Against The Grain: Why Chip Kelly should not be fired after this season
If you’re a fan of innovation in the NFL, and you don't root for Dallas, New York or Washington, then you should be pulling for Chip Kelly to succeed in the NFL, not for him to be fired after this season. The negative coverage surrounding the Eagles coach could dissuade other NFL owners from trying something different in the future.
The Philadelphia coach is on one of the hottest coaching seats right now, and it's no secret that his team, which many predicted to be a force in the playoffs, has been wildly disappointing. Their season has been nothing short of a roller coaster, with the Eagles losing to the Lions and the Buccaneers by huge margins before beating the Patriots 35–28. That kind of inconsistency can certainly justify close examination of the coaching staff.
But when you step back, much of the negativity towards the Eagles' coach is a result of the endless NFL hype machine than Kelly himself. Kelly gets so much attention because he's different: his offense is unique, his training habits are unorthodox and his personnel moves are aggressive. He and his team make for great copy, and the increased spotlight just adds to the pressure in a football-crazy town. Kelly is most criticized for his coaching style—how he treats players like they're in college—but that criticism is a function of the Eagles’ performance this season. If they were playing better, everyone would instead be praising his coaching style.
Even this week’s storyline surrounding Chip Kelly and his current and former running backs is overblown. Bills RB LeSean McCoy doesn’t want to shake his former coach’s hand. First off, what player is eager to embrace the coach that got rid of him? And also, Kelly didn't have an issue with the back—as he pointed out this week, the Eagles saved $11.9 million by dealing McCoy.
As for Kelly’s current back DeMarco Murray complaining about his role to the owner ... well, it’s hard to side with the player because he’s not producing when he does get opportunities. Murray is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, which is less than teammate Ryan Mathews at 5.3 yards per attempt.
Kelly has rightly been criticized for certain personnel moves, but changing over a roster isn't uncommon when a new coach takes over—it's surprising that it took him two full years to do it. And trading Sam Bradford for Nick Foles, arguably his biggest move, seems to make more sense as the season continues. Foles lost his job to Case Keenum in St. Louis, and Bradford is steadily improving. After only recording a passer rating of over 100 once in his first seven starts, he's put up ratings of 103.4, 118.1 and 99.3 in his last three starts.
This isn't to say all of Kelly's moves have worked out well. Philadelphia has the second most expensive backfield in the NFL, but rank No. 24 in the league at 3.8 yards per carry—getting rid of veteran offensive lineman Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis certainly contributed to those shortcomings. And first-round pick Nelson Agholor has contributed just 16 catches for 163 yards and zero touchdowns to an under-performing receiving corps.
But any experiment needs time. For all the attention Kelly gets, it's easy to forget he's been a head coach in the NFL for two-and-a-half years. Just because he started out with two 10–6 seasons doesn't necessarily mean the Eagles should be in the Super Bowl. If anything, that hot start may have slowed down his efforts to mold the team he wants.
The NFL universe has become way too focused on short-term success. A couple of other coaches who were trying something different got off to much slower starts than Kelly; Bill Walsh went 2–14 and 6–10 in his first two seasons in San Francisco, while Jimmy Johnson was 1–15 and 7–9 his first two campaigns in Dallas. Would Walsh and Johnson have been on the hot seat in today’s NFL? There seems to be an undercurrent of resistance to what Kelly is trying to achieve.
If Kelly ultimately fails, hopefully prospective owners won’t make his efforts an ultimatum on pedal-to-the-medal spread football. Elements of it are obviously working very well right now in New England. But since Kelly took the helm, the Eagles have ranked No. 1 in fewest seconds per play. For comparison sake, the Patriots are fifth this year and were third in 2014. The Texans, coached by former New England offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, currently have the second fastest offense.
And even with his up-tempo offense, Kelly only goes so far. He's lacking certain dynamic elements that he had in college, like a mobile quarterback and a pass-heavy “Air Raid” style spread. It’s not clear if those styles would work in the NFL, but the game is clearly headed in that direction at the levels below the NFL and the spread-up-tempo game is leaking into the league. A wider variety of styles will help the game evolve and make it more entertaining.
If it’s not Kelly, the right coach could usher in an exciting new style. Maybe not for every team ... but even a few teams going all in on the spread would make the weekly chess matches between coaches even more interesting. Hopefully the negative attention surrounding Kelly won’t slow that process down.