2013 In Review: Top Five Individuals in Philadelphia Sports in 2013

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1. Chip Kelly-Eagles Head Coach

Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one person following Philadelphia sports that would like to debate this selection, I implore him or her to bring their argument to the table. I am always in the mood for a good laugh and any counter-argument to Chip Kelly being the most impressive person in Philadelphia sports in 2013 would make for high comedy.

Kelly shocked the world of college football like no other in his four seasons running the Oregon Ducks. While the powers of the SEC dominated recruiting and programs like USC & Stanford did their best to out-talent Kelly’s Ducks, all the New Hampshire native did was lead the team to four straight BCS Bowls, including a narrow National Championship loss at the hands of Auburn in 2010. After flirting with, and ultimately deciding against taking a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, many pegged Kelly as a college guy through and through. He had as cushy a situation for a meticulous workaholic that any could ask for and many thought it was a matter of time before Kelly dethroned the southern powers and brought a title to Eugene.

Oregon would throttle Kansas State in their latest BCS bowl victory following the Ducks’ one-loss 2012 campaign. Even as many penciled in Kelly as returning to try and capture an elusive national championship, that did not stop the professional ranks, intrigued by his innovativeness, from gauging his interest. In one of the more active offseasons in terms of NFL coaching searches, Kelly joined elite company while teams tried to find the man to lead their team to the Promised Land. Among established names (Andy Reid), experienced coordinators (Gus Bradley), and a handful of fellow coaches from the college ranks, Kelly represented the ultimate risk/reward candidate. After spending years trying to put the right combination to win under Andy Reid, the Eagles decided to approach Kelly full bore, in hopes of luring him from the comforts of Oregon.

Their initial approach would blow up in their face. Much like Penn State’s Bill O’Brien, indications were that Kelly had little interest in risking the established success he had built in the NCAA ranks. He rebuffed the team’s initial approach and many saw that as the end of the courtship. Was it not for the persistence and passion shown by GM Howie Roseman and owner Jeffrey Lurie that probably would have been the case. Whether it was the relentlessness of Roseman, the mystifying challenge of succeeding in the NFL, or even the fact that Oregon was about to be dealt a hefty set of NCAA penalties is irrelevant. Fact of the matter is that the Eagles were able to do the unthinkable and rip Kelly from the college ranks and name him their next head coach.

To say things were stacked against Chip Kelly entering his first year would be a drastic understatement. Poor drafting and personnel decisions had turned the Eagles from consistent contenders into the laughing stock of the NFL. Several, especially of high regard in football circles, bashed the hire and felt Kelly’s philosophies could not withstand the NFL game. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Kelly had not spent one second holding down an NFL position. He would be learning everything on the fly and, in a championship-starved city like Philadelphia in a results-based league; Kelly would not be given much leeway.

Kelly brought a college mentality to Philadelphia and the criticism continued. He opted to move the team’s training camp away from Lehigh University, a favorite of fans during the summer months to prepare for the upcoming season. He pegged Billy Davis, a man with little track record in terms of success, for his defensive coordinator. He incorporated ideals such as ‘sports science’ and required sleep times, gimmicks often reserved for college-aged athletes. Finally, he proclaimed from the beginning that players would have to compete every day for starting jobs and those failing to do so would have no place on his roster.

Pundits scoffed at Kelly’s initial plans. Whether it was noting the drastic decrease in allotted roster space, the maturity of the players on his team, or even the style everyone thought he was going to employ, the early returns on Kelly were negative. Heath Evans of the NFL Network apparently felt he had seen and heard enough to call the move one of the worst coaching hires in league history. (http://www.nfl.com/nflnetwork/story/0ap1000000122162/article/philadelphia-eagles-hire-of-chip-kelly-could-be-worst-in-nfl-history)

Still, Kelly avoided the noise and carried out his plans from day one. He ran his practices, from OTAs to training camp at breakneck pace. He forced players to alter their diets and undergo nutritional monitoring. All the while, Kelly maintained his patented snarky approach with the media and brought an edge never before seen during the days of Andy Reid.

Aside from the ‘old school’ football world all rooting against Kelly, it was not as if he was inheriting a loaded roster. The Eagles had gone 12-20 over the two seasons leading to Kelly’s hire and one could argue that mark was better than their play. Aside from a few dynamic skill players and an offensive line that, when healthy, had the chance to be one of the stronger units in the league the Eagles roster was as barren as most in the league.

Despite the apparent personnel shortcomings, Kelly had zero interest in making excuses. Even while many suggested the new coach should try and set himself up to draft one of the apparent franchise-altering quarterbacks in the following year’s draft, the new coach laid out his agenda from the day he was hired: he was here to win games now.

His first preseason was marred with controversy and devastation. Jeremy Maclin, arguably the team’s best receiver, would suffer an ACL injury before playing a snap. Experts hammered his open quarterback competition, noting the team would need stability to absorb his apparently complex offensive systems. Things would reach a fever pitch when career reserve WR Riley Cooper was caught on camera using a racial slur in public. In a few short months, Chip Kelly’s team experienced as much turmoil as some organizations do in five years. Despite all of that, there were no excuses for anything less than the high standards that Kelly expected from his team.

Kelly’s first game coaching in the NFL regular season was memorable to say the least. After jumping out to a blazing start against the Redskins, the Eagles would score what many felt was an upset win over Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. The lightning pace shown by the Eagles paired with the quick-strike plays that made up the team’s scoring drives briefly silenced the critics. Once again though, Kelly would have to deal with adversity in a big way.

