When the Eagles hired then Oregon coach Chip Kelly to replace Andy Reid on Jan. 16, 2013, it was the beginning of an interesting experiment for a team in a league that had been chewing up and spitting out college coaches for years. For every Pete Carroll, Tom Coughlin or Dick Vermeil, there’s been five Bobby Petrinos, Steve Spurriers and Nick Sabans who simply didn’t have what it takes to navigate the complexities and challenges of the pro game.
Kelly came with his own pedigree, of course. He was the architect of Oregon’s spectacular offense, and enough NFL coaches had consulted with him over the years to make his eventual NFL promotion seem inevitable. Bill Belichick, most notably, created a new, higher-tempo offense for his Patriots based in large part on his philosophical and schematic discussions with Kelly. And on the heels of NCAA sanctions, Kelly saw a new opportunity and seized it, interviewing with the Bills, Browns and Eagles before eventually taking the Philly job.
At first, things looked good. The Eagles improved from 4–12 in Reid’s final season to 10–6 in each of Kelly’s first two seasons. A power struggle between Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman ended this off-season with Kelly essentially getting full control over not only coaching decisions, but all personnel before the 2015 season.
True to his nature, Kelly used that power to make sweeping changes throughout the roster. He traded franchise running back LeSean McCoy to the Bills for former Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso despite Alonso’s injury concerns; signed 2014 rushing champ DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $40 million contract; released veteran pass rusher Trent Cole and receiver Jeremy Maclin; traded quarterback Nick Foles to the Rams for Sam Bradford; and signed former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell to a six-year, $63 million deal that made him one of the highest-paid pass defenders in the NFL.
It’s not unusual for coaches with wide-ranging personnel control to make scads of moves. When Bill Belichick took the Patriots over in 2000, he razed the roster, and when the Seahawks hired Pete Carroll in 2010, Carroll and general manager John Schneider went on a record-setting transaction spree. Some of Kelly’s moves appeared prescient—Foles has been benched in St. Louis, Cole has been a non-factor for the Colts, and Maclin has been anything but a star in Reid’s reductive offense in Kansas City. But the Bradford trade has had mixed results at best, as the former No. 1 draft pick has alternated between glaring inaccuracy and injury concerns in Philadelphia. Murray, who ran for 1,845 yards in 2015 and 1,124 the year before, is on pace for 824 rushing yards this season. Maxwell, now outside the friendly confines of Seattle’s Cover-3 defense, has been one of the most vulnerable cornerbacks in the NFL in 2015.
So far, it’s added up to a 4–6 start in which players are squabbling, once-revered schemes are falling apart and Kelly appears lost in the face of the chaos. The worst loss of Kelly’s NFL career came on Sunday, when the Buccaneers tuned the Eagles up in Philadelphia with a 45–17 thrashing in which rookie quarterback Jameis Winston threw five touchdown passes and missed a sixth through the hands of a wide-open receiver. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin scampered for 235 yards on 27 carries, and an Eagles front that has as much talent as any you’ll see in the NFL was left grasping for answers.
There’s a short rest before Philly’s Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, setting up a longer layoff before the game against the Patriots on Dec. 6. By then, the Eagles could be further in the hole, and Kelly, once the apple of the NFL’s eye, may be on his way back to college. He’s in the third year of a five-year deal, but it’s hard to see him surviving the term of that deal if he’s not able to reverse the Eagles’ losing course.
More concerning is that Kelly doesn’t seem to have any answers.
“I don’t know exactly why not, but I know we didn’t make plays when we had to make plays,” he said after the Bucs game. “I think we extended drives on defense. We let them convert too many third-and-longs. It’s the first time we have really had the ball run on us like that. And that’s certainly kind of an uncharacteristic thing, at least with this defense. We have always prided ourselves on stopping the run, and we didn’t do that today. ... That's just not Eagle defense and not what we're going to do to be successful. And if they can run the ball like that, then obviously Jameis did a really good job in the play-action passes off it, but we didn’t stop them all day long.”
These days, the 283 rushing yards allowed in total on Sunday seems very much like Eagles defense. A front laden with talent allowed 204 rushing yards to the Panthers in a Week 7 loss, 134 rushing yards to the Cowboys in a Week 9 overtime win, and outside of a 47-yard-allowed performance against the Jets in Week 3, that group has been more vulnerable than anybody expected. That combined with the iffy pass defense has brought the heat upon defensive coordinator Bill Davis, but making a change there is a notion Kelly won’t consider—at least publicly.
“I’ve got tremendous confidence in Billy Davis,” Kelly said Monday, one day after he said that he didn’t think his team was ready to play on defense. “I think he’s a hell of a football coach.”
The internal beefs between Eagles players is another sign that things are going in the tank. Backup quarterback Mark Sanchez and running back Darren Sproles got into a brief shouting match at one point during Sunday’s loss, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins was visibly unhappy with the efforts of his defensive teammates, and one unnamed Eagles player questioned Murray’s overall effort to Jeff McLane of Philly.com after Murray slid to avoid Dolphins defensive back Brice McCain the previous week on a play that should have ended with a conversion to a first down.
“Well, when you see DeMarco sliding before getting hit, you tell me. Was that giving full effort?” the player said. “You see that [stuff], and it makes you wonder.”
Jenkins, one of the smartest players in the league, was furious because his defense was flagged for a 12 men on the field penalty that extended yet another Bucs drive.
“We’re trying to scrap our way back into the game and we’re on third down, an opportunity to get off the field and we have 12 guys on the field,” he said. “That’s embarrassing. Because it has nothing to do with football, you just have no clue what you’re doing. It looks bad on the coaching staff, it looks bad as players, individuals. Especially at that time when you’re holding onto every ounce of enthusiasm and momentum that you have and you just give it back by having a really elementary brain [cramp], it’s just tough.
“No one should have to be riled up to have some pride for the name on the back of their jerseys. It’s something as a leader, this is not something I should be handling. It’s gotta come from everybody as individuals.”
As a college coach, Kelly didn’t have to deal with stuff like this. Complete control over players with a limited playing window is one reason college coaching positions are generally more attractive than NFL ones, and it’s clear that Kelly is struggling to keep that part of it together.
The real problem in Philly is that Kelly’s offense, highly effective for a time with its rapid-fire tempo, has been broken down by opponents in its third NFL season. Even though he expanded the concepts upon coming to the NFL, Kelly’s offense is simple to the extreme by league standards, and the Eagles’ opponents have caught on. Defenses are calling Eagles plays before they happen based on formation, and because Kelly doesn’t have an audible system for his quarterbacks, there’s no way to call out of checks and expand the palette.
“I think we’ve been varied in our two games, and through our preseason and everything, we’ve been doing a different job, changing formations and things like that," Kelly said in September. “When you’re not successful, I think guys are grasping at excuses, to be honest with you. We still need to block and tackle. What I’m saying is we need to execute.
“You know when a team is in Tampa-2; they’re going to slant their 3 and 7 technique [defensive linemen]. When they do it, it’s not a surprise to us. Everybody has predictabilities and tendencies going into every game. That’s just part of the game. Everybody kind of does what they do.”
What Kelly’s doing is not working. From motivation to chemistry to play-calling to personnel management, he’s looking more and more like a man in over his head.
And what generally happens to men in over their heads in the NFL is that they don’t have those heads for very much longer.