Tuesday marked the beginning of a new year on the NFL calendar, and the Philadelphia Eagles apparently decided to celebrate the occasion with a flurry of major transactions. In response, we summoned a special FiveThirtyEight NFL roundtable, wherein Ben Morris, Neil Paine and Walt Hickey discuss the big moves, continue to debate Chip Kelly’s mad genius and ponder what all this roster reshuffling amounts to.
Neil Paine: Walt, when last we convened to discuss NFL transactions, you hailed Rex Ryan for grabbing LeSean McCoy but also gave some credit to Chip Kelly for smartly freeing up cap space. Now we have the news that Kelly — in the wake of being spurned by Frank Gore — has essentially executed an old-school challenge trade at the game’s most important position, dealing Nick Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Have you embraced Kelly’s madness?
Walt Hickey: As I understand it — which is barely — Kelly is either making a dramatic short in the Philadelphia jersey market, destroying the value of essentially any fan’s merchandise purchased two or more years ago, or winning the Kobayashi Maru while the rest of the league is playing Snakes and Ladders. Both situations are troubling. As a Giants fan, my only thought is: What’s his play?
Ben Morris: I like to imagine that Chip Kelly and Les Snead were just chillin’ and Kelly was like, “Dude, crazy hypothetical that just popped into my head: What would happen if we just right out and switched quarterbacks? I mean, neither of us is in love with who we have, and people always say that kind of thing: ‘What would happen if you put Brady on the Broncos and Manning on the Patriots?’ Honestly, I have no idea what would happen, but could you imagine?” And then after a lengthy chortle, a tiny uncomfortable silence took over before they nearly simultaneously grinned and went, “[expletive] it.”
Neil: The swap is a bit puzzling, I admit. Foles was inconsistent when healthy last season, and his staggeringly efficient 2013 campaign was driven in part by a freakishly low interception rate. But for all of Foles’s up-and-down play, he still has a far better statistical track record than Bradford, who — let’s also point out — missed all of last season with a knee injury. In fairness, Bradford was saddled with a terrible supporting cast in St. Louis, and he still carries the prestige of a former No. 1 overall draft pick. So if you squint, Kelly kind of turned a former third-round QB into the highest of first-rounders. But both of these guys have been out of college so long that it’s a real stretch to make that argument.
Walt: If you think back to that playoff run two years back, how many of those players — besides Riley Cooper, the platonic ideal of a Philadelphian — are still with Philly? Not a lot! And with Mark Sanchez to fall back on, Kelly is definitely opening his team up to some risk here, right?
Neil: Sanchez backers might point out that he had by far the best year of his career in Kelly’s system last season. But that’s also kind of the point: Sanchez broke new ground by barely being above average and then parlayed it into $5.5 million guaranteed over two years — a pretty rich deal by backup standards. And now that they have Bradford, the Eagles have managed to collect the league’s two least-efficient starting QBs over the past five seasons by yards gained per pass attempt.
Ben, what’s the Skeptical Football take on these guys?
Ben: Foles, I love. He plays the position with the kind of aggressive win-maximizing abandon that I endorse, takes risks and throws deep when he needs to, and it has paid off with a fair amount of team success. However, it’s still unclear to me whether he actually has the skills to be a great quarterback in this league or has been running on scrappiness and good fortune alone. Take his much-maligned deep ball: Foles completed only 34 percent of his deep passes (more than 15 yards downfield) in 2014 but completed enough big plays that he gained an average of 0.23 expected points per attempt on them overall. (In fact, this was the main source of his value added for the season, as he just about broke even on short attempts.) Shrewd gambler though he may be, that combination isn’t sustainable.
While Bradford has been extremely inefficient (like Neil says), it should also be noted that his career so far falls in the extremely common category of heralded quarterbacks put into a terrible situation who were serviceable but failed to turn it around single-handedly. When it comes to evaluating the first few years of a QB’s career, that’s just about the least informative scenario. If you have faith in Bradford’s skills for whatever reasons (including old-fashioned ones like scouting), your belief at least hasn’t yet been disproved. In a whole new situation like this, his trajectory is unpredictable. It won’t surprise me if he’s an all-star in a few years or if he’s out of the league entirely.
