Philadelphia Eagles: Tony Romo

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.
The Philadelphia Eagles will be in almost perfect position when NFL teams are allowed to open talks with unrestricted free agents Friday.

They are perceived as a team "headed in the right direction," as soon-to-be-free-agent safety Jairus Byrd said on ESPN on Tuesday. And they have enormous flexibility thanks to more than $26 million in salary-cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management service.

The Eagles didn't have to release wide receiver Jason Avant for cap purposes. That decision was about paying the $1 million roster bonus negotiated into his contract and due on March 15. But with Avant's departure, the Eagles save another $2.5 million on their cap.

General manager Howie Roseman has set low expectations for the team to make a huge splash in free agency. He could be doing that because he simply doesn't see a free agent worth splurging on, because he wants to prevent potential fan disappointment or because he doesn't want to telegraph his real plans to other teams before the market opens.

Three of the more intriguing names disappeared from a potential wish list this week: Miami extended the contract of cornerback Brent Grimes, Washington placed the franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds signed his transition-tag tender.

The two top safeties, Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward, are expected to hit the market. Roseman has acknowledged his preference to address the safety position in free agency so it isn't a glaring need going into the draft. But he may have his sights set on some of the less expensive players expected to be on the market.

Roseman said last week that his spree of contracts for current Eagles would not limit the Eagles' options in free agency.

"It will affect other things going forward," Roseman said. "We have some flexibility. Obviously, this affects it, the things we've done the past couple of days. But we're going to go out and try to do things that make sense for our football team."

Another thing working in the Eagles' favor is the expansion of the cap this year to $133 million and the expected continuing rise over the next couple of years. That extra cap space comes just as Roseman will have to decide on extensions for players like Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin and Mychal Kendricks.

Foles, especially, gives the Eagles a lot of flexibility. Starting quarterbacks can eat up 12 to 15 percent of a team's salary cap. Foles' 2014 salary of $770,880 accounts for 0.65 percent of the Eagles' cap. That's about as much as backup offensive lineman Allen Barbre.

Eventually, if they're going to be successful, the Eagles will have to pay a quarterback that kind of money. For now, they can build a team and deal with Foles -- or someone else if Foles should stumble -- when the cap increases.

"It's hard to look three years out," Roseman said. "It's hard to know where you're going to be after two full seasons and after two draft classes. We do spend a lot of time on the cap next year. We try to be conservative with what the cap projections are going to be."

Finally, there's this reality: The salary cap is not nearly as onerous as it is made out to be. The Dallas Cowboys were in as tight a situation as any team in the NFL going into the new league year. By reportedly reworking quarterback Tony Romo's contract, converting salary to bonus money, the Cowboys resolved their cap issues.

So there is an escape hatch from cap purgatory. The Cowboys still probably won't have the cap space to be proactive in free agency.

The Eagles will. They are in position to do whatever they want.
PHILADELPHIA -- It was always coming down to the season finale in Dallas. No matter what the Eagles or Cowboys did over the last two months, they were always on a collision course that would decide the NFC East title in Week 17.

And yes, it was more than a little anticlimactic when Dallas quarterback Tony Romo’s back injury knocked him out of the game.

The Eagles still had to win, though. And they did, in a game that featured a number of unforgettable and season-defining plays. Choosing just one was the hardest part of doing this entire season. But here we go:

Dec. 29 at Dallas: Cornerback Cary Williams breaks up a two-point conversion pass intended for Dez Bryant.

The Eagles defense made a couple of other big plays. Connor Barwin batting away a pass on fourth down was a huge moment. And of course Brandon Boykin made an interception that ended the Cowboys’ last chance to drive for the game-winning score. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

But the momentum belonged to the Cowboys when, on a fourth-and-9 play, Kyle Orton found Bryant for a 32-yard touchdown right through the heart of the Eagles’ secondary. That made the score 24-22 with only 2 minutes, 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys lined up for the two-point conversion and a chance to tie the game.

Maybe the Eagles would have driven to a game-winning field goal or touchdown if the Cowboys had tied the game there. Maybe they would have won in overtime. But maybe not. For certain, that two-point lead put all the pressure on the Cowboys in those final minutes.

A week earlier, the Eagles had beaten the Chicago Bears, 54-11. The Bears scored just one touchdown in that game. It was a 6-yard throw from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall. Williams was the cornerback beaten on the play.

