It took roughly 285 days for the inevitable to happen, but the ‘Honeymoon Period’ between the Eagles and Chip Kelly is officially over. Following back-to-back losses where Kelly’s vaunted offensive attack has been rendered ineffective, the Eagles have gone from an early season dark-horse contender to a struggling club grasping to the fact that they play in the worst division in the NFL. After a 3-3 start that saw the team score over 30 points in four of the six games, the Eagles combined for a measly 10 points over the last two, with the lone touchdown coming on a Giants special teams blunder. Sitting at 3-5 and running out of healthy quarterbacks to put on the field, Chip Kelly is starting to feel the heat of being an NFL coach and regardless of what you think, it is starting to get to the rookie head coach.
Kelly’s irritability is no huge surprise. He has rarely dealt with failure over his football career and he left a very desirable situation at Oregon to take a crack at the NFL. Frankly, I would not want my coach to admit defeat and say that the cupboard is dry in terms of offensive innovation only 8 weeks into the season. That being said, the entire Eagles franchise is in a delicate state right now and it is important to take note of how things got to this point.
The Eagles immediately boosted expectations following their week 1 win over the Redskins. Not only did their offense appear dynamic and efficient, but they were able to dispose of a defending division champion on the road in their new coach’s first game. This of course was before everyone realized that the Redskins, at least at this point, are not the same team that won 7 straight games en route to an NFC East title. Even so, Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, and DeSean Jackson were all performing at a relatively high clip, especially compared to last season. Even in their losses to the Chiefs, Chargers, and Broncos (to an extent) the offense was able to move the ball and their efforts were usually derailed by untimely turnover or defensive deficiencies. After impressive wins, albeit against two winless teams, the Eagles were a surprising 3-3 through their first 6 games and looked like they could be a team that could contend for a division in a down year.
While that still may be the case, two disheartening losses at the hands of division opponents, both on home soil, have tempered the good will surrounding Kelly and the Eagles. Not only has his offense been unable to put up points, or yards at the pace of the first 6 games, but they have wasted a pair of spirited efforts from a defense that continues to improve. Many would argue that the defensive unit, which was seen to be well behind schedule from a personnel standpoint, has performed more than well enough to win and with Kelly being an ‘offensive guru’, he is shortchanging his team.
While the notion of Chip Kelly already being considered a failure is moot, considering we are only 8 weeks into the season, I still would call the first half of his first season a success, relatively speaking. All things considering, the only game where it appeared that Kelly did a generally poor job was their most recent loss to the Giants. Kelly came up short in both pregame and in-game coaching and it probably cost his team a win. For one, Michael Vick should not have been playing. For a quarterback who depends on his athleticism so much in every snap he takes, it should have been obvious from the get-go that he was in no shape to play against an NFL defense. If the Eagles had deemed Vick unready to start at the beginning of the week, Matt Barkley could have worked with the first team offense all week and probably carry a bit more confidence into a game he started than a game where his first action came while staring at a 12-point deficit. Kelly also failed to make any adjustments against the defense that first held the Eagles running game in check. LeSean McCoy has the talent where he should be a factor in every game and it should be one of the top priorities of your gameplan to find a way around any adjustments defenses had made in the past. For Kelly’s first game against a repeat opponent, I was extremely disappointed with the inability to adjust from the previous contest and find different ways to operate as an offense. There have been a couple of instances in previous games where some of Kelly’s inexperience at the NFL level showed, but Sunday’s game was the first time where he looked as if he let the moment get the better of him. Puzzling decisions such as attempting a 4th and 10 conversion when they could have tried a 50-yard field goal or an onsides kick with over four minutes left in the game were the wrong calls in both situations and, with the game ending as a one-score contest, you could argue that Kelly’s miscues cost the Eagles a chance at the game.
Kelly did a poor job as a coach in all aspects of the Giants game, I have no issue admitting that. However, to say Kelly’s tenure has been a failure, or frankly to deny some of his success is a drastic overreaction. Before getting to Kelly as a coach, extraneous factors obviously have affected the expectations for this year’s team. With the NFC East division leader sitting at only a game ahead of the Eagles, losses such as those over the past two weeks sting a little extra knowing that the playoff spot is up for grabs. Many looked at the Eagles as the weakest team in the division prior to the season and, as unimpressive as it is, the team is sitting in 2nd place halfway through the season. While I do not expect it to happen, in another eight games we could be discussing how Chip Kelly took the biggest trainwreck in the NFL and made them a playoff team.
On to Kelly, who of all the new head coaches this season has had to perform under the largest microscope. The enigmatic coach from Oregon has not once complained or appeared flustered from the national spotlight put on his performance from the start. Many have assumed that Kelly would be another in a long list of college coaches who failed at the NFL level only to return to the comforts of the NCAA. This remains a possibility, but from all indications, Kelly has poured every waking moment he can into being an NFL head coach and looks as if he is committed to succeeding at this level.
