Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles were expected to have an unstoppable offense, as long as the star quarterback, Sam Bradford, and the star running back, DeMarco Murray, stayed healthy. Kelly’s warp-speed offense, with highly skilled players at the skill positions, is, as Bradford put it, “a beautiful thing when it’s working right. But very ugly when it’s not.”
We saw it Sunday when it was uglier than a junkyard. The Eagles lost 20-10 to the Dallas Cowboys, who also were playing a strangely unfocused game. They committed a staggering 18 penalties. Among them were two false starts by the perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten.
The game was painful for Troy Aikman, the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame quarterback, to watch, much less comment on. “This has been about as poor a performance as I think I’ve ever seen in this league,” Aikman said.
You were left muttering that these could not possibly be the two best teams in the NFC East.
But in an earlier game that day, the New York Giants looked equally gaffe-prone, and are 0-2 after losing at home to the playoff-shy Atlanta Falcons, who had upset the Eagles on opening weekend.
There is even talk in Washington about the local team being the best in the Eastern Division. A tidy 24-10 win over St. Louis made Washington 1-1, trailing only 2-0 Dallas, which seems barely capable of .500 now that its two biggest stars, quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant, are out with injuries for two months.
But as Aikman noted, “If the Eagles were not so inept offensively today, we would be talking about the Cowboys’ offense and the problems they had even when Romo was playing.”
True, their vaunted offensive line looked competent only compared to Philly’s.
The Eagles’ ineptness was incessant, and the problem was not that Murray and Bradford were not playing. The problem was they WERE playing.
Murray, while apparently healthy, which he is usually not, moved with less energy than he had as a Cowboy last season when he led the league in rushing. It’s as if he has the weight of $50 million on his shoulders.
As for Bradford, just staying out of the hospital is a notable accomplishment, especially considering that Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner are blocking for him. But Bradford has mostly himself to blame for five turnovers in two games.
And just as the Cowboys’ most reliable hand, Witten, let them down, the Eagles’ best offensive lineman, Jason Kelce, hiked the ball before a couple of his line mates had reached the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles rushed for a total of 7 yards on 17 attempts, but Kelly absolved Murray and the other backs of blame. The Eagles’ line was overwhelmed by a defensive front that has never been considered overwhelming. On most of his 12 carries (for an aggregate 2 yards), Murray was hit before he reached the line of scrimmage.
As he designed it, Kelly’s offense builds from the ground game. The defenders stack the line to shut down the run. Then his receivers face 1-on-1 coverages downfield. Combining the running game with the ultra tempo, the defense wears down.
When Kelly’s plans are properly executed, the Eagles march down the field as easily as a German army through Belgium.
We saw that sort of precision and power in the third and fourth quarters of the opener in Atlanta. But Sunday there was never a glimpse of the finely meshed offense that Kelly expects to be his norm.
“People are defending us to not allow us to throw the ball over the top,” Kelly said at his Monday press conference. “The safeties are backing up.”
He had traded for Bradford in the off-season for the sort of cannon that can heave the ball deep. But Bradford and his receivers have no time for that sort of connection with a line that cannot consistently hold back the rush.
Kelly must have been thinking that his plays are so well conceived that they will succeed with only minimal blocking. In fact, if he had a mobile quarterback such as Marcus Mariota whom he coached at the University of Oregon, the O-line holes would not be so damaging.
But Bradford cannot elude the rush. He has a quick enough trigger to avoid sacks (only one in 38 dropbacks at Dallas), but he’s unable to buy time, like a Rodgers or Brady or Roethlisberger, so a receiver can work his way free.
The mad scientist seems to have underestimated the need for the basics, offensive linemen who can block. ESPN’s power poll ranked the Eagles 22nd out of the 32 teams. They may be a little better than that, but there’s no need to quibble.