Everyone knows that NFL kickers are getting better. The numbers make this obvious. We saw an all-time high for field goal accuracy in 2013: over 86%. And that's despite many more long attempts. Field goal tries from over 50 yards have increased 57% in the last decade.
When ranking kickers, we have to take into account the new landscape. For an example, just look close to home. After his first three seasons, Alex Henery is tied for fourth all time in overall field goal accuracy among players with at least 80 attempts. But if you check out the top 20 on that list, 17 of them played in the last two years. This is like the late 1990s in baseball -- everyone's breaking records.
More to the point, we can't quote field goal accuracy without taking distance into account. As Jimmy Kempski noted, Henery doesn't look nearly as good when you compare him to his peers. Among full time kickers since 2011, Henery is tied for the fewest attempts over 50 yards (5). He also has the shortest "long field goal" (51). If everyone else is taking longer attempts and making them, Henery's value is significantly lower than his overall accuracy would suggest.
Last offseason, I took a deep dive into Henery's value, comparing him to other kickers in 2012. By generating an estimated value for every kick, we could plot how much each kicker actually contributed to his team as compared to the league standard. The results put Henery just a hair above average, with the noted caveat of having not a single make over 50 yards.
This year I wanted to go deeper. To start, I pulled all 2013 field goal attempts and plotted them out. While upgrading from last year's 5-yard buckets required a little smoothing, the granular data this year should be more exact:
Cool, right? As you can see, kicks from in close are automatic and everything up to about 32 yards out is a 90% success rate or higher. But perhaps even more impressive, kickers in 2013 maintained over 80% accuracy up to 45 yards out -- and 70% all the way to 55 yard attempts. The data gets meager from there, but the graph is proof of how great NFL kickers have become.
Anyway, with this data, it becomes fairly easy to generate an estimated point value for every field goal attempt. For example, a 35 yard try is worth 2.63 points while a 50 yarder is worth 2.1 points. If a kicker makes a kick from that distance, he adds points to his team above the expected value. Missing, he loses his team the expected points. (The only major caveat here is weather conditions. Certainly a field goal into strong wind would have a lower expected value than one in a dome.)
This year, we'll also add kickoff analysis. I spent some time playing with large data sets of kickoffs and ultimately was disappointed by the many problems in the NFL's play by play data. So at least until Football Outsiders releases its always-awesome game charting this summer, I can't work with the type of granular data on field goals above. The next best thing is Pro Football Focus' kickoff stats. They track distance, touchbacks, and average yard line start. I adjusted that data to eliminate the effect of onside kicks, but there are other variables (including weather) which still exist outside the scope of the investigation.
For kickoffs, the goal is to reach a similar expected value score. With help from Derek Sarley, we calculated a quick and dirty correlation between touchbacks and starting drive position of .67, suggesting that kickers have about two-thirds of the responsibility on kickoffs. Using that, we can multiply each kicker's total drive start yardage difference from the league average by .67, then by the approximately 0.06 expected points each extra yard is worth. Again, it's not a perfect score, but it will give us a good estimate.
Got all that? Click on the table below to enlarge the full results:
Hopefully the table isn't too confusing. Let's break it down. The left hand side is kickoff data, and you can see adjusted kickoff distance and drive start. From there you can calculate points generated in relation to the average kicker (KICKOFF PTS). On the right side are field goals, first the basic data then the estimated values based on the calculations above, leading to the FG PTS above or below average. Finally, TOTAL PTS combines the two scores and ranks all kickers (including those who only kickoff or attempt field goals).
The best kickers of 2013 did well on both metrics. Dan Bailey of the Cowboys, for example, helped force opponents to start their drives 1.9 yards further back than average. Over the course of the season, that was worth just over a touchdown in field position. On field goals, he made over 93% of his attempts, when the average kicker would have only made 84.5%. That was another 8 points he generated for Dallas, bringing Bailey's total points over average to a league-leading 15.1. If we can translate that using Brian Burke's data at Advanced NFL Stats, Bailey was worth about as much in expected points added as the 25th-ranked quarterback.
