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January 18, 2018

Chip Kelly is gone, but his fingerprints are all over this Eagles' offense

Chip Kelly is on to his third job since being fired one week before the end of the 2015 NFL season. 

The former Eagles coach, who has been unable to replicate his success in the NFL he enjoyed during his college days at Oregon, spent 2016 in San Francisco before the 49ers decided to part ways with him after a 2-14 season. He then tried his hand as a college football analyst for ESPN during the 2017 season, but he didn't last long there either. As college coaching vacancy began to appear this winter, Kelly's name seemed to be mentioned for nearly all of them and, eventually, he took the top job at UCLA.

Meanwhile, the guy who replaced Kelly as the Eagles head coach, Doug Pederson, hasn't had the need to look for new employment. And, now that his team is one win away from reaching the Super Bowl in just his second season, it doesn't look like he'll be reaching for the classifieds section anytime soon. 

It's a strange twist, especially considering Kelly was the guy everyone thought would revolutionize the NFL, while the reaction to Pederson was much more – how should I put this? – bleh.

The two couldn't be more different. But when you look at the Eagles' current offense, Kelly's fingerprints are all over it.

The players, with the exception of Nick Foles and a few others, are different. The coaches, with the exception of running backs coach Duce Staley and a few others, are different. But in their 15-10 win over the Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs, we saw some staples of Kelly's offensive system, including an uptempo attack and, more notably, a healthy dose of run-pass options, better known as RPOs. 

[In case you're wondering, an RPO is exactly what it sounds like. When the quarterback gets the ball, he first has the option to hand the ball off to the running back – that's the primary call. And if the defense looks committed to stopping the run, the QB has the option to pull it back and throw or run himself. It's similar to play-action, but with the added benefit of the quarterback being able to hand the ball off instead of just faking it.]

"The only influence I have there is really through Stout [OL coach Jeff Stoutland] and Duce and [TE coach] Justin [Peelle] and the guys that were on his staff," Pederson said Thursday when asked about Kelly's impact on the current system. "And then being able to just watch some of the tape of what they were able to do in the run game and some of the passes that they've utilized. Some of it is very creative and unique and great to our game, obviously. It takes into consideration that you don't have to block everybody, RPOs [run-pass options], for instance. It was all a new world for me. 

"Kansas City was the first time I was exposed to [RPOs] through [Chiefs QB] Alex Smith when he came from San Francisco, where he did it. So I think it's something that's innovative, it's new, it's fun for the guys, but at the same time, I want to make sure that it fits us and fits our personality on offense."

And fit, it does.

Interestingly enough, the Eagles quarterback on Sunday will be the same quarterback who enjoyed a career year under Chip Kelly's system. In Kelly's first season in Philly, Foles threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions, but the Eagles were bounced by the Saints in the first round of the playoffs. 

2012 PHI
6 60.8 6-5 6.4 79.1
2013 PHI
10 64.0 27-2 9.1 119.2
2014 PHI
8 59.8 13-10 7.0 81.4
2015 STL
11 56.4 7-10 6.1 69.0
2016 KAN
1 65.5 3-0 7.5 105.9
2017 PHI
3 56.4 5-2 5.3 79.5

So what makes Foles so successful on RPO plays?

"If you're around Nick, you know Nick is a great basketball player. He's a point guard," said offensive coordinator Frank Reich. "If he was playing basketball on the street, he's going to wheel and deal the ball. He's the guy out there. He can throw it behind his back with accuracy. He can give you the no-look pass. He can be looking one way and hit a guy. He has that knack and feel, and that's a little bit of the RPO game. I think he's very comfortable with that."

While the Eagles aren't the only team to have these types of plays in their playbook – and Pederson was learning them in Kansas City as far back as 2013 – it's hard to ignore the impact Kelly had bringing this style to the NFL at large.

"I think Chip kind of introduced it to the NFL, not just our team but to the NFL as a whole and I think our team has evolved it from there," said tight end Zach Ertz. "It's definitely a lot more advanced than what it was from three years ago.

"Doug obviously has done a great job, the O-line coach, Coach Stoutland, has done a great job of finding out ways to just get those RPOs called and kind of changing them each and every week so they are not able to key on them each and every week and I think now it's kind of been a staple of our offense."

The RPOs aren't necessarily a new wrinkle in Pederson's Eagles offense – they there when Carson Wentz was healthy too. But with Foles now running the show, they'll need to be careful not to overuse them.

"I think the RPOs, in general, again, it's always going to be a part of our game plan every week. I think we do it very well," said Reich. "I think part of the success we had is that we don't overuse it. You know, you've got to do a little bit of everything … If you just do it all the time, teams are too smart, defenses are too smart, players are too smart. You mix it up and we've just done that exceedingly well over the course of the year."

On Wednesday, Ertz praised Pederson for his use of RPOs against the Falcons, and believes those calls were a big reason the Eagles offense found some rhythm in the second half and were able to score on some long, 12-plus-play drives. 

"I thought we were really good on first and second down in the second half of that game last week," Ertz said. "We kind had the RPOs early on first down that put us in those positions to be successful. I thought Doug [Pederson] a really good job; I think one of the things that stood out is that we never got in those third-and-really long situations, third-and-11-plus situations where you have to have the running back and the tight end chip. You never want to be in those situations and we kind of stayed out of those so that was definitely huge for us."

Against a Vikings defense that's far and away the best in the NFL on third down, avoiding those third-and-long situations will be key again in Sunday's NFC Championship game. 

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