KELCE WILL BE AT THE CENTER OF EAGLES SUCCESS THIS YEAR

Brian Baldinger
Brian Baldinger on how important it is for center Jason Kelce to play well. Photo by Andy Lewis / contrastphotography.com

 

In 1991, I was in my 10th year in the NFL and I was the starting at right guard on the Indianapolis Colts.

We were coming off a disappointing 5-11 season with a rookie quarterback named Jeff George. Jeff was the No.1 overall pick that season and he showed a ton of promise. We assembled a pretty good offensive line around Jeff going into that ’91 season, anchored by an all-pro center named Ray “Bulldog” Donaldson.

Bulldog was big at 315 pounds, nimble enough to dribble around anyone on the team on the basketball court and the toughest man on our team. The game was also incredibly easy for him. He would often tell me that if I ever saw him on the ground, if only once in a game, it was considered a bad game by him.

In the third game of the season that year against the Raiders, lead by their all-world nose tackle, Howie Long, in the La Coliseum, Ray wound up on the ground.

In the second quarter, Bulldog broke his right fibula. He just looked at me as he somehow hobbled off the field that he broke his leg and the center position was all mine. Yikes!

While I had always taken snaps at center and practiced it a bunch in preseason games, I had actually never started a game at center. Now the position was mine going up against Howie Long and snapping to a quarterback that was making his 16th NFL start and who relied a lot on the center to help him out.

I quickly learned how difficult the center position was. I was responsible for changing protections, giving my not-so-bright offensive lineman the snap counts, giving dummy calls to the defense to throw them off rhythm, remember my own assignment and shotgun the snap back to the quarterback perfectly every time.

I loved every second of it and hated every second of it. Loved setting the huddle, taking charge, keeping young guys lose during lengthy TV timeouts, and being the field general that every one came to when things needed to get fixed. And I hated all of the pressure that came with every play, every game for the rest of the season.

Since that challenging year I have had the utmost respect for everyone that plays the center position.

This past season the Atlanta Falcons signed free agent center, Alex Mack from the Cleveland Browns to be their center. He didn’t come cheap as he had toiled in guarded greatness in Cleveland and although they didn’t win many games while he was their everyone could see that he was a good player.

The Falcons found out just how good he was as they went from the 21st ranked scoring offense in 2015 to the No.1 ranked scoring offense in 2016.

While the Falcons also added Muhammad Sanu and Taylor Gabriel at wide receiver they made a leap of 20 spots on offense and within a few plays of winning a super bowl because of Mack. He routinely blocked 2 men, solidified the middle of the O-line, and could always be found down field picking guys off as big play after big play would define the Falcon offense.

Prior to the Falcons first game v the Tampa Bay Bucs, I talked with their QB, Matt Ryan, about the addition of Mack. Ryan said, “his snaps are perfect.” It startled me. What he was really saying is I never have to worry about the ball. It will always be where I want it. When a QB has that kind of confidence in the snap he can keep his eyes down field on the coverage and his reads will declare themselves quicker and easier.

All of this preamble brings me to the focus of this article, Jason Kelce. Jason has been a good player over most of the past six seasons for the Birds. Except for a low hit by Ed Redd in the second game of his second season; and except for a sports hernia, Kelce has been healthy and available. In fact, at one point in Chip Kelly’s spread offense Kelce was invaluable. His athleticism in 2013 allowed him to pull from his center position and lead Shady to the perimeter and to his only rushing title. Kelce in that season was as valuable a center as any other center was to his team. I would often say that Kelce played in track spikes and not football cleats. He was really effective in the sweep game and the screen game sometimes picking off defenders 20 and 30 yards down field.

Last year was a different season. The Eagles don’t run wide as much. In fact they are an inside power football team. Carson Wentz threw much more from the pocket than the quarterback did in Kelly’s spread attack. And with that Jason struggled at times against bigger tackles and off set nose guards. Sometimes what they asked Kelce to do was difficult for him, but difficult for a lot of centers. More noticeable to fans were the number of errant snaps where Wentz had to pick up a low snap or take his eyes off down the field just to retrieve the snaps. I understand all of the problems that #62 had to deal with. Not to mention a rookie quarterback and a new offensive system with a lot of rookie and first year Eagles playing around Jason.

Recently Pro Football Focus rated the Eagles OL as their No.1 line in all of the NFL. I challenged the rating immediately saying until the center position is upgraded then they cant claim the title, as meaningless as the rating is. Ray Donaldson made me a much better guard when the all-pro played next to me.

Ray Chester and Andy Levitre’ were much better guards when Alex Mack came and joined the Falcons. When your center is big, strong, can block two on each play, and can handle the big nose guards like an Alan Branch at New England , who can tip the scales north of 350 on any given day, then the Eagles won’t be the best line in football.

Training Camp 2017 at NovaCare should see a good battle between Isaac Seumalo and Kelce and whomever else, should be a good one. Kelce has the intelligence and savvy to win the competition but he won’t ever be 300 pounds and he won’t ever have the frame and natural strength of Seumalo. His snaps have to be more improved. The center has to make others around him better the way Donaldson did and Mack does.

The Redskins lost their starting center in training camp. In stepped a bigger, stronger Spencer Long.

He eventually upgraded the position after gradually becoming more comfortable in the spot and as a result the Redskins behind O-line coach, Bill Callahan, become a very formidable group.

I am a Jason Kelce fan because as a fifth round pick he has squeezed all of his ability out of his talent and he should be commended on that fact.

He also has played in one post season game in his first six seasons. I mention this because eventually all players are graded on a Super Bowl scale. This means when you get to the biggest game are you a strength or a liability in your matchup.

Regular season games against Cleveland are important but the real measuring stick is against elite competition and in the biggest games. It still remains to be seen if Kelce would be an asset on the biggest stage

The Eagles have spent much of their resources this spring building around there young quarterback. Shiny new toys in the backfield, and at wide receiver and even adding depth to their Oline by signing Chance Warmack. Is the center position in good hands if Kelce remains the starter?

I don’t know the answer to this question, and as this article goes to print prior to the start of training camp no one else does either. What I do know is the Eagles will get the very best of Jason Kelce throughout this camp.

I believe it his his position to lose, while the Eagles brass will use every technique necessary to upgrade the position at the same time.

Don’t count out Kelce from being their opening day starter on Sept 10 against Washington. Competition is the best thing for every player. Iron sharpens iron as we like to say in the trenches. I will have a front row seat to see who emerges at the ever so important center position. *

11 Aug 17 - Eagles, Football, Football Training, NFL - Brian Baldinger - No Comments

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