On the other end of the spectrum, Henery ranked third-worst in the NFL last year. He lost the Eagles approximately 10.8 points, split about equally between kickoffs and field goals. Henery was near the bottom of the pack in kickoff distance and average drive start, losing 1.6 yards per kickoff. Meanwhile, his 80% field goal accuracy should have been better, given he took mostly shorter kicks. The league average accuracy for his attempts would have been 85.8%.
Though Henery has some ardent supporters, it's tough to find any silver lining for him in these numbers. Only two kickers in this sample had worse results: a historically-bad rookie and a veteran who was fired in December. Maybe Henery can improve this offseason and post a better effort in 2014. But I wouldn't count on it. At the very least, the Eagles must bring in competition for what is clearly one of their weakest positions.
There's no shortage of opinion when it comes to Riley Cooper, the Eagles' soon-to-be free agent wide receiver best known for his racial outburst at a Kenny Chesney concert last year. That off-the-field incident was itself sufficient reason for many fans to want to see Cooper gone. I'm not going to wade into that moral morass, but rather address the sizable room for debate about his on the field performance.
Cooper had what was obviously a breakout season in 2013. After posting a total of just 46 receptions for 679 yards and 5 TDs in his first three years, he took over the starting lineup for an injured Jeremy Maclin and finished the regular season with 47 receptions, 835 yards, and 8 TDs. Plus, he scored another productive 6/68/1 line in the Eagles' wild card game.
Cooper also put positive tape out there. He's the type of big-bodied blocking wide receiver that Chip Kelly values to augment his running game down the field. And there's a good reason Cooper's stats went way up once Nick Foles took over. He became especially effective on deep throws and in the red zone, where he was adept at adjusting to Foles' occasional errant jump balls.
Despite all of that good news, I wouldn't sign Riley Cooper to a long term starter's contract. And the biggest reason may sound counter-intuitive: despite the clear QB-WR connection, the more you build an Eagles offense around Foles, the more you need an upgrade from Cooper at wide receiver. Here's the proof, summed up in one All-22 shot (from the very first play of the Saints game):
Kelly talks about his offense in terms of simple math. He wants to run the football and he wants to have a numbers advantage up front when he does so. That means more blockers than defenders in the box, not the other way around -- and there are two ways to achieve this.
The first is to have a dangerous read-option constraint play built into the basic runs. By reading a defender instead of blocking him, the quarterback can freeze that unblocked man and enable better numbers on the play side. The second is to have dangerous wide receiver threats on the outside (ideally spread way outside) that force the defense to respect the passing game down the field. Defensive coordinators can't stack the box and provide help to both corners on the outside at the same time.
As you can see in the above photo, the Saints do not respect Cooper as a passing threat. While both Eagles receivers face man coverage, DeSean Jackson's corner has safety help over the top. The Saints, rightfully, fear Jackson's speed. They don't have that same concern about Cooper, who they're perfectly willing to leave matched up in single coverage at the bottom of the image. The safety whose job could be to protect against the deep ball to that side has entered the box instead. The Saints would much rather add an extra defender down by the line of scrimmage to combat LeSean McCoy and the rushing attack.
Thus, on this play the Saints have a numbers advantage up front: seven defenders in the box against six Eagles blockers. If Michael Vick were in the backfield, that wouldn't be so bad. The zone read can be a powerful weapon if defenders respect it. Foles is never going to inspire that respect. Yes, he can still make it work on occasion, pulling out a few surprise yards here or there, and freezing a confused defender now and then. But the read constraint will not work consistently without a run threat at QB, and therefore the run game will not work consistently against a numbers disadvantage up front.
If Foles is the Eagles' quarterback going forward -- and he has certainly earned that right -- then the offense needs other constraints. The obvious secondary options are wide receivers that the defense needs to respect.** Jackson is half of that puzzle. Cooper is not. The Saints treated him on this play as most defenses did this season, reveling in the opportunity to gain an advantage in the box and daring Cooper to beat them.
