It is the NFL coaches' day to plan. They are preparing for their season opener, of course, but Chip Kelly and his brethren have had months to contemplate how to attack their first opponent -- and vice versa.
There are some unique aspects about the way the Eagles will prepare for Washington. It is Kelly’s first real NFL game after a preseason spent deciding exactly what he did and didn’t want to reveal about his offense. It is the first real outing for Bill Davis’ revamped defense. And although Washington is an all-too-familiar NFC East rival, there is some mystery about the health and effectiveness of quarterback Robert Griffin III in his return from ACL surgery.
Let’s start with the matchup that makes this game worthy of the season’s first Monday night slot: Kelly’s offense against coordinator Jim Haslett’s defense.
How will Haslett prepare for an offense he hasn’t seen? Can he even trust what he has seen, or has Kelly thrown some red herrings in the red zone? Haslett will no doubt study what Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville defense did early in that preseason game to confound the Eagles’ offensive linemen. When told that Haslett has said he studied Oregon’s offense for clues, Kelly saw the logic in that.
“We are different,” Kelly said, “but I would do the same thing. It's either watch Oregon tape or watch nothing. It's going to be a combination of [Oregon tape and] our preseason games. It's no different than when we have to prepare for the Chargers. You have to kind of look at what the history is. … That's commonplace, I think.”
My guess: With less certainty about scheme, Haslett will focus on what he does know best -- the players. If blitzing Michael Vick has worked in the past, then you blitz Vick until the Eagles show they can stop it. If being physical at the line with DeSean Jackson has taken him out of games, that’s what you do.
There can be a kind of self-fulfilling element to that. By attacking the areas he knows, Haslett could disrupt Kelly’s scheme enough to derail it for the night. It will be up to Kelly to anticipate Haslett’s approach and counter it.
The other side of the ball is nearly as perplexing. Unlike former coach Andy Reid, who hired defensive coordinator Jim Johnson because of the trouble Johnson gave Green Bay’s coaches, Kelly doesn’t run a common NFL offense. He never coached against Davis or any other coordinator on this level.
“I don't really look at it that way because I think what we do offensively is a little bit more unique,” Kelly said. “I think we want a defense that gives the majority of the teams we play problems, you know what I mean, so it's more of that aspect.”
As it turns out, practicing against Kelly’s offense all summer won’t be a total waste in Davis’ first game as Eagles coordinator. Griffin won’t be running the same system, of course, but there are at least some familiar elements.
The Eagles' defense is very much a work in progress, with Davis trying to figure out just how to deploy the players he has available. This defense isn’t ready yet to impose its will on another team. With three games in 11 days -- along with Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Peyton Manning in the first month -- Davis will have to customize his schemes for each opponent.
Just as Haslett will attack Vick's known vulnerabilities, Davis surely will try to get Griffin on the move to test his quickness and willingness to be physical in his first live action since the knee surgery.
The true personality of this Eagles defense will have to emerge during the course of the season. There is no better foundation than early success.