All it takes is one tough season — sometimes one bad game — to sully an offensive lineman's reputation. Jason Kelce is coming off of a disastrous 2015 campaign, so when the Eagles center almost single-handedly doomed a drive in the second quarter of a win over the Bears on Monday night, his detractors came out in full force.
Except other than that terrible series, which was a grand total of three plays, Kelce was perfectly solid. It just goes to prove another old football cliche true. Oftentimes, we tend to notice an offensive lineman only when he makes a mistake.
There's no denying Kelce's miscues did their part to end an Eagles possession. Let's take a look at the terrible sequence that got everybody riled up.
On 1st-and-10 from the Eagles' 26-yard line following a Bears punt, Ryan Mathews takes the handoff left. Pulling on the play, Kelce trips over right guard Brandon Brooks and lurches forward, nearly going to the ground. By the time the center regains his balance, he's out of position and the run is shut down for no gain.
On 2nd-and-10, Carson Wentz completes his pass to Brent Celek for 19 yards, with the quarterback taking a big hit in the process. However, the play was negated because Kelce gets beaten by Eddie Goldman and is forced to hold the 320-pound nose tackle, drawing a flag and a 10-yard penalty.
Finally, on 2nd-and-20, the Eagles attempt a running back screen. When Kelce releases to block, he tries to tug the defender's jersey as he goes by — a common tactic used by offensive linemen to create additional separation. Instead, his hand is too high and he yanks the facemask for a 15-yard penalty, which the Bears declined because the pass was incomplete.
Clearly not Kelce's best work, although everybody trips and the facemask was inconsequential. Only the hold was really a factor here, granted it erased a big play for the offense and led to an Eagles punt. No doubt he'd like to have that one back.
But if we're going to break down all of Kelce's negative plays — and these are pretty much it — then in the interest of fairness, we should probably also look at three plays where he excelled.
First, let's watch Kelce redeem himself against Goldman in pass protection. This is 2nd-and-5 from the Chicago 25-yard line during a touchdown drive that would eventually give the Eagles a 16-7 lead in the third quarter.
This time Kelce is able to keep the nose tackle at bay. He's positioned perfectly in front Goldman, and despite giving up 25 pounds to the defender here, there is absolutely no push up the middle. Just look at the pocket Wentz has.
By the time Wentz delivers the football to Trey Burton for an 11-yard gain, Goldman has completely changed course. He was never a factor in the play.
Kelce is no mauler, and there are times when his size puts him at a disadvantage. Of course, as a center, he isn't asked to block one-on-one all that much in pass protection. Sure, when the defense brings the blitz as the Bears did here, Kelce has to pick somebody up. Oftentimes, Kelce is a helper or locked in a double team.
Notice the difference when the Bears send a standard four-man rush. Once Kelce is clear of man protection responsibilities, he's free to chip a defender.
It's not a spectacular by any means, but look at the huge pocket Kelce creates for Wentz. The quarterback can comfortably step into his throw and put the ball right on Jordan Matthews' fingertips for what should have been a 35-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter but was dropped.
The fact that Kelce is "undersized" also works to his advantage. There's a reason he received an invitation to the Pro Bowl in 2014. There may not be a better center in the NFL at the second level of the defense.
Getting back to the previous scoring drive, Kelce threw a key block earlier in the series. It's 2nd-and-5 again, this time from the Chicago 41, and Wendell Smallwood takes the handoff up the middle. Kelce is going to leak out and put a hat on veteran linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Kelce engages Trevathan a good seven yards away from where Smallwood takes the handoff. That's a long time to hold a block, and you can believe the linebacker will do everything under his power to slip away.
Check out where Trevathan finishes this play. On his butt, for one, but also on the other side of the hash mark. Kelce managed to stay in front off Freeman for that length of time, allowing Smallwood to run right up the gut for an 11-yard gain.
In case you're not keeping track, that's two nice blocks on an eight-play touchdown drive that wound up being the decisive points in the game.
Sometimes Kelce's blocks are more subtle than that. Here it's 1st-and-10 at the Chicago 46 after another Bears punt. Matthews is running off tackle left, and Kelce is going to get a body on Trevathan once again.
Trust me, this block is going to be a lot more meaningful to the outcome of the play than it looks.
Check out all that open field for Mathews down the left once he breaks that final tackle. Now look where Trevathan is when he finally ditches his escort. Defenses typically hope their interior linebackers to can patrol sideline to sideline, but Kelce has taken him completely out of the play. There are five Bears closer to the ball-carrier right now.
By the time Trevathan catches up to the play, Mathews is by him. Had Kelce had held the block even a half second less, the linebacker likely ends this play for a 15-20 yard gain, maybe sooner. Instead, the running back picks up an additional 10 before he's brought down, a 30-yard run that sets up one last touchdown to put the game on ice.
Blocks such as these by Kelce on the back end tend to go unnoticed, like much of any offense lineman's work. In fact, as Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich points out, there's a lot the sixth-year veteran does that you don't see unless you're on the field or the sideline.
"I can't even begin to tell you how much of a benefit it is to Carson to have a guy like Jason Kelce as a center," Reich said. "The guy is brilliant. He's absolutely brilliant in pass protection, calls and scheme, and he just has this air of confidence about him that I think sets the tone for what we do in the protection world."
Kelce had a bad season in 2015. He was also playing hurt for much of it, was in between two new guards, with the right side being particularly unstable, and the Eagles offense as a whole had regressed to a point where it was inefficient and predictable. There were plenty of built-in excuses there.
This is a new year, and through two weeks, Kelce looks like a different player, minus a small sampling of plays. He's never been a mauler, never will be, but he's intelligent and his athleticism allows him to create plays few centers can. Best of all, Kelce turns only 29 in November, so the Eagles can look forward to several more productive seasons to come.