If there’s a method to Kelly’s madness here, I think it’s that, given the totality of circumstances, Bradford regressing to his own personal mean would probably mean better production, while Foles regressing would probably mean worse production.
As an empirical matter, this trade has me excited. How often do you get such a great opportunity to cross-compare like this? It’s two chances to see how the texture of a quarterback’s performance changes when he switches environments AND two chances to see how a team’s production changes when it’s led by different quarterbacks. No matter what happens, it’ll be an empirical coup. We should learn a lot about a lot more than just these QBs.
Neil: Of course, all this assumes that Kelly is telling the truth when he says he won’t trade up in the draft to snag his former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota as the team’s long-term future at the position. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from the first few months of Kelly’s tenure as grocery-shopper (in addition to cook), it’s to expect the unexpected.
Walt: The only thing less trustworthy than an Eagles fan is an Eagles coach.
Neil: Let’s shift gears to Thursday’s news that Kelly’s Eagles inked former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $42 million contract (with $21 million guaranteed). Ben, you wrote about Murray several times last season — what are your thoughts on Philly picking him up?
Ben: The main thing to like about the Eagles signing DeMarco Murray is that they didn’t absolutely break the bank to do it. While $42 million over five years with $21 million guaranteed is a fair amount for a running back, it’s comparable to what LeSean McCoy got from Buffalo. While it likely isn’t a huge value move, the important part is that it isn’t Adrian Peterson money.
The two main Murray knocks are 1) that he played behind a supposedly stellar offensive line in Dallas and 2) that he has had some fumbling problems that have negated much of his would-be Win Percentage Added over the past few seasons. These are both legitimate concerns, and — assuming it’s true that the Cowboys were only willing to offer Murray $5 million per year — it would seem his former employers took them seriously.
Yet, again, the deal seems to have a fairly high upside. Both of the Murray knocks are in the “reasonable doubt” category — they’re not outright proof that Murray isn’t the real deal. And if he is, the Eagles may be getting the “ideal running back” at a reasonable price.
Neil: Like you said, though, Murray’s contract ended up being only slightly cheaper than the deal given to McCoy after Kelly abruptly traded him to the Bills a little over a week ago. In addition, Murray will be 27 years old next season — the same age as McCoy (at a position where peak production comes at age 26, I might add) — and the two players have practically identical per-carry and per-game stats over the past four seasons.
Walt, what keeps this from being a lateral move for the Eagles? And if so, doesn’t that just reinforce the notion that Kelly the GM is flying by the seat of his pants this offseason with no discernible plan? (Which seems especially likely in the case of Murray’s signing, since Kelly inked Ryan Mathews, another RB, earlier in the week.)
Walt: This is totally a lateral move for the Eagles! But it’s a rather brilliant one. The de facto result of the past several weeks is that Kelly traded McCoy for Kiko Alonso, Murray and extra cap space. Which, honestly, seems nice. If you’re obsessed with ages and their relationship to productivity in interchangeable running backs, Neil, that’s not a terrible move, provided it was planned.
Naturally, I hope this week is terrible for Philadelphia and its citizens. But these moves are exciting and matter. Looking at the 2013 roster, there’s very little continuity at skill positions — Brent Celek, Riley Cooper, Jeff Maehl and Chris Polk. That’s a lot of turnover! But I think Eagles fans just have to go for the ride here.
Neil: As our colleague (and Philly sports aficionado) Jody Avirgan tweeted, being an Eagles fan is suddenly a bit like working a low-level job on the Manhattan Project: You have no idea what the master plan is — or if one even exists — but you have to trust that the smart guys at the top know what they’re doing.
I do wonder how long this fan base’s patience will last if these machinations don’t quickly lead to wins. But maybe that’s how you build a winner in the NFL, by taking these kinds of chances.
Ben: You can kind of see Kelly’s meta-strategy coming together: He’s going to either build a contender or crash and burn. As a gambler, I like it: He’s setting up a parlay, no doubt — but one that seems like it could pay off big if it hits.