It’s the conviction and the clarity of purpose that you have to admire. Once again we’ve learned that Chip Kelly is going to do things his way, and it’s going to be all the way, with no half measures considered. And he really doesn’t care if thousands have already bought those pricey LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson jerseys.
With Tuesday night's stunning news of a potential blockbuster trade sending McCoy to Buffalo, you don’t get the feeling that Kelly’s tenure coaching the Philadelphia Eagles will be geared toward longevity. But while he’s in charge in Philly—and, man, is he ever—he has resolved to give it his best possible shot exactly the way he sees fit. There are no sacred cows. There are no assumptions that can’t be challenged.
Kelly is in it to win it, win it right now, and win it his way. He’s going to build the Eagles team he wants and have it play his style of ball, even if it means bidding farewell to the Eagles’ leading receiver and career rushing king in back-to-back off-seasons. LeSean and DeSean are gone, and that means this is Chip Kelly’s team like never before.
You may not agree with Kelly’s decisions—and I can’t believe he settled for dealing the ultra-productive 26-year-old McCoy for Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, with 16 NFL games to his name and an ACL injury that cost him all of 2014—but you can’t quibble with his single-minded vision of what he’s trying to create in Philadelphia. Most everyone else looked at McCoy and Jackson and saw two elite NFL playmakers and stars. Kelly put them both in his lineup and won with them, but he eventually came around to view them more as part of the problem than part of the solution.
The star system might be alive and well in the NFL, but just not in Philadelphia. It really doesn’t seem to fit Kelly’s world view of roster building. Along with McCoy, Eagles veterans such as linebacker Trent Cole, guard Todd Herremans and cornerback Cary Williams have all been deemed unnecessary in recent days, and with the acquisition of Alonso, linebacker DeMeco Ryans may be the next big-name player to be shown the door.
Some coaches might win 10 games in each of their first two NFL seasons, figure they’re this close to earning the shiny silver trophy, and hesitate to tinker or change much of anything. But not Kelly. The Eagles’ twin 10-6 records in 2013-14 just got marked down as not getting the job done, and now in consecutive off-seasons he has gone big and bold in his pursuit of just the right blend of talent.
Come to think of it, that is after all what Kelly knows best from his college coaching experience: a constant cycling through of players and a remaking of the roster from year to year. He’s not afraid to move on from anyone at any time, because in college he never had the same talent to work with for longer than two or three years at a time any way.
McCoy might not have ever quite put this together, but Kelly’s penchant at Oregon was to switch feature running backs frequently, rarely relying on the same player to carry the load for longer than a couple years. He had to do that in college, of course, but he’s still doing it in the NFL, where there’s not always another fully stocked recruiting class on the way to upgrade the roster.
What that tells us is that Kelly as a coach believes first and foremost in his system and his program. The players are just the pieces he uses to make it all work. He’s not changing his approach to fit the NFL norm, he’s finding out how to navigate the way the league works with as close to a facsimile of how he did things in college, trusting those same methods will produce the same winning results. Kelly is comfortable challenging the mindset that you can only change so much from year to year in the NFL and seems to believe that it’s better to move on a year too early rather than a year too late.
"I think the type of players that they're getting in there with the system and [with] Chip having final say on the roster, he’s going to get his players in there to run his offense," Herremans, the 10-year Eagles veteran, told a Philadelphia radio station this week after being released. "Everyone that he gets will be who he wants to run that offense the way he wants to run it. ... I think the feeling around the building is a good one right now. The winning in Philadelphia is going to continue for a long time."
But the McCoy trade will test the "In Chip we Trust" crowd to unprecedented levels. Good luck trying to come up with a precedent in NFL history for a coach who sent two young and productive stars like Jackson and McCoy packing when they were seemingly at the peak of their careers. I couldn’t. Jackson’s release was a thunderbolt last March, but if anything, McCoy’s trade to the Bills this March is even more surprising, given how little the Eagles have left in the backfield once he’s gone, with only change-of-pace back Darren Sproles under contract (the largely untested Chris Polk is a restricted free agent).
But Kelly’s history says he’s confident in his ability to find the next running back who will thrive in his up-tempo spread offense, and with this year’s draft very well-stocked at running back, who’s to say he won’t come away with a younger, cheaper No. 1 option in May? With the roughly $8.5 million of salary cap room that will be created by the trade, the already-cap-flush Eagles will be poised to pursue multiple instant upgrades once free agency opens next week. Whether or not that approach works remains to be seen.
In dealing for Alonso, another former Oregon standout, Kelly only heightened the perception that he’s trying to re-create his Ducks glory days in a different shade of green. But I’m guessing Kelly doesn’t care one bit. What he thinks is far more important to him than what we and the rest of the league might think, and he’s going with what he knows, compiling proven commodities who have thrived in his system in the past. Alonso would make it nine former Oregon players on the Eagles roster, and that of course leads to speculation that a certain ex-Ducks quarterback might bump it to an even 10 later this spring.
If you’ve been paying attention so far, the idea of Kelly doing anything in his power to move up from the No. 20 slot to land Marcus Mariota should no longer be considered far-fetched. In less than three years on the job, the Eagles' coach has proven that if he’s convinced that’s the way to go, he’ll stop at nothing and completely ignore conventional wisdom to get what he wants, gravitating toward what he knows. For Kelly, asking why not comes much more naturally than asking why.
Loaded with both cap room and pressing needs, Kelly’s Eagles are completely his now. Jackson, Michael Vick and McCoy are all gone, and former general manager Howie Roseman has been unceremoniously moved out of the picture in terms of sharing authority over personnel decisions. Things are now done all Kelly’s way, and his stamp on the team has never been clearer or deeper. What comes next for Philadelphia in 2015 will go a long way in defining the wisdom of his coaching beliefs and approach, and whether or not the confidence he holds in those convictions is well-placed.