O-ffensive Line, Where Art Thou

Week 2. Another post. Another Eagles Post-Mortem

    As we approach the start of gameweek 3, its probably time to address where things went wrong on Sunday evening, and where things need to go right against the Jets this weekend. The Eagles haven’t gone 0-3 since 1999 (when they reached the depths of 0-4 before overcoming the Cowboys in week 5) so its fair to say that if there is to be any hope of salvaging at least a Wildcard spot, the Eagles need this week to fix those glaring holes that derailed not just the run game, but the entire offensive structure in week 2. Unlike with the previous weeks defeat to Atlanta, there looks to be only one single defining problem with the offense that took the field against the Cowboys, and its not an easy one to fix.

    First things first though. DeMarco Murray has taken a lot of stick in the week for his performance (or lack thereof) in Sundays game against the Cowboys. 2 yards rushing on 13 carries, and the entire rushing corps for the Eagles totalling 17 yards (9 of which came from Bradford in a single scramble) . That does not tell the whole story here. Murray, like Sproles and Matthews, put everything into the game. They threw themselves 17 times into a Dallas runblock which seemed to win every fight it had with the Eagles offensive line. The frustration in Murray was obvious to everyone, not least his head coach, and the Cowboys took every opportunity to wind him up further. After all, he chose to take the money with Philly rather than stay in Dallas, the team that drafted him and with which he had just had a massive breakout season. When he did get loose, it was usually on a passing play, and the one brief moment in which the crowd got into the game was when he sprinted down the sideline, hurdled the incoming tackle, and gained a rare Eagles 1st down. When he took his helmet off though, the pain on his face was obvious to see. At home, in the big game, he had been shown up against the one team he wanted to do well against above all others.

    The offensive line, which in previous seasons had allowed Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez time to sit in the pocket and get the passing game going, and had given Shady McCoy year after year of solid running yards, fell apart like a paper towel in a tornado. And it all started with Todd Herremans ….

    There has been a lot said about Chip Kelly and his desire to recruit former members of his Oregon Ducks college team. In March, when he acquired Kiko Alonso in a trade for LeSean McCoy, Kelly took the total number of Ducks under contract with the Eagles to nine. With such a hefty presence from one college comes and understanding of team mates and how they play, their strengths and weaknesses. It can also be argued it brings with it a clash of styles, with others feeling outside of the circle having had their college years in other locations. The reality is most NFL teams have little loyalty to any specific colleges, basing their draft picks on the ability of a player to adapt to their coaches system, which has usually been developed over several years working within the NFL. Except with Chip, what he brought to the NFL was a college style. His fast paced college offense caught a lot of teams off guard in his first season. Nick Foles, coming in for the injured Michael Vick, worked miracles, obtaining a QB rating for the season normally reserved for the likes of Brady, Rodgers and Roethlisberger, getting to his first Pro-Bowl game in the process. The thing with something new is, it takes teams time to adapt and adjust, and once they do, it simply stops working. Ask why RGIII and Colin Kaepernick have struggled to repeat the amazing numbers from their first seasons as the starting QB at their respective teams, and most observers will tell you its because teams worked them out. The NFL is a league where every season you need a new trick, because teams scout using the previous seasons performances and data.

    So to Herremans. A 10 year veteran, he was the cornerstone of an Eagles offensive line that had been together for years. At 32 he was reaching the end of his NFL career, but the Eagles had seen enough to award him a 3 year contract in 2012 which would take him to the end of the 2016 season. Along with Jason Kelce (drafted 2012) and Evan Mathis (acquired 2011), these three Pro-Bowlers had formed the core of the Eagles O-Line for years. Losing one pro-bowler from the O-Line in a season would be a major loss for any franchise, but when the Eagles cut Herremans, Mathis held out pre-season for a renegotiated contract, possibly fearing that, like Herremans, his age and his end-loaded contract would be terminated at the end of the season to free up salary cap.

    The Eagles, after what apparently was a very short negotiation, cut Mathis as well. The O-Line lost 17 years worth of NFL experience.

    Jason Kelce was very vocal after the Cowboys game. At 27, he was the baby of the bunch, and had security in his 6 year deal signed the season before. Alongside Lane Johnson and Jason Peters, there are still 3 Pro-Bowl quality players on the offensive line, but he acknowledged that none of them had played to their potential. Dallas knew where DeMarco liked to run, and pushed the Eagles towards the back side to stop this occurring. Even so, the ease with which they were able to out-muscle the Eagles was more damning than their failure to open holes or even hold the line outside of a passing play. Murray, Sproles and Matthews were regularly hit or stopped before the line of scrimmage, forcing Bradford to rely on short screen passes to get the offense going. Even then, he was hurried, unable to sit in the pocket and find an open receiver, and having to rely on plays where his wide receivers would try and outsprint the Dallas secondary, rather than get inside and get open. He was picked twice (once in the endzone after an Eagles drive which relied more on Dallas penalties than earned yardage) , and sacked once in a miserable afternoon.

    Its not the first time though the Eagles run game has struggled. In 2013, the Eagles picked up a miserable 132 rushing yards in back to back games against the Cowboys and the Giants. It actually proved to be a spur to the team, who then went on to win 7 of their next 8 and clinch the division. Similar failures occurred in 2014, firstly against Washington & San Francisco, then later against Seattle and Dallas. This season though has the potential to be far, far worse. The Eagles have 2.1 yards per carry in their first two games, and average 35 yards per game. Thats less than half of their nearest divisional rivals (the Cowboys at 3.4 yards per carry and 94.5 yards per game) and a fraction of the league leading Redskins (4.6/171.5). This wouldn’t mean as much if Bradford was scoring through the air, but the weakness in the offensive line means that threat is negated quickly. Its painful to watch.

    Most franchises look to replace personnel around the age of 30, so its easy to argue this makes it a transitional year for the offensive line. That’s not something fans want to hear though, particularly when Chip has brought them back to back winning seasons, and an NFC East divisional title. Against the Jets, who have always had a strong defense against the run, the Eagles will again be forced to relay on Bradford trying to pick holes in a secondary which, Marshalled by Darrell Revis, is league leading in interceptions. It might just be a blip, I sincerely hope its just a blip. Only 3 teams that have started 0-3 in the modern NFL have ever made the playoffs. Just three weeks in, and the Eagles season is hanging by a thread.