By Kevin McGuire
Despite the season ending with a last-second field goal off the leg of a free agent kicker, the Philadelphia Eagles can still label the 2013 season as a success. It may take some time for some to realize that, but when the entire season is put in the proper perspective that is a fair assessment of what unfolded this season.
A season of transition brought a new coach with a breath of fresh air and a new identity as a team. There were adjustments along the way as Chip Kelly adjusted to life as an NFL coach after serving an entire career at the college level, but his players bought in to the mentality Kelly introduced to them and fought their way to an NFC East division title few saw coming before the season started.
If nothing else, the 2013 season painted a picture of what the Eagles will be capable of and what they need to improve to take the next step forward in Kelly’s program building for 2014.
What Went Right
The second-year quarterback had to fight for his position as the starter under center. When Mike Vick got injured a second time this season, Foles took advantage of the opportunity. After losing the quarterback competition to Vick out of training camp, Foles was preparing himself for the inevitable time when Vick would be sidelined. In return Foles became one of the NFL’s most surprising players by passing for 2,891 yards and 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Foles squashed the idea he could not play in Chip Kelly’s offense and shifted the focus of the future of the position from drafting a potential franchise quarterback in the upcoming NFL Draft to other needs.
One of the players expected to perform well in Kelly’s offense from the start was McCoy, and he did not disappoint. McCoy won the NFL rushing title by running for 1,607 yards and showing moves not seen since Barry Sanders was playing for the Detroit Lions.
DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks
The linebacker duo of DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks led the Eagles in tackles, with each recording over 100 tackles this season. Ryans and his veteran leadership helped the Eagles defense improve as the season played out, and he proved to be a mentor for Kendricks, a second-year player. Kendricks really came on strong at the end of the season and showed some good potential for the future.
The Offensive line
The offensive line provided good protection for Foles and opened lanes for McCoy. More importantly, the offensive line stayed healthy for the entire season. Unlike a year ago when the line was a walking MASH unit of linemen, this year’s line provided stability from start to finish and saw rookie Lane Johnson prove why he was drafted in the first round.
Punters rarely get recognized for their efforts but Eagles punter Donnie Jones is deserving of that much after this season. Jones showed off a strong leg by averaging 44.9 yards per punt and dropping 33 punts inside the 20-yard line with just five touchbacks this season.
Coach Chip Kelly
The season may have ended with a home playoff loss, but Kelly proved that his offense could work in the NFL by turning in an offense that had one of the league’s top passers, rushers and receivers. Kelly energized the Eagles and won the NFC East when most expected the Eagles to finish last in the division. For one year, he proved his doubters wrong.
What Went Wrong
Anyone who has followed Chip Kelly’s career knows that defense can be his weak spot. That was true in his first year in the NFLbut it is a correctable fault. Given Kelly’s offensive style and the ability to score the way they did, the pass defense was always going to give yards to opposing offenses. If there is one concern on the team to focus on in the off-season, pass defense may not be a bad place to start. The Eagles ranked 32nd in the NFL in pass defense.
The woes of the pass defense are not limited to the secondary of course. It all begins up front with a defensive line that struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks with regularity. The Eagles recorded 37 sacks this season, just six more than the NFL-worst 31 recorded by the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars.
What to Expect in 2014
NFL Draft priorities
Before the season started the talk was about which quarterback the Eagles should draft in the upcoming NFL Draft. With Foles proving what he is capable of doing under Kelly’s system that is no longer the case. Instead, the Eagles should focus on improving the defense, starting with the defensive line.
Jeremy Maclin’s status
The Eagles were dealt a blow to their offense early in training camp with receiver Jeremy Maclin suffering a season-ending injury. If the Eagles bring him back he can be a valuable asset to the offense to take much of the pressure off of DeSean Jackson. Kelly’s offense could use a solid receiver with size. Riley Cooper performed well in that role this season, but what the Eagles decide to do with Maclin should be very interesting.
The bar has been raised
Winning the NFC East this season may have been a bit of a surprise but now the expectations have been raised for 2014. What was once thought to be a rebuilding project has run ahead of scheduleand there is no time to take a step back in this league. Getting to the playoffs will not be good enough next season. No slow starts will be acceptable next season either. Some will attach to the Super Bowl or bust mentality, but the most important thing to see will be taking any steps forward rather than any steps back.
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Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.