As he lined up across from Bryant, Williams thought of that play. He knew the Cowboys coaches had studied that game tape. He said he expected Dallas to try to get the ball to Bryant the same way Chicago had gotten it to Marshall. He guessed right, diving to slap the ball away and preserve the lead.

The Cowboys got another chance, but Boykin ended that with his interception. The Eagles celebrated the NFC East title on the Cowboys’ home field. It was the highlight of an exciting first season under coach Chip Kelly. And the defining play was Williams’ desperate swat at a pass that would have tied the game.

On Friday, we’ll take a look at the last of the 10 plays that defined the Eagles’ 2013 season.

The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Eagles safety Earl Wolff is inactive for Sunday night's showdown against the Dallas Cowboys.

Wolff missed four games after injuring his right knee in Green Bay Nov. 10. He returned for last week's game against Chicago but left after playing one series. Veteran Patrick Chung will start at safety in place of the rookie.

Backup safety Colt Anderson (hamstring) and backup center Julian Vandervelde, who were listed as out, were both inactive. Otherwise, it was the usual group: quarterback Matt Barkley, running back Matthew Tucker, offensive lineman Dennis Kelly and cornerback Curtis Marsh.

Offensive lineman Matt Tobin is active for the second time this season. He takes Vandervelde's spot on the 46-man roster, but would not play center if anything happened to starter Jason Kelce. That role would likely fall to left guard Evan Mathis.

As expected, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and inside linebacker Sean Lee are inactive. So is former Eagle Ernie Sims, which leaves Dallas even thinner at linebacker.
PHILADELPHIA -- Tony Romo is officially out and the dynamics of the Philadelphia Eagles' showdown with the Dallas Cowboys are officially very different.

The pressure on Romo -- to win in Week 17, to avoid a fourth-quarter interception, to save coach Jason Garrett’s job -- does not shift to his backup, Kyle Orton.

It shifts to Nick Foles. Not all of it, of course. Foles doesn’t have Chip Kelly’s job security on his shoulders, and there isn’t an ongoing national debate about whether he rises or shrinks in clutch moments.

But Foles is now the clearly superior quarterback in a must-win game, and that comes with pressure to deliver.

“It’s very important to be a good quarterback on a big stage,” Foles said. “Obviously, this game is a little bit bigger because we want to keep playing. In these games, you really have to execute. You have to block out all the other distractions and other feelings.”

If Romo led the Cowboys to a victory and the NFC East title, that would be viewed as another step in Foles' learning process. Getting outdueled by Orton would be a little tougher for Eagles fans to digest.

“Tony Romo is a great player,” Foles said. “He’s a great quarterback. You never want to see anybody injured. I hope he has a speedy recovery and he heals. But I’m playing against that team. Tony doesn’t play defense and I don’t play defense. I don't really worry about that. I just know this is what it is and I’m going to be ready for it.”

Romo has played 16 career games against the Eagles, including a playoff game after the 2010 season. All but one of those were against Andy Reid-coached teams and their 4-3 defensive scheme.

In October, against Bill Davis’ 3-4 defense, Romo played well enough to win, but he was far from great. The Cowboys scored just three points in the first half. In the second half, Romo directed a third-quarter touchdown drive. After Foles went down with a concussion, the Cowboys spent the fourth quarter intercepting Matt Barkley and giving Romo the ball back.

Romo's final numbers: 28 for 47, 317 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. So you can see why Eagles defenders weren’t high-fiving in the meeting rooms when they heard Romo was injured. This is a group that just held Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears to 11 points.

It’s also a group that allowed 48 points the week before to Matt Cassel and the Minnesota Vikings. So the sense is that the Eagles’ performance, rather than the identity of the opponent, will go a long way toward determining the outcome Sunday night.

“I don’t know who that team was (in Minnesota),” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “That wasn’t us. There can’t be any letdown. Our playoffs start this week. There’s no overlooking anybody.”

Other than Minnesota, the Eagles have held 10 of 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points. That includes Romo and the Cowboys in Week 7. If they can do that Sunday night, it should be enough to win.

If Foles delivers, that is.

RBs as vital as QBs for Eagles-Cowboys

December, 27, 2013
PHILADELPHIA – The quarterbacks are driving the pregame narrative, but come Sunday night, everyone could be talking about the Eagles and Cowboys running backs.

