Philadelphia Eagles: Robert Griffin III

The NFL's fame and glory machine didn't spit out DeSean Jackson this time around. It just showed him the blueprint.

Jackson is too young and too good for his ugly release last week by the Philadelphia Eagles to end his career. Regardless of anything that came out publicly (or whatever the Eagles or other teams may know privately) about the off-field detriments that undermine Jackson's wondrous on-field benefits, someone was going to pick him up.

[+] EnlargeDeSean Jackson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAt 27, DeSean Jackson must realize that his relatively young NFL career is at risk.
The Washington Redskins didn't waste time and they didn't scrimp.

But what Jackson got to see was the manner in which the machine will spit him out if he lets it. A team can cut you, it turns out, without explaining why, and can let everyone assume it's because of the way you act and the friends you hang out with away from the field. A team can do this and have the wide NFL world nod in agreement at phrases like "doesn't fit" and "what's best for the football team."

So while the week's debate has been about whether this turn of events is good/bad for the Eagles, good/bad for the Redskins, good/bad for the Jets or any other team that may have been involved or interested, why not take a moment to debate whether this is good for the player? Is getting cut by the Eagles and signed by the Redskins going to benefit DeSean Jackson? Or is the machine determined to spit him out long before his desire and skill level dictate that it must?

I've been talking to people about Jackson for three years now, and here are a few things I believe I know:

Jackson is not an evil person. The Aaron Hernandez comparisons you may have heard or read are shameful and irresponsible. One guy is in jail on first-degree murder charges. The guy we're talking about here appears to have some childhood friends with shady connections. That's a pretty wide gulf, and it deserves to be treated as such in our analysis. We could sit here and say that someone of Jackson's fame and wealth is risking a lot if he refuses to cut ties with people who have nothing to lose. And if he's allegedly flashing gang signs after touchdowns, on his Instagram page or in his videos, as the police officers in the story that hit last week minutes before his release say he has, then he's doing himself a disservice.

Jackson is a 27-year-old who's been famous for almost half his life, but he knows the right thing to do with his platform. He goes into schools to speak actively against bullying, talking to bullies, victims, teachers ... anyone who can help with the problem. He doesn't just throw money at his causes; he works actively to help.

But he also conveys an untethered element. He was incredibly close with his father, who died quickly and cruelly from pancreatic cancer in 2009, and people who have spent time around Jackson will tell you the past five years have been rough. I once asked a player in the Eagles' locker room about Jackson and was told, "Not a bad guy, but sometimes you shake your head." I have heard stories about him pouting in the locker room. He himself admitted to dealing poorly with his last contract year; he let it affect him on the field, and he was suspended for missed meetings. Eagles personnel have for years expressed concern about the extent to which Jackson liked to focus on making rap music, sometimes to the detriment of his football business, in their opinion.

And the story got into his off-field associations in pretty strong detail. While the national takeaway was the uber-simplistic bit about alleged gang ties, the reasonable takeaway is that Jackson doesn't always make the best-looking choices. What I know about gang culture couldn't fill a shot glass, but I don't think DeSean Jackson is in a street gang.

The problem Jackson has now is that, right or wrong, some people who've been following this story for the past week do think he's in a gang. So the next time the NFL's fame and glory machine finds him caught in the works and tries to spit him out, there's going to be a chorus that thinks it's the right thing to do.

I wonder if he's in the right environment to succeed. The Redskins have a new, inexperienced head coach in Jay Gruden. They have a 28-year-old first-time offensive coordinator in Sean McVay. They have an attention-magnet quarterback in Robert Griffin III who's coming off a year that handed him a slate of his own problems to work out. The Redskins have lost locker-room leadership in recent years, most significantly with the retirement of London Fletcher. One of the top leaders on their offense is wide receiver Santana Moss, whose roster spot one would think is in jeopardy as a result of the Jackson signing. If Jackson is looking for another tether now that the Eagles' tether has been severed, it may be tough for him to find it in Washington.

Which makes it even more important for Jackson to realize what's happened here and work to make sure he's prepared the next time it happens. It's important for a lesson to be learned. Jackson doesn't have to change who he is or what he does away from the field if he doesn't want to. But his is now an at-risk career at the age of 27, and he needs to understand that. The next time the machine tries to spit him out, it's going to have a lot more impetus than it did this time around. Jackson's mission going forward is to fight that off -- to realize he's under a new and frightening kind of scrutiny, and to work to make sure he doesn't give anyone a reason to think he's something he's not.

Jeremy Maclin's bet could pay off

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
Jeremy Maclin was betting on himself when he decided to sign a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason.

He has a chance to cash in with a big 2014, and that chance got better when the Eagles decided to part ways with DeSean Jackson.

"I didn't really think about it," Maclin said in this Philadelphia Inquirer story. "I think my value is my value, regardless of who I have playing around me. That's my mindset and how I approach the situation."

