The right question to ask about Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles

College Football, NFL

As the Philadelphia Eagles make one headline after another during the NFL’s free agent frenzy, the question most often being asked about Eagles coach and de facto organizational boss Chip Kelly is, “Does he know what he’s doing?”

It’s a bad question, but it’s all part of an agenda designed to ridicule, express sarcasm and make preemptive “predictions” as to how the additions and subtractions will fare. It unavoidably degenerated into the ludicrous as football know-nothing Stephen A. Smith of ESPN trolled for ratings and web hits by implying that Kelly is a racist.

The idea in and of itself is nonsensical but, ironically, it coincides with why Kelly’s wheeling and dealing shouldn’t be viewed as a blind loyalty to the University of Oregon at the expense of keeping his job. No football coach can be labeled a racist today because no football coach who wants to keep his job can afford to be a racist; no football coach can be labeled as married to a former college program and reunite it in the pros because no football coach in his right mind believes that even the best college teams can succeed in the pros.

The right question to ask regarding Kelly has nothing to do with racism, his college loyalties or his system. It has to do with whether or not what he’s doing will work. It’s that simple. And the answer to that won’t be known until the team is on the field.

Looking at NFL history, every coach who tried to do something different saw the new schemes universally treated as if there was a personal affront being committed against the history of the league; that it couldn’t possibly work…because…it just couldn’t. There was rarely a logical explanation with a point-by-point refutation of the new strategy. It was the simplistic and stupid, “That’s not the way we do things here.” If that were the case, there would never have been the forward pass, the spread formation, the run-and-shoot (which most teams use a variation of now), the slot receiver, the pass-catching tight end, or the decision to go back to the old-school smashmouth and a vicious, punishing defense. Anything will be viewed negatively for no other reason than it’s deviating from the current norm. When it’s an unwanted interloper like Kelly who purports to be reinventing the game, then the media and NFL lifers will grow even more incoherent, angry and restless.

The names of Eagles that have come, gone and remained – LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, Kiko Alonso, Ryan Mathews, Jeremy Maclin, Mark Sanchez – are largely irrelevant. What’s important is whether or not Kelly is doing things his way and is going all-in as he does it.

Much was made of Kelly triangulating himself into being the main voice in running the Eagles after winning the power struggle with former general manager Howie Roseman. Roseman had his role changed to executive vice president of football operations, but his job will be limited to negotiating contracts. Kelly managed this by responding to the firing of his front office ally Tom Gamble by threatening to get out of his Eagles contract to go back to college.

College.

The looming threat is always there for coaches who made their names in the NCAA and are more than willing to go back if the “NFL thing” doesn’t work out. Some coaches like Jimmy Johnson were essentially professional coaches when they were in college. Some, like Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino, were college coaches who were giving the NFL a shot knowing they’d eventually head back to college sooner rather than later. And some are perfectly content with either/or. Jim Harbaugh and Kelly fall into that category.

The concept that Kelly is gutting the Eagles and replacing the erstwhile roster with something akin to what would have been found at a University of Oregon booster meet-and-greet with NCAA football championship contending players of yesteryear is a convenient storyline to make him look as if he’s pining for his college days and transferring what was in the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast and trying to succeed with it to prove his genius. In truth, any boss is going to want to import people with whom he has a rapport; who know how he wants things done; who are so accustomed to his tics and quirks and style that there’s a spoken shorthand streamlining communications. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Johnson was torched when he got to the NFL, took over the Dallas Cowboys and followed Tom Landry’s distinguished reign with a 1-15 embarrassment. But it was that 1-15 embarrassment that planted the seeds for the Cowboys’ three Super Bowls in four years. It was the decision to trade Herschel Walker at mid-season and getting what amounted to the S&P 500 worth of draft picks that let him get the players he wanted.