Nick Foles has had to answer one million questions about what happened to him when the Eagles lost 17-3 to Dallas in October. And that’s because Foles played his worst game that day and left with a concussion. But the Cowboys also shut down LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
Elsa/Getty ImagesNot be overlooked, the performance of Eagles running back LeSean McCoy will be crucial in Sunday's contest versus the Cowboys.
And while the airwaves crackle with Tony Romo updates, DeMarco Murray’s availability for this game could have an enormous impact. Romo played in that October game. Murray did not, and the Cowboys had just 74 rushing yards.

“They’re not going to change their offense if it has to be Kyle Orton,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “They are who they’ve shown to be on tape. They’ll have their running back back, so I’m sure they’ll try to run the ball more.”

Last week’s game against the Chicago Bears illustrates how the Eagles defensive approach can be most effective. The Eagles held running back Matt Forte to 29 yards. They stuffed the run early and, after their offense built a 21-0 lead, were able to focus on pressuring the quarterback.

Whether it’s Orton or a physically limited Romo, the pass rushers won’t have to be concerned with the quarterback running the ball.

The Eagles’ running game is a more complicated issue. It went awry for three of four games in October. The Giants and Cowboys did some things along the defensive front to disrupt the Eagles’ blocking scheme. But McCoy was also making decisions that took him away from open space and into crowds.

“It was both, for sure,” center Jason Kelce said. “But I think that (the disconnect between McCoy and the line) was a huge part of it. Shady sees things the way we’re seeing things. We’ve just gotten better and better the more reps we’ve taken.”

The Eagles’ scheme is based on getting a blocker on each member of the defensive front and then let McCoy handle a single defender one-on-one. Against Dallas that day, the single defender was often linebacker Sean Lee, and Lee won those one-on-one matchups. He tackled McCoy five times, once for a loss. Lee had 11 tackles overall -- no other Cowboy had more than five -- plus an interception.

Lee is injured and unlikely to play Sunday. It would be overstating things to suggest that’s a bigger loss than Romo, but not by much. Not in this game.

“He’s one of the best ‘backers in the league,” Kelce said. “He makes a difference.”

“It’s a big loss,” Barwin said. “That’s a big challenge for them. If we lost DeMeco (Ryans), that would be a huge challenge for us. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. But he’s respected around this league as a hell of a player.”

“He’s obviously one of the top linebackers in the game,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “Nine games, he's got 99 tackles and four interceptions, and seeing him up close and personal when we played them in October, he was all over the field.”

The Cowboys defense is vulnerable against the pass, to say the least. McCoy won’t be required to carry the offense. But keeping the offense in balance will help take pressure off Foles and, if the Eagles are able to get the lead, run down the clock on the Cowboys’ playoff hopes.

Double Coverage: Eagles-Cowboys

December, 27, 2013
Kyle Orton and Nick FolesAP Photo, Getty ImagesDallas QB Kyle Orton, left, and the Eagles' Nick Foles didn't open the season as starters, but are expected to be leading their teams Sunday night with the NFC East title and a playoff berth at stake.
IRVING, Texas -- The NFC East title is at stake Sunday at AT&T Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys play the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys have been in this spot for the past three seasons, but for the first time the are likely to be without quarterback Tony Romo, who sources tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen is not expected to play. The Eagles were not expected to be in this situation in Chip Kelly’s first season. NFL reporters Todd Archer and Phil Sheridan dissect the matchup in this week’s Double Coverage.

Archer: Nick Foles was awful when these teams met earlier in the season. Where has that guy gone?

Phil Sheridan: This is the great mystery of the Eagles’ season. Theories abound. Foles had been on the Eagles’ injury report the week before that with a groin injury. Was it the groin? He left the game with a concussion. Had he suffered it earlier and been affected by that? He didn’t play well in a bowl game at Arizona. Did he shrivel up in big games? Did Jerry Jones have his family tied up in a dungeon?

It was just such an outlier of a performance from anything else he’s done this season, it seemed like there had to be some explanation. Best guess: He had a bad day. A really bad day. And he moved on from it and hasn’t let it happen again. In his next game, he threw seven touchdown passes in Oakland. He’s been outstanding since.

We’ve heard a lot about how involved Romo has been in running the offense. How much would that change with Kyle Orton in there? And is there any way he’s ready to play at all?

