NFL season preview: The Philadelphia Eagles will soar this season
OK, I'm going to do something here that I'll probably regret. I'm going to take a leap of faith on a franchise that has never been worthy of it, at least not in the Super Bowl era.
I'm going to wing it on the wings of the Eagles. I'm going to pick Philadelphia to soar all the way to Phoenix this season — and once they get there, to beat whoever comes out of the AFC for Vince Lombardi's trophy.
Sure, it would have been easier — and smarter — to follow popular opinion and go the comfortable route and take the Seahawks or the 49ers, since I had to choose from NFC teams. But … no, the road less traveled is the choice here. The road never traveled.
And I hate myself already for it.
You got to understand, I grew up about 20 miles from Philadelphia and as a kid watched the Eagles bump and skid — a lot. They might have been decent during the old days, back when Chuck Bednarik and Norm Van Brocklin were earning their tickets to Canton. There were a few NFL Championships won forever ago. But my memory centers more on Norm Snead heaving the ball all over creation and Bill Bergey jamming up the middle and Harold Carmichael being really tall and the Eagles losing by double-digits. There were a few exceptions — Dick Vermeil taking the club to the Super Bowl after the 1980 season, a loss, naturally, to the Raiders — and much later, Andy Reid guiding the Eagles to some postseason success, including another Super Bowl loss.
Still, when I think of the Eagles, I think of their fans, some of the most educated, loyal and hardboiled in the NFL. Yeah, there was the booing of Santa Claus, the booing of the little girl who forgot the words to the national anthem, the booing of the beer vendor — a childhood friend of mine — who dropped his tray of brews in the stands. There was the courtroom at the stadium where unruly fans were tried and sentenced by a judge right on site. But most Eagles fans are salt of the earth, good football people, interested and opinionated observers, neighbors leaning over backyard fences to talk with one another about the highlights and heartbreaks of the latest game.
That's Philly, as much as any kind of cheesesteak or Tastykake.
And, well, this season, they've got something positive to talk about. They've got Chip Kelly, who last year re-energized a club that has experienced a decent number of wins in recent seasons, that has made the playoffs four out of the past six postseasons, but has no gaudy title bling to show for that or for anything before.
Hired out of Oregon, Kelly installed his up-tempo offense and broke out to a 3-5 start in 2013. But then, something unexpected happened. Nick Foles happened. Mike Vick jacked a wheel and Foles, a second-year quarterback, came on to throw 27 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. Foles led the Eagles to seven wins over the last eight games en route an NFC East banner, posting a league-leading 119.2 QB rating along the way.
According to Kelly, the young Foles, despite those eye-popping stats, had fine points to improve upon in his game and the coach recently said Foles has, in fact, worked hard to set himself up for more this time around.
There's encouraging and discouraging news in that pursuit.
Foles has two of the three most useful complements for which any quarterback can ask. The Eagles' offense featured the best run game in the NFL last season, averaging 160 yards. LeSean McCoy, who rolled for 1,607 yards on the ground — including 26 rushes of 15 or more yards — which led the league, now has a counterpunch in the addition of former Saint Darren Sproles. Beyond their running abilities, those backs combined for more than 100 receptions and a thousand receiving yards last season.
Foles also has one of the NFL's best offensive lines in front of him. They're solid at pass protection and absolute road-graders on the ground.
What he doesn't have is a game-breaking receiver, what with the exit of DeSean Jackson. Riley Cooper is there, Jeremy Maclin returns from his knee injury, and second-round pick Jordan Matthews might help. Also, the Eagles' tight ends — Brent Celek, Zach Ertz — should play a major role. Kelly is cooking up an offensive mix that will have to cover for a defense that doesn't exactly have championship etched all over it.
The Eagles D was ranked 10th against the run last year, 17th in points allowed, 29th in yards yielded and last against the pass. That's not the perfect formula for a Super Bowl title, but the defense improved over most of the season with a relapse or two at the end. It has been charged with putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks — the Eagles used their No. 1 pick on Marcus Smith to bolster that — and, so, it will.
Kelly's advanced offensive mind and his players' adaptation to his principles will make the Eagles enough of a threat when they have the ball to breathe life into the defense when it doesn't. That, combined with his innovative ideas about nutrition and conditioning, will make Philly an intriguing, developing, improving force through the 2014 season.
They've been on or near the doorstep in the past. Now, in the legendary words of Bum Phillips, this is the year they kick the [expletive] door in and give those neighbors in the City of Brotherly Love what they've never had: a Super Bowl victory.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.