Cooper certainly had a breakout season, with career highs in all categories. But if he were a wide receiver worth spending starter-level money on, he would have consistently beat the single-coverage insult he face on a weekly basis and forced defenses to start respecting him. He did no such thing, and the numbers show it.
Pro Football Focus tracks a stat called yards per route run, focusing on receiver production on all snaps they ran a passing route. Some of the consensus best receivers in the game score highly on this list: the top ten is Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, Justin Blackmon, Anquan Boldin, DeSean Jackson, Antonio Brown, Alshon Jeffrey, Andre Johnson, and AJ Green. These are players who combine two important attributes of a top receiver: production when targeted, and a high number of targets.
As I just mentioned, Jackson placed sixth on this list. That was thanks, first of all, to the second-highest yards per target of any receiver in the league: 11.2, only behind deep threat Kenny Stills and a step above all-around beasts Gordon and Jordy Nelson. You may be surprised to know that Riley Cooper also placed in the top ten on yards per target, netting 10.3 yards per pass thrown his way.
But the difference between Jackson and Cooper comes in the number of times they're targeted. Jackson, despite a spread-the-wealth offense and defenses putting heavy emphasis on stopping him, was in the top third most-targeted per route run. But out of 94 receivers with at least 25% of their team's targets, Cooper was a lowly 79th (right next to underperforming slot buddy Jason Avant). Cooper was targeted only 15% of his routes, compared to Jackson's 22% -- even though Cooper faced the single coverage shown above nearly all year.
The split between Cooper's rank in target percentage and his rank in yards per target is extreme, and may make it easier to understand the type of receiver he is. For example, there are certain receivers who were targeted a lot but have low yardage production on those targets. Some are slot receivers, like Cole Beasley for Dallas and Julian Edelman for New England. The others are underperforming #1 wide receivers on bad offenses: Buffalo's Stevie Johnson, Jacksonville's Cecil Shorts, Washington's Pierre Garson, and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson.
Cooper had the opposite problem. He was targeted few times despite solid performance on those targets. What receivers put up that same split last year? Secondary receivers who aren't particularly good, but get single coverage because the defense doesn't consider them threats: the aforementioned Stills in New Orleans, Tampa Bay's Tiquan Underwood, Dallas' rookie Terrance Williams, San Diego's Eddie Royal, Seattle's Doug Baldwin, Green Bay's James Jones, Kansas City's Donnie Avery. As far as the stats are concerned, these are Cooper's most direct comparables, and none of them (with the possible exception of Williams' upside) are players you would be excited to have as a starting wide receiver on your offense.
That's the type of player Riley Cooper is: a replacement-level starter that defenses are more than happy to leave alone to gameplan against actual receiving threats like Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, and DeSean Jackson -- and actual running threats like DeMarco Murray, Jamaal Charles, and LeSean McCoy. If the Eagles let Maclin walk in free agency and re-up with Cooper as their #2 wide receiver, you'll hear the champagne popping in defensive coordinator meetings across the NFC. With Foles neutering the read-option attack, Chip Kelly needs wide receivers on the outside who can stretch out the defense and give McCoy room to run. Cooper, for all his other strengths, isn't that guy. And that means you not only don't pay to keep him, but you also actively look for an upgrade.
**One caveat: the offense needs at least one more receiving threat from somewhere. While wide receiver is the obvious play, it's not the only one. In his rookie season, Zach Ertz did finish sixth among tight ends on yards per pass route run. Just saying.
This time last year, fresh off a sickening 4-12 season and the long-anticipated firing of one of the best coaches in franchise history, we watched as the Eagles spun their wheels in a coaching search. Fresh off being rejected by some of their top candidates, the organization seemed to be turning toward Gus Bradley, although interviews with Bruce Arians, Brian Kelly, and rumblings about Ken Whisenhunt cast an ominous cloud over the proceedings. It wouldn't be until January 16th that Oregon's belle finally came back around and agreed to a surprise contract in Philadelphia.
