PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles have never been under the radar. Not with such a rabid fan base, not with a group of local reporters hell-bent on mining every possible detail about the team.
But this preseason might have set a new standard in hoopla for the franchise. The arrival of new coach Chip Kelly initially brought the TV trucks, and the quarterback competition and Riley Cooper's tribulations kept them there.
Wednesday, though, was a relatively quiet day at the NovaCare Complex. That's when I visited the 2013 preseason's most intriguing team.
Here are five things I learned during my trip to Philly:
1) Don't hold your breath on the QB battle: Everyone wants an answer NOW. And I don't blame you -- I want to know who will start at quarterback for the Eagles, too. Kelly, though, is in no hurry. To understand the Michael Vick-Nick Foles competition, one must understand how Kelly makes decisions. He likes information, processing every bit of intel he can get his hands on. Then, after marinating on everything at his disposal, he uses what he has learned to make the call. While he'd like to name a starting quarterback sooner rather than later, he respects the process. "We want to get it done," Kelly told me, "but I don't want to get it done for the sake of getting it done. I want to get it done because it expressed itself and this is the right direction for the team. A decision of this magnitude, I think it's foolish if you rush it for the sake of naming it." As far as deadlines, Kelly told me there is only one. "We have to make a decision before we start game-planning for the Redskins (in the season opener)," Kelly said. "So we've got to make a decision before that week of the Redskins practice." That's still a few weeks out. As of now -- just reading the tea leaves -- it'd be a stretch to say rookie Matt Barkley is really in the competition, even if he's impressed recently. It's going to be Foles or Vick, with Kelly weighing practice and game reps. Foles will start Thursday night's preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, after Vick started the preseason opener vs. the New England Patriots. Once again, both will play with the first-team offense. As Kelly points out, both QBs are getting a ton of reps to prove themselves, and at some point, he'll have to make a call. What's fascinating about this is that the offense should look quite different depending on who is at quarterback, given the divergent skill sets. Until a QB is picked, we really won't have any idea what to expect from the Eagles' offense in the regular season.
2) DeSean Jackson has had a great camp: Jeremy Maclin went down with a torn ACL. So did Arrelious Benn. And of course, Cooper was caught on video using a racial slur. The result of all these issues at receiver: A lot of us are missing the fact that DeSean Jackson is having a great camp. After an off year that ended with him on injured reserve, the shifty playmaker is primed to shine again in Kelly's system. Speed fits him. The 47-yard touchdown pass he hauled in from Vick last weekend was just the latest example. Some players were supposed to be difficult when Kelly arrived; many figured Jackson would be among them. But it hasn't been that way. He's eaten up the new teaching, and it's showing on the field. Throw in the strong camps from Jason Avant and Greg Salas -- and, yes, Cooper, when he's been on the field -- and the Eagles could find plenty of production at receiver. Still, don't be surprised if you see tight ends like Brent Celek and Zach Ertz or any of the running backs split out in lieu of a fourth receiver. So many variations are in store for this offense.
3) The defense remains a work in progress: Kelly's fast-paced, new-fangled, fun-and-cool offense was on display in the preseason opener. As for the defense, well ... it was there. After the Eagles' epic defensive collapse last season, the unit has a long way to go. Some stalwarts -- like linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks -- have impressed. But tackling and a tendency to allow big plays are still problems; free-agent addition Cary Williams might have been right when he said no one fears the Eagles on D. The hope is that the offense scores enough points to keep Philly in games while this unit rounds into form, but there are still questions. That leads to an odd scenario for Kelly in preseason games. Yes, he wants his defense to record an endless string of stops. But he also wants to see the players work through different challenges. On one hand, he wants to see progress. On the other hand, he wants them to gain experience. Kelly wants his defensive players to grasp the new 3-4 system better, but the coaching staff also needs to learn what the players' limitations are. "You'd like to go out in a game and have three-and-outs, three-and-outs, three-and-outs, but if you do, you face 50 snaps in a game, then you don't get a chance to evaluate," Kelly told me. "But you also don't want to be on the field for 85 snaps, because that means you're not playing good defense. But you do have an opportunity to evaluate, so it's a double-edged sword. It's still putting people in place to make plays and (seeing) who can make those plays. And we're still in the evaluation stage. The good thing is, we still have three preseason games until we play the (regular-season) opener."
4) This roster is still taking shape: It's intriguing, when visiting the Eagles, to think about the team that will be on the field when the regular season starts. Really, we have no idea. We've never seen any of the offensive players in an NFL system like this. And defensively speaking, it seems that so much is up for grabs. Players who fit in the old regime have been replaced by players thought to be better suited for the new reality. That's why we've seen the Eagles make more trades -- player-for-player trades orchestrated by general manager Howie Roseman in an effort to find the best fit -- than most teams make in a decade. How good will the Eagles be? Which players will emerge? We really don't know. And from another perspective, Roseman's personnel staff -- recently bolstered by the addition of former San Francisco 49ers director of player personnel Tom Gamble as Roseman's right-hand man -- has faced a tall task, too. They met with the new coaches early in their tenure, breaking down the exact physical attributes desired at each position in the new schemes. "That was extremely helpful for us, when you're changing schemes and when you're changing staffs, for us to then flip what they're looking for into our scouting system and our scouting reports," Roseman told me. "There's going to be some good players that don't fit and there are going to be some good players for other teams that we like because they're specific to what we're trying to do. When we're able to give that guidance to our scouts and the people in pro and college scouting in our building, it gives them the ability to right away know, from a body-type perspective, what we're looking for at each position. And saves time on our end." It's all about remodeling the team, and it's not done yet.
5) Plenty of work on tap for Thursday: A few things strike you when you're chatting with Kelly. One, he talks like he's downloading information, never at a loss for an explanation or additional context. Two, he looks at football a little differently than most of us do. Fans might be up in arms over the defensive issues that arose in the preseason opener or celebrating the offensive explosiveness, but Kelly is level, neither down in the dumps nor in a perpetual state of excitement. When I asked what he wanted to get out of Thursday's preseason game, he spoke not of success, but mostly of experiences. "I want to play," Kelly said. "You want to put them in competitive situations; that's what you hope for as a coach. Obviously, our goal is to go out there and play as best as you can, but you're hoping certain situations come up, because you can't script it. Can you get a two-minute drive in? Can we defend a two-minute drive? Can we get into a four-minute situation? Do they get into a four-minute situation? Some of those things we work on all the time in practice, but the risk/reward is different in practice than it is in a game. You're hoping some of those key situations get a chance to show themselves ... and see how we respond in those situations." That's what they really cherished about the few days spent on joint practices with the Patriots last week: endless situations. There is still so much evaluating to do.
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