Why The Eagles Must Upgrade From Riley Cooper, In One Photo

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):

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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.

Keep It Going, Nick

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.

All The All-22 You Need For The Wild Card Round

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.

Is The Eagles Offensive Line Quietly Even Worse Than Last Year?

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.

The Eagles Still Aren't Great, But That's OK

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.

Why Nick Foles Is Better Than Ever (But Can't Stay This Good)

I call him SuperNick. The man who threw seven touchdown passes in little more than three quarters of play deserves such a cartoon moniker. But how did "one of the better backups in the NFL" become in one afternoon the guy who plays what "might have been the best three-quarters of a game we've ever witnessed"?

The simple answer is, he didn't. With the notable exception of four horrendous quarters against Dallas where he looked like he sustained a concussion before he ever got to the stadium, Foles has looked good all year. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg may have the quarterback guru reputation, but Chip Kelly's offense has been much friendlier to QBs than he gets credit for. Why? Because his spread-option, up tempo, zone read running attack forces opponents to pick their poison. Kelly has repeated versions of this quote for years:

"They can't defend it all. I'm really happy with how we threw the ball. If you're going to devote nine guys and try to stop the run, God bless you, and we'll throw it."

Since early in the season, defenses have made their choice: plug the box with seven or eight players and keep just one safety back deep. That often leaves man-to-man coverage on the outside against DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. Those are golden matchups for a quarterback, but the Eagles haven't executed. As Sheil Kapadia wrote after the Cowboys game, "An average QB performance likely would have yielded 300+ yards and a score in the 20s." Unfortunately, Foles couldn't make that happen. Neither could Matt Barkley, as Derek Sarley showed last week.

Jump ahead to the Raiders game, and Foles finally started taking advantage of those one-on-one matchups, just as he did against the Buccaneers. Fran Duffy diagrammed all 7 TDs, and over and over you saw Cooper and Jackson beating man coverage -- and passes actually finding them. The gains were comical. Check out how Foles' numbers on long passes differ from last year (stats courtesy Pro Football Focus):

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To start with, Foles is attempting about 50% more long passes than he did with Andy Reid at the helm. That's a big jump. His current rate of 16.1% is near the top of the league, after placing in the bottom half last season. This change is entirely about the offense; Michael Vick has also seen a spike in his deep balls, bringing him back to 2010 levels after declines the last two years.

But where things start to get crazy is the long ball effectiveness. Foles completed only 36% of passes 20 yards or longer in 2012. That's up to nearly 53% so far this year. Long ball completion percentage is a huge indicator of success. Look at the list of QBs who posted 48% or above last year: Kaepernick, Rodgers, P. Manning, Newton, Griffin, Brees, Wilson. That's elite territory.

Can Foles keep that completion rate up? Unclear. While there may be some regression to the mean, I'm actually bullish on this front. Kelly's offense seems to be giving his QBs a boost. Vick has also seen a double-digit jump in 20+ yard completion rate, so Foles' numbers may not be an aberration.

Touchdown and interception rates are another matter. Foles is averaging an insane four TDs for every ten long passes he throws. Eight out of his ten completions at that distance have gone for six points. He also has no interceptions at any distance all year -- the only quarterback with more than 75 passes who can say that. (No fumbles either.)

Even if the completion percentage stands, those most certainly won't. Last year, RGIII led the league in touchdown rate on passes of 20 yards or more -- at only 19.4%. Even if defenses don't significantly adjust their coverage schemes (although I expect they'll have to back out of the box more now), Foles simply can't count on the type of luck he's had so far with defenders falling down, receivers wide open, and more. He also eventually will start throwing interceptions. Last year he threw them on just 1.9% on all throws, but Football Outsiders' adjusted interception rate showed a more pedestrian 4.2% after accounting for defenders dropping would-be picks.

The first takeaway here is that SuperNick's current outsized numbers will almost certainly come back to Earth. He may be good the rest of the year, but he won't be that good. The second takeaway is more important, though. Foles' improvement is only over a small sample, but it may not be an anomaly. Kelly is putting his quarterbacks in a great position to succeed, and when defenses change to prevent that, it will only give McCoy more room to run. If the Chip's scheme looks this good with competent QB play from a limited upside guy like Foles, think about what it might do with a true top-tier talent at the position.