PHILADELPHIA -- The most vital decision Chip Kelly made after his Philadelphia Eagles lost the NFC East race to the Dallas Cowboys last season was that the team did not have a championship-caliber quarterback.
The Cowboys did, in Tony Romo.
“I think the one thing about Tony, aside from having the skill to make all the throws, is he's just so intelligent,” Kelly said Thursday. “Very rarely are they in a bad play. A lot of times he's using the whole play clock, he's changing protections, he's changing runs, doing a lot of different things there because he has so much experience there and he's been around so long. He's just so smart at playing the position, very rarely does he get caught in a bad play.”
On Sunday, Bradford and Romo will meet for the first time as part of the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry.
The Eagles are 2-2 against the Cowboys during Kelly’s two years as coach. In 2013, the Cowboys beat the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. In the regular-season finale, the Eagles beat the Cowboys in Dallas to claim the NFC East title.
Romo did not play in that final game.
Last season, the Eagles won in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. Because of the short work week, Romo’s back was troubling him that day. Eagles players said he didn’t really seem like himself.
In December, at the Linc, a healthy Romo shredded the Eagles in a 38-27 Cowboys win.
Kelly is looking for his first win against the healthy Romo. And it is going to take Bradford at his best to produce that win.
Coming off two tears of the ACL in his left knee, Bradford is looking to show that he is worthy of being taken No. 1 overall in 2010. It will help if Bradford can get the ball downfield occasionally, forcing the Dallas defense to account for the deep pass. That should help the Eagles’ running game as well as create space for their short passing game.
“I think everybody knows we can do it,” Kelly said. “I mean, Sam’s got as strong an arm as anyone in the league. But when you're playing that type of defense, they are not going to let the ball and that's part of their theory. They kept the ball in front of them.”
In the Atlanta game Monday night, Bradford threw 52 passes. Only one of the 52 traveled more than 20 yards downfield.
“That was more a product of what they were doing defensively,” Bradford said. “After you go down 20-3, they’re not going to let you get behind them. They were playing soft underneath. You saw us take advantage of a lot of the quick stuff to the backs and underneath.”
That sounds good, but Bradford’s history says it was more than just a reaction to Atlanta’s defense. In 2013, Bradford’s last season as the starting quarterback in St. Louis, only 8.4 percent of his passes traveled more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Bradford has a strong arm, but there’s more to throwing deep than that. There is pass protection good enough to allow receivers to run deeper routes.
Kelly likes to get five players out running routes, leaving only the five offensive lineman in to pass block. In Atlanta, that resulted in a lot of pressure. Bradford was forced to get rid of the ball quickly, which translated to shorter passes to running backs and slot receivers.
“We had no issues moving the ball in the second half,” Kelly said. “He was 21-of-25 and we were moving the ball down the field. Really the only thing that set us back in the second half were the penalties. We slowed ourselves down.
“But if that's what they are going to do, I don't think you prove anything to anybody and say, ‘Even though they are back there, we are just going to throw the ball up.’ I mean, that's kind of silly to be honest with you.”
“If it’s there,” Bradford said, “we’re going to take it. If it’s not, you can’t force it. The big thing about this offense, when you’re efficient -- when we get completions, when we get positive runs -- that’s when we’re at our best.”
There were stretches of the Atlanta game when the Eagles’ offense looked potent with Bradford at the controls. On the Eagles’ third-quarter, 95-yard touchdown drive, Bradford completed 9 of 10 passes for 81 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown throw to DeMarco Murray.
“Hopefully we can pick up right where we left off in the second half,” Bradford said. “I think the second half was great. We got things rolling. That’s what we want to do. We pushed the tempo, we played fast, we put a lot of pressure on them. So hopefully that’s how we feel the whole game next time.”
None of Bradford’s 10 passes on that scoring drive were deep throws, but the Eagles kept moving the ball despite committing five penalties. The question is whether Bradford can be that accurate with his throws over and over, or whether it will take covering some ground with a few deep passes to make the Eagles successful.
In 2013, the Eagles completed 80 passes that went for 20 or more yards. That includes 18 passes of 40-plus yards.
Last season, 63 passes went for gains more than 20 yards and 13 went longer than 40 yards. Those numbers were down, in part, because Mark Sanchez played eight games in place of Foles. Foles was never shy about throwing the ball deep.
It’s a little early to declare Bradford shy about throwing deep. But it has been a constant with him, in St. Louis as well as in his debut with the Eagles. It would be good for Bradford to break that trend and take some chances deep.
On Sunday, against Romo, would be a perfect opportunity.