Archer: Honestly, I don’t believe it changes all that much. The scheme will be the same. What they will miss is Romo’s ability to make things up as things break down. That is not Orton’s game. The offensive line has played much better down the stretch, especially running the ball. The pass protection has been good enough, but needs to be better because Orton simply doesn’t move like Romo. But Orton has the arm strength to push the ball down the field, and his receivers like him even if they have not had much work with him. I’ll go back to 2010 when the Cowboys lost Romo to a collarbone injury and Jon Kitna took over. In the six games Kitna started and finished with Garrett as interim head coach, the Cowboys averaged more than 30 points a game. They need to have Orton trust the system the way Kitna trusted the system.

How much credit does Chip Kelly deserve for getting the Eagles to this point? Certainly things didn't look stable when the Cowboys visited in October.

Sheridan: Kelly deserves tons of credit. The Eagles were a smoking husk by the end of the Andy Reid era, as evidenced by their 4-12 record last season. Change was necessary, and Kelly is about as big a change as you can get. The players bought into it immediately, and they really seem to enjoy playing for him. He got a great effort from them Sunday night against the Bears, just hours after the Cowboys won and the Eagles knew they couldn’t clinch the division.

I think two things happened to account for the rough patch the Eagles hit in October. The Giants had found some ways to disrupt the Eagles’ run-blocking scheme, and the Cowboys deployed a similar approach. Also, the quarterbacks were both terrible and injured, in that order, in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Giants. Kelly adjusted the run blocking, Foles came back, and the Eagles are 6-1 since.

Let me ask the flip side of the Foles question: The Cowboys didn't have DeMarcus Ware in that first game. They dominated Foles and held LeSean McCoy to 55 rushing yards. What happened to those guys?

Archer: Injuries have happened. The Cowboys have lost Sean Lee to hamstring and neck injuries, and he’s not likely to play Sunday because of the neck. Morris Claiborne has missed six of the past seven games with a hamstring injury. He might play Sunday, but he’s not been effective when he has played. Ware has not been anywhere close to form because of a variety of injuries and just poor play. Jason Hatcher has slumped after a solid start. Brandon Carr has slumped, too. Bruce Carter has not played well. Are you sensing a trend? To me there is a huge crisis of confidence with this defense from a player and coach standpoint. I don’t know if the players trust the coaches, and I don’t know if the coaches can dial up changes to stop anybody. But they can hang their hat on that first game as they enter this one, so we won’t have to bring up Kelly’s collegiate success vs. Monte Kiffin as much.

LeSean McCoy for MVP? It sure seems like he's perfect for what Kelly wants to do.

Sheridan: Bears coach Marc Trestman nailed it after McCoy went for 133 rushing yards Sunday night: “I don’t think it would matter what offensive system he plays in. Chip has done a tremendous job putting his offense in, no doubt about it, but he is just a great back.”

One of the perennial gripes about Andy Reid was that he called running plays about as often as he turned down a second helping. That was true when he had Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook and McCoy. But McCoy was effective in Reid’s offense. It’s just that Kelly loves to run the ball, and his play designs reliably get McCoy into the secondary with one man to beat. And McCoy can beat almost anybody one-on-one.

MVP? Guessing the Sportsman of the Year Peyton Manning already has his name engraved on the trophy, but McCoy certainly belongs in the conversation.

What is the sense you get of the Cowboys' mindset? Do they see the blowout in Chicago, the collapse against Green Bay and the struggle at Washington as three bad games in a row? Or does pulling out the win Sunday give them a feeling they're back on the right track? And are they right?

Archer: If you asked me this after the Redskins game, I would say they are riding high. It was the kind of win that can carry a team emotionally. But with the Romo news, I think that deflates them some. This team has shown a resiliency. They bounced back after tough losses to Denver, Detroit and Green Bay. I’ll give Garrett credit for that. He has a mentally tough team. He just doesn’t have a terribly talented team. Romo creates so much for this offense that they will need others to raise their games. It’s possible. They still have Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Miles Austin on offense. That’s not a shabby group by any stretch. And Orton is smart enough to know what he isn’t. I think with the Romo news coming early in the week, it will allow them to prepare knowing he probably can’t play.

PHILADELPHIA -- Cornerback Cary Williams raised some eyebrows a couple weeks back when he said he was "glad" the Eagles lost to the Minnesota Vikings.

"It definitely knocked us off our high horse," Williams said. "It's something that was bittersweet. It was sad that we lost, the bitter part, but it was sweet that we lost. ... It's great that they were able to knock us off. We learned from the experience. We're going to get better."

