The rope given to NFL coaches is very short. Chip Kelly learned that the hard way when he was fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Dave Archibald breaks down the innovative coach’s tenure in Philadelphia and points out what went wrong and what went right.
After Philadelphia lost to division rival Washington, dropping their record to 6-9 and ending their playoff hopes even in a mediocre NFC East, owner Jeffrey Lurie decided he’d had enough. He fired head coach and de facto general manager Chip Kelly one game shy of completing his third season with the Eagles.
Only a year ago, things looked very different. Kelly was coming off his second straight 10-6 season, and while that wasn’t enough to make the 2014 playoffs, it was a significant improvement on the 4-12 squad he inherited. Kelly had had tremendous success at New Hampshire and Oregon, bringing culture change and schematic innovation in the form of a hurry-up offense that was as fast-paced and fun to watch as it was effective. Kelly spent his first two seasons under Howie Roseman, but wrested control from the general manager in January. After an off-season of wheeling-and-dealing, including a swap of quarterbacks with the St. Louis Rams – netting former #1 overall pick Sam Bradford – another stellar season in 2015 was the expectation.
Nothing happened in the preseason to check the hype – in fact, things hit a fever pitch after Bradford completed all 10 of his passes, three for touchdowns, in a rout of the Green Bay Packers. In the wake of that impressive performance, Vegas set the Eagles’ Super Bowl odds at 10 to 1, fourth best in the NFL and ahead of the defending champion New England Patriots.
Despite the impressive preseason, it’s not clear that the team was set up for success. Bradford never lived up to his draft status in St. Louis and had missed his team’s last 30 games with injuries. The Eagles added running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, but traded away LeSean McCoy. They lost leading receiver Jeremy Maclin in free agency, as well as starting guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. The offense was not as talented as in 2013 or 2014.
Kelly had been so successful that the talent hardly seemed to matter, however. In his first season with the Eagles, Kelly coaxed a Pro Bowl performance out of quarterback Nick Foles while Philadelphia’s offense finished second in points and yards. Despite inconsistency from Foles and backup Mark Sanchez in 2014, the Eagles’ offense finished third in scoring and fifth in yards, with wideout Jeremy Maclin turning in a career year –- 1,318 yards, when his previous high was 964 – and rookie Jordan Matthews chipping in with nearly 900 yards. Sure, the talent heading into 2015 wasn’t proven, but if Kelly made stars out of those guys, these other guys would be fine.
The ESPN fantasy projections for Jordan Matthews and Ertz are pretty close to reality, but as a whole the group fell far short of expectations, particularly when it came to scoring touchdowns. Bradford’s career high for touchdown passes is 21, but ESPN’s projections had him tallying 28 (plus two rushing; Bradford has just two rushing touchdowns in his career). Nelson Agholor’s projection was very aggressive for a rookie; only seven first-round wideouts have reached those marks in the last 10 years. Murray led the NFL in rushing in 2014, but that was behind a Dallas offensive line that was considered the best in football, not an Eagles team breaking in two new guards. The consensus assumed that Kelly’s system would make these pieces work, but the trust in Kelly disguised the fact that the talent wasn’t all there.
Head coaches are often evaluated according to a simple rubric: expectations minus reality equals coaching. If a team outperforms expectations, the head coach is assumed to have done a good job, and if it falls short of expectations, the coach is thought to have done a poor one. The AP Coach of the Year rarely helms the best team, but often the one that shows the most dramatic improvement over the previous season:
Other than 2014, when Bruce Arians’s Arizona Cardinals kept essentially the same record despite a series of injuries to their quarterbacks, the Coach of the Year has overseen an improvement of four or more games from the previous season. The Indianapolis Colts show this most dramatically: They won between 12 and 14 for seven straight seasons under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell without earning honors for either coach. But Arians took home the Coach of the Year award as an interim coach for Indianapolis in 2012, as the Colts improved their record from 2-14 to 11-5. For coaches like Dungy or Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, their greatness is assumed and baked into the projections.
The same expectation of greatness appears to be the case for Kelly this year, at least on offense – and now he is suffering for those inflated expectations. The consensus expected more stellar offense from the Eagles in 2015, and when that didn’t happen, Kelly bore the blame – not unrealistic expectations.
