Chip Kelly is Wrong About the Eagles’ Problems

I am a big Chip Kelly fan. I like his innovation and new thought process as it’s applied to the NFL popular conceptions, because I fully believe those popular conceptions are less than optimal for today’s game.  We’ve heard Kelly speak facetiously with the media before, such as referring to his team’s pace of play solely as an effort to get the game over with faster, so some of what he said is in jest. That said, I do take issue with a few of the comments he made following the lost to the Redskins that dropped the Eagles to 1-3 on the season.

First, Kelly said that if they had “hit two [field goals], and we’re sitting at 3-1, everyone is happy.”  It is true that Bill Parcells once said “you are what your record says you are” but as sports bettors, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth. We understand if there’s anything you should ignore about a team, it’s their record. The only thing a record allows for is to decide who makes the playoffs or for draft pick seeding. But in terms of how a team measures up over the course of the season, a record is a poor yardstick to measure how good or bad a team actually is. Obviously, the NFL and media certainly allow wins to cover up sores. When a team plays bad but wins, they “won ugly,” and that win is the paper bag which covers up the “ugly.”  

But the fact of the matter is, most teams and coaches will be scathingly critical even in the face of a win in order to work on problems and issues, and the Eagles have their share of problems and issues.  To pretend that everyone would be happy even if the Eagles had made those field goals and were 3-1 is completely illogical considering how they have played and performed to date.

Chip Kelly went on to state “you got to stay on the field on third down. So if third down gets you a first down, now we can run the football. We’re not converting third downs and that’s the biggest problem with us offensively right now. We need to play more on offense. That’s the bottom-line. We’re getting off the field on third down and most of the time when we’re off the field on third down, it’s our fault. We’re not getting stopped. We’re doing it to ourselves.”

It’s actually this quote that disturbs me more than the previous one. Because it shows a willful desire to not actually understand the issues, and instead focus on something that any of the other bumbling head coaches would focus on.  (Let’s gloss over the “we’re not getting stopped” comment which gives no credit to opposing defenses, and which is obviously untrue.)

The problem is not that the Eagles are bad on third down. Yes, they do convert to third worst of any team on third down, which is clearly not good. But that’s not their problem.  A couple of other teams also convert below 30% in the NFL: the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But like the Eagles, their main problem is not that they simply stink on third down. Conversely, the New England Patriots are the best team in the NFL on third-down conversions, converting 60% this year. But, like these other teams that are terrible, the Patriots aren’t simply some sort of magical third-down conversion machine, who just happen to be insanely great on 3rd downs.

The common denominator for all of these teams is “distance”. As in, distance to-go on third down to make a first down. As it turns out, the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Eagles all rank bottom three in the NFL in average distance to-go on third down. For the Eagles, they are averaging 8.3 yards to-go on third down, third worst in the NFL.  As for the New England Patriots, they average only 5.2 yards to go on third down, which is the shortest distance in the NFL.  Clearly this should not be a shocking discovery that the team which needs to gain the least yardage on third downs has a better conversion percentage than teams who need to gain over three more yards on average on third downs.  Certainly distance is not the only factor, but it is definitely correlated to conversion percentage, and ignoring that isn’t smart. 

The reason the Eagles are faced with so many third and longs is because they cannot run the football on early downs. On first down the team is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry, with lead back DeMarco Murray averaging only 1.5 yards per carry. If you thought those numbers were bad, on second down, they only get worse. The team is averaging only 2.7 yards per carry on second down runs with DeMarco Murray averaging 0.9 yards per carry. Those numbers are atrocious.

This forces the Eagles to attempt to fight through many third and longs. Averaging 8.3 yards to go on third down means Sam Bradford being put in third and 8+ yards to go situations regularly. So far this season in that situation he is 12/21 for 5.8 yards per attempt, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 1 sack and a 53.9 passer rating. When you ignore screens and dump offs to running backs, and focus only on passes to wide receivers, those numbers get far worse.

When passing to wide receivers on third and 8+ yards to go, Bradford is 5/13 for 4.1 yards per attempt, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception and a 19 passer rating.  

Certainly the team needs to improve on those passing numbers on third down. Sam Bradford looks like a frightened deer as the pass rushers surround him on these obvious passing downs. But expecting the Eagles offense, as it currently is designed, to excel on third and 8+ yards to go is unlikely.  The Eagles need to set themselves up with third and manageable, and only then will they have a strong third-down conversion percentage.  

The NFL average for converting on third and 8+ yards to go is only 25% the last two years.  The New England Patriots, the team who is converting the most 3rd downs this year (60% conversions) converted only 27% of third and 8+ yards to go the last 2 years.  So is it shocking that the Eagles, who are facing an average of third and 8.3 yards to go this year, are converting only 29% of the time?

With an improved run game, the Eagles will also be able to turn to one of their staples of success, the play action pass.  So far this season, Eagles have used it in only 13.6% of passing plays. The first couple of seasons under Chip Kelly they were using play action over 30% of the time, among the very top of the NFL in usage. They were seeing their passer rating improve by over 25 points when using play action.  If the Eagles want to see Sam Bradford’s numbers improve, it will come when using more play action.  And using play action will only occur when they can run the football and provide better pass protection for Bradford in the pocket.  It all gets back to the run game.

Until the Eagles can fix their early down running game, they will be faced with many more third and longs.  It would take one hell of a play caller and one hell of an offense to convert 3rd and 8+ yards to-go at a high rate.  Perhaps a short term solution is to use Ryan Matthews more on first down runs, as he is averaging 5.3 yards per carry as opposed to Murray’s 1.5 yards per carry.  Such a move would be difficult, as it would mean Kelly admitting Murray isn’t as good a fit in his offense, and certainly would not make Murray pleased as he’s clamoring in the media for more touches.

Fortunately, the Eagles are facing the New Orleans Saints defense this coming Sunday. Chip Kelly and whichever back is carrying the ball should easily be able to generate appropriate yardage on the ground on the early downs to set the Eagles up for third and manageable.  My guess is, Kelly will find that they are converting a lot better on third downs as a result.  And in next week’s press conference, hopefully Kelly will acknowledge that their improved third down conversion percentage versus the Saints was not the result of improved third down execution, more protein drinks and outstanding sports science, but simply the result of facing third and fewer yards to-go.  

 

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.