Two weeks after getting trounced by a Minnesota team without Adrian Peterson and with Matt Cassel playing quarterback, the Eagles are again preparing for a depleted opponent. This time, it's the Dallas Cowboys and the stakes are higher. With a division title on the line, it turns out Williams had a point -- the Eagles might be better for having been humbled a bit.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Matt Cassel and the Vikings hammered the Eagles 48-30 earlier this month.
"You saw what happened the last time we played a backup quarterback," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Nobody here is taking anybody lightly."

The Cowboys appear likely to be without their quarterback, Tony Romo, and their quarterback on defense, inside linebacker Sean Lee.

"I know they're going to miss (Lee)," Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. "But I also know teams rally when guys are hurt, so I'm going to be ready for their best shot."

It isn't that the Eagles don't care who plays quarterback Sunday night. There are very practical football considerations if the less mobile Kyle Orton plays instead of the freewheeling Romo.

"You know where he's going to be," linebacker Brandon Graham said or Orton.

"We have to get back there really fast," linebacker Trent Cole said. "He likes to get the ball out. He's a rhythm quarterback. We've just got to get to him. Romo, he's very athletic. He can get out of the pocket. He can get hot.

"Of course we're very curious -- who's going to be the quarterback? But it's not going to change anything. We might not know until we step on the field who we're playing."

Head coach Chip Kelly didn't buy the Minnesota angle for a minute. That would mean acknowledging that his team wasn't prepared properly for the Vikings game, and Kelly isn't about to do that.

"I don't think that was our mind set going in," Kelly said. "I thought we had a great week of practice and as I said before, I think you've got to give Matt Cassel a lot of credit. Go back and watch the film of how well he played in that game -- they made plays and we didn't and that's what it is. I don't think anybody in this group was like, ‘Hey, we don't have to get ready this week because such and such and such and such isn't going to play.' I know this team is not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe trick. We are not concerned with that stuff."

However you brand it, the loss to Minnesota is fresh enough to prevent a repeat of the Eagles' flat approach. And if that doesn't do it, the stakes this Sunday should.

"We're fighting for the division," Cole said. "This is. Win or go home. This is where we start our road to the Super Bowl or we end our road to the Super Bowl and get ready for next year. This is big."

Kelly on Cowboys QBs, Curious George

December, 26, 2013
PHILADELPHIA – Eagles head coach Chip Kelly talked about the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback situation, his own brief injury report, and the ol’ banana-in-the-tailpipe trick. A few highlights from Kelly’s Thursday press availability:
  • Whether Tony Romo or Kyle Orton starts at quarterback, Kelly said, his team’s preparations won’t change.“I don’t think it changes their offense much just because of who the backup is,” Kelly said. “I think they’re going to stick with what they do. They obviously have playmakers in Dez Bryant and [Jason] Witten. They’re going to run the ball with DeMarco Murray, who didn’t play against us in the first game.”On Monday, Kelly praised Romo’s performance in bringing Dallas back for a fourth-quarter comeback win at Washington the day before. With reports that Romo has a serious back injury, Kelly was even more impressed.“If he can’t go, the first thing that came across my head will be that that performance against the Redskins was pretty special,” Kelly said. “He did what he did, with the ability to bring them back and win that football game. The one thing you know about him is he’s an unbelievable competitor.”
  • Backup center Julian Vandervelde “tweaked” his back, Kelly said. Vandervelde did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday. He has been active for all 15 games because he’s starter Jason Kelce’s understudy. “We’ll see how he is,” Kelly said.Kelly said left guard Evan Mathis has played some center, but it was right guard Todd Herremans running with the second team during the open portion of practice.
  • This week’s random non-football reference came courtesy of the Man in the Yellow Hat. Kelly was asked if he was curious about how his team will respond in a big-game situation in Dallas Sunday night.“I don’t think curious is the word, I think excited is the word,” Kelly said. “I think we’re all excited about going down there and what’s at stake and what we can do. I’m not Curious George wondering whether we’re going to show up or if we’re going to show up. We’re excited about playing a really good team that beat us the last time we played them. Obviously, there’s a lot at stake.”Curious George. Winston Churchill. Kent Tekulve. You never know with Kelly.

