No Week 1 game captured the imagination quite like the Eagles’ Monday night throwdown with the Redskins. Combining fascinating storylines, schematic niftiness, an almost-miraculous comeback and the near-overload of Twitter. Chip Kelly vs. RGKnee was must-see TV from start to finish.
Let's dig into this one and see what it portends for the future - both in the NFC East race and the future of the league.
When we took a look at the future of the read option in the NFL, there was quite a lot to unpack. But let's compress 2,000 words into two sentences:
The read option will be an enduring and effective weapon for any offense that is willing and able to threaten defenses with the quarterback as a runner. Like the screen pass or the zone blitz, it is neither a fly-by-night gimmick nor an unstoppable juggernaut - it is simply the latest addition to the fabric of football.
While the read option was only one component of both teams' offensive arsenals on Monday night, the difference in the 'willing and able' part of that component played a massive role in the Eagles' victory.
The Eagles used Michael Vick's legs - and the threat of Michael Vick's legs - to great effect. The threat played a stronger role, as Vick only carried nine times (some were scrambles) versus a 31-tote effort for LeSean McCoy. Despite that imbalance, however, a fourth-quarter play illustrated the simple and devastating effectiveness of a properly run read option.
On second-and-three with 11:39 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Eagles lined up in the shotgun with McCoy back and slightly off to Vick's left, a formation they used for much of the night. Having seen his defense repeatedly gashed by the agile McCoy, OLB Brian Orakpo crashed inside as Vick meshed with his back. Seeing this, Vick kept and sprinted through a massive hole in the defensive front. One juke of a not-ready-for-prime-time Baccari Rambo, and it was time to strike up the Lana del Ray because Vick was off to the races for 36 yards.
The Redskins, by contrast, had little or no interest in seeing Robert Griffin III as a ballcarrier. It can be difficult to tell for certain whether the QB is actually making a read on some plays where the back ends up with the handoff, but one play in the first quarter illustrated the absence of RGIII as a run threat for the Redskins.
With 1:58 remaining in the first quarter, the Redskins called a run from a pistol set. As RGIII and Alfred Morris meshed, Griffin looked to be reading the right edge of the Eagles' defense. What he saw HAD to look attractive to a running QB. Redskins' LT Trent Williams had the Eagles' DE locked up, F-back Miles Paul was slicing across to take out OLB Trent Cole and WR Josh Morgan was cracking inside to seal off pursuit. It was the kind of soft edge that typically yielded a 15+ yard run from 2012 RGIII.
The 2013 version of RGIII, however, elected to hand the ball off to Alfred Morris, who was promptly dropped at the line of scrimmage.
The QB's threat level as a read option runner is like a watershed line for running back effectiveness. The more the defense accounts for the QB, the easier the running back's life. The inverse is just as true, and that fact was evident Monday night as Morris struggled while Shady shone.
McCoy's skill set had plenty to do with his big night, of course - he made something out of nothing multiple times and pulled some magic moves in space. But to create magic in space, you first have to have...space. And McCoy enjoyed acres of it as Washington could never fully load up to shut him down.
By the same token, Alfred Morris didn't suddenly forget how to run. He's still a smart and instinctive runner with a feel for one-cut zone running and a penchant for breaking tackles. But that one cut works a lot better when you're cutting into a huge hole as the QB holds two or three defenders on the backside. And those tackles are a lot easier to break when you're getting hit by out-of-position defenders scrambling to recover, rather than guys who have been flying at you from the snap of the ball.
The 'counter to the counter' element to the read option was also on display. At 12:02 in the second quarter, Philly faced a second-and-five with three receivers split to the boundary - an unusual formation in and of itself. Vick and McCoy were in a shotgun set, similar to the one that had yielded a few modest gains up the middle for McCoy on previous snaps. On this play, Washington had seven defenders in or around the box with only a lone corner truly split out to the boundary. When the defense aligns this way to cheat against the run threat, a competent offense makes them pay.
