Eagles Thrive In So Called Underdog Role

Jeff Stoutland has a name he uses to describe the naysayers of the world. There were quite a few members of this so-called fraternity who predicted doom when the Eagles offensive line lost one starter after another and inexperienced backups were pushed to the fore.

Eagles offensive lineman Matt Tobin listens to instructions from offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland during. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)>Slideshow icon Slideshow

Eagles practice: October 23

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"I don't live in a world of the 'Fellowship of the Miserable,' " the Eagles' offensive line coach said Thursday. "I never think that way. I'm always thinking that this group is going to be a solid group. We're going to work our butts off to get them ready to play, and they'll be ready if they're called upon."

Despite some bumps along the way - and at least one more game before the Eagles have their full complement of linemen - Stoutland's unit has weathered a patch of six games without the starting five together for a single play.

Last year, all five were together for 92 percent of offensive snaps and no one missed a start. But even before this season began, Lane Johnson was lost for the first four games to a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Then his replacement at right tackle, Allen Barbre, suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opener. Left guard Evan Mathis sprained his knee in the same game. And center Jason Kelce injured his groin in Week 3 and underwent sports hernia surgery.

Five backups were called upon, and the four primary ones who were used - center David Molk, guards Matt Tobin and Dennis Kelly, and tackle Andrew Gardner - had only 10 career starts among them. But Stoutland refused to let his linemen join the Fellowship - "complainers," Stoutland called the group - even after a miserable outing in the Week 4 loss to the 49ers.

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"If you're miserable, you'll probably want someone to feel miserable with, and he hates that," Molk said. "If you get in a situation like that, really, no one's working or no one's getting better, and everyone is just going: 'We don't want to do this and this.' "

If any of the linemen have a momentary lapse into the Fellowship, however, Stoutland is quick to pull them out.

"He'll snap you out of it in a second," Molk said.

There were still slip-ups, as expected, but the return of Johnson in Week 5 buoyed the line, and Molk and Tobin improved with more playing time. The 5-1 Cardinals will present another test on Sunday, but if the Eagles clear that obstacle they could have Kelce back by the Nov. 2 Texans game or both Mathis and Kelce back by the Nov. 10 Panthers game.

"You're seeing a lot of guys running around in pads now [in practice], and you're like: 'Oh, he's almost ready,' " Stoutland said. "That's a good feeling. While a lot of teams, I think, are hanging by a thread, we're getting healthy."

Despite Stoutland's claim that last season's reserves - center-guard Julian Vandervelde was recently brought back after back surgery - were ready in case of injury, there were legitimate questions about depth during training camp.

But the offensive line was arguably the best-performing group among the second unit during the preseason.

"As the preseason went on," Stoutland said, "those questions weren't asked quite as much."

Stoutland credited coach Chip Kelly's methods, which afford backups more practice repetitions than most other teams. But the veterans who went through the injury-filled 2012 season, when the reserves were not as prepared, give Stoutland as much due.

"He's not afraid to [mess] up," Molk said of Stoutland. "He's been coaching so long, but he's never stuck on anything. He's always looking for a better way. He's always looking for something new, and he'll take it and run with it. But at the same time he won't find something new and go, 'OK, this is set in stone forever.' "

Stalwarts like left tackle Jason Peters and right guard Todd Herremans, who have worked with notable O-line assistants Howard Mudd and Juan Castillo, have been Stoutland's staunchest supporters. But they're not immune to his tough-love tactics.

"He doesn't take any [bull], and that's probably one of the best things about him," Molk said. "He'll always push and push. He wants to have the best offensive line, and he fights his [butt] off for it every day."

SANCHEZ THE SECOND BANANA

Many starting NFL quarterbacks don't adjust well to backup roles. See: McNabb, Donovan.

Mark Sanchez, despite the occasional cry from fans for him to replace Nick Foles, has done a fine job of drifting into the background after five seasons of mostly starting for the New York Jets.

"There's no need for a controversy," Sanchez said Thursday. "Things are going well. Playing hard and preparing the best we can, and I'm ready if I'm ever needed."

Considering the Eagles have never had a quarterback take every snap for an entire season, it is likely that Sanchez will see the field at some point this year. But the 27-year-old, who signed a one-year contract in March, has taken to the No. 2 role.

Sanchez said having been a starter and knowing what he preferred from his backup has helped. He said his backup with the Jets, Mark Brunell, knew how to toe the line between teammate and quasi-coach.