The question for Maclin is his knee injury. Adrian Peterson has ruined the expectations for every player coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, setting a bar almost impossibly high. He ran for 2,097 yards in 2012 after tearing his ACL. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III tore his ACL but was not the same in 2013 as he was in 2012, and ex-coach Mike Shanahan ended his season early.

The normal progression is it takes a full year for a player to feel whole again.

While ACL comebacks are more common these days, the rehab is still a tedious process. Maclin is expected to be ready to go when training camp begins, but the Eagles could limit his work in the offseason program.

Maclin has big-play ability -- 26 touchdown catches in four seasons -- but he has never had more than 964 yards in a season. He has never caught more than 70 passes in a season. While he knows what Chip Kelly’s offense is about after being around the team, he hasn’t gone through it on the field before.

Patience on both ends will be wise. Maclin will have to be patient with his recovery. The Eagles will have to be patient with Maclin.

The reward for the patience could be big for both sides.
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.
PHILADELPHIA – Eagles general manager Howie Roseman didn’t want to talk specifically about Johnny Manziel or reports that he met with the Texas A&M quarterback at the combine last week.

Roseman did say there was more than one reason for teams to meet with players before the draft.

“We do interviews for a wide variety of reasons at a wide variety of positions,” Roseman said Thursday. “We get 60 formal interviews at the combine, we get 30 players we’re allowed to bring in [to Philadelphia]. Out coaches and scouts do an amazing job of tracking down basically every player on our draft board to talk to.

“So some of the guys that tell you they’re interviewed, they may interview with us formally, they may interview informally. We’re trying to get as much background as possible on as many guys as possible.”

The value of that background information extends well beyond that year’s draft, Roseman said.

“You never know when the opportunity is going to come to get a player,” Roseman said. “It may be now in the draft, it may be in free agency, it may be via trade. If you look at your notes and you haven’t met the guy and the head coach is coming down the hallway and he’s going, 'Hey, how was this guy when he came out?' – and you’re kind of going, 'Help.'

“It’s just part of the process. We want to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and make sure we have as much information as possible. It’s right in front of us [at the combine]. That’s our job.”

That would explain why the Eagles would use one of their interview slots on Manziel. They also met with Robert Griffin III at the 2012 combine, a player they had no chance of drafting.

Then again, Roseman has said the Eagles will take their highest-graded player regardless of position, even if it’s a quarterback. So you never know.
PHILADELPHIA -- Our position-by-position look at the Eagles will continue with the offense starting Monday. Today, we complete the defense/specialists portion of our assessment with a look at punter Donnie Jones.

It seems incredible to say it, but Jones may be the impending free agent the Eagles should most urgently re-sign for 2014.

You could argue in favor of a wide receiver -- Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper -- or safety Nate Allen and make a good case. They are or have been starters on offense and defense. But Jones, who signed a one-year deal last offseason, gave the Eagles reliability and occasional brilliance at a position almost no one notices until things go wrong.

Jones’ net average of 40.4 yards was the best in Eagles history. So were the 33 punts he placed inside the 20-yard line. Jones’ control and knack for coming up with the perfect kick when needed should not be overlooked.

One of the biggest plays of the season was Jones’ 70-yard punt against Washington. The Eagles were in the process of watching a 24-0, fourth-quarter lead disappear. A loss would have been their 11th in a row at Lincoln Financial Field.

After the offense was stopped in its own territory, Jones uncorked a punt that pinned Robert Griffin III & Co. at their own 4-yard line. The Eagles needed every yard -- Griffin drove the ball to the Eagles’ 18 before throwing a pass that was intercepted by Brandon Boykin.

Jones also placed a perfect punt against the New Orleans Saints in the playoff game at the Linc. Boykin, who specialized in getting downfield quickly, tapped it back toward teammate Roc Carmichael. Instead of downing the ball at the 1-yard line, Carmichael booted it into the end zone for a touchback.

At 33, Jones mastered the rugby style punt that he credited with improving his control and placement of the ball. He may not be the first guy you think of when considering the Eagles’ offseason priorities, but Jones’ contract should be one of the first things GM Howie Roseman checks off his to-do list before the free-agent market opens.
PHILADELPHIA – Things were unraveling fast for the Philadelphia Eagles, and their epic 10-game home losing streak looked and felt as if it were about to get more epic.

And then came No. 7 in our series of 10 plays that shaped and defined the Eagles’ 2013 season:

Nov. 17 vs. the Washington Redskins: Brandon Boykin intercepts a pass in the end zone.

The Eagles had taken a 24-0 lead on Washington at Lincoln Financial Field. As the fourth quarter began, writers were starting to look up and tweet out information about the Eagles’ last defensive shutout.

