Philadelphia Eagles: DeMeco Ryans

PHILADELPHIA -- When the Philadelphia Eagles play the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field, it will likely be the final significant work for most of the starters on offense and defense. The fourth and final preseason game will be about making final evaluations on the 53-man roster.

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But one starter who probably won’t get a lot of work on Thursday is starting inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans. The 30-year-old Ryans is the Eagles' signal-caller on defense. He calls the audibles.

Since being acquired in a trade with Houston in 2012, Ryans has started all 32 games for the Eagles. Last season, he posted double-digit tackles in 11 of 17 games, including in the Eagles' playoff loss to New Orleans in a game where his interception of Drew Brees set up a Philadelphia touchdown. His 177 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions last season were all career highs.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly called Ryans a “tremendous football player (with) tremendous instincts." He called Ryans “the quarterback of our defense.”

Ryans is so valuable to the Eagles' young defense that Kelly does not want to risk him getting injured in a relatively meaningless preseason game.

“I think we feel very, very comfortable in terms of what DeMeco does,” Kelly said. “That’s why he didn’t play a ton in the first preseason game against the Patriots because I think we know what we have in DeMeco, and we need him.

“The big thing is, who else do we have at that position, and that is where that depth at inside linebacker is a key situation that we’ll continue to look at in these last two preseason games.”
PHILADELPHIA -- It is easy to read too much into what you see during organized team activities. On Tuesday, safety Earl Wolff was running with the first team. It turns out that Nate Allen was sick, and Wolff simply moved up a spot.

On Monday, inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks was calling out the defensive signals. That could mean the Eagles want Kendricks to replace DeMeco Ryans in that role, or it could simply mean Kendricks might have to fill in if Ryans gets hurt during a game.

In general, the Eagles' draft picks are running with the second or third teams. That is just coach Chip Kelly's way. It is not necessarily a reflection of where each rookie stands in the coaches' evaluation process.

[+] EnlargeEagles coach Chip Kelly
AP Photo/Matt Rourke"There's nothing to read into who is where, what, whatever, because we're not playing a game until September," Chip Kelly said.
"If anybody is trying to make anything of who is playing what or how many reps -- all we are trying to do is see if we can get three reps a minute as fast as we can go, get it on tape and coach off of that," Kelly said Tuesday. "So there's nothing to read into who is where, what, whatever, because we're not playing a game until September. We are just trying to get as many plays as we can possibly get. So I would not read anything into who is where or what."

First-round pick Marcus Smith is working at the left outside linebacker spot. That is Connor Barwin's spot. That doesn't mean Smith is being groomed to replace Barwin. It just means that Brandon Graham is the No. 2 guy on the right side, behind Trent Cole. In time, Smith will learn both spots. For now, six weeks before the start of training camp, the idea is to see how Smith reacts to different situations and coach him as needed.

"It's trying to figure out what those guys can do and what their skill set is and what their strengths and weaknesses are," Kelly said. "And then we'll go from there. But you got to start them somewhere. You can't say, ‘Hey, learn every single position.' Just want to put them at one spot and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are as we evaluate them."

The big difference between last year and this year is that Nick Foles is the clear No. 1 quarterback. Michael Vick is gone. Mark Sanchez is here, but he has been told he's competing with Matt Barkley for the No. 2 spot.

Kelly said it's a "unique situation for Mark because he's probably ahead of where Nick [Foles] and Michael [Vick] were last year because he has Nick to rely on. So everything was new for everybody in the quarterback room last year. ... And he also has probably a lot more experience than a lot of guys. He's played in this league for a long time and has got 60 plus starts."

Sanchez doesn't have quite the standing that Vick had, maybe because none of those 62 starts were for the Eagles. But his experience must give Kelly some comfort going into a season in which Foles will be under more pressure than he's experienced before.

Sanchez said he is still on a "pitch count" -- a limit to how much work his right shoulder can do. But he has established himself as a good teammate, eager to help Foles develop even as he learns from him.

"Having a year under his belt really helps," Sanchez said. "He's really maturing into what I think is a really good quarterback. He's going to be tough to play against for defenses."

