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Coaching Carousel 2016: Philadelphia Eagles

A detailed look at the impact of Chip Kelly's departure and the hiring of Doug Pederson.

Back In Your Arms Again

When Andy Reid was hired in 1999 to coach teh Philadelphia Eagles, his first order of business was drafting Donovan McNabb #2 overall. Reid and McNabb ended up putting together arguably the Eagles' best run in franchise history, culminating in four consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game. What many might not remember though is that McNabb didn't start until the Eagles' 10th game that season. The starter for the first 10 games was a journeyman named Doug Pederson. Pederson didn't play that well (52.4% completion rate, 1,276 yards, 7 touchdowns, 9 interceptions) and moved on to Cleveland in 2000, but that season would forever change Pederson's life. That connection with Andy Reid (which started when Pederson was a backup in Green Bay and Reid was the quarterbacks coach) would lead to Pederson becoming an assistant under Reid and eventually gaining the role of Offensive Coordinator in Kansas City.

17 years later Pederson returns to Philadelphia as the Eagles head coach, replacing the man -- Chip Kelly -- who replaced the man who Pederson has learned from for 20+ years. Pederson hired Frank Reich as offensive coordinator; a position he held in San Diego for two seasons.

Be Careful What You Wish For

When Chip Kelly replaced Andy Reid three years ago, a great many pundits acted as though is was Jeffrey Lurie's best decision since buying the team. Kelly was THE hot commodity after running college football's most explosive offense for years at Oregon. At first, the Chip Kelly Experiment bore fruit. But by the end of his third season, it was clear that the team was worse off than it had been when Kelly took over and that -- for most fans -- the Chip Kelly Experiment was an abject failure. Yes, the team went 10-6 in each of Kelly's first two seasons, but underneath the winning records were major mistakes:

  • Personnel decisions that gutted the roster
  • An inept defensive scheme that got progressively worse
  • An offense that lost effectiveness in the third season

Can the Eagles Go Home Again? -- West Coast Offense Returns With A Vengeance

While few Philadelphia fans were surprised to see Kelly jettisoned, many were shocked to see Pederson as the replacement. The skeptics are left wondering why the team bothered firing Andy Reid in the first place? If the plan was to hire his right hand man a few years later just to re-install the same offense, were the Chip Kelly years all for naught?
 
Regardless of whether the Eagles made an inspired choice in Pederson, the fact remains he's now in charge and will be implementing (or re-implementing) a version of the West Coast offense. Pederson and Andy Reid were both disciples of Mike Holmgren, who was of course one of Bill Walsh's most successful protégés.
 

Play-calling is an uncertainty

While the cadence, playbook and formations will be evocative of Andy Reid's offenses in Philadelphia and Kansas City, we can't truly be sure how Pederson will craft the in-game play-calling. Reid called the majority of plays (he let Pederson call plays at times but not constantly) and it stands to reason that Pederson is NOT a clone of Reid.
 

Major Question: Will Pederson Favor a Faster Pace?

For all the sturm und drang about Chip Kelly, we can't deny that he believed in a fast-paced offense. By sheer law of numbers, Kelly's teams produce a lot of points because they run a lot of plays. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have been toward the bottom of the league's standings in plays per game.
 
NFL Plays Per Game, By Team (2013-2015)
RankTeam201520142013AverageDifferential
1 Philadelphia 68.9 70.7 65.4 68.3 0.0%
2 Denver 65.7 66.8 72.1 68.2 -0.2%
3 New Orleans 68.5 68.4 67.6 68.2 -0.2%
4 Houston 69.9 66.4 68.1 68.1 -0.3%
5 New England 65.7 67.7 70.4 67.9 -0.6%
6 Baltimore 67.7 63.9 68.1 66.6 -2.6%
7 Detroit 64.4 65.4 68.9 66.2 -3.1%
8 Indianapolis 65.8 68.3 64.1 66.1 -3.3%
9 Buffalo 63.5 63.8 69.8 65.7 -3.9%
10 NY Jets 67.1 65.8 63.8 65.6 -4.0%
11 San Diego 68.8 63.1 64.8 65.6 -4.0%
12 Green Bay 66.2 62.9 66.8 65.3 -4.4%
13 Atlanta 67.1 64.7 64.0 65.3 -4.5%
14 Cincinnati 63.1 63.4 69.2 65.2 -4.5%
15 Washington 63.6 62.9 69.2 65.2 -4.5%
16 Cleveland 65.1 63.1 67.4 65.2 -4.6%
17 NY Giants 65.8 67.9 61.8 65.2 -4.6%
18 Carolina 66.6 66.8 62.0 65.1 -4.7%
19 Pittsburgh 63.3 67.1 63.9 64.8 -5.2%
20 Arizona 64.7 61.2 64.8 63.6 -7.0%
21 Chicago 64.0 62.8 63.3 63.4 -7.3%
22 Jacksonville 63.2 61.8 63.8 62.9 -7.9%
23 Miami 61.1 65.0 62.5 62.9 -8.0%
24 Oakland 63.1 62.1 62.6 62.6 -8.4%
25 Seattle 64.2 62.9 60.4 62.5 -8.5%
26 Kansas City 61.1 60.1 65.2 62.1 -9.1%
27 Minnesota 60.5 61.3 63.3 61.7 -9.7%
28 San Francisco 60.6 63.1 60.2 61.3 -10.3%
29 Tampa Bay 63.5 58.6 61.3 61.1 -10.5%
30 Tennessee 61.0 57.4 64.5 61.0 -10.8%
31 Dallas 60.6 62.4 59.8 60.9 -10.8%
32 St Louis 57.5 59.8 60.5 59.3 -13.3%
This data has many assuming the Eagles will take a step back simply because the pace will slow considerably. Yet, I'm not sure we should make that leap. The Chiefs are not the Eagles, and Pederson -- as a play-caller -- will not be Andy Reid. We shouldn't expect the offense to be AS fast paced, but it's not out of the question that Pederson will favor a pace that's somewhere in between the '13-'15 Chiefs and the '13-'15 Eagles.
 