And then the Eagles failed on a fourth-and-1 attempt in Washington territory. One the very next play, Robert Griffin III found fullback Darrel Young on the left sideline. Young turned a routine catch into a 62-yard touchdown, and Griffin completed a pass to Nick Williams for the two-point conversion.

So much for the shutout. The game still seemed in hand until Griffin winged a deep pass on his next possession. Aldrick Robinson came back to the ball, diving to make a catch for a 41-yard touchdown. Griffin ran the ball in for another conversion and suddenly it was a one-score game.

Surely the Eagles offense, with its league-best running game, could get control of things. But no. The Eagles went three-and-out. Fortunately for them, Donnie Jones’ punt rolled all the way to the Washington 10-yard line, a 70-yard net. Griffin would have to go 90 yards in 3 minutes, 26 seconds.

He went 72 yards

On third-and-1 at the Philadelphia 18, Griffin dropped back to throw. He was under pressure and tried to fire the ball out of the back of the end zone. He didn’t get enough on it, though, and Boykin caught it to end the comeback threat.

The Eagles had their third win in a row, taking over first place in the NFC East.

The Eagles had a one-game home winning streak.

The Eagles defense, which had been dreadful early in the season and suspect at other times, had a signature moment, a victory where it came through when the offense couldn’t get the job done.
PHILADELPHIA -- It is all too easy for Eagles fans to be dismissive of the hiring of Jay Gruden as the head coach in Washington.

It’s not like it’s Jon, right?

Doesn’t Dan Snyder always get this wrong?

With Chip Kelly completing his first year on the job, the Eagles still have the shiniest, most progressive program in the NFC East.

But it could be a mistake to take the hiring of Gruden too lightly, even if it means much of Mike Shanahan’s coaching staff remains in place.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Nick WassIs Jay Gruden the coach who will get the most out of Redskins QB Robert Griffin III?
Washington didn’t go for the wow factor the way the Eagles did with Kelly last year. The hiring of Gruden is much more reminiscent of the hirings of Marc Trestman in Chicago, Bruce Arians in Arizona and Mike McCoy in San Diego. Like Gruden, they were all NFL veterans who had been just under the radar for head-coaching opportunities in the past. They were almost too obvious for owners looking to make a splash.

And guess what? They all did just fine.

Arians’ Cardinals went 10-6, same as Kelly’s Eagles. The difference was that Arizona plays in the NFC West with Seattle and San Francisco and missed the playoffs, while that record was good enough to win the NFC East by two games.

McCoy’s Chargers didn’t have as good a regular-season record -- 9-7 in a division with Denver and Kansas City -- but they are still alive. They may have backed into the playoffs, but they won their first-round game.

Trestman’s Bears played for the NFC North title on the final day of the regular season. If Jay Cutler hadn’t gotten hurt -- or if Trestman had stayed with Josh McCown when he was hot -- who knows how Chicago’s season might have been different?

Kelly’s Eagles trounced Trestman’s Bears 54-11 in a crucial game for both teams. Kelly beat Arians head-to-head, as well. Kelly lost to McCoy in their head-to-head meeting.

Point is, there is value in hiring a smart coach with a fresh approach and an outsider’s perspective, as the Eagles did. But long experience in the league and a sound program are not to be discounted, either.

The biggest question is whether Jay Gruden is the right coach to get the absolute best out of quarterback Robert Griffin III. He doesn’t seem like it at first glance. Going after San Francisco’s Greg Roman, who has designed an offense around Colin Kaepernick, might have made more sense from that perspective. But we can’t be sure until we see Gruden’s offense with Griffin running it.

In the division, Tom Coughlin remains the No. 1 coach until someone else wins a Super Bowl. That said, in 2013 the New York Giants looked like a team on the decline.

Kelly jumped ahead of Dallas coach Jason Garrett almost immediately. The Cowboys’ decision to stay the course may help the Eagles as much or more, within the division, as any hire Snyder could have made in Washington.

Gruden doesn’t send shock waves through the NFC East. Hiring him may not be sexy, but recent history shows it could be a solid move.
PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has pointed this out before: Texas is a big state.

He pointed it out when the Eagles played Washington and Foles was asked if he knew Robert Griffin III in high school. He pointed it out when asked why so many players, and quarterbacks in particular, seem to be from the Lone Star State.

“It’s a big state,” Foles would say. “There’s a lot of people there.”

Westlake High in Austin is a pretty big school, but it’s still kind of remarkable that a couple of its alumni, Foles and Drew Brees, will be playing against each other when the Eagles host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night.

It has only happened once before in an NFL playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw and Buffalo’s Joe Ferguson started at quarterback in a divisional playoff game in 1974. They both graduated from Woodlawn High School in Shreveport, La.

So it’s rare. But what’s really odd is that Foles only met Brees once, and it wasn’t at Westlake. It wasn’t in Austin. It wasn’t in Texas.