Chip Kelly's arrival was met with lots of fanfare, and more than a few skeptics. I won't bother to link to those old columns written about the "college coach" and his "gimmick offense," but suffice it to say that no one's a skeptic now. If anything, we're still underestimating the job he did in his first year. Before the season began, I found all 113 teams in Football Outsiders' database that finished 20th or worse in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Those bad teams had an average overall DVOA improvement of +11.9% in their next season. Kelly's Eagles, as it stands now, posted a +37.8% increase, the third-largest jump on record.
But with an early bounce from the playoffs, the long offseason looms and more changes are inevitable. In today's NFL, huge improvement can always be followed by huge disappointment. In my opinion, the Eagles are much more likely to add to, grow from, and improve off of their 2013 success. But that's far from guaranteed. Here's where the team goes from here:
1. Prune The Dead Wood
Being only a year away from a 4-12 season, there are still a number of players on the Eagles roster who shouldn't be around at training camp next year, whether for reasons of age, performance, or both. Let's do a quick roundup of the top targets.
- Todd Herremans: Even moving back to guard this season didn't seem to halt the Toddfather's decline. He's not the worst guard in the league, but Herremans was the weakest link on the offensive line and you can't expect him to get better heading into his age-32 season. Maybe you offer a restructured contract and the chance to compete for his job, but guard is one of the more fungible starting positions in the league. Time to see if there's a younger, less expensive backup who can take over.
- Trent Cole: The Eagles' longtime DE-turned-OLB passed Clyde Simmons for second place on the Eagles all time sack list with a late season revival. Like Herremans, Cole is heading into his age-32 season and the third year of a contract extension. Despite his resurgence in the second half of the season, Cole never fully adjusted to his linebacker role and couldn't rescue the Eagles' moribund pass rush. We wish him the best, but it's time to move on.
- Brent Celek: Another member of the old guard, Celek turns 29 before the end of the month. He proved his worth blocking, made some key receptions down the stretch, and finished with his highest DVOA since 2008. But Zach Ertz figures to replace him more and more as the down-the-field tight end. Celek is probably still a useful player on this team for his versatility, but he's not worth the $4 million salary he's due next year. Prime (Stache) restructure candidate.
- James Casey: That was always a one year deal, disguised as three years. Not a bad blocker (and the Eagle could use an H-Back/FB from time to time), but barely saw the field the field for anything else. He probably would rather seek his fortune elsewhere too, although maybe he comes back on a reduced salary as the 3rd TE.
- Jason Avant: While Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson had big DVOA improvement, Avant was one of the few Eagles offensive players to decline this year. He had perhaps his worse season statistically in at least 5 years. Love the leadership, but Avant's not sticking around.
- Patrick Chung: Another guy on a fake 3 year deal who should and will be cut posthaste.
- Alex Henery: I'll go into depth on this once I can crunch more numbers, but Henery isn't worth keeping for beans.
2. Keep An Eye On
There are difficult decisions elsewhere too. Would be surprised if any are cut this offseason, but the team has reason to examine these relationships closely.
- DeMeco Ryans: Leader of the defense and stout run defender who's a major liability in coverage. Turns 29 this summer and has a contract that's easy to do away with. Don't think you cut him yet, but the conversation about the future has to happen.
- Cary Williams & Bradley Fletcher: Let's consider the two corners together. Using a broad stat like passer rating, both of these players were middle of the pack. On a good defense, each is probably a solid #2 corner. They're not going to shut down the other team's top receiver one-on-one, but they'll hold their own against most everyone else and get their share of victories. The question is how highly you value that kind of production. Both Williams and Fletcher have salaries that spike substantially in 2014. Do you let one go to make room for Brandon Boykin? Do you keep them both around another year and draft replacement(s)? Could a restructure/extension be on the table?
- Brandon Graham & Vinny Curry: Both are young and relatively inexpensive, so they probably get another year in this 3-4 transition. But if the right offer came along, Graham especially could be on the block.
