PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles took a leap of faith last year, trusting that coach Chip Kelly’s unorthodox ways would work at the NFL level.
That faith was rewarded with a 10-6 record, an NFC East title and a firm belief in how Kelly does things. So the Eagles entered their second training camp under Kelly feeling comfortable with his methods, but restless, because as LeSean McCoy and others put it, the season “ended too soon.” The Eagles view their playoff appearance -- one-and-done against the New Orleans Saints -- with regret rather than satisfaction. And that’s a good thing.
“I think if you’re content with 10 wins and winning the division, you’re probably shortchanging yourself and the team,” Kelly said. “We did that. What’s the next step? How can we improve upon that? We’re trying to get a bunch of guys that are never complacent in terms of, ‘All right, we’ve arrived.’ We haven’t arrived.”
That lack of complacency has been evident in the early going at camp. The defensive players, who were figuring out where to line up in a new 3-4 scheme last summer, are beginning to play with some attitude this year. The offensive players, who feel challenged by concerns about the departure of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, want to prove they can pick up where they left off without taking any backward steps.
Practices are efficient, but up-tempo and challenging. Hitting is a thing of the past, but everything is done with a sense of purpose that is obvious to even the casual observer. That sense of novelty that hung in the air last summer has been replaced. These Eagles are all business, and determined to build on last year’s progress.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. McCoy looks better than ever. After leading the NFL in rushing last season, McCoy decided he wanted to be a little quicker in 2014. He lost a few pounds and worked on his agility. The results show, even during routine camp drills. McCoy seems better at getting out into pass routes and catching the ball. He teases defenders who try to cover him, then got into a brief fistfight with linebacker Trent Cole after Cole knocked him over during a no-tackling drill. That’s a lot of intensity for early August.
2. Nick Foles looks comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback. A year ago, Foles was the underdog in the competition against veteran Michael Vick. And Vick won the job. But Foles wound up starting 10 games, leading the Eagles to the division title and putting up amazing numbers. He might not throw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season, but he doesn’t have to. Foles seems to be in control of the offense during every session, and his teammates sound excited about seeing how good the former third-round pick can be.
3. The defense really seems to have received an injection of swagger during the offseason. Last year’s transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 meant a lot of people were playing out of position. Now the players seem acclimated to their roles. They also built some confidence after playing much better in the second half of the season. The tentative, awkward first six games now look like part of the process the defense had to endure. It survived, and the players seem to have grown from this experience.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Jeremy Maclin was never DeSean Jackson, so it’s kind of unrealistic to expect him to replace Jackson’s production -- 82 catches, 1,332 yards, 9 touchdowns. In fairness, Kelly expects a combination of players -- Darren Sproles, rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, tight end Zach Ertz, as well as Maclin -- to make up for the loss of Jackson. But until someone shows the speed and big-play ability that made Jackson special and put a strain on defenses, questions about this offense will remain.
2. The Eagles didn’t add much to a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was a solid player with the Saints, but they let him walk and signed Jairus Byrd instead. First-round pick Marcus Smith shows promise as an edge defender, but he didn’t exactly come into the league like Jadeveon Clowney. The Eagles are counting on overall improvement from their defense in Year 2 under coordinator Bill Davis, but it might turn out that some playmakers would have helped as well.
3. The Eagles caught some breaks last season that are unlikely to be repeated. The Giants had a decidedly off year, with Eli Manning especially struggling more than usual. Washington went through the end of the Mike Shanahan era, which rendered Robert Griffin III harmless. And Dallas was without QB Tony Romo the night the Eagles beat the Cowboys to claim the division title. A tougher schedule (Indianapolis, Seattle, among others) and a tougher NFC East could make for some serious challenges.
Marcus Smith came into camp as the Stealth First-Rounder, third-team on the depth chart and with no real pressure to make an impact this season. But that’s all part of Kelly’s methodology. To listen to teammates and coaches, Smith is having a very good first camp and should get a chance to make an impact right from the start. Better to be a pleasant surprise than a letdown.
Perhaps the hit of camp so far has been second-round draft pick Jordan Matthews, a 6-foot-3 wide receiver from Vanderbilt. It remains to be seen if Matthews can be as impressive when there’s a safety bearing down on him at full speed, but the early signs are good. Matthews is smart, conscientious and possesses good speed and very good hands.
It’s kind of a double-edged thing. If Allen Barbre is more than adequate at right tackle while Lane Johnson sits out his PED suspension, then the Eagles probably shouldn’t have used the fourth pick of the 2013 draft on Johnson. But if Barbre can fill in competently for four weeks and Johnson can reintegrate with his linemates smoothly, the Eagles will have better depth on their offensive line.
It’s hard to say how the competition between safeties Nate Allen and Earl Wolff is going. There has been no hitting so far. Wolff’s occasional appearances with the first team turn out to be nothing more than the coaches getting a look at the various possible combinations. In other words, it will come down to game performance. Allen earned the upper hand with an interception during Friday night's preseason opener in Chicago.
Injuries tell a story. Last season, the Eagles had three ACL tears in the first week or so of training camp practices. This year, there have been no major injuries. Most of the injuries, in fact, have been to wide receivers. When there is little contact, you don’t get major injuries. But the guys who have to do all the running wind up with muscle pulls and foot injuries.