House of Cards
The Chip Kelly era has been defined by the gap between expectations and reality. And with two games left in Kelly’s third season as Eagles coach, that gap is as big as it’s ever been since the former Oregon coach brought his hyped-up hurry-up offense to the NFL.
After the first-term offense dazzled during the preseason, we knew that one of two things were probably true: Either the Eagles were just a really good team at mostly meaningless preseason football, or Kelly’s strategy to get rid of most of the stars he inherited, a campaign he ramped up to a shocking level in the offseason, had revealed him to be an evil genius.
But the first three preseason games, in which DeMarco Murray looked like a human cannonball and Sam Bradford a surgical passer, are now so far in the rearview mirror it’s as if they never happened. Since then, we’ve seen that Murray is more like a boulder (moss is growing around him right now) and Bradford is less mobile than advertised and has a tendency to throw interceptions in the opposing end zone.
So the fans’ expectations are roughly zero, which I suspect is one of the reasons the crowd arrived late to Sunday night’s game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Linc.
At 7:09 I text to my friend Brandon: “There’s no good reason to have any confidence in the Eagles’ winning any particular game.”
My friend Justin spends $5 for a 20 oz bottle of a lemon lime Gatorade at the concession stand. $5. Stadium policy is for food service workers to remove all the caps from bottles when serving. I think they do this because the caps can be thrown. I guess? You can also throw an empty plastic bottle and do at least as much damage as a tiny piece of plastic. Anyway Justin doesn’t like this policy, so when the worker has her back turned to get his order of chicken tenders he reaches over into the bottle cap tray and stealthily snags it back. It’s also stadium policy, both here and at Camden Yards, for food workers to open beer cans when serving. I have been wondering why for years. The quest to figure this out continues.
At 8:12 we’re in our seats — the correct section this time. We see Jamal standing on the concourse by the steps, so we know we’re OK. It’s noticeably colder than when we arrived in South Philly shortly before 6 p.m. My decision to wear four layers and two pairs of socks is feeling judicious.
Carson Palmer’s pass on the first play of the game appears headed into the hands of wideout John Brown for a sure 78-yard touchdown. But Brown, who had sprinted past the safety, drops the ball. No matter — seven plays later the Cardinals are in the end zone and I’m starting to the feel the 37-degree temperature even though I’m wearing three shirts, two pairs of pants, a winter coat, two pairs of socks, and a hat and gloves made from the ultra-warm combo of New Zealand possum fur and merino wool.
The Iggles answer with a 12-play drive that stalls with two incomplete passes from the Arizona 18. Caleb Sturgis kicks a field goal to give the locals hope.
But there’s one major problem on this night for the Birds: They can’t help but give up chunks of yards to Carson and the Cards: 18 yards here, 9 yards there, 12 yards here, 8 yards there. Arizona kicks a field goal to make it 10-3 early in the second quarter.
Jamal the Usher is unfazed. “The Eagles are a second-half team, boy,” he says while shooing people from the top of the steps. “You watch — they’re going to come out in the second half and tear it up.”
After trading punts, the Eagles get good field position at their own 47. Four plays later Bradford hits a streaking Zach Ertz for a 22-yard touchdown to tie the score at 10 with 8 ½ minutes left in the first half. Jamal comes over to high-five me.
The Birds force Arizona to punt on the next drive, and I’m thinking maybe they can actually stay in this. But the optimism is short-lived. In three plays they go 5 yards, and in the next three plays after that the Cardinals go 67 yards, the last 47 on a run by David Johnson. The Philly defense makes Johnson, a rookie from Northern Iowa, look like Adrian Peterson (a theme for the night).
That run is a dagger, but the way the Eagles offense chews up yards on the next drive, it seems they are figuring out the Cards defense. And just as important, they are keeping Palmer and Co. off the field. The Birds move to the Arizona 10, where they face third-and-3. The next play is a pass to Ertz, but he’s stopped a yard short.
With 50 seconds left in the half, Kelly faces his biggest decision of the night: Send Sturgis out for a 26-yard field goal — shorter than a PAT — or hunker down and try to pick up the first down. Kelly goes with the latter, calling for a handoff to Ryan Mathews off right tackle. The play gains nothing.
A young man in our section stands up and walks to the steps. “Let’s go!” he barks. He motions to his companion, still seated. We find out that person’s name is Connor; it is repeated several times over the next minute. “Let’s go, Connor! Let’s go!” Connor doesn’t want to seem to go. Are they leaving the game already? It’s 10 p.m.
Maybe the fourth-down decision was the last straw for them. It seems highly dubious given one stat in particular: The Eagles are seventh from the bottom in the league at turning red-zone appearances into touchdowns (50%). Let’s say the Eagles had picked up the first down. What’s the likelihood they would have gained 7 more yards, at most, and reached the end zone? Their running game had been essentially shut down by the Cardinals, and the biggest question about the whole game was the whereabouts of DeMarco Murray. Given all that, I’d say their chances at converting the fourth down were too low to try for it. But Arizona still had all three of its timeouts, and I think Kelly’s decision was overly influenced by that.
The Eagles receive to open the second half. In less than a minute, they run four plays and punt. This is the downside of Kelly’s offense, and with a glaring lack of talent at wide receiver, it’s a downside this team cannot overcome. Less than five minutes later, rookie RB Johnson runs for another touchdown and it’s 23-10. As faint consolation, their kicker pushes the PAT wide right. That might be the only thing keeping Justin and me around. My feet are blocks of ice.
I consider leaving but then the Iggles offense begins moving the ball again, and I get suckered in. They’re inside the Arizona 40 now. … Maybe there’s hope yet …
On first down, Bradford is strip-sacked and Frostee Rucker (appropriate name for this night) recovers. A mass of people rise to their feet; they’re not headed for the restrooms or concession stands. They’re going home.
An old man’s familiar voice booms from a few rows back: “Give me his uniform — I could do thaaaaaaat!”
Justin and I stick around a little bit longer, probably against our better judgment, and are rewarded with a fumble by Mathews at midfield. This is the first time tonight I can hear the WIP radio team of Merrill Reese and Mike Quick from the concourse, a sure sign the crowd is headed to the parking lots. The Linc gets emptier a moment later after a touchdown pass from Palmer to Brown.
The third quarter hasn’t ended yet, and we are headed down the escalator. The streets are jammed with cars.
The NFC East race comes down to Saturday night’s home game against Washington. Though judging by what I’ve heard in the stadium on Sunday night — and most of the season, for that matter — the fans know that whether the Eagles make the playoffs this season really doesn’t matter.
It’s taken most of the season, but expectations have at last aligned with reality: The Eagles are as bad as they’ve been since Andy Reid’s farewell tour.