That won't really start, as Kelly said, until September. For now, the Eagles' focus is on learning and evaluation. It is, after all, only June.
PHILADELPHIA -- You learn more about what an NFL team thinks from what it does than from what it says.

The Philadelphia Eagles know they need to improve their defense if they’re going to repeat as NFC East champions and make more noise in the postseason. The Eagles allowed more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL in 2013. That is an obvious area to address.

“I think we can be better than 32 [ranked],” cornerback Cary Williams said. “I think we’re going to be much improved from last season.”

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia's Cary Williams
AP Photo/Michael PerezCary Williams and the Eagles won the NFC East in 2013 despite allowing the most passing yards per game in the NFL.
The Eagles drafted outside linebacker Marcus Smith of Louisville in the first round of last month’s draft. But there’s a real chance Smith won’t start ahead of Trent Cole right away. Indeed, the only definite new starter will be former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. During OTA practices the past two weeks, 10 of the 11 starters from the end of last year were still at the top of the depth chart.

And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.

“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.

Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.

Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.

“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”

That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.

Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.

Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.

“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”

Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.

DeMeco Ryans fine with heavy workload

June, 3, 2014
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DeMeco Ryans was on the field for 1,157 snaps last season.

Simple math will tell anyone that is a heavy workload for a linebacker.

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Ryans will turn 30 before the 2014 season and it’s a natural question to ask about reducing his snaps for the Philadelphia Eagles.

“You tryin' to get me off the field?” Ryans told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I guess that's the question this year. OK. I guess that's the question everybody wants to ask. I'm still out here playing my hardest, giving the team what I have to go out and compete. I'm surprised at the question, but hey, that's what it is.”

Ryans never appeared to be bothered by the extra playing time, and pointed to coach Chip Kelly’s sports science program in terms of staying healthy all season.

“When the coaches understand how to take care of the players from that standpoint, it helps us as older guys be able to come out here day after day and really play hard, practice hard, because we know that we're taking care of ourselves with the recovery aspect,” Ryans told the Daily News.

Ryans had four sacks and two interceptions and was one of the vocal leaders on the Eagles’ much-improved defense.

He plans on leading by example again.

“First, it's your work ethic,” Ryans told the Daily News. “Guys see you in the weight room, how you work -- it's all about creating that 'I come to work every day.' The guys know what to expect from leaders. They don't get wishy-washy guys, (they connect with leaders) who come in and bust their butts every day. It starts there. And then, playing good, it always helps ... At this point, it's not about the rah-rah. Guys get paid to do their jobs, so they're expected to do their jobs.”

Ryans says additions can amp up Eagles' D

May, 4, 2014
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DeMeco Ryans saw a Philadelphia Eagles defense which improved steadily throughout last season.

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But as the 2014 season inches, the veteran linebacker sees a defense that can get even better.

“Consistently we weren't good on first down, that put us behind the ball a lot,” Ryans told CSNPhilly.com. “I look at that, and I look at the film, and I see we can be so much further along on small details [within our scheme] the second time around.”

The Eagles managed 31 takeaways, which ranked tied for second in the NFC, and they went through a terrific nine-game stint where they allowed 21 or fewer points.

In the offseason, the Eagles made some additions, including safety Malcolm Jenkins to shore up the secondary.

“In the offseason you knew they'd make some changes,” Ryans said. “I feel like we got another good safety in Jenkins. ... He's a vocal guy and he's a playmaker.”

Ryans was a playmaker last season with 111 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions.

“I felt really good," Ryans said. "Health-wise, probably one of the best seasons I've had.”

Linebacker now a strength for Eagles

April, 3, 2014
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The linebacker position hasn't always been a priority in the past for the Philadelphia Eagles.

But times have changed under coach Chip Kelly.

Even before the NFL draft, the Eagles will enter the 2014 season with a much-improved group of linebackers.

With linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks anchoring the inside, the Eagles also feature some impressive depth with the likes of Najee Goode, Casey Matthews, Jake Knott and Emmanuel Acho.

