MythBusters: Has the NFL cracked the secrets of Chip Kelly's playbook?
In our "MythBusters" series, SI.com’s Doug Farrar uses tape, statistics and conversations with some of the NFL’s most knowledgeable voices to debunk storylines that have inexplicably gained traction. In this installment, Farrar debunks the notion that the Eagles' offensive woes are based in Chip Kelly's schematic predictability.
MYTH: The NFL has figured Chip Kelly out, and he needs to expand his playbook before his offense collapses even further.
REALITY: It's about schemes, personnel and execution—Kelly is at the head of a three-pronged disaster.
Through the first two games of the season, the stats for the winless Eagles are... not good. In the team's 20–10 loss to the Cowboys last Sunday, QB Sam Bradford led the team with nine rushing yards; he was one of 26 NFL quarterbacks to run for more yards than the highly-priced, highly-hyped backfield of DeMarco Murray, Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews. Murray has rushed for 11 yards on the entire season, the fewest through two games for a defending rushing champion since Doug Russell of the Chicago Cardinals in 1936 (per ESPN Stats & Info).
According to Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards stats, the 2015 Eagles are the worst run-blocking team since at least 1996, which is as far as FO's charting stats go at this point. ALY assigns responsibility for a successful/unsuccessful run play to the line or the back to varying degrees based on multiple factors, and the 2015 Eagles' per-run total of 1.11 yards is by far the lowest. The 2012 Cardinals have the lowest ALY through an entire season with 2.93 ALY per play, which puts these Eagles on high alert—they'd better turn things around, or their sad-sack run game will be fairly historic in all the wrong ways.
It's not just the line's fault, either. FO also keeps track of running back yards per play, and the lowest full-season total since 1996 belongs to the 2012 Cardinals, who maxed out at a 2.93 yards per play average. Through the first two games of this season, the Eagles are averaging 1.97 RB yards per play.
In case you think it gets worse... well, it does. Against the Cowboys in Week 2, Murray ran the ball 13 times and gained a total of minus-two yards. He was stuffed (resulting in zero or negative yards) on six of those plays, including five in a row. Per FO, the Eagles backs are getting stuffed on 39% of their carries, twice the NFL average, and again, on a historic pace. The 2005 Cardinals lead all teams in FO's database in stuffed percentage with 31%.
The passing game is also a problem—Sam Bradford is still adjusting to this offense, but the pass protection is reasonably sound so far. Bradford has been pressured on just 23.1% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and only Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton have been pressured at a lower rate this season. The run game has fallen apart in Philadelphia, and that's the primary problem.
What's at the root of it? There are all kinds of potential answers.
The predictability problem
This theory gained steam when Eagles receiver Josh Huff said that Cowboys defenders were yelling out Eagles playcalls before they happened. While the Eagles were entirely predictable in the first half of the Dallas game—basically, a back offset to the left meant a zone run, while a back to the right meant a sweep—Kelly switched that up in the second half. The Falcons were timing Philadelphia's blocks and gaps in the season opener, as well.
This isn't a new story; it was happening last year, when the Eagles were gaining 3.52 ALY and 4.36 RB yards per carry. Kelly came to the NFL with a relatively limited palette of play concepts with different offshoots, and the idea was to implement them with the right kind of play speed and execution. Anyone in the Eagles' front office who thought they were getting a Bill Walsh-level offensive designer when Kelly was hired? Well, those people were way off-base.
After the Eagles lost to the 49ers 26–21 in Week 4 of the 2014 season, it came out that San Francisco safety Antione Bethea, who was mic'd up by NFL Films for the game, was calling Philadelphia's play tendencies with impressive accuracy. And after the Seahawks beat the Eagles 24–14 in Week 14, Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright intimated that the Kelly way of beating teams with quickly timed plays with basic execution was going the way of the dinosaur.
“The tempo wasn’t a factor at all ... the Eagles are a pretty simple team,” Wright said. "The Eagles did the same old stuff that they always do. There was no confusion. They throw screens, they tried to hurry-up, but when you’re not completing the ball, that’s kind of tough to do.
“We knew we had them, and once you take away their jab, you have them pretty much beat. We took away what they did best. With stopping [LeSean] McCoy, that guy carries the ball like a loaf of bread. We knew he wasn’t going to come out of this game without having a fumble.”
Cornerback Antonio Cromartie of the Jets, who play the Eagles on Sunday, recently told NJ.com that his way of adapting to Kelly's quick-tempo offense is to turn off the coaches' tape and turn on the broadcast feed.
"When you look at the offense, their up-tempo actually has slowed down more with Sam Bradford than it was with Nick Foles," Cromartie said, via NJ.com. "It seems like it. When you're watching the game on TV, and then you watch the games from last year with Nick Foles and those guys, it seems like the tempo was a lot quicker. To me, it looks like it's slowed down a little more with Sam Bradford, because he's still trying to grasp the offense. I think Nick Foles understood the offense, so they were able to move at a faster pace."
In truth, the Eagles are putting plays together at the same relative pace, but because they're going three-and-out so often, the effect of the hurry-up offense over time is negated. Right now, Kelly's offense is averaging 1:45 per drive, the lowest mark in the league. And until they figure out how to fix that, this offense isn't going anywhere.
