Bradley’s Birds: What if the Philadelphia Eagles Hired Gus Bradley as Head Coach?


Despite falling to the New Orleans Saints in his first playoff game as an NFL head coach, the early returns on Eagles head coach Chip Kelly are resoundingly positive. After overcoming a highly publicized, at times tumultuous preseason and a 3-5 start Kelly’s Eagles rattled off wins in seven of their last eight games to finish 10-6 and win the NFC East title for the first time since 2010.

The six-win turnaround from the previous season paired with the promising performance of the team’s young core has many praising the Eagles upper management for taking a chance on Kelly, a coach many felt was more geared toward the college game. Several changes that the former Oregon coach (emphasis on nutrition, inter-squad competition, dynamic offensive philosophies) became a story within themselves and by season’s end. After the hire was met with polarizing reception, many who questioned the move shifted their opinion on Kelly. Less than a year after he was hired, Chip Kelly has restored optimism and pride with the Eagles organization and has fans and media alike sharing a much rosier outlook regarding the team’s future.

How easy it is to forget that all indications were that Kelly was going to spurn the Eagles and return to Oregon, much like he did the year before to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman interviewed Kelly when he was in Arizona for his team’s Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State. After initially rebuffing the Philadelphia job and pledging his allegiance to the Ducks, Kelly reversed gears and announced he would accept the Eagles’ offer on January 16th.

When they missed out on Kelly at first, the Eagles still were in the midst of the search for the replacement of Andy Reid. After bringing in several candidates, many who went on to ink head coaching jobs elsewhere such as Mike McCoy, the organization had apparently honed in on their top candidate in Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. The intense, fiery assistant of the promising Seahawks had helped construct one of the league’s most intimidating, dynamic defenses in the league and was as endearing a candidate as any to take over the Philadelphia Eagles.

When Kelly had his change of heart, Bradley would go on to accept the head coaching position for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Inheriting one of the most talent-depleted roster’s in the NFL, Bradley and the Jags went through their fair share of growing pains (losing their first 8 games) before showing promise down the stretch and finishing the season winning four of their last eight games. As Jacksonville continues to turn over their roster and cater its personnel toward Bradley’s whim, many feel it won’t be too long before the Jaguars are back in contention in the ever-fluctuating AFC South.

Still, one cannot help but wonder how things would have turned out for the Eagles if Kelly did not reconsider the organization’s offer and Bradley was named head coach. From all indications, the Eagles were set to finalize the deal before Chip changed his mind and Bradley was forced to continue his pursuit of a coaching job. The defensive-minded assistant out of Seattle was as different a candidate as possible from Kelly and it is perplexing to wonder what the team would have looked like with Bradley at the helm.

Across the board; from scheme, to personnel, to overall organizational philosophy Bradley would have brought an entirely different look to the Eagles. Rather than trying to quantify a win total or piece together a prospective roster, it would probably be easier to highlight some of the crucial aspects of the 2013 Eagles season under Kelly and try to imagine how a Bradley-led administration might have approached things.

Looking at the Eagles roster at the end of the 2012 season the defense, Bradley’s area of expertise, was as toxic a unit as one could have asked for. Nnamdi Asomugha and Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie were a far cry to the tandem of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner Bradley was used to coaching. The personnel was not equipped to run Bradley’s 3-4 under hybrid scheme and, much like Kelly focused on offense in terms of his early personnel decisions, one would have to think Bradley would address the other side of the ball.

Considering the dearth of their issues on defense, conventional wisdom would think they would not try to sign one or two high-profile free agents, but rather take a similar approach to what the team did this season. Players like Cary Williams, Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher, etc. actually fit the personnel scheme of Bradley as current Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis runs a very similar 3-4 hybrid scheme. It’s impossible to say the players would be identical, but a very similar free agent crop could have come in under Bradley.

Nov 17, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; At right, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley reacts to a call by side judge Dave Wyant (left) after a fumble on a punt return in the third quarter of their game against the Arizona Cardinals at EverBank Field. The Arizona Cardinals beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 27-14. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

The first indication of the two coach’s different philosophies would probably come at the draft. With the Eagles holding the number four overall selection, one would have to think that Bradley and Howie Roseman would emphasize selecting a defensive player rather than Lane Johnson, the team’s selection under Kelly. The team probably would have set their sights on Oregon outside linebacker Dion Jordan, the consensus top defensive player available. After the Dolphins traded up to select Jordan in the spot ahead of the Eagles, the next defensive players selected in the 2013 draft were pass-rushers Ezekial Ansah and Barkevious Mingo.

Seattle’s defenses under Bradley were always stellar, but it was usually with a different approach to pass-rushing. They were tied for 18th in sacks in 2012, Bradley’s last season as coordinator, but were 4th in total yards allowed. More often than not, Seattle would depend on its world-class secondary to shut down passing attacks rather than sacrifice personnel by blitzing heavily. If I were to guess, I would think that Bradley would have preferred a defensive lineman such as Sheldon Richardson or a defensive back like Dee Milliner. Considering his eye for talent and the year that Richardson had for the Jets, my guess is that the former Missouri Tiger would be the pick and hold down one of the three defensive line spots, probably preventing the team from selectinga player like Bennie Logan in the later portions of the draft.

