EUGENE, Ore. -- After a horrifying start -- could you imagine much worse? -- the consensus lately has been that Chip Kelly has weathered serious adversity, become a hot commodity again. If anything, respect for Oregon's rookie head coach had only grown in the weeks since the season-opening debacle in Boise.
How then to interpret this?
Kelly announced Friday he's open to the possibility that LeGarrette Blount could be reinstated, and has a plan to accomplish the goal.
Yeah, that Blount. The guy we last saw punching a Boise State player, and then a teammate. The guy who later charged at several Boise State fans and had to be manhandled into the locker room by an assistant coach and security personnel.
It was a bad scene on Sept. 3, and it could easily have been worse. So there weren't many quibbles when Kelly announced the next day that Blount was suspended for the remainder of the season -- meaning the senior would not play again for Oregon.
Was there any chance, any way Blount could be reinstated?
"No," Kelly said several times.
On Friday, Kelly called that initial punishment "the right decision." Only somehow, it was also right to revise the penalty. If Blount follows a plan Kelly has laid out, and meets unspecified "academic and behavioral" benchmarks, he could be in uniform as soon as Nov. 7, when Oregon plays Stanford.
"Discipline to me is about one thing and one thing only -- behavior improvement," Kelly said. "It's not about punishment. We put a better plan in place for LeGarrette's behavior improvement."
That sound you just heard is crisis management professionals smacking their foreheads, and everyone else clicking YouTube again. Talk about reviving a story that had been buried and forgotten.
Kelly had been praised for the quick, decisive action, and also for his decision to keep Blount in the program, if Blount would stick around. Blount practiced sporadically at first but in the last week has been a regular while always a part of the scout team. Kelly put Blount in touch with Tony Dungy, and noted sociologist Harry Edwards, among others. We saw discipline and compassion, intertwined.
To many, the reversal will feel like something else.
The punch in the gut here is to Kelly's credibility. Even if we believe he's thinking only about Blount's welfare -- and knowing Kelly, I believe it's true -- skeptics will think football played a role.
They'll see a talented running back and, never mind how the Ducks have surged without Blount, they'll believe a football coach wanted a star player back on the field to enhance a 3-1 record. They'll think Lawrence Phillips, Nebraska, all those years ago, and most of them won't stop to recognize Blount will miss at least eight games, including a key date with USC on Halloween.
Cynics will figure the fix was in from the beginning, that even as Kelly was proclaiming Blount wouldn't play again for the Ducks, he was thinking Blount might do just that.
It's a stunning reversal in policy, but potentially also in perception.
Since the loss in Boise, and since suspending Blount, the Ducks have won three straight. Last week's 42-3 whipping of then-No. 6 California seemed to announce their reemergence in the national picture. Oregon is a chic Rose Bowl pick, and Kelly is being hailed once again as a rising young coach -- not the guy who looked like he was in over his head against Chris Petersen and Boise State.
During those intervening weeks, we learned much more about Kelly. Good stuff like the $439 check he sent an irate fan who had demanded a refund for his travel expenses to Boise; the fan sent the check back with a thank-you note and a pledge of allegiance to the new head coach. We saw Kelly stick with struggling quarterback Jeremiah Masoli when fans wanted the Sports Illustrated cover boy sent to the sidelines; Masoli responded with a splendid performance in the win over Cal.
But then we watched Friday as Kelly reversed course. He made the announcement in the same interview room he sat in four weeks earlier. In explaining how circumstances changed, he said things like, "I don't live in a vacuum," and reminded everyone he'd said "there's not a manual for what went on."
Kelly said he didn't have all the answers, and insisted "it's not a football decision, it's a human being decision."
But after this move, many will see Kelly as your average football coach, pure and simple.