Where the Eagles dare: Chip Kelly’s big bet

Chip Kelly tore down the Philadelphia Eagles team he inherited and rebuilt it to play his hurry-up style. Now his reputation is hinging on the results. (Al Tielemans/Getty)

This feature appeared in Sportsnet magazine’s 2015 NFL Preview issue.

In the seemingly interminable moments before Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles face the Washington Redskins in just his 11th NFL game, network cameras have found the league’s most interesting head coach pacing the sidelines, engaging any member of his team he finds standing around in 30-second conversations. Very soon, Kelly’s Eagles will be running their opposition ragged, calling in 53 plays in the first half alone and operating faster between snaps than any modern NFL offence. But not yet. Kelly has been on the Lincoln Field turf for the usual 20-to-30-minute preamble to a 1 p.m. kickoff, when teams are introduced, the anthem is sung and the coin is flipped. For Kelly it must seem like forever—the one part of the next four hours he simply can’t control. “This whole pre-game thing is like a… phenomenon,” he says to an assistant coach, a note of wonder in his voice.

He stalks off before any reply comes his way, heading toward long-time Eagles centre Jason Kelce, who is loitering on the field. “This should be like grade school,” he argues to Kelce, only half-kidding, “where we just get on the yellow school bus and five minutes before kickoff, we pull the bus up, we get out and we play.” Then he’s back off to the sidelines. “Let’s goooo,” he sighs, exasperated.

Today, almost 22 months later, that glimpse of Kelly’s restlessness is still the closest anyone’s gotten to cracking the shell he keeps around himself. Kelly never opens up, rarely does interviews and in press conferences is loath to explain himself with anything beyond platitudes. But there’s a clue to the man in the agitation he couldn’t help but show before that November 2013 tilt, a sense of the impatience at the very heart of his professional style—a style that will be tested this coming season under his total authority, in circumstances as perfectly controlled as any football scientist could wish for. In 2015, helming a team that is absolutely his own for the first time in his NFL career, Kelly will finally get a chance to show the league how far his genius—or madness, depending on whom you ask—can take him.

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If you’re a former Philadelphia Eagle who left the organization in the past two years—and there are dozens upon dozens of them, from multiple-time Pro Bowlers to training-camp invitees—this is the first of three questions they’re going to ask you: “So, what was it like?” And “they” means everyone, from members of the media to curious teammates to your new coaching staff and front office, who are always looking for innovation—even if it requires imitation. Shortly afterwards, if the questioner has sufficient fortitude to pose it: “Why do you think he shipped you out?”

And finally, perhaps rhetorically, assuming a decent rapport has been established: “What the [bleep] is he doing over there?!”

While you can offer an answer to the first question and perhaps even a plausible theory for the second, chances are you’re as curious about the last one as everyone else. Since Kelly took the helm of the Eagles in January 2013, nothing has been stable in Philadelphia, from the personnel in uniform to the on-field play-calling to the day-to-day routines of the season to the boardroom bickering upstairs. The fresh approaches that were intriguing in Kelly’s first season have become more and more unorthodox—and all the while, the notoriously private coach has kept his cards close to his chest. This is a man, after all, who the world only learned had a seven-year marriage that ended in 1999 in a Washington Post feature that appeared this past July; a man with whom his own long-time assistants can’t recall ever discussing anything but football. Kelly simply doesn’t speak with anyone who might air his laundry—dirty or clean.

But this is the NFL, and when someone won’t comment, there are always other people ready to stand in. Kelly has rid himself of no fewer than five Pro Bowl players during his time in Philadelphia, and one of them hasn’t been shy to speculate about why. “He wants full control. You see how fast he got rid of all the good players,” said LeSean McCoy shortly after Kelly sent him to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso. “Especially all the good black players. He got rid of them the fastest.”

Not surprisingly, McCoy’s comments made waves around the league, but he wasn’t the first to raise the subject of race in relation to Kelly’s decision-making. In March, former Eagles player and coach Tra Thomas told a Fox affiliate that he thought there was “a hint of racism” in Kelly’s personnel moves, citing McCoy’s trade, the 2014 release of DeSean Jackson, the decision to retain Riley Cooper (who was caught on video yelling a racial slur at a concert) and a lack of African-Americans in positions of power on the coaching staff. An unnamed teammate, meanwhile, told Bleacher Report that he didn’t think it was racism: “The thing with Chip is that he just doesn’t see you as a person—he sees you as a commodity.” Kelly himself responded to McCoy’s allegations with a simple “I think he’s wrong,” adding that he’s “not governed by fear of what other people say.”

Kelly spent the early months of 2015 cementing his power to buy and sell players—wresting full control of personnel from the team’s former GM Howard Roseman, who was bumped upstairs. All Kelly said about the move was that control had “never been an issue for me. I’m a football coach. I’m not a general manager. I’m not a salary-cap guy—I coach football.” Those comments may have rung a bit hollow given he said them at the very press conference announcing he’d become just the third NFL head coach to have the ultimate say over his entire roster (joining Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll).

Soon afterwards, Kelly’s rapid-fire makeover began. He traded McCoy, swapped quarterback Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, waved goodbye to Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis—two-fifths of one of the NFL’s best starting offensive line—and spent a truckload of money on running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, all while the rest of the football world has been moving away from big contracts for feature backs. Kelly also dealt Brandon Boykin, perhaps the team’s best cornerback in 2014, to the Pittsburgh Steelers, let his top receiver, Jeremy Maclin, take off to Kansas City in free agency and chose not to retain pass rusher and fan favourite Trent Cole.

Opinions on many of the moves were decidedly negative—the term “mad scientist” was thrown about—and it’s easy to see why. If the running game is important enough to spend $40 million on Murray and $11 million on Mathews, then why break up an exceptional offensive line? Why ditch the quarterback with experience running the Eagles’ unorthodox offence for one with an injury history, then top the position off with Tim Tebow, of all people? How much turnover is possible before the core of a winning team is lost? The Eagles will enter the 2015 season as a totally different team, with only three of 11 offensive starters remaining from Kelly’s first game as coach in 2013. By taking over personnel responsibility then making such sudden and franchise-altering moves, Kelly has left himself with no outs should the Eagles falter. But that may be exactly the way he likes it.

Since he’s never been one to explain himself, there has been nothing to stop the NFL’s media machine from asserting that this might be a make-or-break year for Kelly and the Eagles. But Kelly is 20-12 in two years as an NFL head coach, the Eagles offence has the blinding beauty of a lightning strike, and in an industry where results and entertainment matter most, his job is probably as secure as that of any other coach without a ring. While the moves are debated, Kelly just wants the team to play even faster; faster than the 21.95 seconds they took to run their plays in 2014—a full 3.5 seconds per play quicker than the Patriots, the league’s second-fastest offence—and he has brought in the players he feels can accomplish that.

The media can paint him as a coach and personnel director on the hot seat all they want. But Kelly just wants to get the damned season started. Preferably right now.

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