What Chip Kelly succeeded at more than anything else in his first year as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles was raising expectations.
As his squad gets set to open training camp on Saturday — all players are due to report Friday — at the NovaCare Complex, that could be a blessing or a curse.
The Eagles are coming off a 10-6 season in which they took the NFL by surprise and captured the NFC East crown before having their hearts broken on the final play of a first-round playoff clash with the New Orleans Saints.
Because of that, fans, players and coaches alike are expecting that next step forward to come without taking a step back, which is far from a guarantee in any sport, particularly in this league.
Considering where they came from the year before (four wins) and that they thrived after making a quarterback change, their 2013 season could reasonably be viewed as a smashing success.
That was not Kelly's take, however.
"We can improve," he said. "We were 10-7 [including the playoff loss]. We were just OK."
Kelly knows that perhaps the biggest challenge entering his second year is to convince the players of that, no matter how big a leap they made from the year before.
"I think if you're content with 10 wins and winning the division, you're probably shortchanging yourself and the team," Kelly sad. "We did that. What's the next step? How can we improve upon that?
"We're trying to get a bunch of guys that are never complacent in terms of, 'All right, we've arrived.' We haven't arrived. We're looking to work and strive to get better and better and better. That's part of the deal, so I think that's the thing we're always trying to emphasize with these guys."
The players believe the message has sunk in.
It is against this backdrop of brutal honesty that training camp begins, and with a number of potential complications adding some intrigue and maybe even a little doubt.
First and foremost, will the offense be as effective or effective enough without last year's leading receiver, DeSean Jackson?
Released in the offseason for football reasons only, according to Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman, Jackson's pure speed affected the offense every play he was on the field, not just the 82 times he caught the ball last season, which he finished with 1,332 receiving yards and nine TDs.
The effect of Jackson's absence won't be known for some time, but Kelly feels reasonably confident that the Eagles have set themselves up to be just as devastating, if not more so, than 2013, when they set franchise records for points and yards.
He points to the healthy return of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin from a ruptured ACL and the addition of free agent running back Darren Sproles as pieces who will help immensely in the passing game.
But that brings us to the second question. Can quarterback Nick Foles come close to or trump the mind-boggling success he had last season? It's a legitimate concern, considering Foles is entering just his third year, with only 17 career starts to his credit.
Foles last season tossed 29 touchdown passes while being intercepted just twice. He wound up with a QB rating of 119.2, best in the league. His average yards per attempt (9.1) and TD percentage (8.5) also were league highs.
Not bad for someone who originally lost an open competition for the starting job to Michael Vick in the preseason.
A huge reason for his success was the remarkable health of the offensive line. In a complete turnaround from the year before, in which guard Evan Mathis was the only one to emerge unscathed, nobody missed a start in 2013.
So Question 3 is: Will the protection be as good? This is another valid concern because right tackle Lane Johnson will miss the first four games due to a drug suspension, it was revealed Wednesday.
Versatile Allen Barbre emerged as the top offensive lineman off the bench last year, and the Eagles wisely signed him to a contract extension this offseason. But Dennis Kelly, who was once higher in the team's pecking order before injuries set him back, and Matt Tobin could have something to say about that.
So too could Pocono Mountain West graduate Michael Bamiro, who spent last season on the practice squad after being signed as a rookie free agent who wasn't eligible for the NFL Draft due to a late NCAA ineligibility ruling.
Yet all those variables together might not be enough to curtail the momentum these players established from the start of this year's organized team activities, when all the returnees were able to start Year 2 of the offensive and defensive systems Kelly and his staff installed as newcomers a year ago.
What's more, they know who their starting quarterback is going in, which can do nothing but help with the team's focus on just the present.
"I think the big thing that makes it easy is I've been around my teammates for a couple years now and the O-line," Foles said. "So when I get in the huddle, it's not what I've done in the past. Like I don't even feel like I played in the Pro Bowl. It just feels like that was something that just was amazing … but it just doesn't feel real to me. Winning the Pro Bowl MVP, I don't ever think about it. It just doesn't feel like it was real. I guess I just zone it out because I don't want to think about it because I know what happens when you start thinking about all the accolades and you start thinking you're unstoppable and then bad things happen."
"But where my comfort comes from is knowing my teammates and really just getting in the huddle. Those are my buddies. I look in their eyes and I know them and they know me. And we've been on the field of battle. We've played, we've gone through practice, we've gone through workouts. So it's a sense of comfort of knowing that they know I'm going to do everything I can to make this play work. And I know they're gonna do everything they can to pick up the protection. The receivers are gonna do everything they can to get the ball … the running backs. And that's where the sense of comfort comes."
TRAINING CAMP ESSENTIALS
The Eagles last year decided to end a long relationship with the Lehigh Valley by moving training camp out of Lehigh University and into their NovaCare Complex headquarters, which is an NFL trend.
Only select VIPs and certain season ticket holders who receive special invitations for specific dates will be allowed in the complex. However, three of their practices will be held in stadiums that will be open to the public at no cost.
They will hold practice at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday and Aug. 3 and another at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania on Aug. 10.
The Lincoln Financial Field practices require no tickets and remain open. Free tickets for the Franklin Field practice were made available online earlier this month, and all have been reserved.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun