This story appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of SI. To subscribe, click here.
Bill O’Brien can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but it was sometime in the early spring of 1994, when New Hampshire’s football coaches visited their Brown equivalents on the Providence campus. It could have come, huffing and puffing, between possessions of pickup hoops at the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center. Maybe it was over greasy slices of pizza and pitchers of cheap beer. Or perhaps it was when the two teams’ grunt-level coaches took turns watching film and dissecting plays on a chalkboard. Whenever it was, Chip Kelly made a distinct impression on O’Brien way back then, when both men—O’Brien was the inside linebackers coach at Brown, Kelly oversaw the running backs at UNH—were so far away from the NFL lights that they couldn’t even dream of them yet.
“The first time you meet him, you know he’s smart,” says O’Brien, now entering his second year as the Texans’ coach. “He’s a quick thinker. He changes gears so fast: He can be talking about one thing and then change to something else in a beat. But he’s also a real good listener. And it doesn’t take long to realize he thinks differently. You’re like, Who is this guy?”
Many people are asking the same question about the Eagles’ third-year coach right about now. Either Kelly is a forward-thinking genius, in the mold of Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Belichick—or he’s just another coach who never should have left the college ranks. Whichever it is, the word bold doesn’t begin to define the transformation that Kelly has put his team through this off-season, his second since jumping from Oregon to the NFL.
Five days after the conclusion of the 2014 season, coming off a second straight 10–6 campaign (this one without the reward of the playoffs), Kelly wrested personnel control away from general manager Howie Roseman. From there Kelly slashed and shaped his roster: Over a two-week stretch he released linebacker Trent Cole, cornerback Cary Williams, guard Todd Herremans and tight end James Casey, all of them expensive veteran stalwarts, and he refused to match the Chiefs’ free-agent offer for his leading receiver, Jeremy Maclin. Kelly further shocked the world by trading LeSean McCoy, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, to the Bills for a linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who was coming off an ACL tear. Then he swapped quarterback Nick Foles (27 touchdowns against two interceptions in ’13) to the Rams for Sam Bradford, who saw his past two seasons end with ACL injuries. In free agency, Kelly doled out $121.1 million ($54.6 million guaranteed), beginning with $40 million (over five years; $21 million guaranteed) to sign 2014 NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray away from the Cowboys. For the cherry on his overhaul sundae, he inked some guy named Tebow.
It was a staggeringly free-wheeling display for a guy with just two years of NFL experience and who has yet to win a postseason game. Even owner Jeffrey Lurie admits that there have been times when he’s wanted to make sure that Kelly knew what he was doing. “We had long talks about it,” he says. “These are usually decisions with weeks and weeks leading up to [them]. He’s bright. He’s hardworking. He’s obsessed with football. It doesn’t matter to him, the public perception of a trade. He’s all about making us better—and that’s what you want in a coach.”
Reaction around the league has been more of the wait-and-see variety. “Certainly he has his strategy and the way he wants to build his team,” says Stephen Jones, executive vice president of the Cowboys. “You’ve got to respect him for that. He seems very convicted in how he wants to do his roster.”
At the very least there is universal praise for the courage of those convictions. “I know that Chip’s doing it his way,” O’Brien says. “He knows what type of team he wants, and he knows in his mind how he’s going to get to that point. That’s what I respect.”
While Kelly’s aggressive makeover has put his team’s passionate fan base on edge (Should I buy the jersey of a player who might be gone in a year?) and rankled outgoing players (McCoy told ESPN that Kelly rid himself quickly of “good black players”—even though Kelly added two African-American running backs), there’s undeniably a method to his madness. At every position he knows exactly what type of player he wants, from physical description to mental makeup. When Kelly arrived in January 2013, the Eagles ran a West Coast offense and a Wide-9, 4–3 defense. But his favored system is a power spread offense, and he likes a 3–4 two-gap defense. Switching those systems on both sides of the ball is like changing from diesel to unleaded gasoline: It takes time and, sometimes, boldness under the hood.
In March, Kelly admitted that the Eagles’ salary cap had gotten out of whack when it came to the balance of offensive and defensive spending. Even with his quarterbacks making peanuts compared with other teams’ passers, the Eagles spent about 25% more on offense than on defense in 2014. “We tried to balance that out,” Kelly said. “I think it showed in our play.” After taking on an additional $12 million in cap money by swapping Foles for Bradford, the deficit is up to 30% this off-season.
Then there’s the issue of scheme fit. As impressive as McCoy was in Kelly’s offense, he was a space runner who ate up $9.7 million toward the cap in 2014. Now the Eagles have three runners of different style for roughly the same cap space: Murray ($5 million), Darren Sproles ($4.1 million) and former Charger Ryan Mathews ($2 million). Kelly prefers to have physical runners carrying the brunt of the load, and he allows speedy space runners and receivers to pick their spots. Philadelphia now has two of each: Murray and Mathews as the one-cut inside pounders, and Sproles and former Duck Kenjon Barner to stretch the defense.
