While the DNC has taken over most of the conversation in Philly this week, there is a large faction of local fanatics who think all this talk of elephants and donkeys is, well, for the birds.
While thousands descend on South Philly to gobble up all the patriotism they can fit on an overpriced touristy cheesesteak, the real work being done on South Broad this week is across the street, at the NovaCare Complex, as Eagles training camp has officially (finally) begun.
Two years without making the playoffs. Seven years without a playoff win. Eleven years without a trip to the Super Bowl and 55 years — and 14 head coaches — without an NFL championship.
The Eagles hope all of that changes with Doug Pederson in charge. While the decision to move up in this spring’s NFL Draft to take Carson Wentz has fans optimistic about the future, in some respects that future starts now: Pederson’s leadership in his first year will set the post-Chip Kelly Eagles on a course the franchise desperately needs to get right.
With that — no pressure, Doug —here are five of the biggest questions as training camp opens.
Can Doug Pederson coach?
Looking back over the comments from January when Pederson was hired to replace Kelly, most fans were not terribly inspired. Pederson was the safe pick for owner Jeffrey Lurie, and it made sense why the Eagles would try to roll back the clock to the Andy Reid era.
Going from Reid to Kelly was like trading in a Chevy AstroVan for a Corvette, and when Lurie opted to break the lease on the flashy sports car early, it was clear he wanted to settle back in to a more sensible ride.
Pederson is exactly that, though to be fair, in his time in charge he’s begun to win over fans. His demeanor with the media has been very calm and up-front. His handling of both the Sam Bradford and Fletcher Cox situations deserves plaudits as well, at least so far. By all accounts, through the NFL Draft and minicamp process, Pederson looks like a darn good head coach.
It’s just one thing: he hasn’t actually… coached much yet.
This is Pederson’s first training camp as a head coach, and while he called some of the plays under Andy Reid, he’s never been the guy making in-game decisions. On paper, Pederson made sense as Lurie’s pick — a hybrid SUV type of rebound purchase — but nobody really knows if the guy will be a good head coach, and training camp (and the pre-season) is going to give us an important glance into what we should expect the suddenly more sensible Eagles to be.
And then there’s this: former NFL quarterbacks don’t usually make good NFL head coaches.
Jim Harbaugh got the 49ers to a Super Bowl before wearing out his welcome in San Francisco and last season Gary Kubiak rode the Broncos to a championship in his first year in Denver, but other than the two of them, the only other NFL quarterback in charge of an NFL team in the last decade or so has been Jason Garrett, and does anyone want that here?
People who have played quarterback can be good coaches. Sean Payton was a replacement player during the ’87 strike, and he’s a darn good coach. Jay Gruden was a champion in the AFL as a player and coach before making the jump to the NFL. But historically speaking, NFL quarterbacks don’t do all that well as NFL head coaches.
And then there’s this, via SB Nation, which should scare everyone:
Gary Kubiak became the third head coach in the Super Bowl era to win a Lombardi Trophy with the team he played for. Kubiak joins Ditka, who played for the Bears from 1961 through 1966, and Tom Flores, who played for the Oakland Raiders and was the head coach in Oakland when the team won Super Bowl XV. Flores was also the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders when they won Super Bowl XVIII.
Since 1985, the only former players to win a Super Bowl as head coach are Mike Ditka, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Payton, sort of, and Kubiak.
This is going to be an interesting ride.
Will Frank Reich and Jim Schwartz be good fits?
The Eagles have two former AFC West offensive coordinators on the staff this year, but only one was calling the plays last season. Frank Reich will serve under Pederson, though the head coach will be the one calling the plays in Philly. Per USA Today, this is how Pederson plans to run the offense on game days:
Pederson said he will give the play call to Reich, who in turn will relay it to the quarterback … Once the play is given to Reich, he will not have the ability to change the call. Allowing Reich to change the plays would only slow down the process.
When asked if he ever changed Andy Reid’s plays, Pederson said, “Heck no!” So this should be a very interesting year for Reich, starting this week in training camp.
It should also be interesting for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who spent a year out of coaching after being fired by Rex Ryan when he took over the Buffalo Bills.
Schwartz has been a very good DC in his career, but he was a really bad head coach in Detroit, leading a wholly undisciplined team that seemed to take its personality from the head coach himself.
Eagles fans should love Schwartz as a coordinator — dare-I-say he could be Buddy Ryan-esque in that role — but defensive guys as successful as Schwartz rarely take a year off from coaching, especially when up for several jobs (he didn’t get) that year.
None of this seems to be making Eagles fans nervous, which is precisely why it should.
Are the Eagles healthy (especially at linebacker)?
Remember how Chip Kelly let two-fifths of his offensive line go and didn’t sign anyone to replace them and didn’t draft anyone for depth and then tried to convince fans that the team would be just fine on the OL even though we all knew it would be a disaster and to no one’s surprise it was?
That could be the linebackers this year.
The Eagles didn’t draft a linebacker until the seventh round and while last season was nothing great in terms of production at the position, the Birds thinned out by parting ways with both DeMeco and Kiko, as Ryans and Alonso were released and traded, respectively.
The team signed Nigel Bradham from Buffalo in the off-season, and have to hope that Jordan Hicks can stay on the field this year, as the defense just wasn’t the same without him when he missed eight games after tearing his pectoral. Even with a healthy Hicks, the position could be a concern. This from Dave Zangaro at CSNPhilly.com should have everyone a little nervous:
Linebackers. This is perhaps the scariest position on the roster in terms of depth. Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks have lengthy injury histories and Nigel Bradham is somewhat of an unknown. Still, it might be a solid starting group. But after them? Najee Goode, Deontae Skinner, Joe Walker and a few undrafted rookies. Yikes.
Who is going to be the kicker, and why does it matter?
The Eagles are going to have two kickers in camp, with Cody Parkey and Caleb Sturgis battling for the job when the season begins. This might be the most important position battle on the entire roster.
Parkey is trying to win back the job he had before getting hurt last year. In 2015, the Eagles were 20th in average scoring margin at -3.3, which plays out to just over one field goal per game.
NFL rules have been designed to make games more competitive, so as much as the placekicker position is mostly an afterthought for fans in July, having a trustworthy kicker is vital in today’s NFL.
In 2015, the Eagles scored an average of 2.4 points per field goal attempt, which ranked 27th out of 32 teams. For a good team, that could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.
Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks
Did we bury the lede? Probably.
Everything about this season — and really, everything about the Doug Pederson era, for however long it will last — comes down to the quarterback position.
The plan is to have Carson Wentz inactive on game days, with Sam Bradford starting and Chase Daniel the back-up. That’s the plan. From Zach Berman at Philly.com:
“Typically, the third quarterback is down,” Pederson said during a June interview. “It’s hard right now to look down the road, but if we had to play this week, Carson would be down. He’d be the third quarterback. He’d be deactivated. That’s probably the direction we’re heading, I would think is going that route.”
That’s all fine and dandy in June, but as we pointed out back in April, first round quarterbacks just don’t sit their rookie seasons.
How Pederson manages the quarterbacks in camp — and how each performs during the preseason — will tell us far more than whatever they say during the first few days of press availability this week.
Remember, Bradford has started just 21 games over the last three seasons, so maybe the biggest question coming from training camp won’t be who is the starter in Week 1, but who will be the starter when Bradford inevitably misses time this season?
With the Doug Pederson era officially here, there are a lot of questions to answer. When the Carson Wentz era begins is, and will continue to be, the biggest.