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The Trade That Rocked (or Will Rock) the NFL

LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso?! The Eagles and Bills reportedly are poised to pull off a stunning deal that shows how serious Rex Ryan is about winning now in Buffalo and how little Chip Kelly values the RB position in Philly. Plus, reader mail

In what will be one of the most interesting trades in recent NFL history, the Eagles have agreed to send 2013 NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for middle linebacker Kiko Alonso when the league year opens for business next week.

Adam Schefter of ESPN first reported the news Tuesday night. It’s a fascinating deal, and it comes out of left field. No one saw this coming. No one.

Alonso, the 46th pick in the 2013 draft, had a terrific rookie season anchoring the middle of the Buffalo defense, but he suffered a knee injury last summer and was forced to miss all of 2014. So, assuming he passes his Philadelphia physical, he’ll enter camp with the Eagles this summer—under his former Oregon coach, Chip Kelly—as a rehabbing player.

McCoy has rushed for 2,926 yards over the past two years as the Eagles' prime runner; only DeMarco Murray of Dallas, with 2,966, has more yards over the past two years. In Buffalo, McCoy immediately becomes the centerpiece of new coach Rex Ryan’s ground-loving offense. Ryan, without a quarterback he trusts, now has three backs (and he will not enter camp with three prime backs, to be sure) to choose from, at least for the moment. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson become available immediately—Spiller as an unrestricted free agent and Jackson as an aging back with limited value. This is now McCoy’s offense, and you can expect him to run it 350 times if healthy. Ryan won’t worry about McCoy’s future. With the Buffalo defense being so good, there’s no way Ryan is going to trying to “save” McCoy. The future is now in Buffalo.

Kiko Alonso (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Kiko Alonso (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

But what is the future in Philadelphia, and why did vaunted coach Chip Kelly deal a back in his prime for a linebacker coming off knee surgery?

How this happened is a developing story. Quoting a Bills’ source, Mike Silver of NFL Media wrote Tuesday night, “This went down in 20 minutes.” But I’m told Kelly had soured on McCoy, feeling he ran too much east-west and not enough north-south. Kelly also is a believer in the quarterback being the most important player on the offense (no surprise there), followed by the five-man offensive line. Not that Kelly thinks the running back can plug and play in his offense, but he certainly feels he can win games without a franchise back. He demonstrated that belief by making this bold and stunning trade. 

There is very likely not a simple answer to the question of why Kelly would trade McCoy. But here is one clue: In 2015, McCoy’s salary-cap charge will be $10.25 million. McCoy is working on his second contract. Alonso, meanwhile, has a 2015 cap charge of $796,000. So part of the Eagles’ decision had to come down to saving $9.4 million and obtaining a player Kelly is familiar with, and admires a lot.

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From l. to r., Vic Beasley, Kevin White and Dorial Green-Beckham. (John Raoux/AP :: Charlie Neibergall/AP :: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The deal leaves the Eagles relatively barren at the every-down running back position. Darren Sproles is an excellent change-up back and third-down difference maker. Kelly loved him. But Kelly also knows it isn’t smart to overuse Sproles. Entering free agency, undrafted Chris Polk, a fourth-year back from Washington, would be the nominal leader on the depth chart at running back. But Kelly will certainly add to his depth there, likely in free agency, and certainly with a rookie either in the spring draft or through college free agency. Ironically, Spiller would be a perfect fit for what Kelly does. But it’s likely he would be too expensive for the Eagles, who now view running backs as complementary pieces, not franchise players. Assuming this trade goes through—and there is no reason to expect that it will not—this is what we should take from the event of Tuesday night: Kelly cleared cap room at a position he doesn’t value highly. Rex Ryan, who wants to play a ground-and-pound style of offense, gets one of the five best runners in football. And the Bills suddenly become less fearful of an offense without a franchise quarterback.

For Kelly to come out of this looking smart, his offense is going to have to be explosive. And now without a running back with franchise value, and with no certainty about who can play quarterback for him this season, Kelly has his work cut out in free agency and the draft. 

