The Eagles won the NFC East in Chip Kelly's first season as head coach. (USA Today Images)
The first year went well – better than anyone could have reasonably anticipated. But the first year was something different. It was fresh and new – a situation initially observed through a macro-view where anything seemed possible. That’s how beginnings generally go. That’s the fun of beginnings. What follows tends to be more complicated.
The Eagles won 10 games and the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s inaugural campaign, and they came within a field goal of advancing to the second round of the playoffs. It was an excellent season, one that exceeded most rational expectations for a coach who left college to pursue graduate work at the NFL level. A good start – but just a start. Kelly understands that. If you want to know what kind of coach he is and what sort of mind he has at work, if you’re looking to forecast what he can build for the future – something lasting or ephemeral – pay attention to what happens next.
“I think for a first year standpoint I think we have laid a foundation,” Kelly said, “but we've got a whole lot of work to do.”
This is when the heavy lifting starts. Jeffrey Lurie believed that Kelly was the right man for the job from the very beginning, but the owner sold the coach on the organizational equivalent of a house in desperate need of major renovations. Kelly took a look and saw potential – a structure with charm and history, but one that needed to be stripped from the inside and rebuilt.
This time last year, Kelly was considering all the ways he might fix his new property. The plans were big-picture stuff. But now he’s fully moved in and invested. Now is when the real repairs begin – when he must grow that initial blueprint from the page to something concrete.
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Kelly said shortly after the season concluded. “We're at a different level now. Literally last year at this time I wasn't here. I wasn't an employee of the Philadelphia Eagles. When I did get the job on Jan. 16, got to put a staff together, and we spent a lot of time, and that was extremely important to me, finding the right fit and putting all those guys in place, and then we've got to at the same time we're looking at free agency put in offensive and defensive and special teams systems once we got our staff completed, and then preparing for our first offseason with our players, and what are we going to teach them on day one when we get here on April 1.
“Everything was a first‑time thing for us. It was our first mini‑camp, our first OTA, our first phase 1, our first free agency, our first draft. All those things are different.”
So they are. Kelly faces all sorts of challenges this offseason. He has a starting quarterback – probably – so that will eliminate one task, but there are so many others that will occupy the coach’s time and energy.
The Eagles have 10 free agents, and Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman must determine which to keep and which to discard. They have countless needs – from improving the pass rush to fixing the safety position to finding (or retaining) a backup quarterback to the kicking game. And while Kelly is tinkering with all that, he might have to deal with other organizations poaching his coaches (see story).
All of that will be in service of the never-ending playoff pursuit. The Eagles were good this year and made the postseason – which guarantees exactly nothing next year (see story). Past performance, as NFL teams know all too well, has no bearing on future success. The NFC East hasn’t had a back-to-back champion in a decade. The Eagles were the last team to do it, taking the division in 2003 and then again in 2004.
What Kelly faced in the beginning was different. It wasn’t easy, but it didn’t come with the heavy weight of increased expectations. This next part – developing the Eagles into a franchise that can contend for a playoff position each year – will be far tougher.
“That's an exciting thing for us,” Kelly said about the process and what happens next. “That's not like ‑ we don't look at what we do as drudgery. It's an exciting time for us to take the next step and what's the next challenge. I think we've laid a foundation, but you've got to build something upon that foundation.”
The construction has already begun in earnest. But what will Kelly build, and how strong will the structure be?