In Trouble or Slow Start?: Assessing the Offense of the Philadelphia Eagles
It has not been an easy two weeks for Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles offense.
The unit started slow in its Week 1 Monday night loss to the Atlanta Falcons and looked even worse on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. It hasn’t just been one area of the offense that has underperformed -- every aspect seems disjointed and unprepared.
Of the 34 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 30 attempts through two weeks, Sam Bradford has the second most attempts (89) and is 28th in yards per attempt (6.3). Last year’s leading rusher and prized free agent signing DeMarco Murray has carried the ball 21 times for 11 yards, with a long run of 9 yards. None of those stats scream -- or whisper -- offensive efficiency.
What is very clear, at this point in the season, the Eagles offense is not on par to where it has been over the past two seasons under Chip Kelly. While that’s been clear to the eye, it’s also quite easy to see by our Net Expected Points metric (NEP). NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
Philadelphia had the fifth best offense in 2013 by Adjusted NEP, and while that dropped to 15th last season, the Eagles were still among the top half of the league in offense with a half season of Nick Foles and the other half with Mark Sanchez at quarterback.
The concerning thing, and the lightning rod for the most criticism this year, is this offense was put together almost exclusively by Kelly. During the offseason, Kelly won an apparent power struggle with the front office and earning final say over the roster.
There’s little need to go over the exact moves that have been made because they’ve been gone over so many times already, but the concern stays the same: this is a Chip Kelly-constructed offense that looks nothing like a Chip Kelly-constructed offense. We’re only two weeks into the season, which leaves plenty of time for a turnaround, but it also gives us enough plays to see what’s gone wrong so far.
Short and Often
Kelly’s offensive system is widely regarded as quarterback-friendly (again, the Foles/Sanchez tandem), but it can be incorrectly categorized by some as pass-heavy because of it. In 2013, the Eagles were 27th among all teams in pass to run ratio, and they ranked 21st last year.
This is a team that uses its spread concepts to open up the field for the run, but that hasn’t been the case this year. Through two games, Bradford has dropped back 90 times, and the Eagles have rushed only 33 times, nearly a 3-to-1 ratio, the highest in the league.
The pass-heavy approach was puzzling in Week 1, though the offense started to hit a groove in the second half with a faster pace. That groove was never found against Dallas, and part of that was due to the ineffectiveness of the pass. Bradford currently ranks 22nd among quarterbacks in Passing NEP this season, while throwing the second most passes in the league so far. His 0.03 Passing NEP per drop back would have ranked 30th over a full season last year, tied with Drew Stanton.
A reason for that inefficiency in the passing game is the conservative nature of Bradford’s decisions. Through the first two weeks, Bradford ranks last in air yards per attempt at 1.97. Last season Blake Bortles had the lowest air yards per attempt in the league at 2.62, and no quarterback, at least since 2009, has played a full season and ended below 2.0.
It’s one thing to advance the ball on short and safe throws -- Alex Smith had his career revived with that game plan -- but, it’s increasingly difficult to get away with that type of play when the quarterback is also turning the ball over. Bradford’s current 4.5 percent interception rate won’t last -- he has a career rate of 2.3 percent -- but when the defense doesn’t need to worry about defending deep, it’s easier for defenders to play those short routes aggressively, and with more defenders playing up, it also makes it harder on the run game.
It hasn’t helped the case of the run game that it’s been terrible when called upon.
Much of the focus here has been on the guard play through the first two weeks. While that’s not completely wrong, it’s also the easy target considering the moves during the offseason. The Eagles released Todd Herremans in February and also let go of Evan Mathis in June, which pushed Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner into starting spots. While they haven’t been close to the peak of the Herremans/Mathis pairing, they haven’t been the sole problem in the run game.
During the Monday night game in Week 1, the broadcast highlighted the athleticism of center Jason Kelce and his ability to pull and lead block on run plays. Athletic linemen are a staple of the Kelly offense, and having any of the five pull on a given play is not uncommon. A big problem so far this season is that the overall blocking is not strong enough for those plays to be effective.
Take a look at two plays from Sunday’s game against the Cowboys below. The total damage done was a loss of 10 yards and a Rushing NEP of -2.26 -- Murray was at -5.50 for the game.
On the first play, the run is designed to the right, but as the pull starts with Kelce, Demarcus Lawrence shot through the open gap instead of following the play horizontally, which many defenders would do. Murray was dropped in the backfield without the possibility of being able to do much beforehand. Part of this was good defense; part of this was a hole in the scheme.
This ended up as another hopeless run and a loss of five for Murray. This time the play is run the other way, and again the pull was busted before they play could get to the second level. Here, the biggest blown block is from tight end Brent Celek, whose man makes initial contact with Murray, but the blocking across the rest of the line wasn’t great either.
There is a positive about these types of errors, though. The simple solution could be to hold off on the running plays that require these types of blocks until the line has played together more and is more comfortable covering the holes left in the blocking. Especially in a scheme such as the one Kelly runs, continuity is a big piece of offensive line efficiency, because of these types of plays with so many moving parts.
These plays have been a staple of the Chip Kelly offense, but right now it appears some of these plays are built for the offensive line the Eagles used to have, not the one they're putting on the field right now. Eventually this is going to come together, but it might be a longer process than anyone in Philadelphia had hoped.
It won’t be easy with the front seven of the Jets coming next week, but afterwards the Eagles get the Redskins, Saints, Giants and Panthers before their bye.
During his NFL tenure, Kelly has done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt for his offense, but through two games this year, he might be causing himself more problems than he was trying to solve.