The Eagles did not play this weekend, but like many of you, I spent 12-plus hours in front of the TV watching the divisional-round games. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 observations with an Eagles slant.
1. The four winning quarterbacks – Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick and Peyton Manning – completed, on average, 15.5 passes in their victories. And no quarterback threw for more than 230 yards. Wilson went 9-for-18 for 103 yards, completing just two passes in the second half. Brady went 13-for-25 for 198 yards; the 13 completions were his fewest ever in a playoff win he started/finished.
The talking heads like to remind us constantly that “it’s a passing league.” And in many ways, there’s truth to that statement. All four teams still alive finished in the top eight in passing during the regular season, according to Football Outsiders. But it’s also true that teams that can find different ways to win give themselves the best chance to advance in the postseason.
Sometimes, that means relying on defense and an explosive run game. Other times, it might mean winning the turnover battle and getting a big contribution from special teams.
And it could also mean explosive plays in the passing game. That just wasn’t the case this weekend.
2. How do we view the Eagles differently after the weekend’s games? My biggest takeaway is I still can’t figure out why the Birds’ run game laid an egg against the Saints. LeSean McCoy ran the ball 21 times for 77 yards (3.7 YPC) in that game. Marshawn Lynch, meanwhile, piled up 140 yards on 28 carries (5.0 YPC) against New Orleans. The Eagles had the best run game in the NFL during the regular season, but failed to notch a carry that gained more than 11 yards against the Saints. The tape showed that the offensive line did not play well, and the Saints won the majority of battles up front. But it’s still tough to figure out why those things happened, given what we saw during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Nick Foles and the Eagles’ passing game come out looking better than they did right after the Saints loss. I wrote afterwards that Foles left too many plays on the field – and I still believe that to be the case – but Wilson couldn’t get anything going against the Saints’ defense, which had been strong against the pass all season long.
3. You’ll hear analysts all the time talk about “tight-window” or “stick” throws. The concept is simple: Some passes in the NFL require a certain amount of zip and precision to fit in between defenders. But you didn’t really see a lot of those throws attempted by Foles in the Eagles’ offense (especially compared to what we saw from the QBs over the weekend).
A couple theories here. One, Chip Kelly probably deserves credit for his offensive design and play-calling. The Eagles led the NFL with 80 pass plays of 20+ yards and 8.7 YPA, even though you didn’t see a lot of those “stick” throws.
I also wonder how much of it comes down to Kelly’s overall philosophy and what he’s preaching to Foles. During one of his coaches’ clinic speeches, Kelly said: “The job of the quarterback is simple. He has to let it happen and not make it happen.” That comes down to two things: Avoiding turnovers and avoiding sacks. Foles was fantastic at the first and needs work with the second.
The most impressive part of Foles’ season was that he avoided turnovers while still chucking it downfield. He had two interceptions on 317 attempts, but averaged a league-best 9.12 yards per attempt. According to Pro Football Focus, 17.4 percent of Foles’ throws traveled 20 yards or more from the line of scrimmage. That’s the highest percentage of any QB in the last two years. In other words, this offense took more shots downfield than any other in the NFL.
It’s important to remember the 2013 version of Foles was not the finished product. Going forward, it will be fascinating to see if Kelly urges Foles to “grip and rip it” even more on those tight-window throws or if he’s perfectly happy with the balance Foles struck in 2013. Stats won’t tell the story. Matching last year’s numbers will be difficult. But Foles has only started 17 games in his career. There should still be plenty of room for growth and development, especially considering the improvement we saw from Year 1 to Year 2.
4. Marshawn Lynch runs with violence. He seeks contact, runs through defenders and is one of the most difficult backs in the league to bring down. But I wonder how that will affect his longevity compared to someone like McCoy.
McCoy spoke this season about how he never really takes big hits, and having watched all of his carries this season, he’s right. McCoy (314) and Lynch (301) were the only backs in the league to have more than 300 carries. McCoy played the second-most snaps in the NFL behind only Matt Forte.
He’s only 25, while Lynch is 27. I’m curious about how long each guy can extend his peak years and how steep the dropoff will be for the two running backs down the road, given their vastly different running styles.
5. I wonder how interested the Eagles were in CB Keenan Lewis last offseason. Lewis was a free agent, along with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. He fits the size requirement (6-0, 208) and is only 27. I was really impressed with Lewis – both on tape against the Eagles and on TV against the Seahawks. According to OverTheCap.com, he got considerably more guaranteed money ($10.3M) than Williams ($5.75M) and Fletcher ($2.35M).
The Eagles knew they wanted to replace both Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie after last season. They got better-than-expected play out of Williams and Fletcher. But the guess here is they probably sniffed around Lewis as well.
6. The “screaming at my TV” moment of the weekend came in the second quarter of the Patriots-Colts game. On fourth down, New England set up for a punt, but the snap flew over Ryan Allen’s head. He ran back to the 2-yard-line, scooped up the football, fumbled and ended up taking a safety. The announcers criticized Allen for not falling on the ball at the 2 and giving his defense a chance for a stop.
The safety was essentially the best-case scenario for the Patriots. Bill Barnwell of Grantland went through the math earlier in the season. But if Allen had fallen on the ball, he would have given Indy an excellent chance of scoring a touchdown. Instead, the Colts got two points. It’s true that they got the ball back, but still, they started their next drive at their own 28.
The biggest mistake Allen could have made there would have been to fall on the ball at the 2 and give the Colts’ offense a chance to score.
7. Kelly often stresses process over results. Question him about a call after a game, and more often than not, he’ll explain that he wouldn’t change a thing if he had to do it all over again.
