Packers, Eagles Take Different Paths to Top

While their on-the-field approaches are similar, they've built their teams in different fashions. (Eric Hartline/USA TODAY)

On the field, the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles have relied on similar, full-throttle approaches to become prime contenders in the NFC.

Off the field, the differences could hardly be more stark.

For Green Bay, Julius Peppers was the rare offseason transaction. Philadelphia, on the other hand, seized on its turnaround under Chip Kelly to make a few significant upgrades to its roster. After going from 4-12 under Andy Reid in 2012 to 10-6 and the playoffs under Kelly in 2013, the Eagles signed safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll in free agency and traded for running back Darren Sproles. At receiver, they dumped petulant veteran DeSean Jackson, re-signed Jeremy Maclin and drafted Jordan Matthews (second round) and Josh Huff (third).

None of those transactions, however, will be more important than their March 28 signing of quarterback Mark Sanchez. With impressive young starter Nick Foles out with a broken collarbone, the Eagles are going to soar or drop like a stone on the right arm of Sanchez, who led the Jets to AFC Championship Games in each of his first two seasons. Jets coach Rex Ryan thought so highly of Sanchez that a picture of his wife wearing a Sanchez jersey is tattooed on his right arm. However, Sanchez didn’t throw a single pass in 2013 and was unceremoniously dumped by New York because of a surgically repaired shoulder and lofty salary cap number on March 22.

It’s a small sample size, but Sanchez has completed 59.3 percent of his passes for four touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 97.7. In his lone start, on Monday night against Carolina, he only completed 20-of-37 passes but those went for 332 yards with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 102.5.

“He’s done a really nice job,” Kelly said in a conference call on Wednesday. “He’s always prepared like he’s going to be the starter, which I think every backup should do. Was extremely supportive of Nick when Nick was playing. When he got his opportunity to play, he was prepared for it.”

Sanchez sounded like he’s enjoying a new lease on his football life. Gone are the expectations of being the fifth pick in the 2009 draft and playing in the pressure cooker that is the Big Apple.

“I didn’t know if I necessarily needed a fresh start,” Sanchez said in a conference call. “I needed to get healthy, that’s for sure. I knew that was the first item on the agenda. After that, that was all I could control to a certain point. And then, whatever team I was on, whether it was the Jets or here in Philly or somewhere else, I knew I was going to just start with a clean slate and play as best as I could. Come back healthy, come back strong and get ready to go out and compete. It happened to be that I ended up here in Philly, and that’s the same attitude I took was get healthy and compete my butt off and see what happens. Now we’re in this situation. I’ve gotten an opportunity here and I just want to make the most of it.

An already high-powered offense got even better when the Eagles acquired Sproles from the Saints for merely a fifth-round pick. He’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry, 12.2 yards on his 21 receptions and a gaudy 17.0 yards per punt return with two touchdowns. Maclin, who returned on a one-year deal, has caught 48 passes for 828 yards. Among receivers with more than 25 catches, he ranks third with 17.3 yards per reception. He’s tied for second with eight touchdown catches.

“A very versatile player,” Kelly said of Sproles. “He’s given us the ability to score, not only in special teams, which he’s done, but as a running back, as a receiver coming out of the backfield. He’s a true triple threat for us in terms of what we can do with him. It was a big pick-up for us in the offseason and has really helped us in terms of getting us to where we are right now.”

The addition of Jenkins filled a gaping hole in the secondary. He’s tied for the NFL lead among safeties with three interceptions and has the outright lead with eight passes defensed. He was singled out by Packers quarterback as a “talented player” that improved the Eagles’ secondary.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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