By the Numbers: Doug Pederson’s Quick Fixes
The Eagles’ offense, for all of its bells and whistles, was an unabashed mess in 2015. The run game fell apart, the passing game was spotty, and the offensive line suffered in a big way.
Hundreds of miles away, Doug Pederson and the Chiefs found a way to string together a monster winning streak with Alex Smith under center and their No. 1 running back sidelined for a good portion of the season.
While dumping an offensive genius in Chip Kelly and picking up a throwback offensive mind in Pederson may mean expecting a more productive unit initially feels a little backward, there might be something to a new perspective and a successful mind trying his hand at the Eagles’ cluttered offense.
Here are three things Pederson can start with.
1. Fixing a turnover-prone passing game
Smith is by and large regarded as a game-managing quarterback.
In his introductory press conference, Pederson didn’t mind that term being attached to his former gunslinger. The nice part about having a game manager is that, in theory, they don’t make mistakes. Their primary objective is to avoid them.
During Kelly’s lightning-fast tenure, the Eagles were plagued by quarterbacks — Michael Vick and Mark Sanchez, to name a couple — with a penchant for turning the ball over. The offense often moved so fast that the Birds seemed to stumble into turnovers with an unavoidable inertia. It was only a matter of time before a drive ended prematurely.
From 2013 to 2015, Eagles quarterbacks threw twice as many interceptions as Russell Wilson, 21 more than Tom Brady, and 29 more than Aaron Rodgers. Overall, Eagles quarterbacks threw 82 touchdowns to 48 interceptions, a porous 1.71 to 1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
In the same time span, Chiefs quarterbacks threw 62 touchdowns to 21 interceptions, a much more favorable 2.95 to 1 ratio. It’s not as gaudy as the numbers of a Wilson, or a Brady, but it’s pretty close to Wilson’s 3.33 to 1 ratio over those three years, and far better than Cam Newton’s 2.2 to 1 ratio since 2013.
With a Jim Schwartz defense putting an emphasis on attacking the ball, and an offense that, when not turning the ball, has plenty of weapons at its disposal, a good goal for Pederson’s first year should simply be cutting down on turnovers, which shouldn’t be terribly difficult. He’s shown his offenses can be efficient and safe.
The question moving forward, then, will be if Pederson can apply that same safety and efficiency to a more explosive offense. Winning regular season games with a game manager mentality is one thing; winning a Super Bowl that way might be a little harder.
2. Doug Pederson, tight end whisperer
Stop me if you’ve heard this before — because you’ve heard this before — but Zach Ertz is primed to have a breakout season in 2016.
He saw the majority of the Eagles’ tight end snaps in 2015, flipping the numbers on Brent Celek from a year earlier. He had a monster end to the season, but he had a similar end to the year in 2014, and then the expected breakout never came.
Under Pederson’s coordination, Travis Kelce turned in one of the more impressive starts to a career by a young tight end in recent memory. He caught 139 passes for over 1,700 yards and 10 touchdowns, five in each season, in 2014 and 2015 combined.
Even when Pederson was saddled with a two-man duo of Sean McGrath and Anthony Fasano in 2013, the pair caught a combined five touchdown passes.
Ertz, for all of his physical gifts and impressive catching ability, has yet to catch five touchdowns in a season once, one of the reasons he has yet to notch that fabled, foretold “breakout” year.
Ertz had his best statistical year yet in 2015, catching 75 balls for 853 yards, but just hauled in two touchdowns.
Then he went and signed a contract very close to that of Kelce’s; both deals are for five years, but Kelce makes $46 million, while Ertz draws in $42 million. So, in essence, they are the same deal.
That means the Eagles see Ertz on the same plane as Kelce, who was a Pro Bowler in 2015. With a young, somewhat limited receiving corps, Ertz has to be the player that Howie Roseman and Pederson expect to see in 2016, a tight end who qualifies as a top receiving threat and, yes, catches five touchdown passes.
Maybe Pederson brought his tight end whispering abilities with him.
3. A little bit of ground game consistency
There are plenty of uncertainties surrounding the Eagles’ running game.
Will Pederson have DeMarco Murray? If he does, will he use him? Will he opt for a platoon-style rushing attack, the likes of which we expected when Kelly signed Murray and Ryan Mathews before the 2015 offseason? Where does Darren Sproles fit in all of this?
The nice part about all of these questions is that Pederson’s running game in Kansas City last season showed his offense is predicated not on the personnel, but rather the scheme and the — wait for it — execution.
When Jamaal Charles went down with an ACL injury after just 71 carries, the Chiefs’ run game hardly suffered. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware combined for over 1,000 yards, and the Chiefs ran their way to the playoffs.
While Kelly’s offense with the Eagles may not have “become predictable,” as many both locally and nationally have hypothesized, the data support the claim that his running game was simply less effective with each coming season. On the other hand, Pederson’s three years in Kansas City yielded nearly identical yards per attempt numbers. The Chiefs averaged 4.7 yards per attempt in 2013 and 2015; in 2014, they averaged 4.6 yards per attempt.
Is it easier to get consistent production when your running back is one of the four best rushers in the league, and your offensive line is relatively healthy and skilled? Yes, of course.
But it’s also markedly harder to get consistent production when opposing defenses recognize that your most credible offensive threat lines up behind the quarterback, instead of out wide. Opposing defenses begged Smith to be the one to beat them during Pederson’s three years, but Kansas City kept running the ball — 442 attempts in 2013, 420 in 2014, and 436 in 2015 — and kept succeeding.
The Eagles, meanwhile, beat their collective heads against a wall, to less and less success. They rushed for 5.1 yards per attempt in Kelly’s first season, 4.2 yards per attempt in 2014, and a paltry 3.9 yards per attempt in 2015.
Needless to say, a little consistency in the run game, especially with a gigantic question mark at the quarterback position, wouldn’t be a bad thing.