It was at the Superdome in 2012.

“I met him last year when we played the Saints,” Foles said.

Brees won the state title for Westlake in 1996. Ten years later, the school honored that team at the homecoming game. That was Foles’ senior year. Brees flew in for the festivities, but wasn’t around for long.

“They had a great team back then,” Foles said. “He was at that game. He’s a busy man. We’re 10 years apart.”

Translation: It’s a big school in a big state. Being alumni in the NFL doesn’t make Foles and Brees best pals.

But Foles couldn’t help but be aware of Brees while he was playing at Westlake. Brees owned all the passing records until, one by one, Foles started breaking them. That state title loomed large, especially when Foles led the team to the state final in 2006.

“He was a role model from the same area,” Foles said. “He won a state championship. That’s something we aspired to do when I was there. We played in the state championship game my senior year. We lost, but we both played in the state championship game 10 years apart. He was a great quarterback in high school and college and he’s doing a great job in the NFL.”
PHILADELPHIA -- If it’s better to be lucky than good, the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles could win the NFC East title by being a little of both.

They opened the season against Washington, with Robert Griffin III looking very much like a young quarterback who hadn’t taken a preseason snap.

They played Tampa Bay in Mike Glennon's second career start, while the Buccaneers were dealing with fallout from the Josh Freeman mess and a MRSA outbreak.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Matt RourkeTony Romo passed for 317 yards in Dallas' 17-3 win against Philadelphia on Oct. 20.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone six days before the Eagles played the Packers, and his backup, Seneca Wallace, left with an injury in the first quarter.

When the Eagles were worried about how to cover Calvin Johnson, eight inches of snow covered the Detroit receiver for them.

Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson injured his foot the week before the Eagles played the Vikings. His backup, Toby Gerhart, also missed that game.

And now Tony Romo will be out for the biggest game of the season, the virtual playoff game between the Eagles and Dallas, according to ESPN reports.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Chip Kelly’s super-secret sports science program includes hexes and voodoo dolls.

While there will be plenty of jokes about the Cowboys being better off without Romo and his 1-6 record in win-or-go-home games, his absence clearly takes some of the luster off of this much anticipated battle for the NFC East title.

Kelly, speaking before the news broke, had little regard for those criticisms of Romo. He cited the game-winning touchdown Romo threw Sunday to beat Washington and force the showdown with the Eagles.

“Fourth [down], game on the line, scrambles, keeps the ball alive, hits the mark to [DeMarco] Murray and they win the game,” Kelly said. “I'm always on what you did last, and what he did last was pretty special -- the way he avoided the rush, kept drives alive, and I think he's as talented a quarterback as there is in this league.

“Any time with that position, sometimes I think you get probably too much credit and too much blame. But he's one of the really, really, really good quarterbacks we've seen, and I said that the first time we played him. If you're a fan of just quarterback play, he's pretty special.”

As the Eagles learned the hard way, a little luck is no guarantee. They went to Minnesota two Sundays ago knowing that Peterson and Gerhart were unlikely to play. And they still were stomped 48-30 by Matt Cassel and the Vikings. A virtually unknown running back named Matt Asiata ran for three touchdowns in that game.

Cowboys backup quarterback Kyle Orton has more of a pedigree than Asiata or -- sticking with his position -- Glennon, Wallace or Scott Tolzien, who played most of the Packers game. Orton has faced the Eagles twice. He beat them in 2008 while with the Bears, and lost to them the following year as a Bronco.

Though the Eagles have had their share of luck this season, they aren’t going to feel too sorry for the Cowboys. Remember, Michael Vick was their starting quarterback when the season began. After he was hurt, Nick Foles took over and played too well to be sent back down the depth chart.

Throughout that process, Kelly repeatedly said that you had to have two good quarterbacks in the NFL. The Packers found out what happens when you don’t. If Orton isn’t able to compete, that’s on the Cowboys for not having another quarterback in development.

The year Orton and the Bears beat them, the Eagles went to the NFC Championship Game against Arizona. If Orton can beat them this time, they’re going home.

Nick Foles knows QB job is different

December, 18, 2013
PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Foles slid his right hand up under his left arm. A reporter had spotted the abrasion on the back and asked him about it.

“Football,” Foles said. “You get hit.”

As a quarterback, you get hit and hit and hit some more. But it's part of the job to jump back up as if nothing happened, as if nothing hurts, as if nobody on your offense whiffed on a block and almost got you swatted like a fly. It's part of the job to hide the banged-up hand from public view.

Foles spent six weeks as the Eagles' starting quarterback last year. He wore down over that stretch, finally sitting out the final game with a hand injury. In 2012, those games meant nothing in the standings. The Eagles were playing out a frazzled string and Foles went 1-5 in his six starts.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/Andy KingNick Foles passed for a career-best 428 yards in a loss to Minnesota, but "we didn't win," he said. "I missed some throws that didn't give us an opportunity to win."
This year, the Eagles are playing for the NFC East title with two games to go.