Veteran Trent Cole (eight sacks) was a force at outside linebacker and he received plenty of help from Connor Barwin, who was a key offseason acquisition in Kelly's first season. Brandon Graham made some improvement and the Eagles recently added Bryan Braman, who should get a chance to play at linebacker. Braman was signed as a special-teams player but that role could be expanded.

“You don't find many players of Bryan's size with the ability to run down the field and make plays on special teams,” Kelly said after Braman's signing. “It's an area of the game that we always have our eye on and look to improve. With his size, we also like his potential as a guy who can compete for spot as an outside linebacker.”

In the NFL draft, the Eagles could add a linebacker or two to their ever-improving depth chart.

This group of linebackers showed terrific stamina as Cole, Ryans and Barwin started all 16 games last season. Cole will turn 32 during the season while Barwin will be 28. But Kendricks is just 23 and he had a solid second season in the league.

Kendricks accumulated 106 total tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and four recovered fumbles. He became one of three players in franchise history to record at least four sacks and three interceptions in a single season, joining Seth Joyner (1991 and '92) and William Thomas ('96).

With a combination of veterans and young players, this position continues to be one worth looking at as the 2014 season inches closer.
So far the Philadelphia Eagles have re-signed key their own players, such as Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin and Nate Allen, and added pieces like Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll.

They have not, however, added any pieces to help the pass rush.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Michael PerezTrent Cole led the Eagles in sacks last season, but the team's pass rush could use reinforcements.
The Eagles recorded 37 sacks in 2013, which ranked 20th in the NFL. Trent Cole led the team with eight sacks. Connor Barwin had five and three players -- DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry -- had four apiece.


"It's hard to find pass rushers, especially on the open market," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said in this Philadelphia Daily News story. "There aren't a lot of teams letting them go. And then you look at the draft and where those guys go, they go high.

"Certainly, you want to continue to add pass rushers. But we feel we have some guys we think can rush the passer and fit what we're doing at the outside linebacker position."

Philadelphia had interest in DeMarcus Ware, and the Cowboys were not keen on possibly seeing their all-time leader in sacks twice a year, but the Denver Broncos swooped in with an offer Ware could not refuse ($20 million guaranteed).

In free agency, Shaun Phillips has 3-4 experience from his time with the San Diego Chargers, but the pickings are thin.

As the Eagles move into their second year in the 3-4 scheme, they will have a better feel for what they want in an outside linebacker. Projecting a college defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 is never easy, but it is something the Pittsburgh Steelers have excelled at for years.

The two best in this year's draft, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr, figure to be gone by the time the Eagles pick in the first round.

In a division with quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III, finding pass rushers is more important than pass defenders.

Eagles Mailbag 1: Deal DJax?

March, 8, 2014
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We'll finally start to get some action and answers in free agency. Teams can begin contacting agents Saturday afternoon and completing deals on Tuesday.

Until then, let's find out what's on fans' minds. Thanks to everyone for their comments and questions. We got enough to break this up into two posts, so if your tweet isn't here, look for it later Saturday afternoon.

Without further ado:

 
As free agency approaches, there has been a lot of talk about the Philadelphia Eagles' reluctance to get burned the way they did in 2011. General manager Howie Roseman has cited that disastrous spending spree as inspiration for a new philosophical approach to free agents.

But Nnamdi Asomugha in 2011 is not the right precedent for the Eagles' current situation.

Jon Runyan in 2000 is.

In 2000, Andy Reid had finished his first season as head coach, just as Chip Kelly has in 2014. Reid had drafted Donovan McNabb to be his franchise quarterback. Kelly had Nick Foles stake a claim to that role. Like Reid in 2000, Kelly has had one season to coach his new players, getting a feel for who's who and what needs to be done.

Reid had Tra Thomas at left tackle. He needed someone to anchor the other side. The Eagles signed Runyan to a six-year, $30.5-million contract that made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL.

If Kelly and Roseman see the safety position as the massive sinkhole the rest of us see, and they identify Buffalo's Jairus Byrd (or whomever is at the top of their board) as someone who can fill that hole for the next five years, they can and should be bold and make a play for him.