Vick had read the numbers properly and, after a brief fake to McCoy, fired the ball to DeSean Jackson on a screen. The gain was modest thanks to a fast-closing safety and a downfield non-block from Jason Avant, but the play illustrated the various ways that offenses can fight back in the alignment and assignment battle.
While Kelly was displaying mastery of football's latest chess moves, Mike Shanahan seemed to have forgotten one of the old ones. When an opposing defense is sending six guys up the gut after your QB on every single play...perhaps a screen pass? Bubble screen, RB screen, TE screen...ANY screen would have been a welcome respite as Griffin was under relentless assault in the pocket.
The frenetic pace of the Eagles' offense in the first half was matched only by the frenetic pace of Tweeters everywhere commenting on...the frenetic pace of the Eagles' offense.
That pace provided a great case study in momentum - not the psychological kind that Bill Barnwell has been debunking on Grantland, but the physical momentum of a boulder crashing downhill onto your head.
In the first quarter, Philly was frequently snapping the ball with 23 or 24 seconds left on the play clock. Combined with a Redskins' offense that absolutely couldn't get out of its own way, Washington's defenders were subject to an outright onslaught of more than 50 first-half snaps. They hung tough for much of the first quarter, but were absolutely gassed as the Eagles raced up and down for two more scores in the second.
Fortunately for Washington, they were saved by the halftime bell. After an early third-quarter miscue helped the Eagles to a short-field score, the Redskins began to help themselves in the third quarter. The defense finally acted on an important rule of fast-paced football - no offense can ever run more than three consecutive plays on you unless you let them. Meanwhile, the Washington offense started to get it together.
There's simply no way around the fact that Robert Griffin III was not ready to play at a high level at kickoff. Where the rust ended and genuine hindrance from the knee began was tough to tell, but both seemed to be on prominent display. Griffin's reluctance to run - and watching him get chased down by guys wearing numbers in the 90's when he did - spoke to a real hitch in his gitalong. It appears that between AP and RGIII, Dr. James Andrews may only be batting .500 in the 'absolutely inhuman miracle ACL comeback' derby.
If it takes Griffin half a season to round into form as a runner, the Redskins can survive in an NFC East with no dominant teams. But if Griffin was going to throw like he did for much of the first half - tentative, off his back foot and sailing throws high and wide - Washington was staring a disaster square in the face.
The best news for the Redskins all night was seeing RGIII round into form as a passer as the second half went on. To be sure, he was helped by an Eagles' defense that was playing soft coverage in defense of a big lead (and because they aren't really very good in the back seven). Nevertheless, the crispness and accuracy of Griffin's throws in the fourth quarter stood in drastic contrast to his first-half efforts - turns out even Heisman winners need some time to shake off the rust.
There are two sides to every comeback, of course, and Washington was helped by an Eagles' offense that made itself very one-dimensional in the second half as Kelly seemed to morph from Whiz Kid Mastermind into Conservative Protect the Lead Guy. It worked out in the end, as RGIII missed some key throws and the Eagles' ground game milked enough clock in the 4th to set up a clinching onside kick recovery. Nevertheless, the late-game drama illustrated that we shouldn't close the book on the NFC East race one game in.
The Bottom Line
All in all, it was an A-grade debut for Chip Kelly. Any notions that he runs some easily-deciphered gimmick offense were swiftly dashed. He showed a knack for getting maximum mileage out of his players' skill sets - getting McCoy in space, making judicious use of Vick's legs, setting up DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek to get loose downfield and not requiring Vick to make a ton of accurate intermediate throws. While the pace slowed down in the second half - Philly ended up running an ordinary-ish 77 plays for the game - Kelly served notice that Eagles' opponents had better be prepared for fast-break football to erupt at any time.
Hopes for an Adrian Peterson-caliber comeback for Robert Griffin III were dashed, but his second-half showing as a passer should elicit some sighs of relief in Washington. The Redskins' offense is special when RGIII is special, and it doesn't appear that his knee is ready to allow that level of play just yet. The onus will be on Mike Shanahan to craft an offensive approach that's fully functional even if Griffin isn't, while Redskins fans hope that Dr. Andrews' latest miracle is just taking a little longer to develop.