As an Eagles fan, this time a little over a year ago I was actually starting to buy into the Steve Mariucci’s of the world cursing the team’s head coaching vacancy. Not necessarily because I thought firing Andy Reid was a bad decision, because it was not. More was the fact that, after a coaching search mired with disappointment and dead ends, my fear was that the team would not be able to bring in the type of coach that could help steer the team back on course after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
After Andy Reid was relieved following the team’s miserable week 17 loss to the Giants, the prospective list of potential coaches was as intriguing as I could remember. Coaches who had dominated at the college level mixed along with successful coordinators around the league made up one of the most bountiful candidate pools as one could ask for. That said, there were a few names that jumped out at me at first and, thinking that the Eagles were one of the premiere organizations in the NFL, I figured Jeffrey Lurie would have the proverbial pick of the litter.
Of the lot, there were three names that I honed in on from the jump. The first, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. The former Patriots offensive coordinator had been one of my favorite figures in football after seeing him get in Tom Brady’s face on the sideline like no one I had ever seen. Paired with his early success at a talent-strapped Penn State school, I had little doubt that O’Brien could step in and fix a toxic culture within the Eagles organization and bring immediate success at the NFL level. The second choice, Stanford coach David Shaw. The protegé of Jim Harbaugh had just led the Cardinal to a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin, and did so without the services of Andrew Luck at quarterback. His run-intensive, pro-style offense along with his team’s physical nature seemed a perfect fit at the pro level and given the success at Harbaugh, Shaw seemed like a safe bet.
The third choice was anything but a safe bet. Honestly, looking back to the 2013 offseason, the pursuit of the head coach of Oregon felt almost like a vanity preference more than anything. I did not necessarily want the Eagles to hire Chip Kelly because I thought he was going to be a successful coach. I wanted Chip Kelly to pick the Eagles and leave the college ranks because he had left the Buccaneers at the alter the year prior, and his leaving as cushy a situation as there was at the NCAA level would justify my belief that Philadelphia was a prolific destination for college coaches.
Very rarely did I cheer for Kelly’s teams in his tenure at Oregon. As a huge Andrew Luck fan, I was irritated to no end when Oregon beat Stanford in Palo Alto during Luck’s final season at the college level. The following year, I went ballistic when Zach Ertz caught a game-tying touchdown late in the 4th quarter of an overtime win for Stanford over Oregon, essentially ending the Duck’s bid for a second straight National Championship game appearance. The only games I rooted for Oregon were against USC whenever the two played, and against Auburn in the 2010 Title game because of my general disdain for the SEC.
When the rumor mill started turning, I figured the Eagles would lock down their guy before almost every other team with a vacancy. When reports surfaced that O’Brien would be a lock for the job if the Eagles offered, it seemed as if everything was falling into place. However, after O’Brien rebuffed a chance to coach in the NFL, things took an unfortunate turn.
Including Chip Kelly, who initially appeared as if he would return to Eugene after the Eagles brass put their best pitch forward following the Ducks’ Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State, options started to dwindle quickly. Shaw reinforced his commitment to coaching at Stanford, and the focus shifted to some of the top coordinators around the NFL. Along with the Chicago Bears, it looked as if the Eagles may be on the short end of the stick as far as bringing in an impactful head coach to follow-up Andy Reid.
Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley emerged as the lead candidate for the position toward the end of the search. After striking out on some of the top college candidates, Bradley seemed like a solid consolation prize. The fiery personality that had played an integral part in turning Seattle’s defense into one of the most feared units around the NFL endeared himself to the Philadelphia fan-base and seemed poised to take over the operation. Little did we know that GM Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie were busy working on their biggest coup to date. A year ago to the date, the Eagles persistence paid off and they brought in the candidate they wanted all along.
Eagles make it official with Chip Kelly. Here’s the story: http://t.co/YO9nb8P9
— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) January 16, 2013
The announcement sent shockwaves through NFL circles. A coach who had used such a distinct style in his tenure at Oregon walked away from all the creature comforts of his job to test his mettle at the NFL level. He had zero experience on a professional staff and utilized a scheme that was generally looked upon as one that could not succeed at the highest level. The early returns were polarizing, but after 13 years with Andy Reid at the helm, the Eagles had a new coach.
It was almost impossible not to have some reserves with Kelly as a head coach. Despite being a fan of college football, I pegged Kelly as a system coach who could not succeed without an athletic quarterback. After seeing such promise from Nick Foles the year before, it seemed almost a formality that the team would move away from the statuesque quarterback and opt for another year of Michael Vick under center.
Yet through it all, Kelly stuck to his guns. The bold, sometimes even brash coach whose meteoric rise had taken him from a secondary coach at Columbia University to dominating the Pac-12, had lost nothing in terms of his confidence and brought the same attitude to the NFL that helped him lead Oregon to four straight BCS games.