    Maybe he had the “curious little monkey” on his mind a few minutes later. Asked if he was worried that the Eagles would let down based on the reports about Romo’s injury, Kelly scoffed at the idea.

    “I know this team’s not going to fall for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick,” Kelly said.

A look at Eagles' Pro Bowl chances

December, 26, 2013
PHILADELPHIA – Selections for the new-look Pro Bowl will be announced Friday night. After sending zero representatives from last year’s 4-12 team, the Eagles have a few worthy candidates.

Running back LeSean McCoy is the most obvious. If the NFL leader in rushing and yards from scrimmage isn’t selected, there’s no point in having the game. McCoy set the Eagles’ record for rushing yards in a game with 217 against Detroit. He needs 37 to pass Wilbert Montgomery’s mark of 1,512 rushing yards in a season.

Quarterback Nick Foles is a tougher case. He has started only nine of the Eagles’ 15 games. The team’s record in those games is 7-2. Foles has thrown 25 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, a remarkable ratio. He leads the NFL in passer rating.

Foles might have had a better chance under the old format. Aside from Drew Brees, the NFC quarterbacks with big numbers have some other issues: Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford are not going to the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers has missed the past six weeks. Tony Romo is injured. Carson Palmer is not exactly a lock.

But this year, players are not being chosen to represent the two conferences. The teams will be selected in a draft in late January. So Foles will also be competing for spots with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton, as well.

Sometimes a player has to establish himself for a season or two before getting Pro Bowl recognition. It feels like that kind of year for Foles.

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson has the rep -- he’s been selected twice -- and the numbers. He isn’t the no-brainer that McCoy is because so many receivers are putting up big numbers this season, but he’s certainly deserving. While Jackson is 14th among NFL wide receivers with 79 catches, his 1,304 yards are eighth most.

With Foles and especially McCoy having such outstanding seasons, the Eagles' offensive line should get some respect. Three players are eminently deserving: left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce.

Peters is a five-time Pro Bowler and has returned from a career-threatening Achilles injury. Those two factors make him the most likely Eagles lineman to be selected.

Mathis is overdue for recognition. Pro Football Focus, which grades every player at every position on every play, has all but anointed Mathis as the best left guard in the game the past couple seasons. He’s smart, tough and durable. It’s his time.

Kelce may be where Mathis was last year. He’s integral to what coach Chip Kelly does on offense.

“He's been huge," Kelly said. “I think everything that we get started on the offensive side of the ball starts with him. He sets the blocking schemes for us. Very, very smart, and a real student of the game. He's really almost the coach on the field for that group, and he takes a little pressure off the quarterback. In some systems, the quarterback is making all those calls, and in our system our center does it, and it's because Jason can handle it, and I think he's been really invaluable to us.”

Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis meant it as a compliment when he said his unit was playing well despite a lack of big stars and Pro Bowlers. But it does seem unlikely the defense will get much play in the All-Star game this season. The most likely candidates – defensive end Fletcher Cox, linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Trent Cole – don’t have stats that catch the eye. And underrated contributors like linebacker Connor Barwin, nickel corner Brandon Boykin and defensive tackle Cedric Thornton are, well, underrated. That makes them long shots by definition.

Punter Donnie Jones has been excellent for the Eagles when they’ve needed him most. His overall numbers -- 21st in average, 11th in net average -- probably will keep him from being selected.

Nick Foles: 'It will drive you crazy'

December, 25, 2013
PHILADELPHIA -- The more time that goes by, the more games he plays, the less sense Nick Foles' nightmare performance against the Dallas Cowboys makes sense.

It was Oct. 20 at Lincoln Financial Field. Foles had made his first start of the season in relief of Michael Vick the week before, at Tampa Bay. He had looked poised and in control, throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-20 victory.

Then the Cowboys came to Philadelphia, and Foles was everything he wasn’t in Tampa and hasn’t been since: inaccurate, indecisive and ultimately injured. He left the game after taking a bad sack that left him with a concussion.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
AP Photo/James D. SmithNick Foles isn't sure why he played so poorly in October vs. Dallas, and he isn't going to dwell on it.
Foles’ performance seemed out of character then. It seems like an out-of-body experience after his performance since: 6-1 record, 67-percent completion percentage, 19 touchdowns, two interceptions, 126.6 passer rating.

So what happened?

