With Successful 2013 Season Over, Eagles and Fans Wonder What ’14 Will Bring

January 13th, 2014 by Jim Chesko | Filed under Eagles, Football, General.

eaglesticHere’s what the Eagles need to do to beat the Panthers in Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff contest down in Carolina.

Ok, that was the piece I had expected to be writing today. But the New Orleans Saints’ 26-24 victory last Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field put an end to all that, leaving disheartened Birds’ fans to wonder what personnel changes will be made between now and July and whether Chip Kelly and Co. can build on his surprisingly successful first year in Philadelphia.

And, make no bones about it: The Eagles’ 2013 season was much better than almost anyone could have predicted. Most experts – as well as this writer (definitely not an expert!) – figured on a six- or seven-win season for the Birds in Year One of the Kelly Era. And that’s how it was shaping up when the team was 3-5 at the season’s midpoint. Little did we know what lay ahead!

Granted, Billy Davis’s defense had started playing better in October, but there was still loads of uncertainty at the quarterback position: Nick Foles had stunk up the joint in a Week 7 home loss to the Cowboys, and – in Week 8 – Michael Vick returned from a hamstring injury only to re-aggravate it in the Birds’ loss to the hapless New York Giants.

We all know what happened next. Second-year QB Foles returned to the lineup in Week 9 and threw an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in a blowout win over the Raiders in Oakland, the start of a five-game winning streak and a 7-1 second half that culminated in an NFC East Division title with a Week 17 win over the Tony Romo-less Cowboys in Dallas.  LeSean McCoy set a franchise record with a league-leading 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage.  DeSean Jackson ended with 82 catches for 1,332 yards, the second-highest total in team history. And – oh yeah – Foles quietly put up some amazing numbers in his sophomore season: a 64% completion rate, 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions, and a passer rating of 119.2 – the third-best in league history.

Yes, Foles made some poor decisions in the playoff loss to the Saints and even in the clinching win over the Cowboys – making a few intentional-grounding throws and taking some avoidable sacks – but he has definitely shown to be a leader and (in my view, anyway) a signal caller to build a team around. Here, I’ll say it: He’s a “franchise quarterback,” in other words.

Can the Eagles go further in 2014? They can, but it won’t be as easy as some fans might think. In fact, there are several reasons why the road to another division title and a deeper playoff run may be a little tougher.  For one thing, you can bet all of the opposing coaches on the Eagles’ 2014 schedule will spend a little more time than usual in the offseason looking at ways to combat the Birds’ potent offense.  Kelly’s schemes and fast-paced offense won’t catch anybody by surprise in Season 2.

Speaking of the schedule… it will be significantly tougher in ’14, at least on paper.  In addition to the usual six games against NFC East rivals, the Eagles’ schedule includes home games against the Rams, Seahawks, Jaguars, Titans and Panthers, and road games versus the Cardinals, 49ers, Titans, Colts and Packers. That’s five opponents who made this season’s playoffs.

And then there are injuries. Yes, Jeremy Maclin missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in training camp, safeties Patrick Chung and rookie Earl Wolff both missed time with injuries, and Vick and Foles took turns getting hurt in the first half of the season, but aside from that, the Birds stayed remarkably healthy during the 2013 campaign.  Meanwhile, the Eagles likely benefited by playing a Packers team without Aaron Rodgers, a Redskins squad whose quarterback looked almost nothing like the Robert Griffin III of 2012, and – in the regular-season finale – a Cowboys team that had just lost Tony Romo to a back injury. Don’t expect that same degree of good fortune in 2014!

What can the Birds do to improve? Although the ‘D’ couldn’t stop the Saints on that final, devastating 5-minute drive that ended the Eagles’ season, the defense was much better than expected in 2013 – at least after the first couple of weeks of the season. But there’s still a real need for a difference-making pass rusher (whether it’s a defensive end or an outside linebacker) and, for sure, another safety or two.  If Chung returns in ’14, it’ll be a surprise. Also, Wolff needs to stay healthy in his second season and to continue to improve. GM Howie Roseman will have to make a decision about whether to bring back Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman, too. If the Birds go after a free agent this spring, it could well be a safety – perhaps T.J. Ward of the Browns, Donte Whitner of the 49ers or Jairus Byrd of the Bills.  Byrd played college ball at the University of Oregon, and the Ducks’ offensive coordinator at the time was one Chip Kelly.

The Eagles also have to sort out what to do with their unrestricted free-agent wide receivers.  Filling in for Maclin, Riley Cooper had a breakout year with 47 catches for an average 17.8 yards per catch and eight touchdowns. The Birds are probably the best fit for Cooper, who became a real go-to guy for Foles once No. 9 took over at QB. Maclin’s contract is also up, but his ACL injury may scare off potential bidders, so he too could end up staying in town.

As for the kickers, look for the Eagles to try to lock up free-agent punter Donnie Jones, who was actually one of the team’s most valuable players. (Remember that punt that pinned the Cowboys deep in their own territory late in the season finale?)  Meanwhile, though he’s not a free agent, placekicker Alex Henery’s time with the Birds may be over after his inconsistent season, when he missed some key field goals and often struggled with his kickoffs.

In conclusion: The Eagles made enormous strides in 2013 under their new head coach, going from 4-12 in Andy Reid’s final season to 10-6 and a division title in the first year of the Kelly era. The offensive improvements were mind-blowing. In addition to the numbers for Foles, McCoy and Jackson, the Eagles’ points-per-game average jumped to 27.6 from 17.5 a year earlier.  Yards per game rose nearly 18% to 417.3.

Most impressive was how the Eagles took care of the football and created turnovers.  In 2012, the team’s turnover margin was -24, while in 2013 it was +12.

It will be a very interesting offseason. In the meantime, enjoy the playoffs – even if your favorite team is no longer involved!

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One Response to “With Successful 2013 Season Over, Eagles and Fans Wonder What ’14 Will Bring”

  1. Kyle Lutz says:

    This was an excellent, well thought out article (And I agree with all of it). Nice work Jim.