Guest Column: Re-Thinking the 2nd Half Strategy

Posted: September 14th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 38 Comments »

By Mark Saltveit

Did Chip Kelly make a rookie coaching mistake by letting Washington get back into game 1 after halftime? The Eagles still won, but only by six points, and fans were understandably nervous with 1:14 left in the game when the Redskins’ onside kick was on the ground, in play, for anyone to grab.

The consensus seems to be that Chip messed up, and he acknowledged after the game that he might have let his “foot up off the gas pedal too early.” The Eagles ran 53 plays before halftime, on a pace for well over a hundred plays in the game, but slowed to only 24 after. There is also an argument to be made, though, that Chip foresaw the whole course of events, in broad terms anyway, and planned to do exactly this.

What? Am I crazy, or some kind of koolaid-drinking homer? Why would a first-time NFL coach PLAN on building a 20-something point lead, then fritter it away in the second half?

We can speculate about the why, but there is some solid evidence that this plan is the “what.” The smoking gun is an article that the Inquirer’s Zach Berman wrote back on July 16th. Coach Kelly was asked about the importance of running a lot of plays in a game. See if any part of this answer sounds familiar. Speaking about his years at Oregon, he said:

“We were up a lot at halftime, so we took our foot off the gas. We could have run a hundred plays, we could have run a hundred plays in a lot of games, but there was no reason to run a hundred plays.”

Besides keeping the playbook hidden, Kelly mentioned another motive very important to his football programs: developing depth.

“We played our first game last year, we were up 50-3 at halftime, we won 57-34, but we still won. Our ‘threes’ got a ton of reps, we emptied our bench, and we got a lot of guys valuable playing time. Where other people were like, ‘the other team was coming back in it,’ but look at the value of us getting to play our entire roster … did we end up running more plays than them? I think they actually ran more plays than us, and we were up 50-3 at the half.”

In case you were wondering, 44 of the 46 men on the Eagles’ active roster played against Washington. One of the Redskins’ late touchdowns came at the expense of rookie CB Jordan Poyer. Given the Eagles extreme thinness at that position, it’s an interesting question — is it worth giving up part of your lead to give younger cornerbacks some reps against top level competition? How many future points might the Eagles save by giving up some now, when they have a cushion?

Believe or not, Chip Kelly’s system at Oregon factored in large halftime leads and the use of the second half as development time for greener players. Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s Heisman chances were diminished because he rarely played in the second half. The Ducks average halftime lead last year was 22 points. It’s not that he wants the lead to go down (though that probably didn’t hurt TV ratings in his biggest media appearance all year); half the time the Ducks’s subs kept widening the lead against their exhausted opponents. But developing his bench was more important to him that maintaining a 20-something point lead. He’s already thinking ahead to his next game, and the ones after that.

Now, it may be absurdly cocky for Chip Kelly to think he can play that way in the NFL too. And there were several close games at Oregon where this strategy couldn’t be used. But at least at halftime, Monday’s game looked like a standard Oregon blowout. The Eagles led 26-7, and Washington only got that one score on a highly disputed defensive play; it could easily have been 33-0. The Eagles had as many first downs (21) as Washington had total plays from scrimmage. So what part of that scenario would tell Chip Kelly that he had to change his strategy, because it won’t work in the NFL?

Furthermore, an analysis by the website Advanced NFL Stats — which measures the odds of each team winning throughout each game — shows that the Eagles’ likelihood of victory never fell below 90% in the second half, even as the lead was cut to 6. Yes, Washington closed to within one score, but by the time they did, only 74 seconds remained, and the Redskins had no time outs left. Even if they had recovered that onside kick, a lot of things would have had to go right for them to win, and they had been pretty lucky already just to get to that point.

Think of it in terms of poker. Almost anything is possible. You could hit 5 inside straights in a row on 5 consecutive hands on any given night. But the odds of that are very slim, and the smart player will bet against it happening. They may lose on the occasional amazing night, but over the years that is a very good bet to make. And the Advanced NFL Stats people are saying the same thing about the way Chip played Monday night’s game.

If I were in his shoes, I might have gone deeper into the bench, giving Bryce Brown, James Casey and Nick Foles some extended minutes while resting Shady and Vick. And ultimately, the conventional wisdom and the scenario I paint are not mutually exclusive. It seems likely that Chip reverted to his Oregon plan for making use of a big lead, and found that leads are a bit more vulnerable in the NFL. But despite the nervousness of Eagles fans — still suffering PTSD symptoms from last year’s sudden collapse — the best evidence says that he developed his depth admirably while keeping a firm thumb on the Redskins.

* * *

About the author – Mark Saltveit writes the “Chip Kelly Update” column for FishDuck.com every Friday, and tweets about the Eagles at @taoish. He is the editor of Taoish.org.

His best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at Joseph Fox Books and the Spiral Bookcase in Philadelphia; MainPoint Books in Bryn Mawr; the Doylestown Bookshop, onAmazon.com and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/


  • Joseph Dubyk

    Rookie mistake. I think defensively you have to keep up the pressure too. I hate the prevent defense.

