By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA, PA (CBS) — Call it playing with house money, call it anything you would like, the Eagles have every right to call 2013 a very successful season no matter what happens 8 p.m. Saturday night, when they host the New Orleans Saints at Lincoln Financial Field in the wildcard round of the playoffs.
The truth is, no one expected a 10-6 finish and a division title this year. No one thought Chip Kelly and his staff would be able to turn around the disastrous 4-12 Eagles this fast.
This team has achieved against some long odds. They not only had to absorb a new system, but they got here without their leading receiver of a year ago (Jeremy Maclin’s torn ACL), overcame internal strife that could have upended them before the season even began (the Riley Cooper controversy) and weeded out the dubious characters that had a toxic effect on last year’s locker room (selfish Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin).
Think how arduous a journey this has been. Did you really believe the Eagles would be playing any meaningful games in October—let alone December—after they got off to a 1-3 start?
Let’s go back for a second and remember. The Eagles were outscored 138-99 in the first month under Kelly. The defense was shredded for 27.5 points a game and it looked bleak with no end in sight. A sprinkling of pundits and fans alike began wondering if Kelly really knew what he was doing—and wanted defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ head on a spit.
A little more recently, just when it appeared the defense was on the right path, the offense began to sputter. The Eagles went eight-straight quarters without an offensive touchdown in consecutive October losses to Dallas and the New York Giants.
That’s when more public outcry began to surface about the Eagles going the same route as the Sixers, tanking the rest of the season to get a high draft pick and land a prime quarterback.
But while everyone seemed to despair, the Eagles didn’t.
“I think they stuck together as a group and one of the things we talk about, really, the only thing we talk about is we are mentally and physically tough and we don’t make excuses and we work hard and they stuck to that,” Kelly said. “When you’re 3‑5 and you have a plan, there’s times when you are 3‑5 and you can start to question the plan and these guys didn’t question the plan. You know, I think when we made mistakes, we all made mistakes but we owned our mistakes. And I think when you own up to your mistakes, then you can correct them.
“But if you never make them and you constantly make excuses, then you’re never going to fix it. I think these guys owned up to it and did that, and I think each week, I saw us improve because of that. I think because of their mentality and that they stuck together as a group and knew that the only group that was going to get us out of that situation was them, and when you start pointing fingers and doing those other things, it makes it extremely difficult but they never did that.”
They believed and bought into what Kelly was selling. Nick Foles began to emerge. The defense, once a shaky unit, became a strength, giving up an average of almost nine points less over the last 12 games.
In the end, if it ends on Saturday or not, a slew of records were broken, and an exciting aura radiates from this franchise again.
It’s not just Kelly that got them here, either. Owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman convinced Kelly to take the job. Kelly stuck by his staff, who have proven to be very diligent, patient teachers. And finally the players, who could have let the Cooper thing erupt into something more divisive and tore this whole thing down before it got started.
Each week, Kelly makes sure to reference Brent Celek, Jason Avant, Cary Williams and Michael Vick. It’s that unshakable veteran leadership that wouldn’t let this team sink.
So no matter what happens on Saturday, this version of the Eagles, circa 2013, the team expected to go nowhere and now is responsible for reanimating a dormant fanbase, it’s been a success.