It is perceived as a negative that Byrd wants to be the highest paid safety in the NFL. But no one criticized Runyan for taking advantage of his well-timed free agency to become the best-paid offensive lineman.

Let's be clear: No one is saying Roseman should throw crazy money at a player he doesn't believe is a difference-maker. That isn't the point here. But the lesson from Asomugha and the rest of the 2011 moves -- forever linked to the "Dream Team" tag applied by Vince Young -- shouldn't be that free agency is bad for team building.

Runyan was an integral part of the team Reid built, a team that went to five NFC championship games. More recently, Connor Barwin, Cary Williams and DeMeco Ryans (who was acquired in a trade) came from other teams and had a profoundly positive impact on the Eagles' locker room.

In 2011, the Eagles had to act quickly after the NFL lockout ended. They didn't have the usual free-agency period to bring players in for get-acquainted visits. Asomugha was the marquee free agent and the Eagles, believing themselves one or two moves from a Super Bowl, went all in to get him.

It didn't work out. OK, it was a disaster. But that was not the move Roseman should look at when considering his course of action this offseason. The Runyan signing is a much more telling precedent.

Reassessing Eagles LB DeMeco Ryans

February, 19, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- You can trust your eyes or you can trust your eyes.

Trust them when Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans is on the field and you see a veteran who was playing, according to his defensive coordinator, at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2013 season.

Or trust them when you see the orange box in the Pro Football Focus graphic and the image of Ryans in the NFL.com photo display of veterans likely to be released by their teams for salary reasons.

[+] EnlargeDeMeco Ryans
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliInside linebacker DeMeco Ryans had 4 sacks and 2 interceptions in his second season with the Eagles.
Reading through last week’s positional analysis of the Eagles’ inside linebackers, I certainly didn’t portray Ryans as a huge issue. Bearing in mind that the Eagles moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, and that Ryans was in charge of getting everyone lined up correctly and maintaining order, the 29-year-old had a solid season. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis backed that up.

"DeMeco is the leader of our defense, and he's having an outstanding Pro Bowl year,” Davis said in November. “We couldn't be happier with everything DeMeco is doing for us."

In its look at the Eagles’ projected 2014 lineup, PFF classified Ryans as a “below-average starter/adequate role player” -- one of four orange boxes on the site’s graphic representation of the Eagles' defense. Cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Patrick Chung and Earl Wolff were the others (free agents, including Nate Allen, were not included).

NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal included Ryans on his list of veteran players whose 2014 salaries make them candidates to be released.

“His reputation and salary far exceed his play on the field (especially on passing downs),” Rosenthal writes. “Do the Eagles want to pay $6.9 million for leadership?”

Two quick reactions: Ryans provided more than leadership, especially as the defensive line improved in front of the linebackers. Logic suggests he can be even more effective as the rest of the defensive players improve within Davis’ scheme.

But Rosenthal and the guys at PFF aren’t making this stuff up. They know their stuff and viewed Ryans’ play with dispassionate eyes. So it might make more sense that the Eagles spent a fair amount of time talking to inside linebackers during Senior Bowl week. Jimmy Kempski of philly.com noted Eagles personnel talking to LSU’s Lamin Barrow, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, and Florida State’s Christian Jones.

Ultimately, I think Ryans is still starting for the Eagles in September even if the Eagles draft his long-term replacement. Davis is not going to want his defense to take a step back while a rookie learns the system and how to diagnose offensive formations. Free agency doesn’t seem like a viable option -- if the Eagles are going to pay top dollar for a veteran, they’re better off with Ryans.

Thoughts on Avant's MMQB piece

February, 18, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant wrote a piece for MMQB.com about NFL locker room culture. It’s an interesting, if slightly puzzling take.

The puzzling part: Avant compares the relationship of the NFL and its players to his relationship with his children. But Avant’s children are ages 1 and 3. So it is natural that Avant and his wife discuss how much freedom to allow them and how they can earn more.

