ST. PAUL, Minn. – The thrilling offense that finally vaulted the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl has arrived.
It was not the Chip Kelly revolution many predicted. In one way, it was the opposite.
In 2013, the University of Oregon legend brought his cutting-edge attack to Philadelphia and pundits marveled. The Eagles blistered the Washington Redskins for 33 points in their first game under the new coach and won a division title that season with a 10-6 record. Nearly everyone thought greatness was close, but it would not get any closer. The Eagles missed the playoffs the next season and Kelly got even more personnel power after that. He traded away Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy, neglected key parts of the offensive line, and the team fell into disrepair. The Eagles’ yards-per-play plummeted from first in the league in Kelly’s initial season to 24th in 2015. He was fired when the team was 6-9.
Kelly’s replacement, Doug Pederson, was seen as milquetoast by comparison. He was a former backup quarterback and an Andy Reid protégé. Surely this would be boring by comparison.
It was not.
These playoffs have illustrated the underrated genius of Pederson’s way. Against Atlanta, the Eagles took advantage of soft coverage and went with a conservative, low-risk passing game. The Vikings saw that and figured more of the same was coming in the NFC title game. Instead, Pederson and his staff shocked Minnesota by stretching the field and throwing deep. While Kelly set the tempo and dared defenses to match it, Pederson reacts to what he sees across the field.
“There’s a new wrinkle each and every week to keep defenses honest,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “It’s extremely fun playing for coaches like that.”
It keeps the offense honest as well.
“On Tuesday when they’re first introducing things, it catches you off guard,” Ertz said. “When you pull up the film and you see what they see, you get the confidence it’s going to work. Because you see the details behind it. They understand the defensive scheme so well.”
None of the Eagles are going to rip Kelly; his offense had creativity and sometimes flashes of genius. But Kelly never won a playoff game in Philadelphia and his seasons tended to sputter at the end. It’s difficult running such a fast tempo into the winter months, especially against division rivals who get used to the pace and conjure ways to counter. Pederson’s offense is constantly reimagined; it can plow straight ahead with LeGarrette Blount, stretch the field with Alshon Jeffery, and yes, resemble the old days with Foles and his read-pass option plays. This is a big part of how the team has withstood injuries not only to quarterback Carson Wentz, but to other cogs in the offense.
“We’re versatile,” tight end Brent Celek said. “We can run the ball. We can pass the ball. If we want to do trick plays, we can do trick plays.”
That ability to shift the throttle may be the best weapon the Eagles have against the Pats. New England coach Bill Belichick will take away his opponent’s best option, but it’s hard to figure what that option will be Sunday. The Eagles have looked distinct every week. They’ve even changed during games.
“Chip is go-go-go, doesn’t matter what the defense does,” Ertz said. “This [offense] we’re going to adjust and adapt every week. I love this scheme.”
Celek echoed that, again without criticizing Kelly. “Everyone runs the same plays,” he said. “It’s how they’re called and what situation they’re called. Doug does a great job of using the plays that a player does really well.”
That’s been obvious during Foles’ time under center. He’s not the athlete that Wentz is, but he has some unique abilities: seeing the field well, and throwing at an arm angle that can be difficult for defenders to decipher. The transition from Wentz to Foles after the former’s ACL tear and ruptured LCL has been quite smooth.
“I played for some amazing coaches,” Foles said, “and Doug is an unbelievable play-caller. He does a great job of deciding when to call each thing, but our staff is unbelievable at game-planning and putting us in position, no matter if it’s the run game, the pass game, the screen game, whatever it may be. The attention to detail is unbelievable and we go into a game feeling 100 percent confident.”
Part of the foundation of that confidence is the offensive line, which is arguably the league’s best. It is certainly improved from what it was when Pederson took over. The Eagles’ blockers blot out a lot of offensive hesitancy and exploit a defense’s flaws. That opens up the playbook. “If we have shot plays, he’s not afraid to call them,” said backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld. “On some third downs we only need a few yards because it’s four-down territory and he’s gonna go for it.”
Kelly’s offense was notable and watchable because it was so aggressive. Pederson’s offense is just as aggressive, though in a very different way. At least this season, and in these playoffs, it’s been aggressive in all the right ways.
Revolutions are exciting. Sometimes failed revolutions are even better.
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