- Jason Peters: Nothing big here but he's entering the final year of his contract. Peters was named to his fifth All-Pro team but looked like he lost a step. Eagles hope to already have his replacement on the roster (Lane Johnson), but we can't rule out an extension if he proves he's still capable. Remember, Tra Thomas manned the left tackle spot in Philly until he was 34.
- DeSean Jackson: His salary goes up by over 50% in 2014. Hopefully both he and the team are happy with that. Or not.
3. Are They Worth Keeping?
Retaining your own free agents can be tricky, but this year there aren't too many questions. The big decisions come at wide receiver.
- Jeremy Maclin: The biggest name on this list comes with a huge "What If?" label following his ACL tear last August. I was on record for a Maclin contract extension before the injury and still want him back. The question is how healthy he is and what kind of money he's looking for. The market for wide receivers isn't especially deep, but you don't often see guys get big money coming off knee injuries. A one-year deal with the Eagles might make sense for both sides.
- Riley Cooper: The wide receiver went from racist problem-child to key contributor quickly. He has size, blocks well, and adjusts to deep balls better than most. But on a good team he's a 3rd or 4th wide receiver, and I wouldn't pay him more than that because he'll never be someone who can consistently beat single-coverage. In other words, let him test the market (where there may not be much interest) and only resign him at a backup rate.
- Michael Vick: If he resigns himself to taking a paycheck as a backup, there are worse places to do it than Philadelphia. But maybe he's looking for one last shot at a starting role, and he could get it with the Jets, Jaguars, or somewhere else.
- Donnie Jones: Fantastic job this season. Sign the man.
- Nate Allen: Actually became the best member of the safety corps, which just shows how bad the safeties were. Let him walk.
- Kurt Coleman: Bye.
- Colt Anderson: Never going to be a competent safety, but still a great special teams player. Bring him back and let him compete.
4. Seek Improvement From Youngsters
The last two drafts have been tremendously successful for the Eagles, and they have more than a handful of young players who are forming a new backbone to this team. Their improvement (or decline) will largely decide how the team does in 2014 and beyond. It will also determine who deserves contract extensions and who might not be worth the trouble.
- On defense, the young studs are Brandon Boykin, Mychal Kendricks, and Fletcher Cox. They've all shown flashes, but where is the ceiling? Meanwhile, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff will be given every opportunity to win starting jobs, but both need to make big leaps this offseason.
- On offense you're looking at Lane Johnson, who had a successful rookie season by mostly avoiding making news. All eyes will be on him next year, to see if he can take over at left tackle after Jason Peters. Zach Ertz also seems inline for a big year as the featured tight end in 2014.
- Nick Foles' offseason matters the most. I'm not convinced he's a franchise quarterback, but he played like one in 2013. Defenses will study him intently next year, and he's unlikely to maintain his fantastic interception rate. Can he improve in other areas to maintain an edge? Foles has earned the benefit of the doubt, but we will find out.
- As for backups: guys like Bryce Brown, Chris Polk, Dennis Kelly, Damion Square, Najee Goode, and Matt Barkley need to prove they're worth trusting. Does Casey Matthews get another year? What about Curtis Marsh, Roc Carmichael, and Julian Vandervelde? Lots of question marks.
5. Identify Obvious Roster Holes
Last offseason, the Eagles had gaping holes across the defense. They drafted a smattering of young players (Wolff, Logan), and added low-to-mid price veterans (Barwin, Williams, Fletcher, Chung, Sopoaga). Due to the relative success of that plan, there aren't as many problem spots as there were a year ago. Here are the main starting spots that need help.
- Safety: It's easy to imagine a future where Wolff is the only guy left from last year, and he's certainly not a sure thing. Major upgrade still needed here.
- Pass Rusher: The Eagles need to generate more of a pass rush. Some of that could come from improvement along the defensive line. But a dynamic pass rushing outside linebacker might make the biggest difference of anyone on the team.
- Wide Receiver: At the very least you bring back Riley Cooper, but ideally you're looking at someone more dynamic across from DeSean. Plus, a new slot receiver to replace Avant would be nice.
