Will the trend of a rookie coach making the playoffs continue?
PHILADELPHIA -- Of the NFL's whopping seven rookie head coaches this year, none have generated the same buzz and giddy sense of anticipation being felt in Philadelphia, where the Eagles' dramatic makeover began with the hiring of Oregon's offensive innovator, Chip Kelly.
Will the reality match the hype right from the start? Philadelphia seemingly has a lot of ground to cover to reclaim supremacy in the NFC East, with uncertainty at starting quarterback, offensive line issues to shore up, a new 3-4 defense to transition to, the loss of wideout Jeremy Maclin and a rebuilt secondary in place. Coming off last season's 4-12 disintegration in the dismal final lap of the 14-year Andy Reid era, that doesn't quite sound like a blueprint for a postseason run.
But recent NFL history suggests at least one rookie head coach is going to take his team to the playoffs this season, and the turnaround-minded Eagles have every right to be thinking, why not us? Why not Chip? Why not now? Does it really sound any more implausible than the Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians-led Colts riding their magic carpet all the way to 11-5 and the playoffs last season after their near historic 2-14 Manning-less meltdown of 2011? Even with Andrew Luck in the pocket?
From 2006 on, 10 rookie NFL head coaches have set the bar quite high, taking their teams to the playoffs in their first try. It has happened at least once a year every season during that span except for 2010, and we'll even add a caveat to that, because you could almost count Seattle's Pete Carroll winning the NFC West at 7-9 in 2010, as he returned to the league's head coaching set for the first time in more than a decade.
It has been an impressive trend by the rookie headset-crowd these past seven seasons. The Colts of Pagano and Arians were last year's example. In 2011, it was San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh who returned the 49ers to postseason glory. With the exception being 2010, there was the Jets' Rex Ryan and Indy's Jim Caldwell in 2009, the trio of Baltimore's John Harbaugh, Atlanta's Mike Smith and Miami's Tony Sparano in 2008, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin in 2007, and both New Orleans' Sean Payton and the Jets' Eric Mangini in 2006.
In the previous five seasons, from 2001 to 2005, there were only three such examples of rookie head coaches going to the playoffs: The Jets' Herman Edwards in 2001 (it seems to be a pattern for Gang Green), Oakland's Bill Callahan in 2002, and Atlanta's Jim Mora in 2004.
Kelly's Eagles have their share of challenges, but if he can get his team's quarterback question settled successfully (granted, a big if), the NFC East might just represent the path of least resistance to the playoffs. After all, no one has repeated as NFC East champion since the 2003-04 Eagles, and the division has had four different champions the past four seasons, with either 9-7 or 10-6 being good enough to win the division in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Scaling the NFC East is not akin to climbing Mt. Everest.
Compare that to the realities that the other six rookie head coaches face: Arizona's Arians (now a full-time head coach for the first time) is in the stacked NFC West; Buffalo's Doug Marrone has to break Buffalo's NFL-worst 13-year playoff drought; Cleveland's Rob Chudzinski must contend with three playoff-caliber teams in the AFC North; Jacksonville's Gus Bradley obviously is hoping to rebuild his last-place Jaguars; Chicago's Marc Trestman has to solve the Jay Cutler riddle and battle the playoff-qualifying Packers and Vikings; and San Diego's Mike McCoy needs a rebound from quarterback Philip Rivers if he hopes to slug it out with divisional champion Denver.
See, the Eagles can dream without it sounding entirely laughable. A couple days spent in Philadelphia's training camp last week convinced me that Kelly at least has his new players believing anything is possible. Right away. And let's face facts, that's the first trick any rookie head coach has to perform, especially those coming directly from the college ranks, with no previous NFL experience.
"I don't think anybody here is thinking about Chip being a rookie head coach,'' new Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "We've all been here for four months with him and obviously we believe in what he's doing. Whether it's his first year in the NFL or not, what people are thinking about is how you feel the energy he's brought here. It's similar to the energy level that we got in Houston when we hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator a few years ago. And that energy is very important for a team.''