But it seemed on Sunday like Ron Rivera let the results of one decision affect another. In the beginning of the second quarter, the Panthers faced a 4th-and-goal from the 49ers’ 1, down 6-0. They ran Cam Newton on a QB sneak, but he was stuffed, and the 49ers took over.
The ensuing sequence showed why that was still the right call. San Francisco went three-and-out, had to punt from its own end zone, and the Panthers ended up with great field position at the 49ers’ 31-yard-line.
Later in the quarter, Carolina faced 4th-and-goal from the 49ers’ 2. They were up 7-6 and instead decided to kick the field goal.
The bigger problem facing the Panthers was that they failed to score on seven tries from inside the San Francisco 7. That undoubtedly figured in to Rivera’s decision. But I still think he should have trusted the process there and gone for it a second time.
8. Time for the Kapadia Outside The Box Idea Of the Week (who wants to sponsor this?). I see a future in which coaches combine responsibilities for some of their players. For example, after Aiken went down with an injury, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski handled punting duties. On his first try from the New England 40, he booted a punt to the Colts’ 7, pinning Indy inside its own 20. He later had a 52-yarder that gave the Colts’ offense the ball at its own 12.
I’m not trying to downplay the importance of special teams. But I’ve watched a fair share of NFL practices. I think there’s plenty of time for a kicker to practice both kicking and punting. If teams could fine one player to handle both, it would save coaches an all-important roster spot – both on the 53 and on gameday.
The other position that could be combined with something else is long-snapper. If I’m a backup tight end or linebacker, I’m spending half-hour a day in the offseason on my long-snapping and going into camp in the spring talking up my versatility.
This is the NFL of the future, my friends. Just remember you heard it here first.
9. Steve Smith has long been one of my favorite receivers to watch. In the second quarter against San Francisco, he hauled in a 31-yard TD from Newton. 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown had good coverage, but the throw was perfect and Smith did a good job of not tipping his hand until the last minute:
Great toss by Cam, fantastic body control and catch by Steve Smith. That’s why you coach WRs to have “late hands”. DB couldn’t recover
— Smart Football (@smartfootball) January 12, 2014
I asked Billy Davis when he taught his defensive backs to turn around and find the ball in situations where they were face-guarding the intended receiver. He said they watched the receiver’s eyes and his hands. If defensive backs turn back too early, they lose ground and give up separation. If they turn around too late, they risk a penalty or a reception.
Players often used the term “play through their hands.” In other words, if you don’t turn around in time, the key is to get your hands in between their’s, which makes it difficult for them to hold on to the ball.
But Smith did a great job of making Brown’s job difficult on the TD.
10. Did the disastrous sequence in the third quarter of the Panthers-49ers game remind anyone else of the possession that hurt the Eagles against the Saints?
Carolina was set up with a 2nd-and-10 from the 49ers’ 29, down 20-10. They had put together an 11-play drive and were in field-goal range. But Newton took back-to-back sacks that lost a total of 16 yards.
A marathon drive turned up no points, and the Panthers were forced to punt.
For the Eagles, the disaster played out slightly differently. Brent Celek lost 8 yards on a screen before Foles took a sack. But still, it’s situational football. You can’t afford negative plays that take potential points off the board in that area of the field.
And we close out with some quick-hitters:
* I saw some people Tweet out this NFL.com article that said Andrew Luck played fantastic against the Patriots. That seemed odd considering he threw four interceptions. Luck was spectacular at times, but did a poor job of taking care of the football. Two factions have formed on Luck. One groups thinks he’s overrated, while the other believes he’s the next great thing. If I had to choose one, I’m in the latter. I think within the next two years we’ll be talking about Luck as one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the league. He has the arm, the size and the athleticism. While his decision-making wasn’t great Sunday, Luck only had nine INTs in 570 attempts during the regular season.
* If you’re wondering why I didn’t write much about the Broncos-Chargers game, it’s because that was the snoozer of the weekend. San Diego made it interesting late, but for three-plus quarters, Denver was in full control. Overall, while I was entertained through much of the first three games, these matchups weren’t especially close with an average margin of victory of 12.3 points. Based on Brian Burke’s Excitement Index (hat tip to Derek Sarley of Iggles Blog), this was one of the least exciting divisional rounds in recent memory.
* Saints safety Rafael Bush put a big (illegal) hit on Percy Harvin Sunday. But did you notice the Saints’ sideline didn’t exactly seem disappointed in his actions?
Saints coach dapping up his safety for his illegal hit…. Not a good look! #NOvsSEA
— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) January 11, 2014
* During the regular season, I usually Tweeted out announcer assignments for the Eagles each Tuesday. The one pairing that got the most positive feedback was Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch of FOX. Cool story here on Burkhardt’s rise to where he is now.
* What’s with the Chevrolet commercial that rips the son for wanting to play “computer games” instead of going camping? I’m not a big fan of either activity. But if I’m choosing between Madden (on my old Sega Genesis, of course) and fighting off bugs/sleeping in a tent, I’m taking the former. Go ahead, call me a Mary. I don’t mind.
* On that same topic, did you notice Earl Thomas bailing early when holding the kickoff so the ball wouldn’t blow off the tee in the Seattle wind? I used to hate being that guy in backyard football. I always thought my buddy was going to kick my finger right off my hand.
* And finally, we need to find some way to include drawn holding calls and forced intentional groundings in individual pass-rusher stats. Sacks and QB hits don’t tell the whole story. In the fourth quarter of the Saints-Seahawks game, defensive lineman Cliff Avril drew a holding call that took New Orleans from 2nd-and-4 to 2nd-and-14. It was a huge play, but he doesn’t get credit for it in the box score.