The General Manager
Perhaps Kelly was dealing with less talent than most supposed, but with ultimate personnel control, some might argue some of the talent issues were his fault, too. His major additions this offseason – Bradford, Murray, cornerback Byron Maxwell, and linebacker Kiko Alonso – have disappointed. Meanwhile, the players the team lost – Foles, Maclin, McCoy, Mathis, Herremans – haven’t been adequately replaced, even if some of them have had disappointing seasons elsewhere. His GM performance certainly had blemishes, and deserves some criticism.
But the criticisms by-and-large don’t take into account the counterfactuals: what the Eagles would have have done if they hadn’t made these moves. Bradford has been a disappointment, but Foles has been even worse, playing so poorly that he lost the starting quarterback job in St. Louis to Case Keenum. Murray has been a poor fit in Philadelphia – fellow signee Ryan Mathews is averaging 5.1 yards per carry versus Murray’s 3.5 – but McCoy would have had a cap hit of nearly $12M for the Eagles and did not crack the 1,000-yard mark this season for Buffalo. Maxwell hasn’t been worth his salary, but the defensive backs he replaced, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, were both cut by their new teams partway through the season due to ineffectiveness. Releasing Mathis and Herremans saved $9.5M in 2015 salary, and neither impressed in his new home. Maclin would have been tough to fir under the cap on the five-year, $55M contract he inked in Kansas City.
It’s easy to criticize Kelly for the talent drain on offense – which also includes star wideout DeSean Jackson, who signed with division rival Washington in the 2014 off-season – but harder to explain how he could have kept together an offense including Jackson, Maclin, McCoy, Mathis, and Herremans. Even with all the departures, the Eagles are one of the highest-spending teams on offense, with 55% of their cap going to that side of the ball.
Philadelphia is the victim of the cycle of success in the NFL: a team can excel for a time with players on their rookie contracts, but when those contracts are up, teams have to make tough choices. They largely ignored offense in their 2010-12 drafts, selecting only Foles and bust offensive lineman Danny Watkins in the first three rounds. More recent additions Ertz, Agholor, and 2014 third-round receiver Josh Huff haven’t yet stepped up to fill the void left by departing players. Lack of help through the draft led Kelly to pay retail prices in free agency, with predictably uninspiring results.
The book on Kelly’s NFL career isn’t fully written yet, and whatever happens in subsequent stops will dictate the narrative as much as his early success in Philadelphia or his failures in 2015. Kelly’s offseason moves and strenuous practices rubbed some people the wrong way and led to rumors of locker room issues, but those criticisms were much more muted when the Eagles were winning in 2013 and 2014. There are some on-the-field concerns, too, such as whether a fast-paced offense that doesn’t allow audibles has drawbacks. Any prospective employer will have to weigh these negatives along with the positives that Kelly brings.
While Kelly’s up-tempo offense hasn’t taken the NFL by storm as it did at the NCAA level, neither is it a failure. The Eagles were at their best when playing fast, and when the offense executed effectively the results could be breathtaking. Kelly has never had the kind of a mobile quarterback that would let him integrate the read option principles he used so much in college, but he crafted successful offenses in 2013 and 2014 anyway.
Around the league, elements of Kelly’s offense are taking hold and finding success. The Carolina Panthers run the read option more than any other team in the league and rank second in scoring offense, with MVP frontrunner Cam Newton thriving. Packaged plays with run-pass options, a concept Kelly helped introduce to the pro game, are now a part of many NFL offenses. There is plenty of reason to believe Kelly’s system can and will be effective at his next stop.
Kelly’s tenure in Philadelphia can’t be summed up in one word or phrase. It didn’t start a revolution or usher in a new era of NFL offense. It wasn’t a smashing success. It wasn’t a dismal failure, either; Kelly currently sports a 26-21 career record, with two top-five offenses in three seasons. Those who expected Kelly to be a savior might be disappointed, but he wasn’t hired to be a savior – he was a hired to be a football coach.
When we evaluate him as a coach, we need to look at what he had and what he did, not what we thought he had or what we wanted him to do. When we evaluate his personnel moves, we need to look at what was possible, not just what was ideal. A fuller picture paints a cloudy view of Kelly’s tenure, with its fair share of both hits and misses. He may not have turned the NFL on its head, but Kelly has shown he can be successful, and in future NFL stops he will get a chance to prove it further.
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