Rather than going through all seven rounds, it would probably just be easier to think the team would have geared their drafting strategy toward defense with a few offensive players sprinkled in. The team would not have drafted a ‘luxury’ player like Zach Ertz in the 2nd round, instead maybe a secondary player. Looking at the bounty of talented offensive players that the Eagles had at the start of the season, its hard to imagine a Bradley-geared administration would have brought in some of the skill players that the Jaguars did in the 2013 draft.

As far as players remaining on the roster, one would have to imagine that Gus Bradley would not have brought back Michael Vick and Nick Foles probably would have been the starter at the beginning of the season. He might prefer to bring  in a veteran signal caller as a free agent to fortify the position, but seeing Foles’ progression from 2012 to 2013, it might be safe to assume he would win the starting job out of camp.

It would be very interesting to see how Bradley would handle the Riley Cooper incident. After Jeremy Maclin was injured, Chip Kelly realized the importance of Cooper and defended his remaining on the team vehemently even well into the season. It is impossible to predict how a person would react to such an intense situation where either decision would have long-reaching ramifications. Despite working in cohesion with Pete Carroll, a more laid back ‘players coach’, Bradley’s intensity was one of the hallmarks that made him such an intriguing coaching prospect. Based on nothing but speculation, Gus Bradley would not have had the patience or forgiveness shown by Kelly for what, at the time, was little more than a role player and Cooper’s days in Eagle green would be over before the 2013 season.

The intrigue and coverage of the Eagles heading into the 2013 regular season would pale in comparison to the Kelly-led team. While the Seahawks are one of the teams in the NFL who appear to be ahead of the curve as far as the direction of the league, Gus Bradley spent substantial time in the NFL and probably would adhere to some more of the ‘old school’ mentality that Kelly almost comically avoided. Any coach with the integrity and history of winning that Bradley had grown used to, he would enter the season with the same competitiveness and drive to win that Kelly had. One thing working against Bradley would be the fact that Kelly’s offense was unlike anything the NFL had season. From the first game against the Redskins, it was easy to see that the league would have some catching up to do before keying in on some of the areas of weakness that the offense had.

The distribution of talent on Bradley’s team probably would have been a bit more balanced between both sides of the ball. Between the inherited talent on offense and the reinforcements on defense, it would not have been as much of an assumption to assume the defense would be a weak point. That said, the Eagles offense would not be among the top units in the league and they probably would not be able to jump out to the sort of leads they were able to. Bradley would probably bring out a much better effort out of his team throughout the season than was shown in 2012. The team would compete consistently and, given their last place schedule, probably increase their win total from the previous year by at least two. Considering the struggles of the rest of the NFC East, there’s nothing to say that the Eagles would not perform best against their division foes as they did this season. They might even have a better time playing against the flawed Cowboys team, a squad that for some reason or another gave Kelly’s Eagles serious issues in both contests this season.

While the team would compete night in and night out and probably finish the season with a promising outlook, much like they have under Kelly, it is very difficult to imagine them posting the 10-6 record they did this year. That’s not to say they would not compete for the division. All season it felt like maybe eight wins would be enough to get the automatic bid from the NFC East winner. I could definitely see a Bradley-led Eagles team being in contention to win eight games, a few bounces going their way like they did this season. I just do not see them beating a team like the Cardinals or maybe even a Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team in Lambeau. Ultimately, while the season would be considered a success from a big picture standpoint, they would not have the immediate success that the Chip Kelly 2013 Eagles had.

Gus Bradley was a great coaching candidate and I think he will do an awesome job putting together a formidable Jaguars team. The Jacksonville organization appears determined to take things more seriously as far as building a team that can eventually compete with the best of the AFC. That said, there has always seemed to be a glass ceiling over teams like the Jaguars. They are an unattractive free agent destination and rarely draw a crowd like some of the ones seen at Lincoln Financial Field toward the end of this season. The Philadelphia fanbase would have loved Bradley’s defense-oriented approach and intensity on the sidelines. Considering how quickly things went south under Andy Reid, they probably would have had an increased level of patience in waiting out the turning over of the roster.

What seems to separate Kelly and Bradley is the possibility, as remote as it may seem, that Kelly could be a transcendent coaching talent. Kelly had everything working against him in his first year and came out of it with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth, yet he gives himself a ‘failing grade’ as far as wins and losses are concerned. If Bradley can turn the Jags into a playoff team before management loses patience, it will be considered a success. Bradley would be expected to deliver a Super Bowl in Philadelphia, and would probably not be allotted the same amount of slack. Kelly could have his schemes and philosophies cracked and lose favor as quick as he gained it. That said, he is currently ahead of the game and given his dedication, flexibility, and creativity the excitement for year two of Chip Kelly dwarfs anything that Bradley could have brought in terms of second year expectations. The Eagles would have regained respect under Bradley and probably would have the team back in playoff contention within a few years. Maybe I’m looking through rose-colored glasses, but its tough to say with a straight face that Bradley would have the sort of immediate impact and set the sort of astronomical expectations that Chip Kelly has after just one season. For now, just be thankful that Chip Kelly decided to reconsider his initial resistance to the offer.

Dec 15, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley yells in the first quarter of their game against the Buffalo Bills at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports