January 3, 2014

Thankful for Chip, thankful for Nick.

Three hundred and fifty-seven days ago, I wondered aloud who the next head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles would be. Now I'm prepping for tomorrow's playoff game. As Road Warrior Hawk would say, "Ueeawwwwaaah, what a rush."

This resurgence, led by future bumper sticker magnate Chip Kelly, hasn't always been pretty; anyone going with the "wunderkind coach runs roughshod over the NFL" narrative must've missed a few of 2013's real stinkers. But it has been quite an enjoyable turn of events, and one you may have been able to predict if you squinted just right at the roster in early September.

At the very least, you can see why the Chipper wanted to coach in Philadelphia and not, say, Cleveland. An offensive line fueled by the return of Jason Peters and the drafting of Lane Johnson was sure to be vastly improved (and it was). LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson were, and are, two of the most explosive players in football. And while healthy, Michael Vick looked like a tantalizing choice to run Kelly's offense.

But the two wildcards - the defense and Nick Foles - are what helped this team rise from "thoroughly mediocre" to "slightly to very good." The defense started off hideously; 138 points surrendered over the first four games meant an already-explosive offensive attack would have have to be downright perfect to keep the ship afloat. But thus began a stretch (from Week 5 to Week 14) where the Eagles gave up 21 points or less in every single game.

Yes, their competition (Tampa Bay, Oakland, Detroit in the snow, Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers) wasn't particular fierce. And yes, Minnesota somehow uncovered the key to torching them in Week 16. But you could see young players like Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin growing up before your eyes, while veterans like Trent Cole began to grasp the subtleties of existing in Bill Davis's defense. Essentially, what looked like a serious minus turned out to be a bit of a plus.

And then there's Foles. Sweet, sweet Nick Foles. A healthy Michael Vick torched the Redskins and Chargers in the season's opening weeks, but we all knew that wouldn't last forever. The pesky Chiefs defense started his downfall in Week 3 (13 for 30 with two interceptions), and a Week 5 hamstring injury meant it was Nick Foles or bust.

Minus the stinker against the Cowboys in October, there's been nary a bust to be found. Foles has been nothing short of spectacular as the starting quarterback. Most people know about his nearly record-setting 119.2 QB rating, but that's not all the work of Chip Kelly's wacky offense. His intelligence in the pocket contributes to a rare brand of mistake-free football (only 19 giveaways, tied with Seattle, New Orleans and Carolina for fourth-lowest in the NFL) that has kept the defense off the field at inopportune moments (and certainly helped with their late-season resurgence).

Mix that with NFL rushing champion McCoy and Bryce "No More Fumbles" Brown -- not to mention a truly wonderful season (44.9 yard average, 33 punts inside the 20) from Donnie Jones -- and you've got an offense that often comes out on top in ball control and field position. And oh yeah, one that also led the NFL in plays of 20-plus yards. Not saying the Chipper is perfect as a head coach, far from it, but these are some aspects that he's nailed thus far.

I don't think the Eagles are a true Super Bowl contender, but home versus New Orleans followed by Carolina on the road is probably the "easiest" possible path to the NFC Championship Game. And if you told me before the season "the Eagles will win the division against Dallas in Week 17, but they won't win it all," my response would've been "Wait, what? Woo! Who the fuck cares?!"

That doesn't mean expectations haven't changed from the preseason to now, but I'm trying to sit back and enjoy the ride. Chip Kelly looks like a legitimate NFL coach, Nick Foles looks like a legitimate NFL quarterback, and the team that employs both of those men happens to be my favorite, and participating in the postseason. That's a lot to be thankful for.