PHILADELPHIA - It will take a while to get over this one, as it should, and maybe now isn't a time for reflection, but what a first year for former UNH assistant coach Chip Kelly.
Despite a pedestrian start that was atypical for Kelly's hair-on-fire offense, the unit rebounded for a spirited finish against the Saints that reflected a season that was mostly about the new head coach's scheme.
As Kelly and his players left the Lincoln Financial Field after a devastating 26-24 loss to New Orleans on Saturday night, fans cheered them into the tunnel.
When was the last time that happened after an Eagles' playoff defeat? There is great promise and Kelly brought it with him from the college game. He stood toe-to-toe against one of the NFL's best minds, Saints coach Sean Peyton, and came up short.
New Orleans kicker Shayne Graham booted a 32-yard field goal through the uprights after the Eagles had rallied from a 20-7 deficit and took a 24-23 lead with 4 minutes and 58 seconds to play. But, ultimately, the defense could not hold.
It will be addressed in the offseason.
Until the final drive, though, Kelly dialed up an impressive fourth quarter of play-calling. Kelly's second-half groove continued and he dialed up the Eagles' best possession of the game when it mattered most.
The Saints had expanded their lead back to six points with a field goal and the Eagles got the ball back with eight minutes left in the game. Plenty of time, and plenty of time to run McCoy. On first down, the running back plunged ahead for five yards. On second down, McCoy picked up eight yards.
The offense had some room and Foles went to the air. After an errant throw, he found Jackson alone over the middle and the receiver picked up 10 yards. Riley Cooper was next, pulling in an 8-yarder. And then after a McCoy 3-yard rush, Foles went deep. Jackson was singled up against cornerback Corey White. He had been shut down for almost three quarters by Keenan Lewis, but the Saints cornerback left with a head injury after a collision in the third quarter.
But White wasn't in the same class, and Foles made a mental note. He earlier hit Jackson for 40 yards on a jump ball and here White grabbed the receiver and was called for pass interference at the 3-yard line.
After some trickery _ Foles ran to his right and shoveled back to McCoy for no gain _ the Eagles regained the lead. Foles rolled to his right and found tight end Zach Ertz alone for the touchdown that, plus the extra point, gave them a lead with 4:58 to go. It was a remarkable comeback considering the Linc felt like a vacuum after the Saints took a 20-7 lead with 3:59 left in the third quarter.
But Kelly didn't panic. There was more than 18 minutes left of time. So on first down, Foles handed off to McCoy and he ran around the left end, found a boulevard and scooted for 11 yards. The key play on the drive may have occurred when Foles threw a hospital pass to Jason Avant and the receiver was nearly decapitated by cornerback Keenan Lewis. Avant took a brutal blow and dropped the ball, but it was Lewis who didn't get up. The cornerback had kept DeSean Jackson in check up until that point, but he left with a head injury and never returned. Two plays later, Foles went to Jackson. Flushed out of the pocket to his right, Foles found Jackson singled up against White. He chucked a jump ball and the 5-foot-10 came back to the ball and outleaped the 6-1 White for a 40-yard grab.
It ignited the Eagles, and even though the offense needed four plays, McCoy plowed into the end zone on fourth-and-1 to narrow the Saints lead to 20-14. Last week against the Cowboys, Kelly went for it on fourth down and one and a quarterback sneak failed. This time, he spread his offense out, handed off to McCoy and the running back ran behind blocks by Todd Herremans, Lane Johnson and James Casey. A series later, after the defense forced a punt and Jackson zoomed 29 yards on the return, Kelly had Foles hand off to McCoy on first down again. He picked up only two yards, but it kept the linebackers honest and Foles hit Cooper for eight yards and then 14 yards. The drive stalled, though, and Alex Henery's 31-yard field goal whittled the lead to 20-17 with a little more than 11 minutes left in the game.
The Saints regained a six-point lead after they went the other way for a field goal. The Eagles scored a touchdown and volleyed back into the lead. But they could not rally and lost. Kelly had the offense running at a supersonic pace to open the game. It was the fastest the tempo had been for weeks, probably since the Cardinals game. It was no secret then that Kelly went up-tempo to keep the blitz-happy Arizona defense from pressuring Foles. It worked _ and it didn't and the Eagles survived to hold off the Cardinals in early December.
Kelly sprinkled in the up-tempo over the next four weeks, but the offense looked nowhere near as fast as it did in September. He said last week that defenses had done a good job of preparing for the pace. But he brought it back at full speed at the tip, likely to keep Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from calling his myriad of blitz packages. It didn't work.
On the Eagles' eight first-half possessions they gained 122 yards on 30 plays for a 4.1-yard per play average.
The thrilling offense we saw for weeks, months and most of the season was nowhere to be found. Foles had a couple of strong throws. He hit Brent Celek for 24 yards. He found Cooper for 22 yards after DeMeco Ryans' interception. And finally he connected with Cooper for a 10-yard touchdown before the half.
Ultimately, the Eagles just couldn't outgun a powerful Saints offense and a season that not many expected much from ended with disappointment.
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