    Either way the team looked way better than any realist would’ve expected, so let’s just hope when we go up like that again we can stomp on the throats and breathe a little easier.

    • Mark Saltveit

      It’s also possible that when Washington was forced to pass in the second half, they exposed the weakness of the Eagles’ secondary. Cary Williams had a great game but I haven’t heard anyone say that about the other 3 DBs.

      Even if they were playing prevent, especially if they were, they shouldn’t have given up two passing TDs over the top.

      • Joseph Dubyk

        agreed.. the 2nd half was very concerning on both sides.

        I also think Vick is still going to be suspect to the blitz. After the line stopped stone walling WSH and WSH got a few guys through, he struggled with making good quick decisions.

        • OregonDucker

          Chip has a scheme for the blitz. Vick has to recognize the blitz and execute. I am looking forward to seeing how he responds.

          • Tumtum

            Watch the 2010 game vs Minn ( and every game after..) The formula for beating Vick remains the blitz. Seems to be effective for at least the game plan for last Monday as well.

          • Joseph Dubyk

            agreed…it always has been and always will be the formula for stopping Vick.

          • http://abigbuttandasmile.com/ A Big Butt and a Smile

            Not true. Vick has become MUCH better against the blitz since 2010 and was decent against the blitz last year. Also in the Wsh game they started reading the CB to counteract the blitz and Shady racked up a bunch of yards as well.

            What also worked was keeping Vick in the pocket or forcing him to roll out to his weak side. He’s particularly dangerous rolling left…BUT Kelly had both QBs rolling to their weak side to make throws in the preseason so that eliminates that as well.

            Kelly knows the QB he has in Vick so my guess is they’ve worked on that quite a bit. Now we will see if Vick executes.

          • holeplug
          • Joseph Dubyk

            see, that’s an area where Vick struggles, so I’m a lil nervous about that lol

      • Anders

        The real problem was when either Williams, Boykin or Fletcher was hurt (there was a time when Williams was out and Boykin was forced to play even tho he looked hurt and needed rest)

  • ian_no_2

    In addition to developing the back of the roster, they are developing the capacity to hold their own with slow huddles, rather than conceding they can’t do it and giving the ball back faster. They need to find a way not to blow leads without a hurry-up, which Kelly is determined to do. Andy didn’t believe in this except for one game in which he did it well.

  • P_P_K

    “Now, it may be absurdly cocky for Chip Kelly to think he can play that way in the NFL too.” Yup, it would be absurdly cocky.

    Mark, I agree with the general point of this piece if I understand you correctly– that Chip had a strategy, he used it, and the win proves he was right. The only problem is that Coach was one onsides kick away from having his strategy blow up in his face. Considering how dominating the Eagles were in the first half, this game was way too close for comfort.

    There is a qualitative difference between College and NFL ball that must be respected. For instance, in college ball the 2nds and 3rds are going to be your starters next year after your seniors graduate. So, yea, get them on the field once you have a lead. This ain’t the way things go in the pros.

    I’m glad in some ways that the Skins came back so that Chip could get a taste of how quickly mojo can shift and how a lead can dissolve. Let it be a warning, next time that onsides kick could be recovered.

    • TommyLawlor

      Good perspective, PPK

    • OregonDucker

      Your right P_P_K. Chip must respect NFL talent, no matter the team.
      The good news is he recognizes that he made some mistakes in the Skins game.

      A tsunami of offense is coming.

    • BlindChow

      Yeah, it’s not like we were slowing them down much that last quarter. Who would have thought a 25-yard touchdown would have been possible in Cover 3?

    • Mark Saltveit

      Good points. I think it’s worth pointing out though that even if Washington had recovered that onside kick, they would have been at midfield with 74 seconds left and no time outs. They couldn’t run at all, so Eagles would have completely sold out to defend the pass. Even with RGIII back on track, that’s a 50-50 chance at best. Probably less.
      Still nerve-wracking of course. But part of the calculation.

      • Iskar36

        That’s true, but 74 seconds is a significant amount of time to get down the field. On top of that, the momentum would have been completely with the Redskins. No, it’s not a guarantee by any means that the Redskins score, but when you lead 33-7 like we did, giving the other team a “50-50 chance at best” is extremely risky. In the NFL, learning how to finish games is something we see teams struggle with, and Chip/the Eagles need to do a better job at it in the future.

        • Mark Saltveit

          Can’t disagree with any of that.

    • Christopher Miller

      So Mark’s logic could be on the money and as Chip said, he may have took the foot of the gas a little too soon. I love the logic though of getting reps in with the guys on the bench. Good experience and rewards the guys busting their hump to help special teams…next time just wait a little longer please Chip.

  • BlindChow

    I’m not sure how valuable the Advanced NFL Stats charts are as far as determining comfort. They use league averages to calculate those numbers; I wonder how different it would look if they just used the Eagles’ averages from the last couple years.

    I’m sure we all remember THIS game. (Probability chart from SF vs. PHI in 2011.)

