I’ll be the first to admit, I did not believe Chip Kelly when he insisted that he did not need a mobile quarterback to run the NFL-adjusted version of his offensive scheme. As one who has watched as many Oregon games over the last four years as any other college football fan, despite being captivated by the speed and effectiveness that the Ducks took advantage of, I could not get past the idea that the offense could not excel in the NFL without a top-flight, dual-threat quarterback. The organization did very little to change that mindset, when they decided to bring back the much-maligned Michael Vick, albeit on a restructured deal, after all signs pointed to him ending his Eagles’ career in humiliating fashion at the end of the season. Seeing as there was no Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, etc. in the 2013 NFL Draft and the next wave of dual-threat, blue-chip prospects would not be available until the following year, one could stomach the thought of Vick, whose athleticism still ranks among the top of the league in terms of quarterbacks, holding down the position while allowing the rest of the offense to become familiar with it. While this was a difficult pill to swallow, considering the promise shown by Nick Foles and the frustration brought on by the inconsistent Vick, there were few other options to turn to and one had to assume Kelly had a plan in mind moving forward into his first season. As the weeks and months following Kelly’s hire dragged on, it became almost an assumption that, even with the organization showing continued support of Foles and his future with the team, the statuesque rookie would be moved at some point, thus solidifying the team’s direction. The organization, Kelly, Vick, and Nick Foles all continued to go through the normal media rounds, each one declaring their enthusiasm about the team moving forward and how excited each one was to be a part of it. Still, as the draft drew closer, and rumors swirled around the NFL’s interest in Nick Foles, fans simply waited, and hoped they would receive a sufficient return for the signal caller that stood as one of the few bright spots during the dreadful 2012 season.
The team had brought in mobile quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and G.J. Kinne to flesh out the roster, and it became more and more difficult to see the slow-footed Foles fitting into the equation. The team went through their first round of OTAs, and still, the assumption that management was simply waiting for the right offer for moving the former third round pick was widely accepted. Foles’ feats from a year prior became an afterthought, as fans, reporters, analysts, and even teams around the league imagined how Kelly’s offense, led by a dual-threat quarterback, was going to look in the NFL. Still, the organization never wavered from their stance that Foles was seen as more than a trade chip and had a legitimate shot at competing for the starting job, in whatever capacity that may be. ‘Experts’ around the NFL tossed around names in the draft that would be suitable prospects for Kelly and his uptempo offense. E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, and Matt Scott were seen as likely candidates to be the new head coach’s potential quarterback of the future and the question shifted from if Kelly was going to select one but when?
The team brought in several prospects for workouts, and even visited Geno Smith for a private session in West Virginia. When the dust had cleared from the pre-draft evaluation period and the team’s prepared for last weekend’s event, fans and analysts alike wondered when they would be hearing that the Eagles pulled the trigger on one of the more mobile prospects in the talent pool. The team’s early round picks of Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz did very little to quell the speculation, and, although names like Manuel and Smith were taken off the board, it assumed that the team felt a project prospect like Matt Scott would be the better value in the later rounds. Sure enough, at the end of the second day, Scott’s name remained on the board and the Eagles held an early pick in the fourth round.
Saturday afternoon rolled around and, as the broadcast settled in for the start of the final day, the Eagles made their move to get the guy that would be tied to Kelly throughout his coaching career. By offering up one of their four 7th round picks they jumped up, over the Chiefs, Raiders, and Jaguars and made one of the most scrutinized, mind-blowing fourth round picks in the history of the draft.
Matt Barkley? The ‘golden-boy’ USC quarterback who should have left for the draft last year? The same guy whose forgettable senior season ended being planted onto the turf in a humiliating loss against UCLA? How is that guy going to run this offense? Isn’t he a drop-back passer who learned the hard way to strike while the iron is hot instead of chasing a pipe-dream in college?