But as far as the predictability of Kelly's offense? It's not any more of a problem than it was last season—it's just that between a new running back and two new guards, the reductive effect of that predictability may be compounded.
The DeMarco Murray problem
The Eagles kicked LeSean McCoy to the curb after the 2014 season, trading him to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso and signing Murray in McCoy's place. The Philadelphia front office thought that Murray would work in the Eagles's base inside zone and sweep system as well as he worked in Dallas's combination of outside zone and gap (power) blocking, but it's not that simple. Outside zone carries its own set of disciplinary responsibilities for any back, as Baltimore's Justin Forsett told me this offseason.
"We have a track every time we do outside zone; it's usually the outside leg of the tight end," Forsett said of the outside zone concept. "So I'm staying patient and not giving away any keys that I'm going to cut upfield. We continued to stretch the defense, and [the line] did a great job at the point of attack. It's about tempo. You can't be too fast, because you'll miss it, you'll miss a lot of holes. But like you said, it's not speed to the hole, it's speed through the hole. You've got to make sure you're setting up your blocks and being patient, knowing when to hit it and when not to."
When Murray was in Dallas, he was directed to shoot through opened gaps in the Cowboys' power-blocking concepts, and to hit it outside as quickly as possible when outside zone was called. It didn't require as much vision as Kelly's inside zone scheme does, and Murray isn't a pick-and-go runner. That's why it worked in Dallas.
Linebackers and safeties will tell you all the time that they need to read keys in the run game; less patient backs bail for gaps too quickly, and things fall apart. Murray was a track runner in Dallas. Now, he's been asked to read and respond to ways in which he's not familiar.
Of course, it would helps if those gaps weren't destroyed almost immediately by poor blocking on an alarmingly regular basis. The timing is off, but the line is to blame, as well.
The blocking problem
One common narrative that comes up in discussion of Philadelphia's obvious blocking issues is Kelly's hubris in dismissing veteran guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans in the offseason in favor of Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner. And it's true that neither Barbre nor Gardner has played well. But Mathis, who was signed by the Broncos, and Herremans, who's now with the Colts, haven't been world-beaters with their new teams in seemingly complementary zone-based systems. Personnel is an issue, but this seems more systemic.
Here's Murray's first run of the game against the Cowboys, with 12:30 left in the first quarter. It's an inside zone play in which receiver Jordan Matthews, who motions inside pre-snap, is somehow supposed to block Dallas end Jeremy Mincey, who's lined up in a wide alignment at right end. There's no adjustment for Mincey's placement, and therefore, it doesn't matter that everyone's picked up to the playside.
This four-yard loss on a sweep to Darren Sproles with 9:03 left in the first quarter indicates another problem Dallas presented—they were using their ends and tackles to hook the Eagles blockers, delaying the timing of the sweep. On this play, right DT Tyrone Crawford hooks center Jason Kelce, while Mincey blows through a defensive gap left clear by a combination of issues—Barbre is pulling out for the sweep, LT Jason Peters is blocking inside on Crawford, and TE Brent Celek misses the block on Mincey. Crawford's hook on Kelce is the key to this play, though, and it delays Kelce's timing to the second level, which leaves him unable to pick up linebacker Sean Lee, who blows Sproles for the loss. Sproles actually beat Mincey, but Lee was too quick, and he timed the gap perfectly.
This two-yard loss by Murray with 1:18 left in the first quarter was just embarrassing—it's clear that the Cowboys are aligning their linebackers for a zone run to the right, through the Eagles try to use back-side motion to lead the defense in the other direction. You could assign responsibility to the line for failing to pick up Lee on the tackle (it would certainly help if both Kelce and Gardner didn't appear to screw up a block on tackle Terrell McClain, leaving Lee with a five-lane highway to the rusher), but this was one that was doomed from the start. At some point, someone needs to audible or check out of these clearly-read calls.
Conclusion: Everything's wrong
So, what's the problem: Predictability, DeMarco Murray or the line? Right now, it's all of the above. In the NFL, schematic breakdowns don't generally have one root cause. If the players were executing Kelly's run concepts, the predictability wouldn't be as much of a problem—Dallas' running game and Seattle's defense are two recent examples of relatively simple playbooks that have worked on the field because everything is in line. Both units are struggling a bit now with personnel movement and execution issues. That said, Kelly would do well to tailor what he's doing to the players he's got. Especially in Murray's case, that simply isn't happening now.
"I think we’ve been varied in our two games and in our preseason," Kelly said this week. "When you’re not successful, I think guys are grasping at excuses. You know when a team is in Tampa 2, they’re going to slant their 3 and 7 technique [linemen]. When they do it, it’s not a surprise to us. Everybody has predictabilities and tendencies going into every game. That’s just part of the game. Everybody kind of does what they do."
Kelly probably wishes more NFL teams were playing Tampa-2, a base defense that worked a lot better when there weren't more three-receiver sets and varied motion concepts. Kelly's assertion that it's about execution is true, but it's also about a coach's execution of his own vision.
No matter why it's not working. It's on him to get it sorted out.