- Kicker: Forget field goals for a second. You need a kicker who can consistently reach the end zone on kickoffs.
- Nose Tackle: Logan may be the guy, but my lasting memory of him from 2013 will be the Saints blowing him off the line of scrimmage.
- Guard: If you jettison Herremans.
6. Plan For The Future
While you're logging the problems the team faces right now, it's also time to take stock of the future. Where will the team have holes a year or two from now?
- Cedric Thornton is an exclusive-rights free agent (meaning he can't negotiate with anyone else). One of the few eligible players on the roster probably worth a long term extension.
- Can't count on 30-something offensive linemen to stay healthy in the short term or sustain performance long term. Grab more depth on the offensive line.
- Draft a quarterback. Always draft a quarterback.
- Kendricks looks like a keeper, but Ryans may not have more than a year left. Time to get another young middle linebacker.
- Boykin is probably a long term answer at cornerback, given his stellar performance in the slot. But tied to the Williams & Fletcher questions above, drafting more corners should be high on the list.
7. Find Difference-Makers In Free Agency
Building through the draft is great, but being active at the top of the free agent market is also important. I'm not talking about bringing in another Nnamdi Asomugha, but the Eagles will have plenty of cap space and few in-house players to spend it on. Howie Roseman and company must identify a few key players who can come in and not only fix problem spots in the short term, but are also good long term bets. Some candidates...
- Jairus Byrd: If the Bills safety makes it to free agency, he'll command top dollar. You'd rather he wasn't going into his age-28 season, but he's an All-Pro caliber player still in his prime who would immediately lock down one of the Eagles' safety spots.
- TJ Ward: Fellow second-team All-Pro safety may be slightly less expensive than Byrd. He's also nearly a year younger. Would be a great get.
- Eric Decker: Again, I'd rather just bring Maclin back. But Decker is a much better version of Riley Cooper (albeit at a significant markup). There's also the underachieving Hakeem Nicks out there
- Julian Edelman: Probably can go cheaper in the Avant-replacement department, but there aren't many better slot guys when healthy. Maybe Chip wants more upgrade here.
- Brian Orakpo: Who knows what's going on in D.C. these days? Elite pass rushers don't come cheap, but Orakpo would fit right into a key role on the Eagles defense.
- Donald Butler: If he makes to the open market, you could grab San Diego's young stud middle linebacker and jettison Ryans earlier than planned.
8. Refine The Scheme
To be fair, this is more than one-eighth of the offseason agenda, but it's the one that's least conditional on specific player debates. No matter who the Eagles bring back and who they add, the coaches have to adjust and prepare for a new season.
Chip's offense lit up the league, and ended up second only to Peyton Manning's Broncos on the DVOA chart. He'll be on every defensive coordinator's To-Do list this offseason. I have confidence in the head coach, since he's shown the ability to adjust his offense to two quarterbacks with opposite skill sets. But Kelly needs to stay a step ahead. Defenses stymied some of his schemes, and in some areas he became too predictable by the end of the season (see Cowboys and Saints defenders reading nearly every screen). New weapons will help on that front, but so will new wrinkles. I'm looking forward to seeing what he draws up in 2014.
When you switch to defense and special teams, it's worth noting that the team finished in nearly the same place as 2012 according to DVOA. The defense improved slightly, but there's still a long way to go. Patient, accurate quarterbacks (a species the Eagles were lucky to avoid for long stretches of the season) tore this defense apart with its weakness in coverage down the middle, complete lack of pass rush, and horrible missed tackles. Again, personnel was often at fault there, and this was only year one of a defensive scheme shift. But the scheme can't be as predictable going forward either. Time for Billy Davis to prove he can lead the unit to a renaissance.
This ESPN Insider article from Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar has nice things to say about Nick Foles, especially noting that even by advanced metrics, his interception-defying skills have been legendary. Plus, add this to that bounce in your step ahead of Saturday's playoff game:
Some simple math can quantify how balanced the Eagles [offense is]. I calculated averages for yards per pass (including sacks) and yards per run and compared them to the league averages, then added the two averages together.