“There's a lot of attention that comes along with it,” Foles said, “but yes, I'd much rather be in this situation than what we were in last year. Every game you're playing is a meaningful game. Last year, we were playing for each other because there was no way at the end of the season that we could have continued on into the playoffs.”

Foles threw for a career-high 428 yards and three touchdowns Sunday in Minnesota. On Monday, the civic conversation was about how inconsistent he was in a 48-30 loss.

“I agree with it,” Foles said. “We didn't win. I missed some throws that didn't give us an opportunity to win. It's part of playing quarterback. It's tough. I've learned to handle it. It does hurt, but that's why I keep fighting and I have a short memory when I'm out there. When that play happens, I have to forget about it. I learn from it and I move forward and hopefully it doesn't happen again.”

The Eagles lost more than a game in Minnesota. It seemed at times they'd lost their collective minds. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson got into a shouting match with his position coach, Bob Bicknell. Roc Carmichael got called for a taunting penalty when the Eagles were losing by 12. Cornerback Cary Williams got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and was benched by defensive coordinator Bill Davis.

“I was frustrated,” Foles said. “But as a quarterback, you just can't show it. Guys are looking at me to see how I respond. If I get frustrated, it's really going to impact the whole team. I've really got to stay on an even keel and just keep going and keep the guys together. My teammates are looking at me as a quarterback. They're trying to see how I react in those adverse situations. When everything's going wrong, when guys are going crazy, when composure is lost -- what's the quarterback doing? Is he going to lose composure or is he going to keep firing that ball? I'm going to keep firing that ball. We're going to be stronger because of this.”

Around the league, established franchise quarterbacks are delivering horrendous performances. Eli Manning has thrown 25 interceptions this season. Robert Griffin III has been benched. Tony Romo threw killer interceptions to cost the Cowboys a game against Green Bay Sunday. And that's just in the NFC East. Detroit's Matthew Stafford threw his game away against Baltimore. Even Drew Brees threw a couple of interceptions in an upset loss to St. Louis.

Foles has been better than most of them this season. He led the Eagles on a five-game winning streak to get to first place with an 8-5 record. Getting judged for a few bad throws in a loss is part of his job description. Fortunately, Foles understands that.

“For sure,” he said. “When you have success, people's expectations do grow. When they see you play consistently well, that's what they expect every week. And that's what I expect. I expect nothing different. But I can't let a game where I don't feel like I played well, and I don't help our team as much as I think I should have, affect me to where I can't play at that level. My goal every game is to go and play a perfect game.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly deserves full credit for reversing the direction of a Philadelphia Eagles franchise that had lost its way over the past few years.

The Eagles’ 2013 surge is only part of the story, though, just as their 4-12 record in 2012 was only part of the reason fans were so despondent.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles, Chip Kelly
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLess than a year after inheriting a mess, coach Chip Kelly has the Eagles in first place with a young quarterback (Nick Foles, right) to build around.
This time a year ago, the New York Giants were still the defending Super Bowl champions. Washington was making a late-season charge to a division title with the league’s most exciting young quarterback coming into his own. Dallas -- well, the Cowboys, then as now, were stuck in their perpetual Tony Romo-era revolving door.

With Andy Reid on his way out, Michael Vick on his way down and Nick Foles going 1-5 in his tryout as a starting quarterback, the Eagles didn’t just look like a bad team in 2012. They looked like the NFC East team with the bleakest short- and long-term outlook.

A year later, the division is upside-down. Kelly has his team in first place. Foles has emerged as the likely franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. LeSean McCoy is among the top running backs in the league. The defense has been the most consistent in the NFL in terms of points allowed over the past two months.

On Monday, Dallas was destroyed on national television by the Chicago Bears. It was the Cowboys’ second humiliating prime-time blowout in just over a month. That revolving door continues to spin.

The Giants still have coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning. They still have those two Lombardi trophies they won in five years. New York’s 5-8 record might be an anomaly, but it’s hard to get around the idea the Giants are on the downside of their recent run.

And then there is the shocking collapse in Washington. Robert Griffin III has been benched by coach Mike Shanahan as the team plays out the string with a 3-10 record. The down year will benefit St. Louis, which owns Washington’s first-round pick in 2014 as part of the trade that brought Griffin to D.C.

It is way too early to write Griffin off. He is too young and too talented for that. But it seems very likely Washington will have yet another new coach next season, and it’s hard to imagine owner Dan Snyder getting that process right after all these years.

A year ago, Eagles fans would have traded their team’s prospects for Washington’s in a heartbeat. They would have taken those two Super Bowls the Giants won on Reid’s watch. And Dallas, well, they probably wouldn’t have been that eager to swap places with Dallas fans.

