

"And after that, it's a one-game season."


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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