The 2013 Eagles are a balance-adjusted 2.20 yards per play above average, which ranks 18th out of 1,285 teams since 1970. Of the 17 teams ranked ahead of Philadelphia, 12 won at least one playoff game (3-3 in the Super Bowl).
Gotta like those odds.
There has been a wealth of coaches tape coverage this season that I've been woefully negligent about linking to from this blog. Hopefully all of you have caught on without my help, but make sure to catch up on the work of our esteemed Philly analysts:
- Sheil Kapadia has two All-22 posts this week. The first is on the introduction of the sweep run, with narrated insights from the offensive line. The second looks back at Mychal Kendricks' performance against Jimmy Graham in 2012 and against other tight ends in general. That'll be a key matchup in Saturday's wild card game.
- Derek Sarley, meanwhile, took his usual scattershot approach over at the Daily News/Philly.com. Looks like Monte Kiffin's main advice to his defense was to hold early and often, but Nick Foles bears some responsibility for the offense's misfires as well. The QB missed opportunities and made some surprisingly bad calls on packaged plays. Hopefully that gets worked out this week.
- Last but not least, Ryan over at Chip Wagon gave us more diagrams of new packaged plays and run game tweaks.
The Eagles rushing attack is pretty great.
The offense leads the league in total rushing yards (2140) and average per carry (5.0). Football Outsiders grades them out as the top DVOA rushing offense with +20.1%, head and shoulders above second-place Dallas at +10.9%. A piece of that action has come on quarterback runs. Michael Vick is second in the NFL in rushing DYAR despite having only played in parts of six games. Banged up at age 33, he has the highest rushing DVOA of his career, a ridiculous +68.1%. Even slowpoke Nick Foles places 7th in rushing DYAR and 9th in DVOA, showing the power of the zone read.
But the bulk of the rushing offense comes down to one man: LeSean McCoy. The first back to cross 1000 yards, he's second in the league in DYAR and has already surpassed his personal season rushing record. During the Snow Bowl, he set a new franchise single-game rushing record. However, he also took some flak last month from his coach Chip Kelly, who told the press that he pushes Shady to not dance around quite so much:
"I think LeSean is trying to press too much and trying to hit a home run on every play instead of letting it develop," Kelly said.
The comment was fairly innocuous, as any observer could point out a couple plays every game where McCoy tries to out-juke just one too many defenders, or cut back one too many times. But ultimately McCoy is a Barry Sanders-esque force of nature in the backfield, and he's bailing out Chip's offense and his blockers up front much more than the other way around.
See, the truth according to the advanced stats runs somewhat contrary to the conventional wisdom. Not that anyone is particularly discounting McCoy's contribution to the offense. But there has been a lot of praise heaped on the zone read and a rejuvenated offensive line for the success of the run game. It's not completely misplaced. Certainly we've seen the Jason Peters, Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce dominate blocks at times. Todd Herremans appears to be fading with age, and Lane Johnson makes some rookie mistakes, but they're important athletic pieces in the blocking scheme.
But ultimately, the advanced offensive line stats don't look particularly good:
Since 2010, when McCoy took over as the featured back, the rushing attack has been stellar. High per-rush averages, great power success (that's short yardage, high leverage plays), and elite 2nd level and open field gains. The consistency of those stats is shocking compared to the overall decline in Football Outsiders' signature stat of Adjusted Line Yards. That metric weights runs by distance, attempting to isolate the offensive line's performance over the early yards vs. the largely running back-driven yards down the field.
McCoy has always generated a healthy performance bump above what his offensive line provides him, but this year is the greatest difference yet. Some of that is a higher rushing average than the last two years, but Eagles running backs are actually behind their 2010 pace. The difference is that the offensive line has only "generated" 3.47 yards per rush, 0.6 yards per rush less than 2010. The gradual decline over the last three years comes despite no major change in power or stuffed rank. And the 2nd level and open field yards are as good as ever for McCoy.