The last time the Eagles hired a new coach, he too was a novice at running his own program. Reid didn't make the playoffs as a rookie head coach in 1999, but did take Philadelphia to the playoffs nine times in a span of 11 seasons after his debut year. But Reid's time had clearly run out, and the Eagles' collapse in 2012 (they lost 11 of their last 12 games after starting 3-1) has made Kelly's players very receptive to his new methods and message.
"I don't know why things get stale, but obviously they do and people can get too comfortable,'' Barwin said. "You do everything to not let that happen, but it's kind of a natural thing. When you bring in a new coach, everybody's alert. Nobody's comfortable anywhere, even the cafeteria [workers] aren't comfortable. So everybody has to raise their level for a new coach, and that carries over to the season and carries over to playing better football.''
Kelly's penchant for up-tempo offense and never-a-wasted-moment practice pacing have been popular innovations in the Eagles locker room, and players also seem to have taken to his well-chronicled commitment to sports science. Because who doesn't love a personalized protein smoothie waiting for them as they come off the practice field?
"We've got a long way to go, but guys already trust him, big time,'' Eagles veteran tight end Brent Celek said, moments after Philly concluded its first full-squad training camp practice last Friday. "The stuff he's done for us here, it's stuff I haven't seen before. Stuff you don't even expect to see in the NFL, from the smoothie shakes, to the sleep monitoring, to the emphasis on the recovery time. It's different kind of stuff, but I like the way we're working, hard but efficient, and they really take care of us. It's going to change some things in the NFL.''
College coaches coming to the NFL have traditionally made veteran players a bit uneasy. Would they treat their new players as men, or boys? Would they acclimate to the longer season of the NFL and the different practice schedules, with less emphasis on full contact and more energy spent on teaching and staying healthy enough to win the regular season's war of attrition? But Eagles players rave about Kelly's organization and attention to detail, his open lines of communication, and his willingness to put the protection of his players above all else.
"He's efficient and he knows what he's doing,'' said Barwin, who signed with the Eagles as a free agent in March, after spending the first four years of his career playing for Houston head coach Gary Kubiak. "From an NFL veteran, the only thing you ever worry about is, you hear about college coaches coming to the NFL and not taking care of you. They've got 18 to 21-year-olds and they've got them for four years and they're done. Plus they've got a bigger roster to play with. But I haven't had that thought once since he's been here, that he's going to run us into the ground. If anything, he's taken care of us more than I've ever had in my whole career.''
Kelly's ways will only stand the test of time if they lead to winning, of course, and having the right personnel still trumps all in the NFL. But the Eagles have talent. They just lacked direction, discipline and motivation the past two non-playoff seasons under Reid. So far, Kelly has a plan his players seem to be buying into as if it were a dot.com stock in the '90s.
"He's one of the sharpest coaches I've ever been around and that's a credit to him and his work and the way he thinks about things,'' Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "You can just tell he's a cut above the rest. He's different in his approach and there's a reason why he does everything he does. I really admire him for the way he's come in and worked his plan. He's followed through on everything he said he was going to do. It's not just lip service with Coach Kelly. We've seen from the get-go he's all about winning and making us better.''
Now if he can find a quarterback to run his offense and actually win with, the early positive reviews of Kelly's program will harden into rock-solid belief. And the Eagles might just make Kelly the latest rookie head coach to continue the trend of first-year playoff trips.
"Our job is to win now,'' Kelly said. "So we can't be, 'Hey, in three years when we get this type of guy and that type of guy, then we can be good.' Obviously the jobs that were open weren't the teams that went to the Super Bowl. Those jobs don't open up much. So you have to implement a system where the players you have, they have the opportunity to be successful.''
Maybe even right away. In Philadelphia, at least before the real games begin, Kelly has inspired a why not us mindset. The rookie head coach has made a quick sell of his program to his players. But now comes the hard part.