“One thing this group has learned in the last couple of years is how to play fast,” Pederson said. “The tempo of the game, I think that’s a benefit for any offense, to play fast. I want to use some of that. They’re used to that, they’re comfortable with the no-huddle system.

(I’d like to) give the quarterback a little bit more freedom to do some things than just a two-minute mode and that hurry-up tempo,” Pederson said. “I’ve always been intrigued by the tempo of the game ... but there’s a time and a place for it. Incorporating that to what I’m going to bring – we’re going to get in the huddle, break the huddle, attack the line of scrimmage that way also, but there’s a time and a place for the hurry-up and I look forward to utilizing it with what I bring.”   

Familiar System Offset by Major Personnel Changes

The system may be well understood, but the Eagles underwent significant personnel changes in the offseason, making it that much harder to predict how Pederson's offense will be implemented this season:
 
  • Quarterback -- Carson Wentz is the future, but is he the present? The 2nd overall pick will surely play soon, but most expect the Eagles to sit Wentz in 2015 while Sam Bradford runs the show. Yet, that plan will only work for as long as the Eagles are competitive. If they struggle early, you have to assume the team will consider playing Wentz. That wouldn't be very good for the Eagles' fantasy prospects, but it may be the right decision for the franchise.
  • Running Back -- Howie Roseman traded DeMarco Murray to the Titans, ending a one-year mishap of epic proportions. That leaves Ryan Mathews as the only viable workhorse; yet his injury history makes that an uncertainty. Darren Sproles is effective in a limited role but can't do more than that. Rookie Wendell Smallwood is unproven. Can this trio generate a ground game in line with what Pederson expects?
  • Wide Receiver -- Nelson Agholor had a disappointing rookie year, and this offseason wasn't much better. The pressure is on Agholor to become a credible threat opposite Jordan Matthews. Veteran Rueben Randle was signed to put pressure on Agholor, but his tenure in New York speaks to a player better suited for a complementary role.
  • Offensive Line -- The Eagles brought in a mix of veterans (Brandon Brooks, Stefan Wisniewski) and rookies (Isaac Seumalo) to compete at guard. Their ability to upgrade the interior will go a long way to shaping whether the Eagles offense is able to be more effective.

May the SchwarTz Be With You

The Eagles offense may not have been perfect under Chip Kelly, but the team's real travails under his leadership were on the defensive side of the ball. Kelly handed the reins to Billy Davis -- a questionable hire in the first place -- and the team struggled mightily in spite of a talent laden defensive roster.

  • 2013 -- 17th points allowed, 29th yards allowed
  • 2014 -- 22nd points allowed, 28th yards allowed
  • 2015 -- 28th points allowed, 30th yards allowed

Disgraceful.

Veteran defensive coach Jim Schwartz is being asked to right the ship, quickly. Schwartz' system is in stark contrast to Davis'. The Eagles will move from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 front, with Schwartz utilizing the "Wide 9" primarily. At the heart of Schwartz' philosophy is the belief that you HAVE to be able to get pressure on the quarterback from the front four. This is not to say the Eagles won't blitz; Schwartz will blitz quite a bit. But there's a fundamental difference between HAVING to blitz and WANTING to blitz.

"I've been there before where you can't get pressure and you have to blitz, and it's not a great feeling," Schwartz admitted. "You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to when the situation is right, not, well, we can't generate a pass rush unless we do. So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some of the big plays away from offenses. And I think big plays."

Philly Magazine did an in-depth analysis of Schwartz' scheme that's worth a look: http://www.phillymag.com/birds247/2016/01/25/all-22-jim-schwartz-philadelphia-eagles-new-defense/

The key facets of the 2016 defense:

  • Aggressive front four (often utilizing a Wide 9 formation)
  • Mixing secondary looks to force turnovers
  • Controlling the running game by forcing majority of plays inside to the linebackers
  • Forcing tempo
  • A willingness to give up big plays in order to pressure the quarterback and make big plays
  • Relying on a big defensive tackle as the centerpiece of disruption (hence the massive contract extension or Fletcher Cox)

Summary

The offense is going to look a lot different under Doug Pederson, but beyond the scheme (West Coast), it's very hard to project the overall effectiveness. Pederson has never been a full-time NFL play-caller. Frank Reich struggled as the Chargers offensive coordinator. The team has a quarterback conundrum and unproven options at receiver (beyond Jordan Matthews) and running back (beyond Ryan Mathews). The Eagles offense likely won't be as slow paced as the Chiefs have been, but will they be as effective on a per play basis? Meanwhile, on defense the team will most assuredly improve given the low bar (30th) Billy Davis set. Jim Schwartz will have the defense playing aggressively and forcing sacks and turnovers. The unit may give up yards, but it would be shocking if the team finished worse than middle of the pack and it could EASILY be a top 10 unit given the personnel.