Kelly preaches that he wants “taller and longer people because bigger people beat up little people.” That maxim applies primarily on defense, but it’s relevant at receiver as well, which partly explains why he released Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson (who’s barely 5' 10") last year. Now the shortest receiver on Philly’s roster is Josh Huff (5' 11⁄4"), who played out wide last season but now will likely be relegated to the slot. Most of the Eagles’ wideouts are at least 6 feet tall, including both free agents they signed this off-season, Miles Austin (6' 2") and Seyi Ajirotutu (6' 3"), as well as first-round pick Nelson Agholor, who USC listed at 6' 1".
The move from Foles to Bradford was a bit puzzling because of Bradford’s injury history, but there’s little doubt that Kelly’s scheme works best with an athletic quarterback who can threaten a defense with his running ability. Compared even with a guy coming off two ACL surgeries, Foles is extremely slow. (He ran an unimpressive 5.14 40 entering the NFL.) Bradford, on the other hand, is known for his athleticism and quick release, and he operated a college offense at Oklahoma that shared traits with Kelly’s.
Defensively, the transition to Kelly’s scheme has been slower because he inherited a number of younger players under contract and, moreover, because it takes time to overhaul an entire unit. There’s talent in that group, too, so the defensive staff, headed by coordinator Bill Davis and Kelly consigliere Jerry Azzinaro, made it work. But Kelly would like to have defensive ends that measure at least 6' 6" (seventh-round pick Brian Mihalik, out of Boston College, stands 6' 9"), and he wants stout nosetackles. The most important characteristic? Knees with a circumference of at least 18 inches—an identifier of guys who are built solidly in the lower body and thus, the Eagles believe, less susceptible to injuries. At outside linebacker he wants long-armed players who, above all else, can set the edge in the running game; the ability to rush the passer from this position is very much secondary. And Kelly wants to man his secondary with tall, long cornerbacks because he runs a scheme similar to that of the Seahawks’ physical Cover Three. The Eagles didn’t give a sniff to elite shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis in free agency because they have no use for shutdown corners in their scheme. They much prefer having the length to disrupt passing lanes.
Kelly’s daring rebuild and resolute belief in his own system brings to mind a few other coaches who turned the league on its ear with new approaches. Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Bill Belichick all ruffled feathers by daring to innovate despite their unproven track records, but they were steadfast in precisely the types of players they wanted and quickly implemented their own systems.
Kelly and Walsh each entered the league with cutting-edge offensive systems that many pundits deemed too finesse-oriented or pass-happy to succeed. Leaping from Stanford to the 49ers in 1979, Walsh believed that his offensive scheme could make up for San Francisco’s talent shortcomings, but he quickly realized that the same could not be said on the other side of the ball. In his second and third drafts, after starting his pro career 2–14, Walsh spent 14 of his 22 picks on defensive players, with 13 of those coming in the first six rounds. Likewise, in his second and third drafts with the Eagles, Kelly (who likely subscribes to Walsh’s belief that he can scheme his way out of any offensive talent deficiencies) spent 10 of his 13 selections on the defensive side of the ball.
“No question, the innovation [Walsh and Kelly] have with their offenses and how to run a team are similar,” says former 49ers CEO and president Carmen Policy. “People scoffed at Bill at first, and continued to scoff at his West Coast offense even after the first Super Bowl. Yes, you see the same elements of Bill in Chip, but Bill was much better prepared with his NFL experience being with Paul Brown [on the Bengals’ staff for seven years].”
Johnson, despite having never coached in the NFL before jumping from Miami to the Cowboys in 1989, moved swiftly to implement a small and fast defense when the rest of the NFL still thought bigger and stronger was the way to go. That approach led to two Lombardi Trophies, and another for successor Barry Switzer with a team built upon the players Johnson picked.
And when Belichick got his second chance to be an NFL head coach, after an inglorious five-year run in Cleveland, he knew exactly the type of franchise he wanted. Starting anew with the Patriots in 2000, he changed everything from how New England’s personnel department scouted players to how his team interacted with the media. He was also a forerunner in the art of finding treasure in the trash of veteran free agency. Of the 20 veteran free agents he signed before the ’01 season, 13 became at least integral role players for the franchise’s first Super Bowl champion.
Kelly also has predecessors when it comes to making controversial roster moves. In 1981, Walsh knew that he could probably win with quarterback Steve DeBerg, an accurate passer. But he traded DeBerg for a fourth-round pick and went with his gut at QB, giving the job to a former third-rounder who had a 2–6 record as a starter: Joe Montana. Eight years later, when Johnson was just five games into his first season in the pros, he traded away the league’s reigning No. 2 rusher, Herschel Walker. And in 2001, Belichick stuck with a skinny sixth-round backup QB named Tom Brady even after starter Drew Bledsoe recovered from an injury. Bledsoe was traded the next season.
“Jimmy realized that you could replace a Herschel with a near-Herschel and still be pretty good,” former Cowboys personnel exec Gil Brandt says of the old Dallas coach. “Chip realizes the same thing, and he has an eye on the cap. This guy didn’t come in on the turnip truck. He was talking to NFL people, picking their brains, getting ready for this for a long time. He’s a lot more tuned in to personnel than people know.”
Coming off his first off-season with personnel control, the doubters are lining up to watch Kelly fail. He’s dealt with this his entire career—when he installed a new offense at New Hampshire, when he introduced his staple breakneck pace at Oregon—but those critics all missed one undeniable fact: He knew what he was doing.
Others, though, believed.
During 2005 spring practice, when he was still the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, New Hampshire, Kelly visited Oregon OC Gary Crowton in Eugene, himself a former UNH assistant. Despite earning next to nothing, Kelly regularly visited other colleges—places like Wake Forest and Northwestern—on his own dime in search of more information; he even did a two-week internship in the CFL, where he picked up the influence of motion and using the entire width of the field. With Crowton he wanted to watch the Ducks install the spread offense they’d used at New Hampshire. Oregon’s coach at the time, Mike Bellotti, recalls that Kelly “probably said but 10 words” to him in Eugene.
But Kelly and Crowton continued to share film after that visit, and eventually Crowton showed Bellotti a play that Kelly had run with the Wildcats. Together the Oregon coaches decided to use the gimmick—“a fly sweep concept but from the shotgun, with a toss forward,” says Bellotti—for the first play of their 2006 season, against Stanford. “The receiver in motion dropped it,” Bellotti recalls. The play, however, was so new that officials initially ruled a fumble, recovered by the Cardinal. This was the first year in which a coach could challenge a ruling and here was Bellotti questioning the very first play of the season. The call was overruled, incomplete, the Ducks won the game 48–10 and Kelly had impacted Division I football while still coaching in Division I-AA. In ’07, Bellotti hired Kelly to be his offensive coordinator.
Four years later, in 2011, Kelly was heading to his hometown of Manchester, N.H., when he rang up his old hoops and beer buddy, O’Brien, who was then the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. “Can I stop in and b.s. with you?” he asked. Soon he was in a Patriots’ meeting room with O’Brien and offensive assistant George Godsey, talking football for an entire day. “It was cool,” says O’Brien. “Just three football minds trading ideas. He was averaging 50 points at Oregon [Kelly was the Ducks’ head coach by this point] so we wanted to figure out what he was doing. He’s not going to give you exactly what they’re doing, but he gives you the concept.”
Two more visits to Foxborough followed, and eventually Belichick joined the discussions. That’s when Kelly explained that he was running his Oregon offense with just a series of one-word play calls. The Patriots were incredulous, but Kelly put them at ease. Players can memorize elaborate song lyrics and movie lines, he explained; why should a football play be any different?
“It was very interesting to understand what he was doing,” Belichick said in 2012. “Certainly I’ve learned a lot from talking to Chip about his experiences.”
Interesting and influential. New England started to install Kelly’s system in 2011, with mixed results. By ’12, the Patriots had six one-word calls at their disposal. They used those sparingly until Week 5 of that year, when they unleashed them against Denver. The Broncos were in complete disarray as the Patriots raced out to a 31–7 lead. New England ran 89 offensive plays (then the second most in team history) and made a franchise-record 35 first downs. Chip Kelly, it seemed, had arrived in the NFL before he even got there. A little more than three months later, Lurie hired him as the Eagles’ coach.
Kelly, now 51, may simply be wired differently. The third of four sons born to Paul and Jean Kelly, he seems to have taken after his father, who studied to be a priest for eight years and then became a lawyer for the next 40. Both for the church and in what he called “private study,” Paul Kelly traveled to places like China, India and Japan. “The nicest thing about having been a lawyer is the ability to stand and speak truth to power,” he wrote in 2005 in a New Hampshire Bar Association newsletter. “Law school taught me to question. The practice of law honed that teaching into a lifelong habit.”
Chip, too, has made a career of questioning established practices. At New Hampshire he began wrapping multiple options (backside slant, bubble screen, read-option) into single prepackaged plays. Kelly’s theory: With different avenues predicated on defensive alignment in every play, the defense should always be wrong.
It was around this time that he also began fighting the practice of huddling after every play, which drove defensive coordinators crazy in practice. “We would have great discussions to the point of arguments,” says his UNH coach, Sean McDonnell. “I said, ‘Chip, we’ve got to slow down. We’re getting killed on defense.’ He would say, ‘We’re going to score 60 points; trust me.’ As usual, he was right.”
At Oregon, Kelly took things to another level. His practices became shorter, but they were packed with plays and no one was allowed to stand around. There’s no time for coaching on the field, he felt; that’s for the film room. Players need reps.
When Kelly brought all of this to the NFL, the slow-to-evolve league didn’t know what to make of his up-tempo offense, his dedication to sports science and his tailor-made postpractice nutritional shakes. The early returns have been moderately impressive: a pair of 10-win seasons for a team that had 12 combined victories in the two seasons prior. Kelly’s offense has finished among the top five in scoring and in total yardage each year. And now he has the personnel control to shape his roster—especially a defense that ranked 30th and 28th in yards allowed—to his vision.
It’s impossible to say whether Kelly’s method will thrive long-term in the NFL, but he’s made all the right moves at every level of his career while naysayers shook their heads and said, That’s not the way things are done. He sets his own course and, so far, it’s been one that everyone else ends up following.