“There’s just some things in life that if you try to figure it out, it will drive you crazy,” Foles said. “And it’s easy just to say it was a bad day. If I look into every meaning, every little thing, everything I did and try to break it down, I’ll drive myself crazy.”

Instead, Foles drove himself in a different direction. He missed the Eagles’ 15-7 loss to the New York Giants because of the concussion. The next week, he was back in the starting lineup for the Eagles’ game at Oakland.

Foles completed 22 of 28 passes for 406 yards and an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns. If there were questions about his ability to rebound from a bad game, that performance was a pretty clear answer.

“We grew from that (Dallas) game,” Foles said. “We used that game as fuel. It was character-building. Tough games like that, tough things in life, you face adversity -- it hurts. You don’t feel good. You feel it in your heart. It’s not fun. But you learn how to get better. You grow together as a team. That’s the beauty of it.”

Two months and nine days later, Foles will face the Cowboys again. This time, he is the NFL’s top rated passer, leading the NFC East’s first-place team. The winner goes to the playoffs. The loser is finished for the season. It is the very definition of a big game, and it is an opportunity for Foles to bury that last game against the Cowboys forever.

“It is a big game of high magnitude, with a lot on the line,” Foles said. “But you can’t worry about that. Worrying about that is not going to make you play any better. You’ve got to simplify the game, make it easy, focus on that one play. When you start thinking about that other stuff, it causes a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure on you to succeed.”

There was a lot more pressure on the Cowboys, with quarterback Tony Romo and head coach Jason Garrett desperately needing to prove they can win a big game together. With Romo reportedly out because of a back injury, that pressure shifts to the Eagles.

It isn’t a make-or-break situation for Foles and head coach Chip Kelly, not in their first season together. But it is an opportunity for them to avoid the burden that builds from perennial disappointment. Win that first big game together and future, bigger games become less daunting.

Just being in this position is something for Foles to feel good about.

“This is what you play for all season,” Foles said. “It is crazy. After the Dallas game, and all the emotions you feel trying to get healthy, and just for our team to stay together throughout that entire time -- we grew together as a team. That’s why it’s so special right now. The playoffs start this week for us.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Cary Williams realized he had a problem when he began to hear the same thing from the most important people in his life.

The Eagles cornerback heard from his brother and his best friend. His longtime pastor expressed his concern. And finally, when his wife Amanda confronted him about the issue, Williams knew it was time to face the truth.

He was being too darn nice.

"When my wife said it, it really kind of sunk in," Williams said. "I had to listen. She's been following for a long time and watching when I played. She said I just didn't have the same aggressiveness I used to."

[+] 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 Williams they knew had a mean streak -- on the football field, that is. Williams is a doting husband and father off the field. On it, he has an edge. Or at least he did when he was playing with the Baltimore Ravens. Since signing with the Eagles as a free agent this year, Williams' inner circle noticed a change in his on-field demeanor.

"I gave a bunch of excuses why," Williams said. "When I looked in the mirror, it is what it is. I am what I put out on the field. I just wanted to come out and play with aggressiveness and a passion for the game. You have to have that type of nastiness to you, to a degree."

If the words of his wife and family and friends didn't do it, then the Eagles' 48-30 loss in Minnesota would have. The secondary, including Williams, was beaten up and down the field by Vikings receiver Greg Jennings and his cohorts.

With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears coming to town, Williams knew it was time.

"I had to get back in character," he said.

And he did. The whole secondary played with an aggressiveness and physicality that was missing from the Minnesota game. Williams broke up two passes intended for Marshall. The second was an especially physical play that had Marshall looking at Williams like he'd gone crazy.

"Our corners challenged them," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "Our corners stepped up on their own and handled them. I had a lot of things in the plan, but as I watched it unfold and saw how the corners were holding up -- and they really were holding up well -- I left them out there on their own. They did a great job."

Williams and Bradley Fletcher seem better against bigger, more physical receivers. That's not a bad thing with Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys coming up this Sunday. Bryant is a favorite target of Tony Romo, but with Romo reportedly sidelined, he may be even more of a security blanket for backup quarterback Kyle Orton. He's the kind of receiver who can catch balls thrown near him, even if he's covered.

That will require Williams to stay in character.

"People were telling me I'm not the same guy I was in Baltimore, with the ferociousness," Williams said. "When they said that, I had to change the perception. Hopefully, I did."

He did it by being the nasty, aggressive Williams -- the one his wife and pastor want him to be.
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.”