The team would go 2-5 over the seven games following the win over what turned out to be an awful Redskins team. Sitting at 3-5, following two straight losses that saw the team fail to score an offensive touchdown, the questions swirled like never before about the hiring of Kelly. CBS analyst Phil Simms called the team’s offense one of the five worst in the league, they were apparently without an answer at the quarterback position, and speculation began as to whether Kelly would follow Nick Saban’s lead and leave the NFL at the first sign of difficulty to return to the comforts of college. Steadfast to the end, Kelly plowed through the skeptics and took the city of Philadelphia on a ride like they have never seen before.

Ignited by a 49-20 win over the hapless Raiders, Kelly’s offense started to take form with Nick Foles at the helm and the returns were unlike any seen from a first-year coach. Behind the Peyton Manning-led Broncos, the Eagles were the premiere offensive attack in the league. Kelly’s ability to exploit weaknesses and mismatches against the opposition sharpened on a weekly basis and the Eagles started to look more and more the part of a contender. Meanwhile, the ‘gimmicky’ sports science approach allowed some of the team’s veteran players, most notably Trent Cole and Brent Celek, to experience career rebirths as they emerged once again as impact players. Even in the wake of criticism due to some of his in-game management issues, Kelly’s Eagles were winning games and people were starting to notice.

As the rest of the NFC East sputtered and searched for consistency, Philadelphia surged toward the top of the division. The team was able to re-establish Lincoln Financial Field as a venue for opponents to fear and the calm confidence shown by his team became the embodiment of the first-year coach. They would rattle off five straight wins and bring meaningful December football back to Philadelphia for the first time since 2010.

Heading into the team’s week 15 matchup on the road against the Vikings, conventional wisdom would have figured the Eagles could walk in to the Metrodome and coast past the Adrian Peterson-less foes. The team turned in their first poor performance in weeks, falling to the hapless Vikings and squandering a chance to cruise to a division title. Kelly, along with his team, made no excuses noting they did not put in the type of performance that winning teams do, regardless of the opponent. The Eagles would have to close out the schedule with wins against two postseason contenders to extend their season after failing to do so against an inferior opponent. It was the resilience of his team following their first hiccup in several months that showed what Kelly brought to the table as a coach.

Facing what many thought was an equally, perhaps superior offensive mind in Bears coach Marc Trestman, the Eagles welcomed Chicago to Lincoln Financial in their week 16 matchup. The Bears had an opportunity to seal up the NFC North division, while Kelly and the Eagles had little more to play for than potential postseason seeding. One hardly would have known which team was playing for a postseason bid, as the Eagles steamrolled the high-powered Bears in their best game of the season. They would cruise to a 54-11 win, improving their record to 9-6. The high-powered Chicago offense was rendered ineffective, and Kelly’s attack was as efficient and dynamic as ever. They would enter a division-deciding contest with the Cowboys, a team that held Kelly’s Eagles to their lowest offensive output of the season, with a chance to wrap up a postseason bid.

The Eagles had every reason to look past the Cowboys. They would be without quarterback Tony Romo and middle linebacker Sean Lee. Considering Dallas’ historically bad defense, many looked at the game as a potential laugher. Instead, what ensued was the type of championship matchup that allowed fans of the NFC East to briefly forget how miserable the division had performed over the year.

After squandering an early 10-point lead, Kelly’s Eagles found themselves in a dogfight against the depleted Cowboys. Sparked by a spirited effort by their defense, Dallas rendered what had worked so well the week prior useless and the game had turned into a passion-driven battle. After the Cowboys had cut the margin to 17-16, it was easy to write off the Eagles, who still had so many players remaining from the mentally weak teams that had choked away wins over the previous two seasons. Instead, in what was perhaps their most spirited effort, Kelly’s Eagles made winning plays in high-pressure situations. When Brandon Boykin intercepted Kyle Orton’s first down pass with less than two minutes left in the game, ultimately sealing the win, Kelly’s critics could say no more.

The coach whose playground-style offense and college-geared philosophies had no prayer against the best in the world had taken on all comers and emerged as members of the exclusive club that is the NFL postseason. With a quarterback that could not run, a defense without a star, and a roster that probably needed two years to reach Kelly’s ideal situation, the Eagles were able to do what the defending Super Bowl Champions, the defending NFC East Champions, and contenders like Houston and Atlanta could not: make the tournament culminating with the Super Bowl.

If one could ask Kelly, there is no way he would say he is satisfied with just winning the division. Every team’s goal at the beginning of the year is to win the Super Bowl, and the Eagles are no exception. However, from a big picture standpoint and a fans perspective, it is hard not to gush at the possibilities of the Eagles running under Kelly for an extended tenure. The meticulous coach has such a defined idea of what he wants in his team, he has confidence in what he preaches, and he is flexible enough to make adjustments when he sees an opportunity to exploit opponents. With a strong front office and a budding young roster, the misery that surrounded the Eagles in 2011 & 2012 has shifted back toward the lofty aspirations that typified the early 2000s.

The NFL, perhaps more than any other league, is a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ type organization. In 12 months, we could be talking about how it was possible that Kelly’s approach to the NFL was cracked so fast. However, unless someone is keeping their theories to themselves, its hard to remember defenses having so much trouble trying to defend a team with players like Riley Cooper and Brent Celek making plays compared to Jimmy Graham and Calvin Johnson. I am certain that Heath Evans and Phil Simms have forgotten more about football than I could ever hope to know. Looking back on Kelly’s first season though, as professionals representing the premiere sports league in America, Simms and Evans should be embarrassed of their tabloid analysis and should think long and hard before making the sort of all-encompassing statements they thought would make them look like geniuses at years end. Whether they, and the rest of the old boys club that has run the NFL for years likes it, Kelly is a force to be reckoned. For once, in what seems like forever, that force has hit Philadelphia like a hurricane and the quick-witted coach from New Hampshire is where the conversation starts and ends when it comes to who is pulling the strings when it comes to the hearts of fans of the City of Brotherly Love.