Chip Kelly shouldn't outsmart himself
Rookie coach has Eagles at 7-5, but unnecessary risks might cost team in long run
PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Eagles' head coach is smarter than everybody else, apparently.
That's the only explanation for why Chip Kelly took the ball out of the hands of his hottest player inside the red zone Sunday. It made no sense to run a trick play against Arizona, locked in a 7-7 tie looking at first-and-goal from the 6-yard line. It made perfect sense to have Nick Foles, the man who entered the day with a 121.9 passer rating in the red zone, to lob a pass to a tight end, as he had earlier in the game to take a 7-0 lead on his 17th touchdown of the season.
Week 13 Coverage
• Triplett: Saints stomped in Seattle
• Blount: Unstoppable Seahawks
• Seifert: Studs and Duds
• Keim: Redskins hurt selves
• Graziano: Tuck states case for Giants
• Williamson: 49ers send a message
• Teicher: Chiefs see how it's done
• Legwold: Broncos take AFC West lead
• Cimini: Rex Ryan on the hot seat
• Weinfuss: Long way for Cards
• Wells: Colts win despite deep flaws
• Reiss: Clutch kicking powers Pats
• Sheridan: Defense driving Eagles
• Newton: Panthers have lofty goals
• Hensley: Ravens rounding into form
• Brown: Tough loss for Steelers
• Gutierrez: Raiders not ready
• Demovsky: Rodgers won't solve all
• Rothstein: Lions' D-line dominates
"It was not a Wildcat play," Kelly said after the Eagles held on to beat the Cardinals, 24-21. "It's just Brad Smith plays quarterback."
OK. It wasn't -- wink, wink -- a Wildcat play. It was a dumb play. It was a play that didn't work. It was a play that lost yards. It was a play that likely cost the Eagles a touchdown. And it was a play that could have cost them the game.
Thinking you're smarter than everybody else doesn't win you games. In the National Football League, it costs you games. And if the Eagles are going to do something special this season -- and they are poised to make the postseason for the first time since 2010 -- they can't have their head coach making mistakes born of hubris.
Kelly has done an admirable job in 11 months in Philadelphia. He has altered a culture that had turned toxic in the last two seasons of the Andy Reid regime. Kelly has been able to get the players to buy into his way of doing things, to the sports science and the Tuesday practices and the altered weekly schedule. Everyone was all-in from the jump, even though Kelly had never coached a minute in the NFL before the Eagles hired him.
A year after finishing 4-12, Philadelphia is 7-5 and tied with the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East with four games to go. It is December, and the Eagles are relevant. That is because of Kelly. Philly has won four straight and its past two at home with an unpredictable Detroit Lions team coming to town next weekend.
Kelly rightfully stuck with Foles this week despite the fact that Michael Vick finally is healthy. Foles has been lights out. He threw three more touchdown passes against the Cardinals, all to tight ends. He again threw zero interceptions (although Peterson had one negated by a defensive holding penalty on teammate Tyrann Mathieu late in the game). Foles finished with a 112.0 passer rating -- his fourth straight triple-digit rating -- and withstood the punishment from one of the league's most aggressive defenses.
Incredibly, if Foles throws one more touchdown pass before he throws an interception, he will tie Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to start a season with 20 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Foles already shares an exhibit with Manning at the Pro Football Hall of Fame for most touchdowns thrown in a game (seven). He has a very real opportunity to share another record with Manning as well.
Kelly deserves credit for that. He has Foles playing loose, playing well and making, as teammate Jason Avant said, good mistakes. When Foles misses a receiver, he usually misses him long. He doesn't throw behind receivers. And the receivers are doing their part on 50-50 balls, as Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson did when he knocked the ball out of Peterson's hands in the end zone.
Kelly had a wise game plan against Arizona. Given the Cardinals talented secondary and linebackers who are stout against the run, Kelly employed two- and three-tight-end sets to maximize mismatches. And it worked, with rookie Zach Ertz catching two touchdown passes and Brent Celek catching one.
But Kelly was not able to adjust to the Cardinals' blitzing on running plays. After opening the third quarter with an impressive 13-play, 80-yard drive to take a 24-7 lead, Philadelphia managed just two first downs on its next four drives. The Eagles were trying to run the ball to eat clock and give their defense a rest, but it was not working. Not with LeSean McCoy. Not with Bryce Brown. Not with Foles.
On third-and-long, Kelly would put the ball back into Foles' hands. Twice during those four drives, Foles was sacked. Once he threw incomplete. Kelly did not have a viable alternative after the Cardinals took the run game away. It was the second consecutive game in which the Eagles were unable to bury an opponent when holding a double-digit lead.
"We're learning," Avant said. "We have a lot of young players. We have a new coaching staff that hasn't been in the National Football League, all those types of things. We're learning. As the year goes on, we're constantly getting better. We're learning how to win in close situations. That's the No. 1 thing, and also we're learning how the game in the NFL works. So, all of it is a learning process."
Kelly is clearly learning, too. He has had his slips, but he has won over a football-loving town because he has made the Eagles relevant again. And Kelly has found a quarterback. That's a good thing. Moving forward, he needs to remember to leave Foles in at quarterback in the red zone, because given Foles' red-zone efficiency, that's by far the smarter play.