THERE ARE few guarantees in the NFL, but write this one down and take it to the bank: No matter who lines up at quarterback during this season of dramatic change for the Eagles—Michael Vick, Nick Foles or even fourth-round pick Matt Barkley—the real star of the show will not be an individual but rather Chip Kelly's unconventional offense.
The up-tempo, spread-formation scheme that the new coach brought east from Oregon, where his Ducks won big playing fast-break football, is versatile and varied, and it thrives on quick adjustments at the line depending on what an opposing defense shows. Boiled down, it's matchup football, designed to create and exploit mismatches.
The first new Philadelphia head coach of this century, however, is weary of the offensive-guru label that has ultimately rung hollow when applied to other college coaches trying their hand at the pros. (See: Spurrier, Steve.) And he downplays the notion that the NFL will find any of what he does particularly novel or revolutionary; from his viewpoint, there's nothing really new or untried in football.
Kelly's players see it differently. "He runs plays that we've never seen before—that's the hardest part of stopping them," says outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who Philly signed from Houston in free agency. "[He] puts you in space and spreads you out, which turns into a lot more matchups all over the field. It'll be fun to watch, but it's not going to be fun to try and stop."
You can't pigeonhole Kelly's offense, except that it won't look traditional—or much like the West Coast attack that departed Eagles coach Andy Reid featured for the past 14 seasons. There exists a misperception that the Kelly Way is a pass-happy, wide-open attack, but the stats from Oregon don't bear that out. He loves to run the ball out of the spread, attacking defensive gaps, and the Ducks stayed on the ground 62.5% of the time during Kelly's tenure as coach, a rate he can't possibly replicate in the NFL.
Kelly's forte, rather, is his ability to use plays and unorthodox personnel packages to keep a defense off-balance, which should put Eagles playmakers such as running back LeSean McCoy, receiver DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end Zach Ertz in space with room to run. Philadelphia is rarely expected to huddle or line up under center, and formations will vary from the shotgun to the pistol to two-tight-end sets, with backs motioning out wide at times. And yes, there'll be some read-option sprinkled in as well.
It's an offense that is built to suit the strengths of the players at Kelly's disposal, and to do that quickly, before opponents have a chance to breathe. His offense ran an average of 79, 73 and 81 plays a game from 2010 through '12. By comparison, the '12 Patriots, with their own no-huddle offense, averaged almost 75 plays per game, more than any team in nearly 20 years.
In addition to pushing the tempo, Kelly's offense demands that the quarterback make snap decisions and good presnap reads. What it doesn't require—as Kelly has emphasized—is that he be a runner, like those in the read-option. Vick, the most mobile of his QBs, showed the best balance of mobility and pocket passing in the preseason, and he was named the starter for Week 1. But Foles and Barkley could each see starting stints this season too, with Kelly game-planning around their different skill sets.
"[His offense] forces me to make quick decisions," says Barkley. "While I have fewer responsibilities in terms of checks at the line—it's too fast for that—after the snap I have more options than normal, even in the running game."
What remains to be seen is whether Kelly has the right personnel in year one to execute the offense the way he wants to run it. Season-ending knee injuries to receivers Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn, not to mention the locker-room-rocking Riley Cooper controversy, didn't help Kelly speed the implementation of his plan.
"You'll see some similarities to what he did at Oregon, but it's Chip's offense," says Barkley, who competed against Kelly's Ducks at USC. "He's smart enough to figure out how to make it work in this league, just like he's made it work wherever he's been. He understands it's not just the plays themselves, it's the scheme and how you work it. He's definitely the reason it's going to work here."
THE CASE FOR...
Outside linebacker Trent Cole
The Eagles' transition from a wide-nine 4--3 defense to a 3--4 under new coordinator Bill Davis has several pressure points that bear watching, but none carry a greater risk than Cole, the career DE who's switching to a stand-up right OLB spot. After eight seasons of lining up with his hand in the dirt, and with a team-high 71 sacks in that span, Cole is being asked to view the QB from a new vantage point. First impression: He enjoys the freedom of the new role but says it's made him feel like "an experienced rookie" at times, with mistakes resulting from playing in more space than he's used to. It's unlikely that Cole will be asked to drop into coverage often; instead he'll be the Eagles' rush LB, expected to set the edge or get upfield after the passer. It's a job that will take time for the 6' 3" 270-pounder to acclimate to, but he's athletic enough to handle it. "I've watched James Harrison, DeMarcus Ware," says Cole, and "I like how they get to set the edge. I love that I'll be wide open and I can do whatever I want. I can't worry about anything. I've just got to be relentless."
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
(N) NEW ACQUISITION
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WR DESEAN JACKSON
CHARLES LECLAIRE/USA TODAY SPORTS