PHILADELPHIA — As Chip Kelly retooled and rebuilt the Eagles football operation, changing everything from the offensive and defensive schemes to what the players ate and drank after practice, he also changed a lot of the players, too.
There were 22 newcomers on the 53-man roster this season, which isn’t an unusual amount of churn for an NFL team, but it did mean that the locker room was split between the group that lived through the disastrous 2012 season and the group that didn’t.
Kelly, a former Manchester Central player and UNH offensive coordinator, brought them all together and fashioned the team that went 10-6, clinching the NFC East title with the narrow win over Dallas on Sunday night. For every guy in the locker room, it was an exhilarating experience, but for the holdovers who endured 11 losses in the final 12 games the year before, it bordered on the unbelievable.
“We did change out a lot of the roster, but a lot of the guys who are here were 4-12 last year and, listening to them talk, it didn’t end well for them,” Kelly said. “That streak at the end of the year, they still had that taste in their mouths and they wanted to change it. They didn’t change it by talking about it. This is the type of team that goes out and works.”
The newcomers and the holdovers got it done as a single team, and earned their spot in the postseason on Saturday night in Lincoln Financial Field against the New Orleans Saints. It is sweet for all of them. For some, it is something even more.
“It can’t get any worse than that,” linebacker Mychal Kendricks said of 2012. “We knew there was only one way to go and that way was up. Once you’ve seen the bottom, you want to go up and we strived for that every day. Hopefully, we’re going to keep going up, and really reach that upper room.”
Kelly certainly gets his share of credit for the turnaround. The players who decided to throw in with the college coach and try to share his vision get their credit, too. It was a lot of work. The football gods also had their say in how the season went. Balls that bounced the wrong way in 2012 fell into the hands of the Eagles this year. Injuries that decimated the offensive line, unsettled the quarterback position and put LeSean McCoy on the inactive list for a number of games were not a factor this time around. Good teams sometimes make their own luck and the Eagles did plenty of that, catching some opponents at just the right time while the year before every break seemed to go against them.
“Any time you go through adversity with guys, it brings you closer and closer,” said center Jason Kelce, who played just two games in 2012 before being lost to injury. “We have a really tight team and I think it helped to have been through the adversity we faced.”
For the newcomers, they don’t regret missing out on 2012, but the Eagles’ 3-5 start was also a good taste of that adversity.
“I can never understand what those guys went through because I’ve never experienced it myself,” said cornerback Cary Williams, who hasn’t played on a team that finished with a losing record in five NFL seasons. “Just our six losses this year, it was tough to swallow those pills. But we worked to get better because we understood that there were going to be brighter days and other opportunities.”
On the starting offense, only tackle Lane Johnson is new to the roster this season. The defense has five starters — Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Connor Barwin, Bennie Logan and Patrick Chung — who were brought aboard under Kelly. It’s no wonder that new players and a new system took a while to settle in, but a ragged defense that gave up more than 22 points in each of the first four games has done so only once in the 12 games since.
As the game came down to its dramatic conclusion Sunday night, with the Cowboys having already gained more than 400 yards and needing just another 30 or so to attempt a game-winning field goal, the defense made perhaps its timeliest stop of the season — Brandon Boykin’s interception to snuff out the final drive.
“I kind of thought (the Cowboys) were going to take it down and end the game and it was going to be a sad feeling, but the defense came up with the big play,” receiver DeSean Jackson said. “One year away definitely shows you a difference. A difference maker in Chip Kelly came in here and we work hard and play hard on the field. Hopefully, we can end this story right.”
Some of them don’t understand because they weren’t here to live it, but those who went through 2012 know this season feels right already. They certainly remember what wrong feels like, and this ain’t it.