I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong and I was very wrong about Chip Kelly.
I knew Kelly was a very good football coach. His success as an offensive coordinator at both New Hampshire and Oregon, and as the head coach at Oregon was plain as day. His offenses were explosive, dynamic and a nightmare for opponents, but Kelly had a big advantage in the college game. He could go out and recruit any player he thought would best fit his offense. Sure there were other teams recruiting the same players, but who could sell a young man on playing in an fast-paced, up-tempo, score-at-will offensive machine better than Kelly?
That was my major concern when the Eagles hired Kelly to be their head coach in January. There would be no more recruiting battles to win. No more mothers to win over in the living room. No more fathers to assure at the dining table. Kelly, like 31 other NFL head coaches, would only be able to select the players available when it was time to make his pick in the draft. And with the free agent pool diluted by teams wisely signing their best young players to extensions before they reach the end of their contracts, the chances of finding a true impact player on the open market was slim to none.
But Kelly did something that seems to be rare in professional sports anymore. He built his system around the players that he had (or acquired) instead of the other way around. He was not a square-peg, round-hole kind of coach. Kelly would adapt on the run and never look back.
Sure, it would have probably been more ideal in a perfect world if Michael Vick stayed healthy and ran Kelly’s offense. How much could a defense respect the running ability (more like a fast walk in reality) of Nick Foles? I preferred Foles over Vick because he takes care of the ball much better, but there’s no question as to who would put more pressure on defenses and keeps defensive coordinators up at night when you look at the two QBs.
Still, could Kelly’s offense succeed at the highest level of football? It was fun to watch the Eagles rip off 50-plus plays in the first half of the season opener against the Washington Redskins, but as it turned out they stunk to high heaven and could not be held as a barometer of things to come for the Eagles.
The true tests came after a 1-3 start. The Eagles rebounded with wins over the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Bucs, but the terrain got tougher after back-to-back losses at home to the Cowboys and Giants when the Eagles failed to score an offensive touchdown. Just then, by good fortune, the Oakland Raiders showed up on the schedule and Foles took the reigns for good.
With Vick on the bench after aggravating a hamstring injury against the Giants — he had hurt it in the previous game against New York three weeks earlier and came back to soon after Foles suffered a concussion against Dallas — Foles tied a single-game NFL record with seven touchdown passes against the Raiders. Then he led Philly past the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers in Green Bay. Next was a victory over Washington at home on Nov. 17 — the Eagles’ first triumph at home since Sept. 30 of 2012 — and the Eagles rolled into the bye week at 6-5.
While Kelly’s offense started clicking on all cylinders — thanks to the running of Lesean McCoy, the receiving of DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and one of the best offensive lines in the NFL — the Eagles defense started coming around, too. Helped by free agent pickups Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Willians, the D held nine straight opponents — including post-bye victories over Arizona and Detroit, when McCoy broke the single-game rushing record in eight inches of snow — to 21 points or less to vault the Eagles to an 8-5 record and the top of the NFC East.
The Eagles were rolling and with a lowly Minnesota up next and a one-game lead in the division they were in line for their first playoff appearance since 2010. Not so fast. Kelly got away from his top-ranked running game, the Eagles couldn’t stop a Minnesota team without its top two running backs and tight ends and special teams was a disaster in a 48-30 loss. Maybe the league was catching up with Kelly. Maybe his zone-read offense was beginning to look too predictable.
Not so fast.
Even after the Cowboys beat the Redskins earlier in the day to set up a winner-take-all Week 17 game in Dallas, the Eagles played all of their starters in a 54-11 thrashing of the Bears. Kelly’s reason to play for the win? “We’re from Philadelphia. We fight.” Indeed.
With Dallas QB Tomy Romo on the shelf with a back injury, the Eagles said all the right things leading up the NFC East championship game. Kelly was the leader. He knew Kyle Orton, who had started 69 games in his career, was no stiff. Minnesota’s Matt Cassel showed that the Eagles best not take any backup QB lightly.
The game against the Cowboys wasn’t perfect. The Eagles committed too many penalties, Kelly got conservative at times by running the ball in second-and-long situations and the defensive line couldn’t sniff Orton, but they held a two-point lead with 1:49 to go. The Eagles needed someone, anyone, to make a play and it was Brandon Boykin, a 2012 fourth-round pick who Kelly inherited, stepping in front of Miles Austin to intercept Orton’s final pass. Kelly called two running plays, McCoy picked up a first down and the NFC East was the Eagles again.
Kelly is not the sole reason for a six-win improvement over last year’s 4-12 embarrassment under Andy Reid.
Defensive coordinator Billy Davis never panicked after a rough start. Safety Nate Allen slowly improved and began looking like the player who showed so much promise as a rookie in 2010 before blowing out his knee late that season. The offensive line stayed healthy and started all 16 games, the first time the Eagles have had that since 2006. Foles got better each week and, true to form, protected the football. Cooper bounced back after a preseason suspension for using a racial slur to have a breakout season in Jeremy Maclin’s absence. Donnie Long was a tremendous upgrade and the Eagles best punter since Sean Landeta left for good in 2005.
No, Kelly had plenty of help along the way, but it started with him. I’m glad I was wrong.