The defensive coordinator search has become Chip Kelly’s most visible first move since he became Eagles head coach Jan. 9
Finding an expert defensive mind is an important decision for the first-time NFL coach, but the defining moment for Kelly and his regime will come when he makes his first quarterback call.
So far, Kelly has yet to drop clues about the direction he’s headed in at the game’s most important position but the captain of Kelly’s spread offense attack probably won’t be an aging Michael Vick or vaguely mobile Nick Foles.
If Kelly plans to build an offense that not only fits his vision but also can compete from the get-go, he needs a quarterback that understands his scheme and has the skill set to flourish in it.
Nobody on the current roster fits that description, but all signs point to Kelly having his man by next week. There are strong indications that Kelly won’t waste too much time after the Super Bowl before reaching out to Ravens practice squad quarterback Dennis Dixon and bringing him to Philadelphia.
Dixon, who engineered Kelly’s offense to near perfection at Oregon and had his Heisman candidacy in 2007 derailed by a knee injury, is the only NFL quarterback that knows the coach’s system inside-out and wouldn’t be starting from Square 1.
It’s an obvious and expected pairing. Dixon is known to be thrilled that Kelly has made the leap from college to the pros and is eager for a reunion with his former college offensive coordinator.
Kelly probably would have reached out to Dixon already but the Ravens’ climb to the Super Bowl has served as a temporary roadblock. Per NFL rule, a practice squad player in the postseason can’t sign with a non-playoff team until his team is eliminated.
Besides, Dixon is busy right now chasing something more lucrative than his next contract. As the Ravens try to figure out how to stop San Francisco’s white-hot offense before Sunday’s showdown, Dixon is playing the role in practice of 49ers dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the scout team.
It would be stunning if Kelly hadn’t reached out and made Dixon his first official signing within a few days after the Super Bowl.
"I'm in awe right now," Dixon had said, per The Baltimore Sun, after Kelly’s hiring became official. "I'm at a loss for words. I'm sure it was a business decision, a family decision, but it's really hard to leave the Ducks. I think he is ready for that next step.”
Dixon, a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 2007, played in just four games for Pittsburgh and only started three in four seasons there. He completed just 59.3 percent of his passes, threw one touchdown and one interception while scrambling for 56 yards on 10 carries and rushing for a touchdown.
But he wasn’t exactly groomed for success. An AFC personnel man who scouted Kelly going back to Oregon and is very familiar with the Steelers said Pittsburgh coaches went the predictable route in Dixon’s starts replacing an injured Ben Roethlisberger, running frequently on first and second downs to set up obvious third-down passing scenarios. He believes Dixon has tremendous NFL potential that can be maximized in Kelly’s offense.
Without much of an NFL resume after four years, the best Dixon could do was land on the practice squad of Pittsburgh’s division rivals. Insert him into Kelly’s offense, though, and maybe he shows glimpses of the superstar he was in college, when he had the keys to Kelly’s hurry-up, high-octane offense.
Before tearing up his knee as a senior, Dixon had led the Ducks to an 8-1 record and No. 2 rank in the BCS standings. He had completed almost 68 percent of his passes, rushed for 583 yards and totaled 2,719 yards in 10 games and still won the Pac-10 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year unanimously despite having his season truncated by injury.
At the very least, Dixon gives Kelly another option as the coach continues to evaluate the roster and plot the course of his NFL offense. Dixon could compete for the starting job right away, giving him an early leg up on the competition.
The Eagles have a 72-hour window after the Super Bowl to release Vick at no cost (except a cap hit of $4.2 million). If they release him after that, they could owe him up to $3 million; the amount is contingent upon if he signs with another team and for how much. It might be worth the risk of keeping Vick around to see if they can’t trade him for draft compensation.
Foles, who showed promise as a rookie, is under contract and probably sticking around unless he becomes a wanted commodity on the trade market. He lacks some of the traits that were staples of recent Oregon quarterbacks but at the Senior Bowl last week in Mobile, Ala., Kelly admitted that he hadn’t yet formulated an offensive blueprint for the NFL and wouldn’t be averse to keeping quarterbacks of different styles and abilities.
“You need to have people that have some versatility because your starting quarterback may be able to run your scheme and your backup quarterback may not,” he said. “You don’t just throw your hands up in the first quarter when [the starter] is out and say, ‘We’re in trouble now.’ You’ve got to be able to adapt. That’s what I think the fun part of coaching is -- being able to identify what your personnel can do and play to their strengths.”
Foles has already shown that he can compete at the NFL level, even more than Dixon has proven. But he could become trade bait down the road if Dixon emerges as Kelly’s guy.
That’s gazing deep into the future. For now, Kelly has evaluations to make and Dixon has a ring to chase. After Sunday, they’ll have plenty of time to get reacquainted.