Was Chip Kelly confident his system would work in NFL?
Brandon Boykin and the Eagles bought into Chip Kelly's system, and the result was an NFC East title in Kelly's first season as their head coach. (USA Today Images)
Chip Kelly’s entry into the NFL didn’t come without doubters and skeptics, people who questioned whether the former Oregon coach who lacked any prior NFL coaching experience at any level could rub elbows with guys who have Super Bowl rings.
One person in particular wasn’t convinced Kelly had the makeup to coach in this league.
“I wasn't confident,” Kelly admitted Monday. “I had a system and a plan that we were going to go in, but I didn't know what the outcome was going to be until it was all finished.”
By the time his first year ended Saturday, with a 26-24 loss to the Saints at the Linc in the first round of the playoffs, Kelly had already proven he can win games in the NFL.
He had become the first rookie coach in franchise history to win the NFC East in his first year and came within a busted kickoff return of becoming the first since Ray Rhodes in 1995 to win a postseason game in his first year.
Is he the coach to deliver this franchise its first Super Bowl title?
Time will tell.
But plenty of other renowned Eagles coaches, including Dick Vermeil, Buddy Ryan and Andy Reid, have failed to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Philly.
“My expectations were more about making sure that we had a terrific coaching staff that could transform a roster and a group of young players into something special,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “That was it. It was not about wins and losses. I was incredibly impressed by how quickly Chip and his staff were able to get this group together and perform extremely well.”
The first hurdle was getting players to buy into his program and emerging as a leader of men. The second one was matching wits against the game’s best offensive and defensive minds.
Evidenced by the team’s turnaround from 4-12 in Reid’s final year to 10-6 in Kelly’s first season with 58 percent of the 2012 roster back, Kelly’s players bought into his unique coaching system and positioned themselves on the fast track to success.
The Eagles were 8-1 from Nov. 3 to end the of the regular season, tying Carolina for the NFL’s best record in that span.
“Chip coming in this year, people had questions and were uncertain how things were going to play out,” rookie right tackle Lane Johnson said. “But now they’ve seen the results and how good things happen if we buy in.”
Even when the Eagles were 1-3 in September and 3-5 in October, signs surfaced that Kelly wasn’t being outmatched by the league’s seasoned coaches and that his players believed in him and themselves through adverse times.
The Eagles became the first team in NFL history to accumulate at least 1,200 passing and 875 rushing yards through the first five games of the season, a strong indication that Kelly’s reputation in college as an offensive guru would translate to the pros.
The defense, presided over by Billy Davis, allowed 38 points to Denver in Week 4, then ripped off nine straight games in which opponents were held under 22 points, the league’s longest streak.
The whole time, Kelly’s roster stayed healthier than any other NFL team’s. From the start of the regular season, not one player went on injured reserve. Not one starting offensive or defensive lineman missed a game.
Players were quick to credit Kelly’s mysterious sports science regimen, the tenets of which are is still mostly unknown to the media and general public, for the health spree and for the team’s second-half surge into the postseason.
“For the whole team, guys had to step up, and it was a lot of hard work and we have to hand it to these guys, especially the coaches,” Trent Cole said. “They came in here and made us a playoff team. Everybody has a taste [of the playoffs], and when the time comes next year, wherever they are at, they know what to build for.”
Kelly’s hiring came during a crossroads for the league in terms of offensive innovation. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson -- two rookies -- and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick blazed a new trail for the dual-threat quarterback in 2012, each leading their teams to the postseason.
Kaepernick, in his second season, took the job away from Alex Smith and then led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, burning opponents with his laser arm and 4.5 speed. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and now-Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians were among the old guard who dismissed the read option as gimmicky and a fad.
Lurie’s hiring of Kelly, who centered his Oregon offense on running quarterbacks and read-option schemes, provoked more questions about the NFL’s trend away from conventional pocket passers and whether Lurie had been duped by the success of a college program.
Some questioned whether Kelly could coach in the NFL without having charted the same footsteps of nearly all NFL coaches, most of whom start low on the assistant totem pole.
Kelly said he never felt the cold shoulder from his peers.
The opposite, actually.
“None whatsoever,” he said, “and I think the reception I got, especially from the coaches in the league, was awesome. Tom Coughlin, guys like that, that I have great respect for, that have been around the league for a long time, they were great with me.
“I am really appreciative to the other coaches in this league, to get a chance to talk to them before the game and some of their thoughts and insights. I know it's an honor to coach in this league. It's very difficult to get one of these jobs, and I have great respect for the guys.
“I got a chance to meet a lot of them at the league meetings that I hadn't met before, and I think every one of them, just in our division, Jason [Garrett] was outstanding, Mike [Shanahan] was outstanding, Tom Coughlin was great, and there was a lot of guys, some of them were new, Mike McCoy was great, visiting with him, and then when we played them Marc Trestman was fantastic, but I never got [the cold shoulder] at all.”