Undone by inexperience as either General Manager or Head Coach, Chip Kelly leaves the Philadelphia Eagles in worse shape than he found them after a string of odd decisions.
By Mike Diviney
In the penultimate game of the 2015 season, and with their season at stake, the Philadelphia Eagles were eliminated from playoff contention by the lowly Washington Redskins for a second year in a row.
After endless debate among NFL fans and analysts alike about whether Chip Kelly would survive the disaster he had created, the answer was quick in coming.
On Tuesday night, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie—the only man whose opinion of Kelly’s performance matters—spoke loudly in firing Kelly, effective immediately.
It was an astounding departure from a normally stoic owner who in the past has demonstrated possibly too much patience with leadership, and who values stability above all at the coaching position.
It seems now that Lurie’s patience was reserved for a coach with the historic success of Andy Reid. In dealing with a brash newcomer like Kelly, who proved long on bravado but short on results, Lurie moved quickly.
Despite having been allowed to move forward with his hubristic plan of “going from good to great,” Kelly went from good to terrible, cutting, trading, or failing to re-sign the best players on the team—who, like him, will remain gone, replaced by lesser players making too much money.
Kelly’s mismanagement at the GM position has left the franchise with very little young talent and very little cap flexibility.
Anyone who thinks Kelly’s term should be graded “incomplete” instead of “failure” is dead wrong. Lurie would have known whether Kelly was operating on a timeline longer than three years, and would have allowed him to proceed if there were a bigger payoff in sight. Instead, the owner saw, as most observers did, that it was never going to happen, and moreover, that Kelly had done so much damage in one year at the helm, that he could not be allowed to continue.
That Kelly’s meteoric rise flamed out so spectacularly and so quickly is truly incredible. What caused him to fall from the penthouse to the ranks of the unemployed so quickly was so egregious, it will take quite a bit of space to chronicle.
Kelly the GM, Kelly the Coach
Once given personnel control, Kelly systematically jettisoned most of the best Eagles players left over from the Reid era, and replaced them with players of his own choosing. Since his credentials as either an NFL head coach or General Manager were still largely undefined, it is unsurprising to discover in hindsight that Kelly had no ability to judge talent at the NFL level.
Anyone who witnessed his panicky, haphazard, offseason roster revamping of the roster should have known this would ensue. So proud, so inflexible, and so ill-suited to the task, Kelly filled his locker room with players he’d coached at the University of Oregon, and frequently overpaid for them.
He was an unmitigated disaster as an NFL GM. In believing he could just “go from good to great,” Kelly demonstrated an incredible level of naiveté. No one tears down a relatively successful NFL team in an effort to try to make it better. Men much wiser and more experienced than him tweak good teams to try to make them great. That Kelly thought he was the exception, the guy who could write a new blueprint after being in the NFL all of three years, indicates how over his head he was.
The outlandish personnel moves he made showed how inept Kelly was as a GM, and then he compounded his troubles by coaching poorly while failing to create the culture about which he had preached. By letting go of talented players who did not ascribe to his cult of personality, Kelly undermined his own credibility with the remaining players and significantly downgraded the talent level on the roster.
By overpaying for players he couldn’t find ways to use effectively, Kelly also left himself with fewer resources to fill the numerous, gaping holes he’d created. This poor judgment will limit the Eagles’ ability to acquire players in free agency, and will put extra pressure on Kelly’s successors to strike gold in the entry draft, an area in which the team has not historically excelled. Since he foolishly traded away the Eagles’ second-round draft pick in his failed attempt to swing a deal for Marcus Mariota, that task will only become harder next year.
In acquiring first-round bust Sam Bradford from the St. Louis Rams, Kelly gave up the only quarterback who’d compiled a winning record under his tenure for an injury-prone player with an expiring contract.
Nick Foles ultimately failed in St. Louis, but under Kelly in Philadelphia, he was 14-4. All Kelly’s other quarterbacks are 12-17. That is too glaring to ignore.