After more than a decade of contending in the NFC East, the Eagles fanbase felt the sting of reality when they sunk to the bottom of the division in 2012. Between the ‘dream team’ fiasco and the miserable 2012 campaign, the Eagles had gone from the envy of the division to the most laughable team with very little to look forward to. Even with Kelly at the helm, poor drafting and questionable free agency decisions had set the team’s roster back years it seemed. There were those that pined for the Eagles to intentionally struggle during the 2013 campaign in an attempt to bring in a quarterback more suited to Kelly’s scheme in the following offseason’s draft. Still Kelly, who from the beginning insisted he had every intention of competing from his first game, made no excuses when it came to the roster he inherited.
Regardless of the coach, Chip Kelly had to deal with more in his first offseason than most coaches deal with over a career. Whether it was losing his most dependable receiver to an ACL injury, or the backlash of putting forth an open quarterback competition, or having to run damage control for Riley Cooper’s racial slur Chip Kelly was run through the gauntlet before coaching a regular season game. There were those that questioned the move and seemed certain that the coach who hadn’t spent a moment on an NFL sideline would crumble under the pressure of what he had to deal with.
Yet through it all, Kelly never wavered in his confidence that he could turn a talented Eagles roster back into a contender. Kelly and his Eagles burst onto the scene during their week one win over the Redskins, but it was tough sledding for the first-year coach early on. Through the first half of his coaching tenure, sitting at 3-5 and having not scored an offensive touchdown through two straight games, all indications were that the blush had worn of the rose and Kelly’s innovations had no business in the NFL. The league that had chewed up and spit out coaches like Steve Spurrier and Dennis Erickson appeared to have claimed another victim.
Yet in the face of arguably his most intense criticism, Kelly persevered and his team followed. Over the 2nd half of Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach, the Eagles rattled off seven wins in eight games and brought pride back to the Eagles organization. Iconic games, such as the ‘Snow Bowl’ and Nick Foles’ seven touchdown performance against the Raiders started to swing the public opinion of Kelly. He went from inevitable flameout to potential savior of a city teased by false prophets.
In addition to the performance of his team, still apparently a few successful offseasons away from reaching the talent level necessary to compete with the elite class of the NFL, Kelly brought a refreshing presence in the media. His quick-witted, honest approach at the podium was a far cry from the ‘coach-speak’ mentality of Andy Reid. He seemed to channel the personality of a city that cared only about winning and had no time for the sort of poetic waxing that is used by some coaches to deflect difficult questions. When Kelly uttered what has become his hallmark phrase, “We’re from Philadelphia and we fight” following the Eagles win over the Lions in the snow, one can only imagine the gratification felt by Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie. In a city that has rejected so many figures in every capacity of every sport imaginable, the Eagles organization had found the perfect candidate to carry the banner for Philadelphia.
While the team’s season ended in disappointing fashion, a situation that looked like a ten-year overhaul had shifted toward a possible one-year renaissance. Kelly had taken on every challenge thrown his way and, in the face of harsh criticism, brought excitement back to the Eagles franchise. With a quarterback that could not run his offense, a defense that was two drafts away from running the defense he wanted, and a locker room poisoned by the mistakes of offseason’s past Kelly had led the Eagles to a division title and back to the playoffs.
There is no telling what will happen in the future under Chip Kelly. There are still those that feel he will return to the comforts of the college game to chase the elusive National Title that escaped him in 2010. There are those that feel the league has already caught up with Kelly and it will be a matter of time before the Eagles look like the bumbling teams of 2011 and 2012. While the detractors are fewer, it is easy to see that there is a faction of those waiting for Kelly to fail.
Bill O’Brien is now in the NFL and David Shaw appears to be next in line as the premier college coach to make the jump. Despite that, I am thrilled that neither is currently in charge of the Eagles. Most organizations in the league are clamoring for a solid coach that can consistently lead his team to the playoffs. Personally, I have had enough of seeing my team stay the course only to fall in a similar fashion every year. Kelly’s Eagles might bring disappointment in the future, but it will never be for a lack of creativity and innovation. It is impossible to predict what the 2014 offseason has in store, for the simple fact that Kelly has bucked every prediction thrown the Eagles way. Until proven otherwise, Eagles fans can take solace in the fact that, despite being a knowledgeable group, are nowhere near the football acumen that their head coach possesses. It has been as mercurial a year as one can imagine. Some of the highest highs and lowest lows have been experienced with Kelly at the helm. This is because, for the first time in my life as a Philadelphia sports fan, the Eagles might (emphasizing MIGHT) have the type of figure that could define a generation. In another year, I could be writing an article admitting just how wrong I was about Kelly. That being said, I would bet my last dime that the coach with no NFL experience that was, as Heath Evans called it “one of the worst hires in the history of the NFL”, will either fall flat or bring about an era of championship-level success that this city has never seen from this football team.
With a full year under his belt Chip Kelly has transformed the Eagles into one of the most potent offenses in the league and will only get better in year two so don’t wait, get your 2014 Eagles tickets today!