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By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia (CBS)—The predictions are starting to spill in and most respected prognosticators have the Eagles falling between six to eight victories this season.
That seems to be reaching a little, considering Chip Kelly is in his first season as an NFL coach, the Eagles’ woeful defense and the strong possibility that Michael Vick (Stopgap 7) won’t play more than six games before getting hurt or imploding under a morass of bad decisions.
Most experts are counting on Kelly’s innovative ways to catch the NFL off guard, and through the first month of the season, it could. But the Eagles will also be weighted down by one of the league’s worst defenses—if not, the worst—while learning new systems that in some places doesn’t match the personnel needed to succeed.
Jimmy Johnson went 1-15 in his first season as head coach of the Cowboys. Johnson didn’t begin winning until his third season, after he built the team he wanted, with great help from the treasures garnered from a franchise-shifting trade with the Minnesota Vikings and drafting Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, and Darren Woodson. Not to mention already having Troy Aikman.
Kelly could turn out to be an excellent NFL coach. But this team won’t move forward until Kelly fills in the proper pieces. That starts with finding a franchise quarterback. Ask yourself this, do you think Vick, Nick Foles or Matt Barkley can fill that void?
That would be a resounding “No!”
But can Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan or UCLA’s Brett Hundley? Possibly. And the Eagles won’t be able to build and grow into what Kelly envisions without a quarterback of that quality to build around.
The Eagles may not win more than four games this season. They’re the worst team in the NFC East and could get swept by the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants. Their strength, it seems, is the offensive line and a decent running game. But that’s a glaring ‘if,’ since Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremanns are all coming off season-ending injuries in 2012. How much do we really know about Lane Johnson, other than he’s looked good during preseason. The one reliable cog is left guard Evan Mathis.
LeSean McCoy is special, Bryce Brown could be, if he wasn’t a fumble waiting to happen, and Damaris Johnson may be able to provide consistent field position with his speed. DeSean Jackson can stretch the field, for as long as he stays healthy, but he won’t get too much help from the other side in Riley Cooper—who’s limited and only a factor inside the 20. The tight end trio of Brent Celek, James Casey and Zach Ertz will cause match-up problems down the middle of the field.
Having a reliable maestro to run this will be an issue. Vick is not it, Foles could be, with another team in another system, and Barkley appears to be an eager learner, though when he’s thrown in late this season, his lessons will come with bruises.
The defense is a mess. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin will make a few plays, as will Mychal Kendricks and Fletcher Cox. When Earl Wolff finally replaces Nate Allen at strong safety the second or third game of the year, the process of rebuilding the defense will begin. Right now, they can’t tackle (see the first three games of the preseason), take wrong angles (see Jordan Todman’s 63-yard TD run) and get caught out of position (see how Barwin and the rest of the defense got caught inside on Todman’s 14-yard run in the second quarter against Jacksonville on a fourth-and-1 at the Eagles’ 35).
The Eagles will score a ton of points. But they’ll give up a ton more.
One thing is certain: The Eagles will be so unpredictable that they could be the most entertaining team in the NFL. Just not a team that wins. A 4-12 season is a necessary finish for the Eagles to get any better under Kelly. The Eagles steal a page from the Sixers—not overtly tanking, but learn through losing.
The bridge to Bridgewater—or Boyd—begins now.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.