But now? The Eagles have not only gone from worst to first, they’ve gone from bleakest to brightest. Kelly and Foles and defensive coordinator Bill Davis deserve credit for fixing the situation in Philadelphia. But the downturn elsewhere in the division happened by sheer luck, and it only makes the Eagles’ prospects look better.
PHILADELPHIA -- Bruce Arians' assessment of the read-option raised an interesting point.

"It's a great college offense," Arians said in a conference call with Philadelphia media Wednesday. Arians went on to say that he thinks running the ball often takes too much of a physical toll on quarterbacks at the NFL level.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles, Chip Kelly
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesChip Kelly argues that he doesn't use the read-option as often as people think, but he can count on a handful of rushing yards from Nick Foles.
Considering the Arizona coach has two decades of experience in the NFL and another 16 as a college coach, his point of view has serious credibility.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly has just 10 months of NFL experience. The read-option is a core element of his offensive philosophy. That philosophy, of course, was honed during a career coaching college football. Kelly was hired, at least in part, because of his command of the latest trend -- or fad -- to hit the pro game.

So here's the interesting point: As the backlash gains momentum against the read-option and running quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, Nick Foles' stunning 2013 season might spare Kelly from getting on the wrong side of history.

I'm not looking to get in the middle of a war between adherents of old-school NFL pocket passers and believers in the revolutionary (or even evolutionary) changes brought by Griffin, Kaepernick, Cam Newton and others. That battle -- symbolized by Kaepernick versus Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the Super Bowl last winter -- will ultimately be decided on the field.

Even Kelly, obviously an acolyte of the read-option, acknowledges that he doesn't use it as often as people think. Some of the plays that appear to be read-option based aren't. The quarterback may appear to be making decisions based on the read of a defensive player, but the play actually has a predetermined design with no read or option involved. It's just a fake.

And even Foles, with his obvious limitations as a running threat, is still running read-option plays at times. Kelly has made it clear that he isn't abandoning his principles just because he doesn't have a sprinter at quarterback.

"When Nick takes off, it's not 60 yards, but it's 6," Kelly said. "In critical situations, he can still do that. We're not calling an entirely different package. But I think in everybody, there are subtleties in there that Nick may like this throw better than Mike [Vick] likes that throw. But overall, we're still running four verticals, double-post concepts. We're still running the quick game, still running our schemes."

So there is no mindless doctrine at work here. Kelly and Foles are both believers in the potential of the read-option while embracing the nuance of employing it in the NFL.

But let's just say Michael Vick had stayed healthy a bit longer this season and remained at quarterback. Kelly might have relied on his running ability more, as he did in the Oct. 6 game against the Giants in which Vick was injured. Vick ran the ball seven times for 79 yards in the first half. His rushing yardage basically was the Eagles' offense until he got hurt.

Once Foles took over, the Eagles offense became more diverse and more effective in the red zone. Wide receiver Riley Cooper instantly became a frequent and dangerous target. Kelly's play calling has evolved in order to take advantage of what Foles does best, just as it would have evolved toward what Vick did best.

That doesn't mean just standing statue-still in the pocket either. In his last game, against Washington, Foles was asked to run the ball more often. He did, picking up 48 yards on eight carries before losing a yard on a final kneeldown.

Foles' performance forced Kelly to stick with the second-year quarterback for the rest of this season. A strong finish will make it tough for Kelly to do anything but bring Foles back as his starter in 2014.

If the trend in the NFL favors running quarterbacks and the read-option, Kelly is a coach capable of getting the most out of that. He will have time to acquire and develop a young quarterback to play that style.

But if there really is a backlash and pocket passers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees remain dominant, Kelly will already have one in place. By playing well, Foles might have saved Kelly and the Eagles from going too far in a direction that could turn out to be a dead end.

Eagles defense owes a debt to Texans

November, 22, 2013
PHILADELPHIA -- The timing is convenient for Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. Since the end of the regular season is right after Christmas, he can send his thank-you note to the Houston Texans along with those for the other gifts he receives.

Without DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin, linebackers who learned their craft in Houston, it's hard to imagine Davis' defense making the progress it has over the past few months.

"The thing that jumps off the film is the effort our guys are playing with," Davis said. "They view themselves as a high-effort defense. We're not a bunch of Pro Bowl names, pretty faces. We're scrapping and keeping people out of the end zone. It's hard work and high effort that's getting it done."

Ryans is the inside linebacker who converts Davis' play calls into proper alignments and assignments. Barwin is the outside linebacker with the skills and versatility to make some of Davis' best schemes possible.

Just as important, the two ex-Texans are a major reason for the defense's change in personality. Gone are team-second guys like Jason Babin and Nnamdi Asomugha. Here are Ryans, Barwin and cornerback Cary Williams.

