By Peter Gleason
It is an article of faith that in Philly, back-to-back 10-6 seasons are not good enough.
Even though coach Chip Kelly accomplished that in his first two seasons after inheriting the players that finished 4-12 in Andy Reid’s last disgraceful season in 2012.
Speaking of articles of faith, the Birds still have 50,000 names on a waiting list for seats at the Linc. And investment bankers, lawyers and 9-year-old boys and girls still proudly wear the No. 20 jersey of legendary safety Brian Dawkins.
Double-digit victories have solidified Kelly’s credibility in making the jump from college to the pros, but they haven’t catapulted his team into the rarefied air of the NFC elite. That was clear last season, when at one point Kelly’s team was 9-4 but those losses came to San Francisco, Arizona, Green Bay and Seattle — the 49ers, then still relevant, and three eventual playoff teams.
The Eagles have new running backs, a new quarterback, two new guards, a new marquee linebacker, and three new defensive backs. Kelly could swap out as many as a dozen starters.
“We weren’t trying to make news,” the coach said. “We were just trying to make our team better.”
Can Kelly, in this pivotal third season, pull together all of these just-acquired players and quickly break through with some big steps forward?
Put simply: Is he a mad scientist, or just plain crazy?
Already, Kelly is encouraged by what he’s seeing.
“We are way ahead of where we’ve ever been from an installation standpoint,” he said. “But I think it’s because of the amount of reps we get in the spring. We go pretty hard in the spring, but there’s a reason for that. It’s so that when we come back, it’s not starting over again. It’s picking up where we left off.”
The fresh start hinges on a big gamble: the development of quarterback Sam Bradford, acquired in a trade with St. Louis. The No. 1 pick in 2010 suffered season-ending knee injuries in each of the last two years, hasn’t taken a snap in a game since the middle of the 2013 season, and until this week had gone almost two years since running an 11-on-11 drill.
Kelly’s support and enthusiasm for Bradford is unflinching.
“If you’re not going to pick one or two [in the draft], how do you go get a quarterback?” the coach said in a recent interview with Eagles beat writers. “Peyton Manning switched teams because of an injury. Drew Brees switched teams because of an injury, so we went down that path.”
Both Denver’s Manning and New Orleans’ Brees got to Super Bowls after switching teams. For many, the expectations are equally high for the Eagles in a conference with several strong teams — Seattle, Green Bay, Arizona, Dallas — but probably no overwhelming juggernaut.
Another key gamble for the Birds is at running back. The Eagles added last season’s rushing champion, DeMarco Murray, who led the Cowboys by running for a team-record 1,845 yards. The Eagles signed him to a five-year deal worth a reported $42 million.
That’s a roll of the dice considering Murray had 392 carries last season, the ninth-most in league history. The eight players on that list averaged 831 yards fewer in the following season.
Setting the stage for the acquisition of Murray, the Eagles traded running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo. That move raised eyebrows around the league, as McCoy rushed for 1,319 yards last season, third-most in the NFL. Since the Eagles selected him in the second round in 2009, McCoy rolled up the NFL’s third-most yards rushing (6,792) and fourth-most rushing touchdowns (44).
In exchange for McCoy, the Eagles got linebacker Kiko Alonso, who was runner-up to defensive rookie of the year in 2013, but missed his entire second season with a torn knee ligament. He will be key addition to Philly’s defense, which was strong up front last season but highly vulnerable in the secondary.
The Eagles will spread the carries around, adding oft-injured running back Ryan Mathews, who made it all the way through only one of his five seasons in San Diego, and have returning speedster Darren Sproles.
“If you have multiple backs you don’t lose anything when you take one out, and I think we probably relied on one too much in the last couple of years,” Kelly said. “But I have great confidence in those other guys that when they go into the game you don’t have to change what you’re doing.
“Ryan and DeMarco are very similar in terms of how they run and what they’re doing so it’s almost like you think you catch your breath when you take DeMarco out of the game but then here comes Ryan, that’s going to be a real difficult task for people, I think.”
There are more challenges at receiver after, for the second consecutive year, the Eagles have parted ways with an All-Pro wideout. Two years ago, they bid adieu to DeSean Jackson, and after last season Jeremy Maclin became too expensive to keep. Among the players expected to pick up some of that slack is former USC standout Nelson Agholor, drafted 20th overall.
“The changes in the off-season sent us in the right direction,” tackle Lane Johnson said after practice at training camp this week. “We’ve got our defense sound, we’ve got our offense sound. We’ve got the pieces of the puzzle connecting, and now it’s just time to go out there and execute on the field.”
In the last two years, there has been so much emphasis placed on Kelly’s unconventional, up-tempo style, and how players will adjust. But now, with so many changes and so little time to get up and running, the spotlight — and the stopwatch — is trained on him.