Although he ended up a loser here, as he had been in St. Louis, Bradford improved throughout the season. With a dearth of quarterback options on the market, the Eagles have to choose among:
- locking Bradford into an expensive, long-term deal that he has not shown he is worth
- placing the franchise tag on him and paying him $25 million for 2016
- letting him go via free agency, leaving themselves with no quarterback and no top-10, second-round draft pick.
Kelly also painted himself into a corner by signing Mark Sanchez to one of the most lucrative contracts ever given to a backup quarterback. Sanchez responded with poor play and an absence of leadership that proves he serves no useful purpose on an NFL roster.
Slowing down the ground game
Kelly’s mishandling of the running backs was even worse than that of the quarterbacks, although not as damaging because the position holds less importance.
He traded Lesean McCoy, who’d piled up 3,000 rushing yards in two seasons under him, for linebacker Kiko Alonso. McCoy’s replacement was intended to have been over-the-hill-but-consummate-pro Frank Gore, who backed out of the deal almost immediately.
Then Kelly panicked and signed both Ryan Mathews and Demarco Murray, giving truth to the lie he later told—that he’d traded McCoy because the All-Pro made too much money—and then gave Murray a huge contract.
Together with the Mathews contract, he’d spent more money on the running back position than he would have by simply keeping McCoy.
Murray was ill-suited to the Eagles offense—which Kelly should have known—and limped to 633 yards for the year, averaging 3.5 yards a carry. Mathews had moments of effectiveness, but was injured, as has been the story of his career: he missed three games due to a concussion, and then lost effectiveness throughout the remainder of the season while he dealt with its lingering effects.
Going forward, the Eagles have in Murray a disgruntled running back making huge money, who may or may not fit a new coach’s system, and an injury-prone, part-time back in Mathews. The versatile Darren Sproles will continue to fill in, but is not an every-down back.
No deep threat
Kelly mishandled the wide receivers just as horrifically as he did the other skill positions. After his first season, he cut Desean Jackson, getting nothing in return.
Jackson’s 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns were not missed as much as they would have been because, after missing the entire 2013 season with an ACL injury, Jeremy Maclin bet on himself in a one-year deal, and then delivered 85 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In perhaps his most egregious misjudgment, Kelly elected not to re-sign Maclin over a matter of $1 million, and allowed him to leave with zero compensation, effectively releasing a pair of receivers who together had caught 167 passes for 2,650 yards and 19 touchdowns in two seasons.
He never replaced their production, and will leave the Eagles with perhaps the worst receiving corps in the NFL. They could have had one of the best, had Kelly found a way to get along with Jackson and/or found a way to pay a very deserving Jeremy Maclin.
Former Oregon Duck Josh Huff, a 2013 third-round pick, has been a bust. After one good year with Nick Foles, which he has been unable to duplicate, Riley Cooper has been an unproductive distraction, playing out a five-year, $25 million extension. After prematurely ending a bad year in Cleveland with a spleen injury, Miles Austin got a raise from Kelly. He was cut midway through the season.
First-round pick Nelson Agholor, Maclin’s supposed replacement, has been a bust so far. There is a chance he will improve in his second year, but Kelly left the Eagles in a position to have to count on him this year, and he was unable to deliver. Second-round pick Jordan Matthews is presently the only legitimate NFL-caliber starting receiver on the roster. He is good, not great, and is significantly less talented and less productive than Maclin was.
The abject dearth of talent at receiver, created completely by Kelly’s ineptitude, forced the Eagles to throw to their backs and tight ends far too often. Offenses that try to live on those types of short passes typically bog down and either commit turnovers or are either unable to sustain drives, a prophecy the 2015 Eagles fulfilled in spades.
The old adage that games are won in the trenches has always been true, and Kelly’s inept fingerprints are all over the offensive line, as well. The Eagles are the only team in the NFL to not have drafted an offensive lineman in either of the last two drafts, and have in that time released significant veteran talent along the way.