"We don't have any egos on the defense," said Barwin, who signed with the Eagles as a free agent this year. "It's fun to play with 11 new guys that their goal is to be a good defense and shut teams down. As long as we keep that, we'll be fine."

"It's totally different [this year]," Ryans said. "We have great chemistry, a lot of younger guys. We have fun together, not only here during the day at work, but outside of here. We go eat dinner together. It's really becoming like a brother, you know? You care for that guy on the field and off the field. It's good to have our defense come together in that manner."

Ryans was here last year, too. After being acquired in a trade, he was expected to play middle linebacker and help bring order to the chaos of Andy Reid's final season. But with assistant coaches Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn getting fired in-season, and with the epically poor play of Asomugha and the secondary, it was an impossible task.

It's no wonder Ryans and the rest of the returning defenders were so willing to embrace Davis' scheme. It represented sanity in the asylum.

"He's smart," Barwin said. "He's really smart. He prepares us for the plays the offense is going to run. You understand the schemes and how they're trying to attack you. That really helps you during the game."

Barwin said Davis' defense is more complicated than the 3-4 run by Wade Phillips in Houston. It relies on more communication on the field. That makes the in-season progress even more remarkable, considering it was a new scheme with new starters at seven positions.

And that makes smart, versatile players even more valuable. None of Davis' players are any smarter or more versatile than Ryans and Barwin.

Davis said Barwin "wears a lot of different hats" during a game. He might set the edge on his side of the field against a run play, drop into coverage with a tight end or rush the passer. He made a huge play Sunday against Washington, sacking Robert Griffin III in the red zone and forcing a fumble that was recovered by teammate Fletcher Cox.

As for Ryans, he is an extension of the coaching staff, making sure a young and developing group lines up correctly and goes in the right direction.

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

That thank-you note to Houston should be a pleasure for Davis to write.
Nick FolesAP Photo/Ben MargotThe Eagles didn't pick him as one and don't pay him like one, but Nick Foles is playing like an elite QB.

PHILADELPHIA – Try this exercise. Imagine the Philadelphia Eagles took quarterback Nick Foles near the top of the 2013 NFL draft. Imagine he came to town with the expectation that he would be an elite franchise quarterback.

Now look at what Foles has accomplished this season. He has started five games. He has won four. He threw seven touchdown passes in a game, tying the NFL record. Overall, he has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. His passer rating is 128.0, best in the NFL.

If he were Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, his team’s fans would be over the moon with that kind of production. If he were Sam Bradford or Brandon Weeden or Ryan Tannehill, there would be full-fledged cults devoted to him.

In Philadelphia? There is a fascinating wait-and-see reaction to Foles’ phenomenal 2013 season. Hours of talk radio are filled with discussion about whether Foles can be the Eagles’ quarterback – for the season, for 2014, for the long haul.

There are good reasons for this, starting with the way coach Chip Kelly has handled the Eagles’ quarterback situation. Veteran Michael Vick was Kelly’s chosen quarterback after a training-camp competition. Since Vick was injured, even as Foles has put up the crazy numbers outlined above, Kelly has simply declined to say who his No. 1 quarterback is.

“I honestly really haven’t thought about it,” Foles said. “I don’t know. Whatever he decides, wherever he goes, I’m in it 100 percent. I’ll support whatever Chip says. I don’t know how the talk will go or when it will be, but I’m all in for this team. Whatever’s best for this team will always be the most important thing to me.”

But it goes beyond Kelly’s management of a tricky situation with the veteran Vick. Eagles fans have been down this road before: Ty Detmer, Bobby Hoying, A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb have raised hopes, only to disappoint and frustrate.

Kolb is the freshest wound. A second-round pick, Kolb started two games in place of the injured Donovan McNabb in 2009. He completed 55 of 85 passes for 718 yards and four touchdowns, with three interceptions. Kolb was the first quarterback in the history of the league to throw for more than 300 yards in each of his first two career starts.

Kolb did not become the Eagles’ franchise quarterback. Neither did Feeley or Hoying or Detmer. Eagles fans are naturally skeptical of flash-in-the-pan quarterbacks. And when Foles delivered a truly terrible performance against Dallas in his second start of the season, that skepticism flared up.

Foles has played brilliantly since then, but he hasn’t quite erased the memory of his Dallas dud. But there is one more compelling reason fans here haven’t fully jumped on the Foles bandwagon. And it comes back to Kelly.

When Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman landed the Wizard of Oregon, the excitement was palpable. Kelly was going to bring his futuristic offense to Philadelphia. Surely there would be a dynamic quarterback sprinting all over the field and firing passes from the rocket launcher on his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDespite Nick Foles' great play, Eagles fans are at best cautious. They've been here before.
Foles was an afterthought. It isn’t easy going from afterthought to hero. But the truth is, Kelly has said from the start that he could run his offense with Foles as his quarterback.