    On the other hand, I’m sure the 99%-chance-to-win probability from the Miracle at the New Meadowlands game gave the Giants plenty of comfort after THAT 4th quarter comeback…

    • TommyLawlor

      Probabilities are not certainties. There are exceptions to every rule.

      • BlindChow

        Well, that’s true. It’s just that the last couple years, 4th quarter collapses have been the rule for the Eagles, rather than the exception.

    • Neil

      The problem with anything derived from the past is you can ask the question: what does that have to do with this game right now? The answer is always nothing, whether you use Eagles data, NFL data or Oregon data.

  • Vick or Nick

    I agree Chip had a plan, but I also think he learned some valuable lessons.

    The one thing that I will draw attention to is something Chip has been adamant about. Execution. It doesn’t matter if you go uptempo or slow, if the players don’t execute it doesn’t make a difference how fast or slow you are going.

    Chip also said that his players perhaps hadn’t practiced the slower tempo as much thus the execution of those plays was off. If you are up by a lot it makes sense to go slow and eat up the clock, in fact, you have to at some point even if you go fast early into the third. Eagles will work on executing “normal” tempo and that will be evident in the upcoming games.

  • Vick or Nick

    The greatest part of the first game:

    Where are all those haters that said Chip WILL NOT WORK in the NFL, that he had a gimmick offense? I’m looking at you Heath Evans, poor excuse for a commentator.

    http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000122162/article/philadelphia-eagles-hire-of-chip-kelly-could-be-nfls-worst-ever

    What a joke.

    • A_T_G

      They are now saying that our players can’t sustain this pace and the defenses will quickly adjust.

      The naysayers, at least, are keeping up with the pace.

      • Christopher Miller

        They are very experienced and no longer have to think…just react.

    • A_T_G

      And that article is just awesome. In a narrow-minded, fitting the fact to a preconceived conclusion, wrong kind of way. Awesome.

  • GEagle

    Oregon ducker predicted this entire premise about a month ago(props)

  • GEagle

    Strongly suggest checking out Billy Davis’s interview with Misanelli….I found it rather….validating lol

  • Weapon Y

    Chip’s general idea was good. His timing was just way off. I think he now knows how fast momentum in an NFL game can change. Fortunately, we didn’t get burned by his inexperience. The fast tempo forces guys to forget how tired they are. I really think you need a 40 point lead before you think about taking your foot off the gas before the 4th quarter. I think this issue will be solved soon. Chip’s getting a feel for how the NFL works, but I think his learning curve is fairly short.

    I wouldn’t necessarily go the other extreme of Belichick, and keep starters in the game even when it’s 59-0 and there are only 2 minutes left. On the other hand, if that was our biggest problem, I’d be thrilled.

    • xeynon

      I agree that a 40 point lead before the fourth quarter is about the point at which you feel safe when going up against a competent NFL offense like Washington’s. 26 is way too few – such leads get blown in the NFL every season (the Chargers blew one in the other Monday night game this week).

      I also think the concern about putting things on film for defensive coordinators to figure out is somewhat overblown. Chip Kelly’s offense isn’t difficult to stop because it employs a lot of exotic formations or gimmickry. It’s difficult to stop because it has so many plays that are designed to attack the defense where it is weakest, not on a series-to-series basis but within each play itself, and is generally run at such a high tempo that physical exhaustion amplifies the defense’s confusion. It’s the NFL equivalent of blitzkrieg, basically. Running a few more possessions of no huddle using exactly the same plays they’d already been calling likely would have resulted in another score and a safe lead without putting anything new on film.

  • A_T_G

    I agree with the general opinion that he cut it too close, but that it was a lesson without punishment. Even with a 90% chance of winning, the expected outcomes would have the trailing team stealing the win one out of 10 games. That happening every year would be too often.

    Work in the backups, but keep up the pressure. I am sure we will get to that point as the backups get more comfortable. If all the players were up to speed at this point, some of them wouldn’t be backups.

  • 1PissedAmerican2

    I hate the prevent but for years I used to scream at Andy to get critical starters out of a game if the matter was settled. Admittedly it seems most NFL coaches rarely do that. I’m all for Chip doing things his way at this point.

  • McNabbulousness

    50-3 is a lot different than 26-7, any nfl team full of professional football players is a lot different than a scrub pac-10 team.

  • eagleyankfan

    What a fun read!

  • #10for6

    I like this idea, it’s a bit crazy but shows Chips commitment to player development. For far too long the Eagles have had very questionable depth throughout the roster, getting the guys off the bench and giving them some playing time will provide both an invaluable experience and allow the coaches to have game tape on these players to see how they are progressing. Obviously it’s a double edge sword but think about it like this chip is getting practically a full games worth of drives out of the starters in the first half, he’s getting his starters their drives and touches but only exposing them to half a game, keeping them fresh and healthy. I mean honestly how many times has, “the Miracle at the New Meadowlands,” happened to teams?

  • bridgecoach

    Great guest column! Hope to see more from you at IgglesBlitz.