"NFL players want freedom, want to do things on our own, want to be able to say: This is our locker room, we govern our own locker room," Avant writes. "But have we proved that we’ve earned that?"

A lot of NFL players might take exception to being compared to small children in need of an NFL “parent.” The irony is that Avant is one of the most mature, thoughtful and well-rounded men you'll meet anywhere -- including the locker room of an NFL team. If Richie Incognito and the frat-boy culture revealed in Ted Wells’ report last week are at one end of the spectrum, Avant is at the opposite end.

That is why his opinion was sought out by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Avant writes that he told Goodell the league needs to do a better job of educating incoming players “about culture and how to assimilate into a workplace with such a diverse demographic.”

Avant said he was “shocked” by some of what was in the Wells report on Incognito, Jonathan Martin and the goings-on in Miami. That rings true. The media who cover the Eagles don’t have access to the players 24/7, but you see enough to get a feel for the environment and the men who work in it. It is hard to picture the kind of behavior detailed in the Wells report.

According to Avant, that environment starts with owner Jeffrey Lurie, who mingles with players in the cafeteria and talks about the traditions established by former leaders such as Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook.

"I think that standard is extremely important," Avant writes. "Why? Look at what happened this season with one of our receivers, Riley Cooper, who was caught on video using the N-word at a concert. That incident had the potential to divide us. Instead, because of strong team leadership, we worked through the issue together; we forgave Riley and we were able to grow, both as a team and as individuals -- Riley included.”

Avant, along with Michael Vick and DeMeco Ryans, was instrumental in leading the Eagles through that delicate situation. Lurie and Chip Kelly might have fined Cooper for his actions, but the crisis was really handled by the adults in the locker room.
PHILADELPHIA -- When we left off looking at the Eagles position by position Friday, we were talking about the in-transition nature of the outside linebackers.

The inside linebacker situation would seem more settled based on the 2013 season. DeMeco Ryans was exactly the leader a team needs in the middle of its defense, and Mychal Kendricks developed into arguably the most dynamic playmaker on that side of the ball.

With glaring needs in the secondary and at edge pass-rusher, that would make the inside linebacker spots appear less than pressing. So it was surprising that the Eagles' personnel people and coaches spent so much time talking to inside linebackers during Senior Bowl activities – as documented by Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com.

Kempski noted four inside linebackers among the 14 players the Eagles showed special interest in. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have interest in other players. With the scouting combine later this month, and with pro days and the chance to bring players to Philadelphia for visits, the Eagles will certainly talk to dozens of potential picks before the draft.

Still, the interest in inside linebackers is itself interesting. According to Kempski, the Eagles talked to LSU’s Lamin Barrow, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, Illinois’ Jonathan Brown and Florida State’s Christian Jones.

Ryans is due to make $6.9 million this year. I’ve always believed it’s a bad idea for teams to ask important players to take pay cuts for a number of reasons. It’s bad for morale, it undermines a player’s ability to be a leader in a locker room where salary and stature are connected and it erodes every player’s confidence in the team’s commitment to the contracts it negotiates.

In this case, Ryans' contract was negotiated in Houston, before he was traded to Philadelphia. That eliminates one of those considerations. If general manager Howie Roseman can pitch a restructuring that helps the salary cap without hurting Ryans too much, then fine.

The larger question is whether, despite the Pro Bowl lobbying from defensive coordinator Bill Davis, the Eagles feel they need more impact from Ryans’ spot. At the very least, they may want to start grooming a young successor for Ryans, who turns 30 before the season.

There are other possibilities, though. After a season in his scheme, Davis may think Kendricks could be effective on the outside, for example. He’s a good pass-rusher and would be better at dropping into coverage than Trent Cole or Brandon Graham.

A relatively high draft pick at an inside spot could allow Kendricks to move outside while simultaneously developing into an eventual replacement for Ryans.

The counterargument there is that Kendricks spent his rookie season on the outside in the Eagles’ 4-3 scheme. Moving him inside for a year and then back outside would negate the considerable progress he made during the 2013 season.