“It's always about the individual, so it doesn't matter what plays are called or what scheme is run,” Kelly said. “They still have to be executed. I think he is executing them and all the credit goes to him. He spends a lot of time. He works extremely hard at it. He's got a really good grasp on what we're doing, extremely accurate in his throws. I think he's a really good decision-maker. It's exciting to see him grow here.”

Kelly has praised Foles but, with Vick to consider, he hasn’t really embraced him. Teammates who respect Vick as one of the great athletes ever to play the game are beginning to talk about Foles as a guy who just wins. Fans who keep waiting for the next Dallas dud are cautiously beginning to believe Foles just might be the guy.

For now, if not forever.

All of this puts the Eagles in a pretty good position. They didn’t have to commit to Foles the way other franchises had to commit to Bradford or Tannehill or Christian Ponder or EJ Manuel. They wouldn’t trade their situation with Foles for San Diego’s with Philip Rivers, Dallas’ with Tony Romo or Chicago’s with Jay Cutler.

If Foles continues to play at an elite level, the Eagles will have filled the most important position in the game without taking a big risk. And if he goes the way of Kolb and Hoying and the rest, they won’t be hamstrung by a huge contract and a wasted first-round pick.

Meanwhile, they have a quarterback who has gotten them into the playoff picture, earned a display in Canton for his seven-touchdown game and has no sense of entitlement.

“I never think that way,” Foles said. “When you start thinking that way, you start getting complacent. Just because you do a lot of great things the week before doesn’t mean you’re going to go out there and do it again.”

That’s what the great ones do. Foles may not become one of them, but he at least has the chance.
PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly has had a few misadventures in his first circuit around the National Football League. But his play calling in the second half of Sunday's 24-16, white-knuckle victory over Washington does not qualify.

The first-year Eagles coach has been criticized locally for taking his foot off the gas while protecting (and almost failing to protect) a 24-0, fourth-quarter lead. But Kelly was only doing what he did in wins against Tampa Bay and Green Bay, and he was universally praised for fourth-quarter, clock-draining drives in those games.

“When we have an opportunity to put people away,” Kelly said, “we have to put them away, and we didn't do that.”

Well, they did, but it took until Robert Griffin III threw a floater into the arms of Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin with 24 seconds left. The issue is whether or not Kelly's play calling facilitated the Washington comeback, and the answer really comes down to two plays.

The first: On fourth-and-1 at the Washington 38, Bryce Brown was stuffed for no gain by linebacker London Fletcher. Kelly might have been wrong for not having LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, carry the ball there. But a rushing game that averages 4.9 yards per carry should be able to pick up a yard with Brown toting the ball.

“No. 1,” Kelly said, “we were on the 38-yard line, so we weren't going to kick a field goal in that situation. I felt at the time if we could get another first down there, that would have been huge for us. We had had a 13-play drive for a touchdown in the third quarter, so we had proven we could consistently move the football, and we were just half a yard short on the (third-down) pass play to LeSean. Thought we could go with it really quick and try to get one in there.

“I'll give them credit. Fletcher made a great play standing Bryce up in the hole and made the tackle and we didn't convert.”

Kelly is forgiven for not anticipating that a defense pitching a shutout would allow a touchdown on the very next play. And it was a very strange play. Griffin bought some time with his legs and found fullback Darrel Young standing alone along the left sideline. If you're the Eagles, Young is probably the one guy you don't expect to beat you for a 62-yard touchdown.

“We've got to convert offensively,” Kelly said, “but we also can't let them go one play and score a touchdown defensively. It's a combination of both.”

The Eagles' next series was probably Kelly's least impressive, in terms of play calling. But that's better understood if you accept the fluky nature of Young's touchdown, and if you harken back to the 9-minute, 32-second drive in Green Bay.

The Eagles moved the ball from their own 20 to their 44, picking up two first downs on five runs and two passes. If Foles completed the third-down pass to Riley Cooper on third-and-12, maybe we're discussing another epic, game-clinching drive. But he didn't, and Washington scored another touchdown on their ensuing possession.

That brings us to the second pivotal play. On third-and-4 at the Eagles' 23, Foles was flushed from the pocket. He ran to his right, and Washington cornerback Josh Wilson caught him. Foles reached forward, and the on-field officials marked the ball at the 27 for a first down. Washington coach Mike Shanahan challenged the spot and it was moved back far enough to make it fourth-and-inches.

That was the margin between another long, clock-killing drive and giving Griffin the ball with a chance to tie.

“If we had gotten the first down, we may have put them away,” Kelly said. “I know we're trying to do it, but we're not there yet.”

They were there in Tampa and in Green Bay. They were very close Sunday. The play calling was the same in all three situations.