The conference championship games are this weekend. That's where you want to be, competing for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Eagles are watching from home this year and they haven't been to the conference title game since the 2008 season. For the first time in a while, it feels like the Eagles are back to a point where they will be returning to playing in mid-to-late January games.
Going 10-6 and winning the NFC East was a great start to Chip Kelly's tenure as coach of the Eagles. It felt so good to see the Eagles atop the division standings and playing in the postseason. I hope Kelly and his players took some time to sit back and admire their accomplishments. How does 30 minutes sound?
While getting back on the winning track is a good thing, you can argue that it was easy compared to what comes next. The Eagles played a last-place schedule this year. That helped with the quick turnaround, as the NFL designed it to. Next year, the Eagles will be playing the division winners from this season. The Eagles will also be more of a marked team. They won't sneak up on anyone. There will be expectations to live up to. Pressure from the fans and media will be very different from this season. That can wear on coaches and players.
A good team can win 10 games. It is harder to win 12 or 13 games. That requires you to take your game up a notch. Good isn't good enough to win like that. You need to be excellent. Taking that step from being a good team to an excellent team is tough. Some squads can't do that. They might lack the talent or the coaching or the discipline. The Vikings and Washington each won 10 games in 2012. Both teams flopped this season. The Lions went 10-6 in 2011. With Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, they seemed to be a team on the rise. Instead, they fell apart each of the last two years and finished with losing records.
Winning isn't easy, but going from good to great is a serious challenge. The more games you win, the closer you are to your peak. Improving becomes increasingly difficult because you start talking about trying to perfect things. Think of shooting free throws. It is easier to get someone to improve from a 50-percent shooter to a 70-percent shooter than it is going from 70 percent to 90 percent.
I think Chip Kelly's coaching style is conducive to the Eagles continuing to improve. He preaches fundamentals and the importance of practice. Some coaches focus on results and they will let players get by with bad habits. The players count on making plays based on talent rather than execution. Buddy Ryan used to tell Randall Cunningham to go make five or six plays a game and that will get us a win. Think about
Kelly wants success that can be sustained. He wants players to be able to execute simple plays over and over. He wants them done correctly. After a runner is up to the second level or once the receiver has the ball in space, that's when Kelly wants them to use their dynamic ability. Make something happen. Kelly got on
You could see as the season moved along that both men got on the same page. Kelly gave McCoy more freedom. McCoy mixed in more downhill running, especially in critical situations. A couple of years ago, McCoy would get the ball on third-and-short or even on fourth down and would try to bounce the run outside. He was looking for a big play. That started to change in 2012 and got more pronounced this year. McCoy got the ball and ran hard, straight ahead. He didn't care if there was a hole or not. He attacked the gap the play was designed for. McCoy set aside his desire for the big plays and focused on getting the yard or two that would move the chains. That is smart, sustainable football.
Kelly loves big plays, but he wants them to come through fundamentals. Kelly's goal is to get the ball to his playmaker in a favorable situation. Kelly needs to call the right play. The quarterback then needs to make the right decision. Once the ball is in the hands of the playmaker, Kelly expects the blockers to give the playmaker a chance to turn a short gain into a long one. In this offense, wide receivers must block. That isn't an option. It isn't a bonus quality. It is imperative. Block or you're not going to play.
All the blocking Celek did helped make the running game go. It took away chances for him to catch passes. But the running game affected the defense in such a way that Celek was able to get almost as many big plays despite half the opportunities. This is the kind of offense Kelly loves. Run the ball. Be physical. Use the passing game to get big plays. The way Kelly called plays had a major impact on the number of big plays. That is sustainable.
The defensive coaches also focused on fundamentals. The Eagles worked on tackling on a daily basis. Fans and media were worried because the Eagles didn't tackle to the ground in Training Camp. They worried Kelly might not have the team physically ready. Kelly simply didn't want to risk injuries. He preferred to practice tackling in a controlled environment rather than in a live 11-on-11 scrum. The results were good. The Eagles were a better tackling team this year than in recent seasons. The coaches preached taking good angles, getting your head in front of the target and wrapping up. There were still some bad games (Chiefs, Vikings), but for the most part, tackling was vastly improved.
Defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro had his guys hitting the sled every day. He was trying to teach them how to be 2-gap defenders. Most coaches will mix in the sled a lot in the summer and then set it aside. Azzinaro kept harping on fundamentals all year long. He used the sled to help them with their footwork and hand-placement. Azzinaro wanted this stuff to become second nature to them. By doing it every day, the actions became more normal in game situations.
The defensive backs played the ball better this year than in a long time. Cornerbacks
The coaches are going to continue focusing on the basics. Kelly hired a staff full of veteran teachers. These coaches laid the foundation in 2013. They'll continue teaching in 2014, but will focus more on players honing their techniques instead of just learning them. Coaches will have higher expectations now that the players know the schemes and what is expected of them.
The Eagles took a big step forward in 2013. They want to do that again next season. Adjusting the roster will help the situation, but one of the biggest ways to improve will be the current players getting better at the little things.
Notice that I didn't talk about touchdowns or big plays or takeaways in there. Those are results. You get them by doing the little things right. Kelly preaches that to his players and this mentality should serve the Eagles well as they move forward this year and try to take the next step.