Evaluating Chip Kelly's inaugural season with the Eagles
Outstanding, brilliant, great, fresh and energetic were all words used by Jeffrey Lurie to describe Chip Kelly upon his arrival. (USA Today Images)
It took forever. Or at least it felt that way.
After the Eagles fired Andy Reid, they launched an exhaustive search to replace him. It lasted more than two weeks. They interviewed at least 11 candidates -- Bill O’Brien and Brian Kelly, Ken Whisenhunt and Brian Billick, Lovie Smith and Mike Nolan and Keith Armstrong and Mike McCoy and Jay Gruden and Gus Bradley. And. And those are just the ones we knew about.
They interviewed Chip Kelly, too. He initially said no. That bummed a lot of people out at the time -- particularly Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who really wanted Kelly. But 10 days after the first interview, Kelly changed his mind and the Eagles hired him. That made a lot of people happy -- particularly Eagles’ owner Jeffrey Lurie, who really wanted Kelly.
Say, do you remember how much Lurie wanted Kelly?
All of this went down about almost exactly a year ago -- long enough that people might have forgotten how the process droned on and how, through it all, Lurie kept insisting that he wanted to get the hire right, even at the expense of it taking a while. The problem for Lurie was that Kelly was the right guy in his estimation, and it took some convincing before the right guy took the gig. When Kelly finally relented, Lurie couldn’t have been happier.
"Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles," Lurie predicted in a statement at the time. "He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words. He will be a great leader for us and will bring a fresh, energetic approach to our team."
You’d expect that kind praise from an employer introducing his latest hire. But remember that the reaction was not universally positive -- or even mostly positive. A lot of people had doubts. One NFL Network analyst even went “on the record calling Chip Kelly one of the worst hires in pro football history.”
Oops. Heath Evans would probably like to have that one back.
If there were concerns about Kelly leaping from the small college pond in Eugene to the choppy big-city NFL waters in Philadelphia, Lurie didn’t seem to share them. Or he hid them really well. Either way, a year after Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman razed the old organizational infrastructure -- replacing pillars like Reid and Joe Banner -- in favor of building something new and different, they should be credited with selecting quality material. Kelly was better than solid in his first year.
“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,” Lurie said in the Eagles’ locker room at Lincoln Financial Field after the playoff loss to the Saints. “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. There is just so many good, young players around this locker room that will be incredibly dedicated when they come back next spring. We know that.”
Transforming young players is fine, and Kelly and his staff certainly did that. They turned LeSean McCoy into the league’s leading rusher. They turned Nick Foles into a quality starting quarterback in the NFL. They turned DeSean Jackson into a full-field threat, a wide receiver who posted career-highs in receptions and yards. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s always about wins and losses in the NFL -- even in a coach’s first year, even after he transitions from college to the pros and takes over a four-win team in disarray.
Of all the first-year prestidigitation performed by Kelly, the trick he pulled with the wins and losses was the best and hardest to believe. The Eagles started 3-5. There was a period where they really struggled, particularly when the quarterback situation was so uncertain. But then, at some point, Kelly waved a wand and poof -- the Eagles pulled 10 wins and a division championship out of their midnight-green hat.
It wasn’t as easy as all that, of course. But it was impressive. As first impressions go, Kelly’s was pretty remarkable.
“Well, I am not totally surprised, but I was reminded weekly of how dedicated, intelligent and dynamic he is and how much he has a feel for players,” Lurie said. "It’s not just about his X’s and O’s, we know it’s pretty dynamic. But, his ability to rally and bring people together for a common cause is very impressive and is going to serve us great starting next year.”
It served them well this year, before some thought it would. Lurie knew it. He believed it -- even when a lot of people didn’t.