But Johnson was in the NFL and had zero intention of going back to college. Spurrier on the other hand, took the job as head coach of the Washington Redskins to feed his own ego, make a ton of money and try to prove that he was not only the best college football coach in the land, but the best football coach period. He’d do it his way with University of Florida players – whether they were suited to the NFL or not – and he’d do it while making plenty of time for golf. His offense didn’t work and his attitude was a disaster. He ran back to college as an almost foregone conclusion once he realized he couldn’t dominate the games with his offensive genius, intimidate the players by holding their scholarships over his head, and control the media simply through their lovelorn, glazed-over lust for him. People dared to have the audacity to question the ol’ ball coach Spurrier. He couldn’t have that.

When Vince Lombardi entered the NFL as an assistant coach for the New York Giants, the players rolled their eyes at him and thought he was some short, loud jerk from college. Eventually, he gained their respect and got the job as the czar of the Green Bay Packers. It was there that he set about resurrecting a moribund franchise by making such unpopular moves as immediately trading away the team’s best player and most prominent personality Billy Howton because Howton was insolent, had a big mouth, was divisive and was exactly the type of player who would sow dissent in the locker room because he wasn’t getting the ball enough. In part it was due to the new coach wanting to send a message; in part it was due to Lombardi realizing he was going to install a power-based running offense that didn’t need a mouthy end demanding the ball.

If Lombardi were around today, set about rebuilding the Packers in the way he did in 1959 with the same players and there was 24/7 sports talk and cable channels, Paul Hornung would be called a Heisman Trophy bust, Bart Starr would be called a non-prospect joke, and Lombardi would be referred to as a would-be drill sergeant who never served in the military and had a Napoleon complex with no clue how the NFL really functioned.

Lombardi is considered the greatest football coach in history.

Even Bill Belichick wasn’t immune to the criticism for making necessary cuts to further his plan for the New England Patriots. It’s easy to forget now, but Belichick was said to have “lost” the locker room after he cut Lawyer Milloy at the end of training camp in 2003. It was a salary cap move made because Milloy refused to take a pay cut. Leaders like Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi were livid. After Milloy (and former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe) and the Buffalo Bills obliterated the Patriots in the opening game of that year 31-0, there were questions as to whether Belichick’s job was on the line. He stayed stoic, explained his position, made clear he was the boss and in command, and that the decision to cut Milloy was best for the organization in the present and future.

Then the Patriots won 17 out of 18 games through the Super Bowl and Milloy wasn’t mentioned as anything but a meaningless, “Oh, yeah. That.” They won the Super Bowl the next year as well and Belichick’s job status has never been in question since.

Someone has to be in charge.

Coaching in the NFL can be a dirty business and if a coach isn’t willing to play dirty and use somewhat underhanded tactics in organizational politics, he’s not going to last very long. If being static were the idea with no room for innovation and change, we’d be trapped in a purgatory of players in leather helmets running into each other with no excitement, no innovation, no intelligence – just brute force and dullness. In a similar sense, in years gone by, coaches had bizarre – often dangerous – training tactics like refusing to allow players water while they were practicing and forcing the players to partake in pads-on scrimmages that were even more brutal than the games themselves. Without positive advancement, the players wouldn’t even be allowed to seek big money in free agency. It wasn’t that long ago that NFL free agency was a wink-and-nod joke with every team knowing they had what amounted to indentured servants at their disposal. Innovation and change is a good thing.

Kelly has a top-to-bottom idea of how he wants the team to function from the dietary habits of the players to the training techniques to the fast break offense he wants to implement. If he’s doing it and doing it his way, then he’d better make sure to throw all his chips into the center of the table and either win big or lose it all. That’s what he’s doing. It’s not racism. It’s not stupidity. It’s not ignorance. There’s only a hint of megalomaniacal arrogance that you find in all NFL head coaches and there’s a method behind the perceived madness. He’s right to do it his way in theory even if it fails in practice. At least then there won’t be the regret of woulda, shoulda, coulda. Like any other change, it’s either going to work or it’s not. Then will be the time to judge. Not now.

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