In a matter of seconds, these were the questions that were swirling around the minds of fans, analysts, opposing teams, and anyone who was following the draft. Barkley, along with Geno Smith, was one of the prospects whose tumble toward the middle rounds in the draft was as well-chronicled as any player selected prior to him. Barkley, who was widely considered one of the top-3 quarterbacks eligible for the 2011 draft, along with pro-bowlers Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, had become nothing more than a cautionary tale for high-profile players contemplating whether or not to return to school. While Barkley’s junior year, the Trojans’ final year dealing NCAA sanctions from postseason play, held a spot in Southern Cal lore, his senior season served very little more than a cruel reminder of the swings of being a college athlete. Critics pointed at Barkley’s increased interception totals (15 up from 7 in ’11) and decreased completion percentage (63.6% down from 69.1% in ’11) as the reason for his slip. The shoulder injury suffered in the loss to UCLA only heightened the concerns about Barkley’s now-suspect arm strength. With the nature of talent-evaluation, one can only place so much of a premium on leadership and football IQ when the red flags shown by Barkley, once considered a Heisman trophy favorite, rear themselves. By season’s end, Barkley was far from even the most publicized player on his team, as receiver Marquise Lee had corralled most of the attention from the SoCal quarterback.
Even following his forgettable season, Barkley faced criticism for not attending the NFL combine. With the question marks surrounding his shoulder injury, it was difficult to imagine Barkley’s stock going anywhere but down. Sure enough, the picks rolled in and Barkley remained undrafted while E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith, players who the year prior would not have dreamed of going before the former Trojan, joined their new teams. While the young man’s optimism was well-chronicled, it was difficult to imagine the second-guessing Barkley was doing through Thursday and Friday night.
However, Barkley’s wait ended when the Eagles selected him in Saturday afternoon and a whole new round of guessing games surrounding Chip Kelly’s plans began. While one cannot discredit the idea of bringing in a polished product, whose accuracy, leadership skills, and strong football IQ made him one of the most decorated quarterbacks in USC history, even the most well-respected football minds covering the draft could not comprehend what the move meant. All of the sudden the mobile Michael Vick became the odd-man-out in terms of the projected top three quarterbacks on Kelly’s depth chart. While Kelly had preached the importance of competition at every position, the quarterback position should be a constant moving forward, shouldn’t it?
Not so fast. While the football talking heads were constantly reminding themselves how much more they knew the game than the rest of us, Chip Kelly and the Eagles’ organization were busy going by their own book. The franchise whose stale approach, year in and year out, had brought the Eagles’ fan base to their knees in hope of a new direction was forging a new direction that fits what they want to do, kicking conventional wisdom to the curb. All of the sudden, the breakdowns of what Chip Kelly’s offense was going to look like were rendered useless. While the Barkley selection did adhere to the franchise’s draft strategy of taking the ‘best player available’, few could have thought that, with the personnel the team was acquiring, they would even consider making such a perplexing decision. Yet, one can only look back to the beginning of this whole process, and remember that Chip Kelly is unlike any head coach hire in recent years. There are pros and cons to Kelly for certain, but perhaps as sure as that is the case, he will do his best to turn the understanding of the game on its head and use anything at his disposal that he can to build a contender.
All of the sudden, the visions of the Eagles becoming the east-coast 49ers were tossed out the window. The idea of dueling spread option offensive attacks featuring mobile quarterbacks in the NFC East, with RGIII running the Redskins, were axed. The commentary surrounding Chip Kelly shifted from, “can the Oregon offense work in the NFL?” to, “What are we possibly in for with this team come September?” The organization, whose support of Nick Foles and denying the need of a mobile quarterback seemed forced at times, had taken the head-start it was perceived they had adding Chip Kelly, and added months to it. For once, by telling the truth all along, the Eagles franchise had duped the rest of the league and forced the opposition to go back to the drawing board in terms of how they were to approach the Eagles down the road. By drafting Barkley, the team made a strong statement that the prototypical pocket passer, whose strengths include accuracy and a quick release, can work and excel in this offense. Kelly appears to be staying true to his word that he will do his best to tailor his approach to the talent on the roster, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and stubbornly forcing his Oregon attack onto the NFL landscape. One thing that the pick does reinforce, is that the Eagles expect to do whatever it takes to put the ball in the hands of playmakers in an uptempo manner, a concept that Barkley was more than familiar with at USC.
With the makeup of the team the way it is sitting here today, one could argue that any quarterback, including Matt Barkley, could be taking over as the team’s starter when they face the Redskins on Monday night in week one. While it is still possible that either Michael Vick or Nick Foles could be moved at some point, one must credit the Eagles franchise for not overexposing their plans and allowing the rest of the league to make their judgements on what they figure the team will look like when they finally take the field. Kelly has shown no signs of approaching the day-to-day operations and installation of his new team philosophy with anything but the urgency and detail he has demonstrated thus far.