Maybe it’s all just this simple: Roseman’s approach is to take the best player on the Eagles’ draft board regardless of position. If that player is an inside linebacker, then you take him and figure out exactly how to use him and the incumbent linebackers later.

Behind Ryans and Kendricks, the Eagles have a couple of special-teams guys in Casey Matthews and Jake Knott. Najee Goode showed promise playing in relief of Kendricks. Jason Phillips, signed for depth and special-teams prowess, tore his ACL in training camp and missed the entire season.

Bottom line: Assembling a deep group of versatile, athletic linebackers couldn’t hurt.
PHILADELPHIA – If our No. 4 play that shaped the Eagles' season foreshadowed Nick Foles’ sublime second half of the season, all No. 5 did was produce a plain old shadow over everything Foles did.

Foles
Oct. 20 vs. Dallas: Nick Foles rolls to his right, takes a terrible sack and winds up with a concussion.

The final play of the third quarter was Foles’ final play of his worst afternoon in the NFL. It raised the question of whether his NFC offensive player of the week performance in Tampa Bay was a mirage and threw the Eagles’ quarterback situation into further turmoil. Foles would miss the next week’s game because of a concussion, and Michael Vick would try to come back too soon and aggravate his hamstring injury.

But that was in the future. In the moment, Foles couldn’t get any kind of rhythm going against the Cowboys that day. He overthrew open receivers, if he saw them at all. The Eagles were held scoreless in the first half and weren’t doing much better in the third quarter when linebacker DeMeco Ryans’ interception gave them the ball at the Dallas 30.

Foles couldn’t do anything with the opportunity. On a third-down play, he drifted to his left, then ran to his right as defenders closed in. He held the ball too long and took a big hit from George Selvie and Jarius Wynn.

After Foles returned and led the Eagles to five consecutive wins, that Dallas game hung over him. Whenever he looked like a true franchise quarterback, the conversation would circle back to his mystifying performance on Oct. 20.

Did he shrink in a big game?

Was there something about the Cowboys?

Would it happen again?

It wasn’t until Foles defeated the Cowboys in the season finale to clinch the NFC East title that the shadow was cleared away for good.

On Monday, we'll take a look at No. 6 in our series.
 

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 11
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

Biggest surprise: Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly's offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles' season coming is fibbing.

Biggest disappointment: The outcome of Saturday night's playoff game against New Orleans -- which says something about how thoroughly Kelly changed the culture here. No one expected the Eagles to win their division and reach the playoffs, but once they did, plenty of people expected them to win the first-round home game. But LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, didn't have his best game, and the Saints caught the Eagles off guard by running the ball so much themselves. The Eagles appeared capable of beating almost anyone, including the Saints, which made the loss hard to swallow.

Biggest need: Defensive difference-makers, especially in the secondary. The cornerbacks were solid and improved steadily by season's end, but a shutdown corner or legitimate playmaking safety would help a lot. A close second would be a pass-rushing threat, preferably from the outside. Trent Cole had a good year making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he's not going to play forever. Funny: For the midseason version of this, I listed quarterback as the biggest need. That's how shocking Foles' performance was.

Team MVP: LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and in total yards from scrimmage, setting Eagles franchise records in both categories. No one could argue with you if you named McCoy MVP of the team, or even of the NFC. But McCoy was the running back when the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point. It wasn't until Foles took over the starting quarterback spot that the Eagles began winning games. That seems like the very definition of "most valuable." Nevertheless, the Eagles' first NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren probably earns McCoy the team MVP award.

 

New Orleans SaintsAl Bello/Getty ImagesThe Eagles had their chances but couldn't do the little things to beat the Saints.
PHILADELPHIA -- Quarterback Nick Foles warmed up on the sideline, waiting for another chance, for one more possession.

It never came. Instead of running onto the field to try to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to one more score, Foles watched the New Orleans Saints celebrate a 26-24 playoff victory. Instead of regrouping for a playoff game against the Carolina Panthers next Sunday, Foles and his teammates will spend the offseason picking at the seams of a game they let slip away.