Before the 2015 season, Kelly cut longtime starting guard Todd Herremans. Herremans was getting older, and was not effective in Indianapolis, where he signed after Philadelphia. Had Kelly found a legitimate replacement for him, that move would not have been terrible. But then he cut Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, who despite being unhappy with his contract for the past couple seasons, had always shown up and played to a Pro-Bowl-level without complaint. Cutting Mathis was a huge miscalculation, and another indication that Kelly’s ego is out of control.
Kelly replaced the starting guards with journeymen Andrew Gardner and Allen Barbre. Gardner got injured and missed most of the year; he was replaced by journeyman number three, Matt Tobin. Their run blocking was atrocious. Center Jason Kelce is an undersized but cerebral player; a Pro Bowler when playing alongside legitimate guards. With subpar backups flanking him, Kelce was out of sorts all season, and did not even approach his previous standard. As a professional, that is on him, but the guy picking the players managed to weaken three critically important positions.
Watching the Eagles offense this year was painful. Their inability to run-block was the most insidious reason for that. Far too often, the defense had penetrated the line before the running back had even taken the handoff. That left them to convert long second- and third-down attempts with a lack of speed and talent at the receiver positions. Bradford’s sporadic play compounded the problem. A penchant for throwing short left the Eagles unable to sustain drives, punting, and getting killed in time of possession.
Which bring us to the defense, which Kelly stocked with a number of injured players who had previously played for him at Oregon.
Walter Thurmond had a nice season, and solidified the second safety position to a degree. Kiko Alonzo, another injured former Duck, who was acquired for McCoy, played like a guy who should be a backup or not on an NFL roster at all.
Coming off a second ACL tear, linebacker and defensive leader Demeco Ryans was paid well, but played poorly, and was only able to play at all because he has more heart than he has tread left on his tires.
Cornerback Byron Maxwell has been a $63-million disappointment, below-average in coverage and a bad tackler. Maxwell’s poor play elevated Nolan Carroll to the starting job, and Carroll played relatively well before missing the remainder of the season with a broken leg.
Scrambling when he couldn’t ink Devin McCourty, Jason Worilds, or Darrelle Revis to deals, Kelly signed Brandon Graham to a huge contract (four years, $26 million). Graham’s performance was average, as was that of his counterpart, Connor Barwin. The only blue-chip defensive player the team has is Fletcher Cox.
The Eagles were shredded by both the run and the pass the second half of the season, as Kelly’s up-tempo offense forced the defense onto the field for close to 40 minutes a game. Their effectiveness predictably declined in the second halves of games, and, glaringly, in the second halves of seasons, under Kelly.
The Eagles’ sack percentage in the first halves of games was seventh-best in the NFL. In the second halves of games, it was 28th. For all the moves and money Kelly invested in the secondary, they were actually worse in 2015 than they had been in 2014, allowing an astronomical 34 touchdown passes (31st in the NFL). The defense was worse overall than it had been in 2014, ranking 30th in total defense and near the bottom in Red Zone defense and third-down percentage.
When all was said and done, the only thing Kelly improved were the special teams, and even they were not as good in 2015 as they had been a year ago. Players had clearly had enough of the coach. Every week fans would hear another report of how Kelly could not relate to grown men, and that they were tired of his odd methods. Instead of writing a new blueprint for NFL success, Kelly managed to alienate his players and reinforce the old-school style employed by a coach like Bruce Arians. Arians, who was hired at the same time as Kelly, has the Arizona Cardinals at 13-2, and Kelly is now looking for a job.
In the end, the Chip Kelly experiment was a resounding failure. The search for a new coach will begin immediately. Fans have to hope the Eagles find a great one, because he will have his work cut out for him in cleaning up Kelly’s mess.
Featured photo: Eagles Coach Chip Kelly and QB Sam Bradford. Credit: Keith Allison. https://goo.gl/mdj6AB.