Lessons for Kelly in real '1-game season'

PHILADELPHIA -- Bill Belichick dropped the phrase “one-game season” in his news conference Friday. On the eve of the NFL’s championship-game weekend, that raised a minor, but sort of interesting, point regarding Chip Kelly's approach.

Belichick used the phrase to describe the NFL playoffs. Kelly used it to describe all 16 regular-season games.

Let’s be clear. Kelly’s “one-game season” mantra worked as intended. It helped keep the Eagles’ focus on each upcoming opponent without being distracted by the standings or playoff scenarios or media chatter.

Kelly’s approach was consistent. When the Eagles were 3-3 and improbably tied for first in the NFC East, Kelly joked about getting a trophy for this October achievement. When they were 3-5 and hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown for two weeks, Kelly directed everyone’s attention to the upcoming game in Oakland.

That was a pretty good one-week season: Eagles 49, Raiders 20.

While it was an effective motivational tool, Kelly’s approach doesn’t apply in the NFL the way it literally did when he was at Oregon. In college, a team with national title aspirations really does have a series of one-week seasons. A single loss can knock your team out of contention.

That isn’t the case in the NFL, obviously. The Eagles lost six games before getting to the real one-game season. The San Diego Chargers lost seven regular-season games and still made it into the playoffs.

The Chargers won a playoff game. The Eagles didn’t. Who had the better one-game season?

If this was just a matter of semantics, it wouldn’t be worth bringing up. But as we’ve watched the truly elite teams separate themselves from the rest of the league in the playoffs, it’s natural to think about what the Eagles need to do to get back to that level.

No one is suggesting Kelly drop the “one-game season” idea when he’s addressing his players. But it’s important for a coach to approach the season as the 16-game, 17-week marathon that it really is.

Example: Kelly’s much-discussed disdain for time-of-possession might be fine in a one-game season, assuming you win. But over 16 regular-season games, the Eagles' defense was on the field more than any other defense in the NFL. More time and more plays, which means more collisions, more running, more of everything.

It isn’t exactly a reach to suggest a correlation between that workload and the way the Eagles couldn’t get off the field in the second half of the playoff loss to New Orleans. The Saints were able to run nearly five minutes off the clock on their game-winning drive. The Eagles' defenders were getting pushed around, unable to stand their ground in the running game.

The conceit that the Eagles were the best conditioned team in the league proved to be just that. They were fit, but not markedly more than the teams they were playing every week.

None of the four teams that will play this weekend were on the minus side in time of possession.

Another example: LeSean McCoy carried the ball 314 times in the regular season. That is 25 more times than the NFL’s second-leading rusher, Chicago’s Matt Forte, and 55 more times than Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, who finished third in rushing yards. Only Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, with 301, topped the 300-carry mark.

(Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson was on pace for more carries than McCoy before getting hurt.)

McCoy had 31 carries for 184 yards in Week 1. The next week, he carried 11 times for 53 yards, averaging more than a yard less per carry. He averaged 7.9 yards in 20 carries against Kansas City in Week 3, then 4.6 yards in 16 carries against a lesser Denver defense in Week 4. That pattern continued most of the season: after averaging 7.5 yards in the snow against Detroit, McCoy averaged 4.8 in just eight carries in Minnesota.

The last two weeks of the regular season, McCoy carried the ball 45 times for 264 yards (5.9 yards per carry). In the first week of the postseason, against the 19th-ranked rush defense, McCoy carried the ball 21 times for 77 yards, a 3.7-yard average.

Would McCoy be stronger in the real one-game season if his carries over the regular season were managed differently? Would the defense have more in the tank in the playoffs if it didn’t have the heaviest workload in the league for 16 games?

It’s worth thinking about. Kelly has an eight-month offseason to do so.