Plus, the offensive line isn't doing so hot in pass protection either. The adjusted sack rate is actually worse than last year, despite a distinct lack of starting games by noted turnstile Danny Watkins.
None of these stats are perfect, but the overall picture isn't jiving with the public narrative of a rejuvenated offensive line. And that's partially to be expected. The Eagles had the eight-oldest starting offensive line coming into the season, despite starting a 23-year-old rookie. The Giants are the only other team to rely on three starters over 30. Normally you would worry about injuries with an aging offensive line, but due to either #sportscience or good luck, the Eagles front five have been remarkably injury-free. They just haven't been as productive.
Despite controlling their own playoff destiny, this team has a lot of obvious holes. But when everyone's screaming for more pass rushers and defensive backs this offseason, don't be surprised if the Eagles make a push for young offensive line help. It's secretly one of the team's largest problems.
Before the season started, I set my expectations for 2013 at a reasonable level: an improvement from last year's disaster squad and a foundation built for future growth. As I said then, most teams as bad as the Eagles improved, on DVOA terms, by an average of about 12%. I anticipated something along those lines, with a slight record improvement but certainly no mention of playoffs.
Obviously, I was wrong. Before Sunday's loss, the Eagles had improved by nearly 33% in DVOA, one of the best turnarounds ever. That will cool slightly this week, but the team still has the inside track on a playoff spot, something most people (including Jeffrey Lurie) never expected to happen so soon.
But Sunday's game reminded us that this squad -- or at least half of it -- is still a work in progress. Chip Kelly's offense is gangbusters, even if it can sputter out for stretches. On a "bad day," Nick Foles threw for 428 yards on 30 for 48 attempts, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Plus he ran the ball 5 times for 41 yards to boot. LeSean McCoy only got 8 carries, but still finished with over 100 yards from scrimmage. DeSean Jackson had nearly 200 receiving yards plus an end-around touchdown called back due to penalty. Oh, and rookie tight end Zach Ertz ended the day with 57 yards on 6 receptions, including a one-handed TD grab. No big problems here.
The defense is still messy, though. As I've said before, you don't have to be an elite quarterback to find the holes in Billy Davis' scheme (Hint: look for the safeties). A smart, patient, accurate player will pick this secondary apart. That's what happened when the Eagles D was skinned alive during the three-game stretch against Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, and Peyton Manning. Since then, during the team's 7-2 run, opponents never scored more than 21 points.
The great nine-game run leading up to Sunday seemed to be the defense gelling, but most of it was the horrendous, mistake-prone quarterbacks the Eagles faced. Only two of the QBs the Eagles faced in that span have positive DVOA on the year, and they played one of those in a blizzard. Matt Cassel could easily have been another one of those lightweights, but he did his best 2008 impression, throwing for the 4th-most yards of his career. That came despite the Eagles front seven holding the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings to just 2.4 yards per carry.
Worth noting: Football Outsiders never bought into the Eagles defensive turnaround. While they were bend-but-not-breaking their way to sub-22 point totals, the defense allowed over 350 yards in all but two of the last 9 games. Coming into Sunday, the team ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, versus 3rd on offense. Even with Denver and Kansas City as past opponents, the Eagles faced the 27th-weakest schedule and registered the highest level of inconsistency in the league prior to this week. Including week 15, the Eagles have the lowest point differential of any division leader.
So again, the Eagles aren't great. If their schedule weren't so easy, including six games against the criminally ugly NFC East, I imagine the team would have finished closer to my "return to 1999" prediction than their current possible outcome of 8-10 wins. If the Eagles win the division, which I now expect them to do either against Chicago with the Cowboys losing again, or in Dallas the week after, they will have vastly overperformed -- despite being only a mediocre overall team.
But that's OK. Even if the Eagles get rolled over by a better wild card team like San Francisco, Carolina, or New Orleans, the season will have been a smashing success, and one to build on in 2014. Kelly's offense still has room to grow next year, and the defensive reconstruction will continue. Until then, enjoy this #housemoney season.