What Happens If Something Bad Happens: If The Season Starts And Then The Bottom Dropped Out
One foot in the hole
One foot gettin’ deeper crank it to eleven
And blow another speaker
And I ain’t got, I ain’t got much to lose
Cuz I’ve seen better days
Been the star of many plays
I’ve seen better days
And the bottom drops out - Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out) by Citizen King
The season begins. The season opener, and the Philadelphia Eagles have taken a commanding lead. Then, the worst happens, and then the bottom dropped out. Name the star, but one of the key players is helped off the field and by the time the second half begins we learn he is out for the season.
We can all recite the cliche’s here: “Next Man Up” “We’re from Philly and we fight” “In Chip we trust”, but a loss to a key player could potentially have a huge impact on the team. Each year I shudder when I consider the existing roster, and the potential impact the loss of a key player might have on the team’s fortunes. Rather than simmer, stew, and sulk alone, I want to try something different. I’ll lay out various scenarios of the “worst case scenario”, and then logically narrate what response might the Eagles take in that situation?
Ready? Neither am I, but here goes anyways…
There are several areas where the Eagles may be vulnerable to an untimely injury, namely offense and defense. Let’s discuss what these worst case scenarios would do to the Eagles chances, and which players might step up to fill the vacancy.
Quarterback Nick Foles – The untimely absence of Nick Foles is pretty much the worst of the worst case scenarios in my mind. There are other stars who may be measurably more productive to the team’s offensive output, but no one person is more critical to the long term growth and maturity of this team. Now that Foles has taken over as the clear starting and franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future, the Eagles can start to “settle in” to custom fit his strengths and tendencies.
Foles is human. He’s not Peyton Manning (although he’s tied Peyton’s best offensive output with a seven touchdown performance against the Oakland Raiders), and he’s not Tom Brady (although he was deadly accurate and effective in the pocket). But he is the Eagles starting quarterback and the Eagles are a good offense. If he cannot suit up, or if the hot arm ices cold, what would a Chip Kelly like response be?
Well, excuse making won’t happen (unless hard pressed by media to explain an offensive drop in production). It was clear in 2013 during the first half of the season that this coaching staff will not whine nor panic. The most likely scenario is the team will fall into the hands of newly acquired quarterback Mark Sanchez. Keep in mind that this is NOT the New York Jets version of Mark Sanchez. By rights, this is a veteran quarterback who also has seen the best and the worst of the NFL. In the Sanchez relief scenario, the likelihood that he holds on to a lead or comes back to win a game is at best a 50/50 likelihood.
But coming off the bench does not change Kelly’s philosophy, and by the next game the Eagles will have game planned to place their quarterback in a good position to win. Perhaps the passes will become higher percentages, perhaps the load will go to the running games. The team might even count on the opposing team attempting to shut down the run and load up on pass tree plays to set up the run later in the game. We may lose a close game, we may lose two close games. But even if Foles goes down, I still expect the Eagles to be in post season contention.
Running Back LeSean “Shady” McCoy - The loss of Shady would be a tough event to recover from. Shady is the spiritual leader of this team. When the Philadelphia Eagles needed a star to step up in 2013, McCoy answered the bell. In the playoff stretch, McCoy averaged over 120 yards/game. Thanks to his willingness to shoulder the burden, the Eagles came from nowhere to win the NFC East Division.
But 2014 may not have such an easy path to come from nowhere. Thankfully, the Eagles did not rest and brought in some new weapons that can help. The first such player is the newly acquired running back Darren Sproles. While Sproles will not be able to carry the ball 25 times a game, he can run and catch. Used wisely, his production could end up nearly equivalent of a solid outing by McCoy. Chip Kelly, if anything, is wise enough to make that happen. And when the Eagles need to line up and grind the ball, they have fresh legged Chris Polk, who has committed himself in off season and made use of sparse opportunities to be considered the heir apparent to Shady McCoy in this situation. In 2012, the Eagles found production in Bryce Brown. One of the three remaining running backs: Matthew Tucker, David Fluellen, or Henry Josey could repeat that if given the chance to do so.
Wide Receiver Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper – The Eagles passing game will certainly be the focus of pundits and sports casters this year, many simply seeking noticeable vulnerabilities caused by the outright release of 2013 leading wide receiver DeSean Jackson. So if the Eagles lose either of their two starting wide receivers, it’s all over, right? Not so fast my friend. In the draft, the Eagles picked up two new wide receivers in Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. It would be presumptuous to assume they could step right in and immediately replace with Maclin or Cooper. So the Eagles also will be looking at a human skyscraper of a receiver in Ifeanyi Momah, whose disappointing 2013 seems to have become motivation to make an impact in 2014. The same thing can be said of Arrelious Benn, whose injury in 2013 forced him into a difficult position to earn a spot on the Eagles roster. Judging by training camp, he has every intention of doing so.
The challenge for a new set of receivers will be discovering what these receivers do well. In 2013, Eagles wide receivers faced predominantly man coverage to enable the defense to dedicate resources to stopping Shady McCoy. With Matthews, Huff, Momah, and Benn, that press defense should not be nearly as effective. Additionally, the added factor of running back Darren Sproles would force defenses to use a linebacker to cover him, no small task.
Should a receiver falter, the 2014 Eagles appear to be deep enough to absorb the loss and remain a contender.
Offensive linemen – If this team has an Achilles heel on offense (sorry Jason Peters), it is their offensive line. The group of offensive tackle Jason Peters, offensive guard Evan Mathis, center Jason Kelce, offensive guard Todd Herremans, and offensive tackle Lane Johnson are one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. They are also one of the oldest. With no clear backup signed in either the draft or in free agency, the team would turn to Dennis Kelly, Allen Barbre, Julian Vandervelde, Matt Tobin, Michael Bamiro, Karim Barton, Josh Andrews, Donald Hawkins, or others.
Its virtually impossible to outright replace this offensive line without some drop in cohesion, and quality. But the Eagles have had injuries in the past, and the coaching staff does not panic. It will modify what plays can be run throughout the game, but the Eagles will be clever enough to abandon what does not work. The key will be to adjust to what the defense throws at the offense. If Foles is the quarterback, he has already developed a reputation of making a team pay if they bring a blitz. Teams will blitz. If the line holds, Foles will make them pay.
Tight Ends Zach Ertz, Brian Celek, James Casey - I am still awaiting the arrival of heavy tight end formations. Yes the Eagles have used multiple tight ends, the the skill-sets of these tight ends are such that each could be called onto the field and immediately produce. Of the group, Ertz is the receiver, Celek is the blocker, and Casey is the guy who plays hard and defies a category. But this group produced 10 of 32 receiving touchdowns in 2013, and will likely be expected to do more in the absence of Jackson. After the draft, the Eagles signed a Casey-like player by the name of Trey Burton. With Casey and Burton, I look for the Eagles to take any opportunity to showcase their “can’t be categorized” weapons, and an injury to any of the tight ends would be just that. In fact, even without injury I would not be surprised to see this group be called upon to contribute more in 2014.
So the team is only as good as it’s weakest player. Fortunately, in 2014 the team has upgraded the personnel and now a majority have been selected to fit THIS scheme. That will make a huge difference this year. So let’s get back to optimistically thinking we win the division. In the off season, those are the scripted lines. But if the Eagles go off script this year? Well, at least on offense we should be just fine.
We’ll peak at the defense next time.