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Chip Kelly doesn’t know any other way. When he coached in college, Kelly couldn’t wrangle the blue-chip high school quarterbacks who routinely headlined the recruiting classes of his peers.
When the time came to decide upon a quarterback to lead his laser-paced offense, Kelly made the only choice he could: He opened the competition and let the best man win.
As he enters his first year as the Eagles’ head coach Kelly dips his toes into familiar waters, with no clear No. 1 quarterback on his roster. He has an aging, injury-prone veteran in Michael Vick, promising-but-unproven prospects in Nick Foles and Matt Barkley and a dark horse in Dennis Dixon.
But he lacks any iota of how these four will execute his offense in a highly-charged, intensely competitive environment or the luxury of pressing pause on the Sept. 9 season opener if one doesn’t distinguish himself from the others.
Not that he’s sweating this dilemma.
“If someone said, ‘Hey, we have to play a game tomorrow, we have to make a decision...’ But we don’t have to play a game tomorrow,” Kelly said last month during a roundtable interview with beat reporters.
“We have until Sept. 9, so we’ll see how it works itself out. But as I’ve said before with a big decision like that, you want to make sure you take the whole body of work into consideration.
“If in practice [No.] 3 they have a [bad] practice, do they come back in practice [No.] 4 and bounce back pretty good? Or have you made your decision after practice three? We’re not forced to make a decision soon, and I don’t think the positives of making an early decision outweigh making sure we make the right decision.”
Since the day he was hired, Kelly has said all positions are up for grabs, regardless of experience, pedigree, résumé or position. So far, he hasn’t fibbed. At the spring camps, he rotated Vick and Foles evenly with the first-team offense and never ruled out third-teamer Barkley -- or anyone else -- for the starting job.
The jockeying with Foles struck a nerve with Vick, who lobbied for Kelly to name a starter last month just as he and his teammates departed for their six-week break. Vick also said he wouldn’t answer daily questions at camp about his square-off with Foles.
Kelly said he had no problem with Vick’s request, but the head coach stood firm on his decision to let competition decide the winner, with no more than seven weeks to pluck someone from the pack.
“Best part about it is we have to [make a decision],” Kelly said. “We can’t call a timeout and say we’re not ready. We’re going to have to name a starter at some point in time. That’s why I think it would be unfair right now, because there hasn’t been enough situations to evaluate.”
By sowing the seeds of competition at the game’s most important position, Kelly, who elevated Oregon’s program into a national powerhouse and offensive juggernaut through unconventional coaching and training methods, is once again going against the grain.
In the NFL, even coaches undecided about their starting quarterback usually name one early to fend off media speculation and curtail the dreaded “quarterback controversy” label that can polarize locker rooms.
Last year, the Seahawks worked high-priced free-agent pickup Matt Flynn with the first team throughout their camps and into the preseason until finally subbing in hot-shot rookie Russell Wilson for the third preseason game. A few days later, the Seahawks announced that Wilson had won the job and then watched Wilson propel them into the postseason.
Kelly, by contrast, is content to let the wheel of speculation spin, even if it requires him to answer daily questions at camp and adds even more attention and scrutiny to his quarterbacks.
“Everywhere I’ve been it’s played itself out on the field,” Kelly said. “Does that mean it’s going to happen here? I don’t know. But I’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had to make a decision and it’s like 50-50, pick it out of a hat.
“Somebody over the course of time has stepped up and has won the battle. That’s what you’re hoping to have happen again here, and hopefully it’s evident to everybody, like, there is no question that it’s this guy because his game stepped up.”
At some point, Kelly and his staff will have to decide. But there’s no indication that there’s a timetable in place.
“Well, we’d like to hope it’s going to be very obvious who the starter is,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “We’ve got a lot of training sessions left, we’ve got a full preseason, four preseason games, and I think as we go through it and you add more and more to what we’re doing, we’re hopeful that it’ll be obvious to everyone who the starter is.”
Despite his 10-13 starting record over the past two years and a staggering 31 turnovers, it once seemed as if Vick would be the most logical choice to run Kelly’s offense. Though he’s lost a step over the years and hasn’t played 16 games since 2006, Vick is the most natural fit to run the read-option offense that shattered Oregon school records under Kelly.
He accepted a massive pay cut to preserve his roster spot, which gave the impression that Kelly had already decided on the 33-year-old veteran as his starter.
But the front office’s refusal to trade Foles and fourth-round drafting of Barkley instead validate Kelly’s insistence that mobility wouldn’t be prioritized over accuracy and decision-making, and that his offense would be crafted around the best overall candidate instead of vice versa.
Foles went 1-5 last year after taking over for a concussed Vick, but the crooked record masqueraded his 61 percent completion rate and the 243 yards per game he averaged, best ever by an Eagles rookie quarterback.
Although Vick and Foles swapped places on the first team this spring, Barkley can’t be completely ruled out from following in Wilson’s footsteps. The former top prospect from USC tumbled in the draft after a subpar senior year and was squarely No. 3 in the spring but drew plenty of praise from the coaches and may be viewed as the franchise building block if he can keep pace with Vick and Foles this summer.
Of course, first-team reps for Barkley would have to come at the expense of either Vick or Foles.
“It’s not my decision ultimately, but it’s always best when it plays out on the field,” quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said. “So when it plays out on the field, everyone sees it. Not everyone always agrees, but it plays out, it plays out. If it doesn’t play out clearly, then someone has to make a hard decision.”
Kelly watched tape of Vick and Foles from last season to gauge baseline skills, but other than assessing arm strength and athleticism, Kelly couldn’t make an educated decision on how his quarterbacks would fare in an entirely different scheme and system.
Likewise, making an honest decision this summer could become problematic if any of his candidates spend prolonged time on the sideline. Vick suffered injuries in the past two preseasons that opened the door for his backups to get more reps.
Foles’ impressive camp last summer was largely accommodated by injuries that sidelined Vick and Mike Kafka for critical stretches.
“That’s probably another reason I’ve always said, ‘Why would you name a starting quarterback [before camp]?” Kelly said. “We name Joe Jones. He’s our starting quarterback, and then the second day of preseason camp, he rolls his ankle and is done for the year. There’s nothing to gain.”