PHILADELPHIA — Chip Kelly likes it very much — he visibly brightens — when someone brings him a morsel of arcane statistical evidence that supposedly proves a theory about his football philosophy and whether, ultimately, it will work or not in the NFL. Kelly treats these offerings the way large bears treat salmon as they attempt to swim past. He swipes them with a sharp paw and then consumes them whole.
During his first season with the Eagles, Kelly, a former Manchester Central quarterback and University of New Hampshire offensive coordinator, has shown a particular appetite for questions about his regard for the time-of-possession statistic, of which he has none. Kelly likes to say that when they start keeping time of possession on the scoreboard, then he will pay attention to it.
He follows that by bringing up a game he coached at Oregon in which the Ducks had the ball for something like 17 seconds the whole game and still scored 78 points. Those numbers might be a little off, but you get the idea.
In the world of the NFL, where coaches do not have 90 very young and resilient men at their disposal, the skeptics have wondered from the very beginning if a team could make it soundly to the finish line without splitting the workload somewhat evenly between the offense and defense, and whether an offense could score enough points to win consistently if it didn't, well, have the football.
Kelly said to wait and see, and now we have, at least for this season.
The Eagles, who finished 10-6, host a playoff game tonight against the New Orleans Saints despite having possessed the ball for less time than any team in the NFL. They averaged 26 minutes, 24 seconds on offense, less than even the dreadful Jacksonville Jaguars (27:22), who gave away the ball consistently and were content to let the other guy keep it.
Among the 12 playoff teams, only four — the Eagles, New England (29:38), Indianapolis (29:41) and Seattle (29:57) — had their defenses on the field more than their offenses, and the other three by only a few ticks.
On the face of it, and this fueled all those skeptical salmon, if you don't have the ball, you can't score. Kelly's team backhanded that one out of the water, too. The Eagles' offense scored 424 points, second most in the NFL.
It isn't sleight of hand. Scoring a lot of points with a low time of possession isn't like producing a fat rabbit from an empty hat, but it does reveal that there are some statistics that even Chip Kelly doesn't dismiss with an eye roll. In fact, there are two that really catch his attention and the Eagles excelled in both categories this season.
"(Turnovers) is a huge statistic. If you look at our numbers, it's really striking," Kelly said. "Look at our 10 wins and the plus-minus ratio and then our six losses. That turnover-takeaway stat and then the big play stat. We do both of those. I know I'm going to get yelled at about time of possession, but I think those two stats are more important than that one."
The Eagles were last in the league for their turnover ratio in 2012, but they are near the top this season, with 12 more takeaways (31) than giveaways (19). Their drives have not been short-circuited and even though they might not last long — because the Eagles are a no-huddle team and because Kelly is an aggressive play caller — the drives usually come to a natural conclusion, whether positive or not. In their 10 wins, the Eagles are plus-18 in turnovers. In their six losses, they are minus-6.
"The only thing we really had to do to improve was protect the football and we've done that a lot better than we had," safety Nate Allen said.
The other thing Kelly needed for his offense to succeed is a lot of big plays. If the Eagles weren't going to grind it out, chew up clock and possess the ball, then they had to get it downfield quickly. Well, they did that, setting an NFL record with 98 plays that went for 20 yards or more in the regular season. That broke the previous record set by the 2001 St. Louis Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf of Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk.
That record is where Kelly's adeptness at spreading the field was really apparent. They didn't complete a whole lot of true bombs, but the Eagles were able to gobble sizable chunks of yardage with wide-open completions, and not always to their fleetest receivers. Quarterback Nick Foles doesn't have the strongest arm, but in those medium-deep areas, Kelly designed routes that allowed him to be uncannily accurate.
"Any great offensive coach is going to find a way to be successful with the players he has," center Jason Kelce said. "Our quarterback has been tremendous for us of late, but he's a little different than what (Kelly) was used to up at Oregon and early in the season (here). That's a testament to how great an offensive mind he has and how unselfish he is. He's just trying to win games."
The combination of holding onto the ball and getting it downfield in a hurry has made the Eagles' offense among the most efficient in the league, if the measure of efficiency is scoring points. Only the Denver Broncos (1.19 points per minute) scored with more frequency than the Eagles, who averaged 1.00 point per minute of possession.
This has allowed Kelly to laugh at time of possession and to filet and release those who bring it to his attention. So far he's been nothing but right. Just imagine how many points the Eagles could score if the offense had it even less.