"That's what I always appreciated from him," Sanchez said. "So that's what I'm trying to do until, hopefully, I'm playing somewhere soon."

Foles said Sanchez is at his best during games when he's offering information from the sidelines and helping with film of the defense.

"In the game, he's great," Foles said. "He tells me what he sees. We'll go over the pictures, and he'll circle the coverages, say what each coverage is. He has a great attention to detail."

Sanchez also provides some levity. NFL Films showed a conversation between the two quarterbacks at the start of the third quarter of the New York Giants game. Sanchez, who was still eating halftime food, said: "You should try the chicken fingers. They're good."

"He's always super serious and always asking for more, more, more," Sanchez said of Foles. "So I try and say something just to keep it light. Whether it's something I saw like, 'Dude, wait till we see it on film, but somebody got crushed on this play,' or 'You look like a total pansy throwing that ball.' "

FIVE QUESTIONS: CARY WILLIAMS

Question: If you were NFL commissioner, what would be the one thing you would change about the league?

Answer: I would get back to the physicality of the game and have more balanced [enforcement] for both the offense and defense.

Q: Who wins a fight between a bear and a shark in five feet of water and why?

A: The shark. A bear can't turn around as fast in the water. The shark is more stealth and more aerodynamic in the water.

Q: What was your favorite childhood TV show?

A: Martin.

Q: If you could have lunch with one person from any time period, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

A: Malcolm X. He was in a transitional period as a Muslim before he was assassinated and this whole white-man hatred thing. He wasn't trying to be that guy anymore. I would want to know what helped him change his mind and what he wanted to do in the future.

Q: If you could have any super power, what would it be?

A: The ability to be in two places at once.

INSIDE THE GAME

Three times a week, the Eagles offense and defense meet separately for "clap meetings." Some call them walk-throughs, but there generally isn't much moving, either. They are meetings that often take place in the locker room that allow the offense or defense to line up and run through plays.

"We're just all there in a group and you get to look at a defense," center David Molk said. "No ball. No snapping. You're not getting the signal from the side. It's just a way you can burn through a ton of reps and get a ton of looks without moving."

Every NFL team has them. The "clap" derives from someone clapping to signal the snap, but the Eagles don't clap. The offensive coaches will typically simulate players on an opposing defense. The meetings last about 20 minutes.

Molk said the "clap meetings" at Michigan, where he attended college, were so casual that the offensive linemen sat in chairs.

For an offense that has been one of the most explosive in the NFL over the last two seasons, the Eagles have been one of the most inefficient inside the red zone. They're last in the league at converting possessions inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns this season (8 of 20, 40 percent) and are 26th over the last two seasons combined (49.4 percent), ahead of only the Cardinals (49.4), Steelers (49.3), Ravens (48.1), Bills (47.0), Jets (46.9), and Jaguars (45.5).

Chip Kelly said there wasn't a blanket explanation for the red-zone woes. There is a theory that an offense that thrives in space will struggle when the field condenses. Kelly doused that premise.

"I think the field's the same for everybody," Kelly said. "If you don't thrive in space . . . you're not going to thrive inside the 20, either."

INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM

Since Connor Barwin joined the Eagles, bicycles have been popping up around the NovaCare Complex. A cycling enthusiast, Barwin has bought bikes for some of his teammates, including fellow outside linebacker Brandon Graham.

Graham's bike arrived last month, and he said he's been riding to and from work - about a 10-minute ride - every day.

"It was just something I always wanted to do, but [Barwin] inspired me," Graham said recently. "I feel like it warms me up before I get here. The wind blowing in my face also wakes me up."

Graham has struggled keeping his weight down, and once ballooned to more than 280 pounds during the 2011 NFL lockout. He said he has kept his weight in the mid-260s this season.

BY THE NUMBERS

2

Number of teams since 1981 to finish the season first in the NFL in punt- and kick-return average (Redskins, 1995, and Chiefs, 2003). The Eagles currently stand atop both categories.

102.2

Nick Foles' passer rating for his 16 starts under Chip Kelly over the last two seasons. His total numbers: 62.0 completion percentage, 4,273 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, nine interceptions.

Deep passes (over 20 yards) caught by Zach Ertz, which is tops among NFL tight ends. Ertz is also tied for fourth among all receivers.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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