Mon. Sep 23rd, 2019

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Bird Watching: The End Of The Chip Kelly Era

10 min read
Chip Kelly

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Chip Kelly’s sudden dismissal on Tuesday has thrown Eagles Nation into a frenzy. Here is a quick review of the Chip Kelly Era and a few thoughts about what comes next.

Whether you’re flipping burgers, fixing cars, selling vacation condos or running a football team, there is one universal truth … if you aren’t doing the job, you need to go. If you’re in over your head, you can usually dazzle ‘em with smoke and mirrors for a little bit. But eventually … you get exposed and, again, you need to go.

Since his arrival here in January 2013, Chip Kelly had made a habit of confounding us all with moves that would prove him to be either crazy like a fox, a capricious control freak whose own hubris would be his undoing or a charlatan desperately grasping at the straws that would validate his status. Really, he was confounding us even before his arrival here. If you remember, he spurned the initial offer only to accept a few weeks later as the city was readying to welcome Gus Bradley to town for an interview.

In fact, it often seemed as though Kelly was easily distracted by bright and shiny things. If there was a ‘plan’, you wouldn’t know it from his schizophrenic transactions.

One of the first players he signed was Texans TE/FB James Casey. He lauded Casey’s skill, speed and flexibility and spoke of the vital role Casey would play in his offense. Two months later he saw Zach Ertz available early in the second round of the draft and Casey became a special teams player.

A few weeks later he signed former Dallas RB Felix Jones, by August, Jones was traded to Pittsburgh. DT Isaac Sopoaga said that the Eagles would ‘shock the world’ when he signed in March. By Halloween, he was a New England Patriot. The ones who stayed weren’t much better – S Patrick Chung, CB Cary Williams, CB Bradley Fletcher – the one gem that arrived in those early days was DE/LB Connor Barwin. WR Arrelious Benn was traded for, but he was never healthy enough to make a difference.

The most curious decision he made was the hiring of Billy Davis as his Defensive Coordinator. Davis had alarming statistics in his previous tenures as a DC and he ran a 3-4. This was an Eagles team that didn’t have enough requisite talent at linebacker to run a 4-3 in 2012!!!!

Then, just before training camp started, a video surfaced showing Riley Cooper shouting a racial slur at a security guard during a concert at Lincoln Financial Field. The response was to send Cooper to sensitivity training and leave the decision to keep him here entirely up to the players on the team. According to reports, they voted to allow him back. The word ‘Culture’ had not yet become a buzzword for this regime. But, it’s hard to imagine this was anything but a nightmare for a first-year head coach.

After a surprisingly successful season ended with a Division Title and a home playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, the league had clearly been unprepared for some of Kelly’s innovations. The Didingers and Paolantonios of the world were declaring that, unlike any team they had seen before, all 53 men on the roster were completely ‘buying in’ to Kelly’s peculiar SportScience approach. But, when they came up short against the Saints and Davis’ 3-4 was exposed in a long, game-deciding drive, it was clear there was much work still to be done.

Before he could even change back into street clothes after the loss to New Orleans, WR DeSean Jackson had already demanded a new contract. This did not seem to sit well with Kelly. After 10 weeks of clumsy soundbites and ham-handed posturing on both sides, attempts to trade Jackson were fruitless and the mercurial receiver was unceremoniously released on March 28th.

Absolutely no on-field advantage was gained by this move.

Suddenly the word ‘Culture’ began to be heard; specifically, the ‘Culture over Talent’ argument. This was laughably inconsistent in light of the release of WR Jason Avant (an underproductive receiver, but a devout Christian and spiritual leader on the team) and the hefty 5-year extension that was given to Cooper after he showed productive chemistry with surprise QB Nick Foles.

Whispers of ‘Is Chip a racist?’ started to pop up.

At the draft, there appeared to be no plan whatsoever. As targets were snatched up in front of them, they traded the 22nd pick and then took Louisville pass rusher Marcus Smith at 26. After six weeks of mock drafts and expert conjecture, we had all heard dozens of names of possible draftees … Marcus Smith was not one of those names. He is not the only draftee of the Kelly era that has had issues getting onto the field. But, he is unquestionably the highest profile.

The ‘Culture over Talent’ argument heated up as Kelly’s revamped team (In: Malcolm Jenkins, Darren Sproles, Chris Maragos, Jordan Matthews, Cody Parkey / Out: Jackson, Avant, Alex Henery) started the 2014 season 9-3, including a Thanksgiving beatdown of the hated Cowboys.

Then … they dropped three straight, finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs.

A power struggle between Kelly and Howie Roseman ensued. Apparently, talent only matters if you can blame someone else for picking it. The struggle resulted in Roseman being relegated to near invisibility. This gave Kelly final say in all personnel decisions. Ed Marynowitz was hired as the GM. But, clearly Chip was in charge.

Immediately, the scuttlebutt surrounding ‘GM Chip’ was about his desire to acquire a draft pick high enough to take his former QB from Oregon, Marcus Mariota. From their spot in the first round (Pick #20), the #1 & #2 picks were basically unattainable. No such move had ever been made, so there was no precedent for what it would cost. Add to that the fact that Tampa Bay and Tennessee each needed new life at the quarterback position and seemed intent on taking Mariota and Jameis Winston with those picks. Still the debate raged on local radio as to how such a deal could be done.

What followed was a mind-boggling string of personnel decisions. In February, they parted ways with Casey, G Todd Herremans, disappointing DB Cary Williams and DE/LB Trent Cole who was aging and struggling to find a useful place in the 3-4. None of these were shocking. But, replacements would need to be found. For the most part, none were …

It was at this point that all hell began to break loose.

