If nothing else, Sunday’s game will give Gus Bradley a chance to be a head coach in Philadelphia after all.
As you may recall, Bradley was interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles when they got word that Chip Kelly was back in the picture. The Eagles had interviewed Kelly early on in the process. Kelly said he wanted to go back to Oregon to think things over, which many people took as another way of saying thanks, but no thanks.
Bradley flew to Jacksonville, where he was hired as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Kelly accepted the Eagles job. The two men don’t really know each other -- Kelly said they met briefly at the owners meetings -- but they’re the two sides of a big what-if coin.
Kelly had the better first season, winning the NFC East title with a 10-6 record. Bradley had a bigger rebuilding job on his hands and went 4-12 in his first season. Now, with first-round pick Blake Bortles being groomed at quarterback, the pieces are falling into place.
Those devilish chaps at the NFL offices scheduled this season-opening meeting between the Eagles and the Jaguars. Michael DiRocco, who covers the Jaguars for ESPN.com, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, chatted about the matchup.
Phil Sheridan: From afar, it seems a little surprising that Chad Henne is starting at quarterback instead of Bortles. Once upon a time, the Eagles took Donovan McNabb with the second overall pick and kept him on the sideline while veteran Doug Pederson started. Andy Reid had a definite plan in place for McNabb’s inevitable ascension. Is that the case with Bortles? Or are the Jags simply starting the more prepared quarterback for now?
Michael DiRocco: The answer is yes to both. The Jaguars do have a succession plan in place for Bortles, although it’s not written in stone when he’s going to take over, and they are starting Henne because they believe he gives them the best chance to win games now. GM David Caldwell and Bradley have been saying since they re-signed Henne in March that Henne was going to be the starter in 2014. The ideal situation would be that whichever quarterback they drafted in May would sit for a year and develop -- learn the offense, adjust to the speed of the game, and fix any mechanical or fundamental flaws. They have never wavered from that plan, even when Bortles tore it up in the preseason. Bradley and Caldwell have said they’ll put Bortles on the field only when they believe he’s completely ready. That could mean Week 3, Week 10 or next season. They’ve got a plan for him to get extra work during and after practice with QB coach Frank Scelfo. I expect we’ll see Bortles at some point this season, but, barring injury, it won’t be early. How will the Eagles' offense be impacted by the loss of DeSean Jackson?
Sheridan: The idea that Jeremy Maclin is going to replace Jackson is sort of silly. During the years they were teammates, Maclin was never quite the deep threat or big-play receiver that Jackson was. He isn’t suddenly going to become that guy.
But the truth is, Kelly isn’t planning to replace Jackson’s production with one guy. Maclin will start on the outside. Riley Cooper will start on the other side. Second-round pick Jordan Matthews will be in the slot. Tight end Zach Ertz, who came on strong at the end of last season, will get more playing time. And Darren Sproles, obtained in a trade with New Orleans, will provide some of the defense-stretching speed and big-play potential that Jackson took with him. It may take a village to replace Jackson, but the Eagles have enough people to get the job done.
Gus Bradley went right from an interview with the Eagles to Jacksonville, where he was hired as the head coach. Is there a sense that Bradley has changed the culture there and has the team pointed in the right direction?
DiRocco: One of Bradley’s main goals in his first season was to change the culture around the franchise, and there’s no doubt he accomplished that. The best example I have of that is his mantra of “trusting the process.” By that he means he wants players to concentrate on playing within the system, work to become the best player they can be, and not worry about anything else. Trust management to have the right players in place and trust the coaches as they teach the schemes. Don’t focus on wins and losses, but focus on improving every day. If the players do that, the victories will eventually come. You could tell the players had bought into Bradley and the culture change by what happened in the first half of the 2013 season. The team lost its first eight games by double digits but there wasn’t a single complaint, grumble, or issue in the locker room. Any outsider coming into that locker room would never have known the team was 0-8. People around the league have noticed the change, too, and there seems to be a general consensus among NFL insiders that Bradley and Caldwell have the franchise headed in the right direction, especially now that it appears they hit on their franchise quarterback.
Nick Foles was fantastic last year but duplicating what he did is unreasonable. What are realistic expectations for Foles and do you think he meets or exceeds them?
Sheridan: Well, Foles started 10 games last season. The math says that, over a full 16 games, he would throw 43 touchdown passes and three interceptions. You think that might be a little much to expect from the third-year quarterback from Arizona? The truth is, Foles can regress quite a bit and still have a very good season. The key, I think, is that he already understands that his numbers aren’t likely to be that one-sided ever again. That’s good, because the worst part of having a less-impressive season would be the damage it would do to Foles’ confidence.
What do I think is realistic to expect? Well, given the Eagles’ other skill position players and Kelly’s scheme, I would say somewhere between 30 and 35 touchdowns is reasonable. And let’s say 10 interceptions. If Foles puts that kind of season together, the Eagles will be just fine. And Foles will be in line for a nine-figure contract.
Kelly’s offense was second in the NFL in his first season. Bradley is a defensive guy. How much better is the Jaguars' defense going to be in his second season, which opens against Kelly’s offense?
DiRocco: I think it has a chance to be much better because of the upgrades the team made along the defensive line. The Jaguars were 31st in total defense last season but the additions of defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood via free agency, plus finally having defensive tackle Roy Miller healthy, makes the defensive line significantly better. Now the Jaguars go two-deep across the front and the first unit of Clemons, Miller, Sen’Derrick Marks, and Bryant is pretty darn good. Most people focus on Clemons because he’s a pass-rusher, but the addition of Bryant is huge because he sets the edge in the run game and that’s an area in which the Jaguars struggled last season. The Jaguars have been among the league’s worst at rushing the passer the past two seasons (a league-low 20 sacks in 2013 and 31 last season) but will be better in 2014, especially as they tinker with a package that puts four pass-rushing ends on the field at the same time. The improved defensive front will keep the Jaguars in games longer and allow the still-young secondary to continue to develop.
The NFC is loaded. The Eagles seem to have the offense to challenge the conference's elite teams. What's the biggest defensive concern that will hold them back?
Sheridan: It depends how you break it down. Overall, the Eagles need to get better against the pass. They allowed more passing yards than any team in the NFL last year. That is a problem.
But it’s a problem with two main areas to address. There is coverage, which the Eagles believe will be better with Malcolm Jenkins at safety and with a newly developed dime package. And then there is the pass rush, which can take a lot of the pressure off the defensive backs and help generate some big plays.
The pass rush is the area most in need of improvement. The Eagles believe they will be better just by virtue of being in their second year as a 3-4 defense. That means players such as Mychal Kendricks and Connor Barwin have to be unleashed a little more often. It also means Trent Cole has to pick up where he left off. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the 2013 season. An effective pass rush will allow defensive coordinator Bill Davis a lot more creative freedom than he had last season.
Sheridan: One thing the Eagles have to learn is how to win games as the favorite. This will be their first opportunity. They match up extremely well with the Jags. The Eagles’ biggest weakness seems to be their pass defense, and that’s not an area Jacksonville is really adept in. Mix in the home-field edge and things set up nicely for the Eagles. Eagles 33, Jacksonville 17.
DiRocco: The Jaguars will be better defensively in 2014, and that will give them a chance to win more games. But the Eagles have a lot of offensive firepower, even with the loss of DeSean Jackson, and Nick Foles appears to be one of the good young QBs in the league. The Jaguars struggled to run the ball in the preseason, and that’s going to continue to be an issue all season. Running the ball and controlling the clock is the only way to slow down the Eagles’ up-tempo offense. Philadelphia 28, Jacksonville 20