The trade of Alonso also makes an intriguing free-agent situation quite possible, one week before free agency begins March 10. One of Ryan's favorite players with the Jets, middle linebacker David Harris, is one of the best linebackers on the market. You can be sure Ryan would be thrilled to add, in one fell swoop, the leader of his defense after landing the leader of his offensive attack in McCoy.

For what is supposed to be a pretty dead time in the NFL calendar, early March yielded a fascinating story Tuesday night.


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Now on to your email:

ON LONDON AND THE NFL. A lot of The MMQB the past few weeks has been dedicated to discussing possible situations in which the Chargers, Rams and Raiders may or may not change location. With the NFL also open about wanting a franchise in London, how does the play for L.A. affect any plans or desires the NFL has for moving a franchise to London?

—Chris N., Waltham, Mass.

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That is a great question. It is a question that is on the minds of expansion-minded executives and owners in the league as well. I believe St. Louis must move quickly if owner Stan Kroenke moves the team to Los Angeles. I believe if St. Louis delays its efforts to seek the team or teams that lose the bid for Los Angeles, London in a couple of years would become a viable alternative. I was impressed with the intensity of the St. Louis group, although even those executives know it may be too late to keep the Rams. They are going to have to maintain that intensity to make sure they get one of the teams left jilted after the Los Angeles situation has been solved.

• CAN LONDON WORK? Jenny Vrentas’ in-depth look at NFL plans and fan culture in Britain

ON L.A. AND THE NFL. Don't you think the NFL and its owners love hanging L.A. over the head of any city that dares not build its team a stadium? How many teams over the past two decades have used L.A. as a pawn?

—Eric, Cincinnati

Not as many as you think. But you’re absolutely right. Los Angeles is the leverage that the NFL needs in a city like St. Louis. And look what happened. The city and state were unwilling—and I certainly don’t blame them because of the public money needed—to make the Edward Jones Dome a top-flight NFL stadium. I think you’re absolutely on to something, and it raises this interesting issue as well. What is the next Los Angeles? After this market is filled, could London be the next chess piece, the next city the NFL uses to force the next generation of stadium-needy teams to build or else?

ON REPLAY REVIEWS. Peter, you quoted Jeff Fisher saying, “So if someone throws a touchdown pass against us to win the game, I’m going to throw the challenge flag. Somebody [committed a holding penalty] out there. Somebody did something.” But doesn’t the coach need to specifically tell the official what they are challenging? So Fisher couldn’t just throw the flag and say “find something” to the official. He have to say, “No. 68 held No. 55 while he was rushing the QB,” or something like that. No? 

—Matt N., Horsham, Pa.

Although a coach must tell the referee the call he is challenging, the rule now states that if there is another review-eligible foul on the play, that potential foul must also be reviewed. So in other words, if everything is reviewable—holding calls, pass interference, a defensive end jumping offside—then an offensive holding call would negate a winning touchdown under the proposal that anything is replay-reviewable.

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It is truly amazing how much money people are willing to pay—either in new taxes or ticket prices or both—to get or keep an NFL team. Why do the NFL and its rich owners continue to pile debt upon taxpayers, when they make a megaprofit year after year?  I wish the taxpayers of St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland the very best, but if they keep their teams, the reward will be increased taxes and high ticket costs. What a reward.

—Joe J., Raeford, N.C.

That is why some cities have simply said no. I applaud them. You are absolutely right. There’s no reason Stan Kroenke should get a tax break for keeping the Rams in St. Louis. No reason except one: There is another city willing to give him a sweetheart deal. That city is Inglewood, Calif. As one of the parties in this franchise-shift story told me the other day, “Stan Kroenke did not get rich without taking advantage of his options. What this is all about is creating attractive alternatives for him.” St. Louis has a choice. It can choose to let Kroenke leave and lose an NFL franchise. If that happens, there’s a chance, and maybe a good one, that the NFL will never return to St. Louis. To many in city government and people in the area, that would be fine. But cities continue to believe there is a benefit, some of them direct and some indirect, in having an NFL franchise. I see both sides, but more and more I believe the days of endless streams of public funding for rich owners are over.

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