Chip Kelly
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

First, a report surfaced that RB LeSean McCoy had been traded to Buffalo for Kiko Alonso, a young LB (and former Oregon Duck) who had missed the 2014 season with a knee injury after an impressive rookie year in 2013. This curious and controversial decision was spun as a salary move and word spread that San Francisco RB Frank Gore would be coming to fill the roster hole.

McCoy responded with a diatribe that featured a thinly veiled accusation that Kelly was at the very least incapable of working with African-American players, if not a complete racist.

Then, word came that QB Nick Foles had been dealt to the St. Louis Rams. Reports varied at first regarding the players and picks involved. But, the possibility that the Rams #10 pick might be involved buoyed the speculation that Kelly was angling to deal for a top pick and a chance at Mariota. But, the #10 was not included … Heisman Trophy winner and former first overall pick Sam Bradford was. Kelly squelched rumors that Bradford would be bait for the Cleveland Browns first round pick by stating that he brought the fragile QB here to play for the Eagles.

Seattle DB Byron Maxwell was believed to be the best free agent corner on the market and Kelly snatched him up immediately using a hook baited with a monster contract.

Gore, in apparent response to McCoy’s comments, opted to sign with Indianapolis. This left people asking who would be carrying the ball. Flashy, but oft-injured San Diego Charger Ryan Mathews was inked.

At this point, the possibility of weakening the Cowboys by stealing the league’s top rusher in 2014, DeMarco Murray, became a possibility. Kelly’s eyes were drawn once again to the shiny object and Murray, who had played (and roomed) with the newly acquired Bradford at Oklahoma was lured north by the almighty dollar.

Another former Cowboy, WR Miles Austin, was signed a few weeks later.

Then, they reached out and signed Tim Tebow. Yeah … that Tim Tebow. Not shiny, per se. But, all that noise surrounding him was apparently impossible for Chip to ignore.

Again, the question of “What exactly is Kelly’s plan?” arose.

Still needing to replace Herremans at guard, Kelly found himself in an embarrassing public dispute with his other guard, Evan Mathis. It played out in the papers and on the radio. Mathis, who was under contract, had asked about a restructuring of his deal. Rather than keep him here under the terms of his existing deal and maintaining the integrity of his offensive line, on June 12 Kelly released Mathis. Once more, like the Desean Jackson release … NO ON-FIELD ADVANTAGE WAS GAINED.

Kelly’s playbook has always been predicated on the threat of his quarterback keeping the ball and running effectively with it. Not on every play, but with enough regularity and success that opposing defenses (already expected to be exhausted by the tempo) would have to respect the threat, resulting in coverage issues. His claims that he could make it work without a mobile QB at the pro level were crushed this season under an avalanche of failed drives. Opposing defenses quickly realized that the Eagles’ offense only ran a handful of plays with slight formation variations. One imagines that a more suitable QB could have expanded the playbook considerably.

Frustratingly, each game seemed to feature two or three drives that showed flashes of just how deadly his approach could be. This was the allure, the seduction of Kelly. It has been described previously in this column as equivalent to pressing your bets at a black jack table. But, the failures outweighed the successes and the frailty of Kelly’s philosophy was undeniable.

Just about every personnel decision Kelly made since he arrived was eventually exposed this year – the Cooper extension and his subsequent lack of production, the Murray signing and his inability to run out of the shotgun, dumping a cap-crippling contract on Maxwell who was then exposed as a mediocre cornerback who had clearly benefited from his surrounding cast in Seattle, releasing and not replacing Herremans and Mathis which created the dearth of a rushing attack in the first few weeks (seriously, go back and watch the first half of their week two match-up with Dallas), failing to resign Jeremy Maclin which forced him to spend his top pick on a receiver rather than a replacement at guard or a successor to his aging tackle Jason Peters, not recognizing the severity of Parkey’s injury early enough to shut him down in time to sign a better kicker than Caleb Sturgis, overvaluing the potential of injured players brought in on ‘the cheap’ – we could go on. But, the fact is, whether it was an unprecedented string of tough luck or the inevitable result of poor management, this team was simply not good enough.

When you add the fact that the issues that plagued this team in September – dumb penalties, poor tackling, dropped passes, the inability to recognize stunts, twists and delayed blitzes, avoiding rub routes in coverage – were still happening in December. It was clear that whatever coaching was being done was not resulting in better performance.

Detractors often claimed that Kelly’s tempo obsession was a detriment to his defense. But, had the D been able to create a few 3-and-outs of their own, they could have minimized their exhaustion. Too many times, Davis’ D was ravaged on 3rd-and-Long during the first drive of the game or of the second half when they were well rested. There is a logic to saying that they ‘were on the field too much’. But, that had more to do with their own failures than Kelly’s tempo.

Then, there was that curious conversation between Murray and owner Jeffrey Lurie during the jubilant flight home after their win over the Patriots. Apparently, this was about more than playing time or touches. Reports are surfacing that Murray may have told Lurie that the team had lost respect for Kelly and grown tired of his methodology. Add to that the white flag that Peters waived on Saturday night and you have the makings of a mandate from the on-field talent, if not an out-and-out mutiny in the works.

So … there you have it.

Are we back to Square One?

Whoever inherits this roster, will find some useful pieces that were simply not in the best system for them. If the next head coach of the Eagles is a 4-3 guy that believes in the I Formation and a drop-back, pocket passer, Bradford and Murray may be just the combo to anchor his offense, while Vinny Curry (a born 4-3 DE if ever there was one) and Mychal Kendricks might finally reach their full potential in a more favorable system.

Credit to Lurie for making the move now and positioning himself at the front of the line for this season’s coaching prospects. A list of potential candidates is already floating across the radio waves and the blogosphere. Let’s hope, this time, his decision is based on more than the ‘Wow Factor’.

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