"It's tough right now," Foles said. "There are a lot of emotions and I'm holding it together. ... I'm hurting inside right now in my heart."

"They killed us slowly," running back LeSean McCoy said. "It was a terrible feeling. There was nothing we could do but watch."

By the time Shayne Graham's 32-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, there was nothing they could do. But for the 59 minutes and 57 seconds before that, there was plenty they could have done.

That's why these are the hardest games to lose, the ones in which a dropped pass here, a missed field goal there accumulate like individual snowflakes until a team's hopes are buried in an avalanche. On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles were improbable NFC East champions with a chance to do something special in coach Chip Kelly's first season.

By midnight, they were finished. Buried.

"It's just disappointing," Kelly said. "I don't think us winning the division or getting to the playoffs was a surprise to us. I just think everybody is really disappointed that we're not moving forward."

"I've never been out of the first round of the playoffs," left tackle Jason Peters said. "I felt like this is the year. But we got knocked out and we're at home now. That kickoff, the missed field goal, a couple drops, that sack -- there's a bunch of stuff that went wrong that's messing with me right now. Just got to get over it."

It will take some of them longer to get over than others. Peters is 31. He tore his Achilles tendon twice and had it surgically repaired twice. After missing the entire 2012 season, he returned this year and earned another Pro Bowl berth. He doesn't know how many more chances he's going to get.

Cornerback Cary Williams won a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens last year. He was seething after losing this game, to this team, with so much at stake.

"I don't know whether it was the moment or what it was," Williams said. "But we've got to get better in that scenario, in these situations. We failed. We lost to a team that wasn't necessarily better than us. They weren't better than us, period."

Williams was in the middle of the single play that cost the Eagles most dearly. Foles hit tight end Zach Ertz for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead with 4:54 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Shoot the final gun there and Foles' remarkable season is extended by the kind of fourth-quarter comeback that burnishes quarterbacks' reputations. Instead, the Eagles had to kick off. Darren Sproles took the ball 2 yards inside his own zone and somehow got through the Eagles' first wave of tacklers.

"He broke contain," Williams said. "I'm the safety valve there. I didn't want to dive, because if he steps out of my tackle, it's six points. I just wanted to get the man down, just give our defense a chance to get on the field and make a stop."

[+] EnlargeCary Williams and Darren Sproles
AP Photo/Julio CortezCary Williams' horse collar tackle on Darren Sproles proved costly -- it gave the Saints a short field on the game-winning drive.
Williams went high, tackling Sproles and drawing a penalty for a horse-collar tackle. The Saints got the ball at the Philadelphia 48. They ran the ball, converting three first downs and draining the clock until calling a timeout with three seconds left. There would be no time for Foles and the offense to get that one last chance.

"The game came down to us as a defense making a stop, and we knew it was going to come down to that," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Whoever is on the field last has to stand up and make a play."

But it was all the plays before that created the situation:

Foles held the ball too long and took a sack that turned a makeable Alex Henery field goal try into a 48-yard miss.

Wide receiver Riley Cooper dropped a third-down pass in the third quarter with nothing but green in front of him.

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks slapped the ball from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's grip, but a replay showed the fumble occurred a moment after Graham's knee touched the ground. Instead of a turnover, the Saints kept the ball and kicked a field goal.

Foles' pass to McCoy on third-and-6 in the red zone picked up 5 yards. Instead of a touchdown and a 21-20 lead, the Eagles kicked a field goal and trailed 20-17.

Those are the little loose threads that the Eagles will pick at when they reflect on this game. It didn't matter that they had exceeded expectations to get to this point. They had a chance to keep playing and they fell short.

"There was a missed opportunity tonight," Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. "We were a dangerous team."

They will be a different team in 2014. Change is inevitable. All of them know that. And while there is every reason to expect good things from Kelly and Foles in the future, nothing is certain.

"It hurts whenever you lose a game that you know you should have won," center Jason Kelce said. "We all expected to do a lot better in the playoffs. As a player, the careers don't last very long. The opportunities you get in the postseason, you have to try to seize them. We didn't seize the day here."

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