As far as all new coaches in the NFL goes, even in a results-based industry, each new hire has an opportunity to earn himself a ‘Mulligan Year’. Most coaches come into situations with personnel who he did not necessarily sign off on in a culture that has been established for at least a year. As long as he does not step outside certain, rather obvious boundaries, the results of a first year head coach’s season should be taken with an extremely large grain of salt. Kelly has not stepped outside most of the boundaries and has earned the same patience given to coaches who do the same. Kelly’s biggest mistake, and it is definitely worth mentioning, was playing Vick in the game against the Giants. Vick plays an extremely important role on the team and many of his teammates, young and old, hold him in very high regards. By playing a visibly hobbled Vick and putting him in a precarious situation, it is possible that the other players in the locker room don’t necessarily think Kelly would always have their future in mind. This is an extreme stance and I don’t think that one instance could have that sort of sweeping effect on a locker room that, to this point, has been very pro-Kelly. It is just something that would be very bad to make a habit of and it is on Kelly to be able to identify when his players are healthy enough to play.
Despite setting the bar high at week 1, aside from immediate disappointment following the losses, I have been happy with the trajectory of Kelly’s tenure thus far. While the team’s inability to win home games is as unnerving as any issue with the team, Kelly has won some impact games as a coach in less than ideal situations. Everyone in the Western world, except Trent Dilfer, picked the Redskins to blow out the Eagles in week 1 at FedEx Field. On a night where Robert Griffin III was as popular as a member of the Beatles before the game, Kelly stole the spotlight by the end winning his first game on enemy soil. He also led a team, coming off three straight losses, into Giants’ stadium and, in a back-and-forth affair, kept his team from imploding (a tendency that had marred the last two seasons) and came out with a win. Beating division opponents is important every season, there is no doubting that. To have a first year coach win his first two road games within the division says something about Kelly’s competitiveness.
Even though he is largely in charge of the offense, Kelly deserves some credit for the performance of the defense. A unit that started the season as the supposed Achilles heel of the team has improved drastically and has trended ahead of the offense the last few weeks. When everyone was questioning the job of Billy Davis as defensive coordinator, Kelly showed trust in his staff and allowed his assistants to work in an environment where they were not constantly dealing with media criticism. He has given young players, such as Earl Wolff, Bennie Logan, Cedric Thornton, and Clifton Geathers an opportunity to fight for a spot in the defensive rotation and the early returns have been positive.
It is too early to judge Chip Kelly from a personnel standpoint fairly, although his inability to find a substantial role for 2nd round pick Zach Ertz is somewhat disturbing. Another thing Kelly could do to negate his ‘one-year Mulligan’ would be to make a panic trade for a one-year rental in exchange for draft picks. Even if the Eagles somehow made the playoffs this season, this year was always supposed to be the start of a foundation and there is nothing more important than draft picks, regardless of round, when a team is trying to do so. Kelly must continue to infuse his roster with the types of players that he sees fit before one can truly pass judgement.
So with his team at 3-5 through 8 games, one game back of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, I think it is time for everyone to pump the brakes on calling Kelly a failure. One can criticize his handling of the quarterbacks, with some merit, but the fact of the matter is Kelly has had too much instability at the most important position in sports to have the type of success he would like. I do think that the Eagles, no matter what it takes, have to acquire a player they see fit to be an elite-level franchise quarterback. Some of the popular names in the college ranks have had some weaknesses exposed, but there are still players who could fill that role and, even if the team is not in a position to draft one from their draft slot, they must do whatever it takes to make it happen. The nature of Kelly’s offense, which is based on timing, trust, non-verbal communication, and repetition, makes it essential for there to be a definitive number one quarterback. As far as who the perfect fit is, that’s a conversation for a different day, but Kelly’s lack of a consistent quarterback option is a tall task to overcome.
What must be apparent over the second half of the season for there to still be good faith in Kelly moving forward is the continued overhaul of a toxic culture. The defense has shown resiliency that they did not show last season. Even at a considerable disadvantage from a talent standpoint, the defensive unit has been able to limit opponents’ scoring totals to within reason. The offense must be able to show a similar resiliency. Things always seem great when the offense is moving the ball and scoring touchdowns with the Eagles. They must show an ability to find ways to manufacture yards when their first options aren’t there. They did not do so against the Giants and they were held completely useless because of it. If Kelly can succeed as a playcaller / designer at this level, he must be able to adjust his gameplan when things are not working. I truly feel that the locker room has not given up on the season or the situation, and that is saying something considering the national bashing of the team as a disappointment. It was going to be imperative for this year’s team to deal with what some might consider unfair expectations. To this point, there has been nothing to indicate otherwise and because of that Kelly deserves credit.
The rest of the season will be frustrating, no doubt. Michael Vick probably will not return to 100% health and his last games with the Eagles will probably be with him struggling to fight through aches and pains. Unless having a full week being considered the number one quarterback magically turns him into Tom Brady, Matt Barkley will continue to show why he was a 4th round pick and will never be considered anything more than a serviceable backup. If the Eagles want to stay in the playoff conversation, it will be on the backs of their offensive line and running backs to churn out yards and wear teams out. After being unable to do so in week 1, the Eagles have been able to show off their improved conditioning by running the ball down opponents’ throats when sealing up wins against the Buccaneers and Giants. If the defense keeps playing the way they have, they will be in a position to win games. If the offense finds new ways to put the ball in the endzone, the Eagles can still be a team that can shock the league and make the playoffs. For now, everyone must step off the ledge and give Chip Kelly the patience we all said we would when the team hired him.