Despite loss, Eagles' season a shocking success

Despite loss, Eagles' season a shocking success

Lurie: 'This is just the tip of the iceberg'

January 6, 2014, 7:00 am
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Chip Kelly became the first head coach in Eagles history to win the NFC East in his first season. (AP)

The locker room was hushed. Some players sat in front of their stalls and didn’t speak. Over in one corner, tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz went over what happened. They did so quietly, almost whispering to each other, as though speaking any louder might magnify the pain.

It was what you’d expect after a crushing two-point playoff loss to the Saints at home. New Orleans won on a field goal as time expired and the Saints advanced to the next round. The Eagles didn’t. They shuffled into the locker room and into the offseason.

It was a tough loss for a good team in a game that really could have gone either way. If the Eagles had stopped the Saints' running game, if they had gotten DeSean Jackson more involved, if they had made that 48-yard field goal … if. Things could have been different … if.

But things were not different, and so the Eagles did what anyone would do -- they lingered in the locker room and tried to figure out what happened. There’s an important distinction, though, between figuring out what happened and figuring out what went wrong. Because lots of things happened in that final, fateful game -- but not much went wrong in a season that was shocking and successful in so many ways for so many reasons.

The Eagles won four games a year ago. They won 10 this season. The Eagles didn’t come close to the postseason a year ago. They won the NFC East and came within a field goal of advancing to the second round of the playoffs this season. They exceeded all reasonable expectations. It’s true -- even if the truth isn’t a powerful enough balm to heal a still-raw wound.

“You're probably right that it’s probably a little too soon for that,” Chip Kelly said after the game, trying to look at the season as a whole. “I thought we were going to be a good team when I met these guys for the first time because I know how hard they worked and how hard they wanted to invest in this and then I watched it firsthand. They come to work every day and really invest in this whole process. It's just disappointing right now. But I don't think us winning the division or getting to the playoffs was a surprise to us. I just think everybody is really disappointed that we're not moving forward.”

It was not the proper moment for hip-hips or hoorays. You don’t break out the back pats and the top-shelf scotch after a two-point loss, and you don’t pass out congratulations like a new father proudly distributing cigars on the occasion of his first son’s birth. As Kelly said, it was a little too soon for that -- but soon enough, that time will come. Soon enough, everyone will look at what he and is staff and his players created -- a healthy football team in Kelly’s image -- and there will be cause for celebration.

Jeffrey Lurie wasn’t quite ready for that either on Saturday evening/Sunday morning. Like everyone else, the owner was still processing the loss. But he also acknowledged what everyone else eventually will.

“There is just so much promise with Chip, his staff and this whole group,” Lurie said. “We have a young, dynamic coaching staff, merged with a young terrific group of players, who really want to win. They do it with class and they do it with great chemistry. They love each other. They will do anything to train and be better. This will only serve to motivate them further. They know now that they are good, now they just have to get better.”

The Eagles got better in their first campaign under Kelly. They set team records for points, total yards, passing yards and touchdowns. They were second in the NFL in yards and fourth in points. They were just the second team in NFL history to have 4,000 or more passing yards and 2,400 or more rushing yards in the same season. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing, while DeSean Jackson had the second-most receiving yards in team history.

In the process, Kelly became the first coach in team history to win the division in his first year. There was quite a lot to like about this season -- particularly the 10 wins that included a big victory in the final game of the regular season. Juxtapose all that against where they were a year ago and the Eagles’ trajectory -- even after the loss to New Orleans -- is encouraging.

“Oh, for sure,” Lurie said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a missed opportunity and it’s the tip of the iceberg. I think that everyone in this room knows it. It’s a very young team and at the same time, they already learned what it takes.”

Some lessons were harder than others. The Eagles did not pass their final test of the season on Saturday, but they still get high marks for the accelerated learning curve.