November 23, 2015

The worst performer on the field Sunday was Chip Kelly

The Eagles played the kind of football game on Sunday that gets coaches fired. Oh, it won’t happen today or next week, but, for the first time, Chip Kelly’s tenure as coach and GM beyond this season is in question, if not in jeopardy.

And, based on how he has performed this season, it should be.

What happened against the Buccaneers — a 4-5 team with a rookie quarterback — was so thorough a beating that the blame can land on only one person, the man who shaped this flawed roster and devised that impotent gameplan. As ex-Eagle Brian Westbrook said after the loss: “The coaching staff should be ashamed of that effort.”

How could such a stadium-clearing stinker happen in a contest so important? The defense was hideous, the offense was inept, and special teams were inconsequential. The common denominator in all of those failures was Kelly. The worst performer at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday was the coach.

And he has been no more impressive since the fiasco. After the game, Kelly said the defense “was not ready to play.” On Monday morning, he first denied that he had said that, then – when I prepared to play the sound bite for him on my WIP radio show – he said he didn’t mean it.

Kelly was right the first time. The defense was not ready to play against a mediocre offense with a so-so running game, and that’s why it allowed an astonishing 521 total yards, 283 on the ground. Doug Martin took his place right behind Emmitt Smith and Jim Brown as the third-most-prolific single-game rusher against the Eagles, with 235 yards.

Smith, Brown and who? It’s safe to say this is the only time in his four-year NFL career that Martin ‘s name was spoken in the same breath as those two Hall of Famers. Martin is a solid back – unless he’s facing an Eagles defense that showed only token interest in contesting him. Then he’s Canton material.

There is no logical explanation for the performance of the Eagles’ defense other than that the players are beginning to give up on the season, and on the coach. How else can anyone justify nose tackle Bennie Logan sharing a belly-laugh with quarterback Jameis Winston on the field during the two-minute warning in the second quarter?

Meanwhile, Kelly has dismissed the public dispute between Darren Sproles and backup quarterback Mark Sanchez over a pick-six that made the final score (45-17) even more humiliating, but the sad part of that ugly display is that it was the only time all day that the Eagles showed any emotion.

When I suggested on Monday that Kelly show more passion himself, especially when dealing with his uninspired players, he snapped back that maybe I should coach the team. I probably went too far by then pointing out that they couldn’t be much worse than the 4-6 team they are now.

All of the wisecracks aside, Sunday’s loss represented a crisis for Kelly, both because the team he created looks more and more like a loser and because his snarky attitude has won him few friends along the way. He is not the type of coach who earns extra consideration with his warm approach.

Whether Kelly can survive the 5-11 or 6-10 that it appears he is facing now is a question only Jeff Lurie can answer – and the Eagles’ owner has never been quick to tip his hand. Fans who saw Lurie leave the Linc on Sunday said he looked grim, almost ashen.

Is he pondering the future of Chip Kelly?

All we can say for sure right now is that everybody else is.

***

Chip Kelly and Sam Hinkie are both in their third year with the Eagles and Sixers, respectively. Kelly has a winning record and has easily sold out every game he has coached in Philadelphia. Hinkie has presided over the worst era in franchise history – including a current 24-game losing streak – and thousands of empty seats at every home game.

So why is everyone speculating over Kelly’s job security, and no one over Hinkie’s?

It’s all about expectations.

Now, I realize I’m comparing a coach to a GM here, but Kelly and Hinkie are the architects of their clubs. Even before Kelly had total personnel power, he was the overseer of the roster, just as Hinkie has been with the Sixers.

Under no circumstances would Hinkie have ever tried what Kelly has attempted – committing his team to win right away. In fact, Kelly made life much harder for himself by taking a 4-12 roster and reaching the playoffs right away. He won 10 games in each of his first two years, before flopping to 4-6 so far this season.

Whether Kelly has done a respectable job is debatable, but even the most devout Hinkie-ite would not argue that the Eagles coach has been far more successful so far than the Sixers’ GM. Yet, Kelly may be coaching for his Eagles future in the last six games of the current season, while Hinkie remains insulated from any immediate job concerns.

The lesson here is that it’s easy to con the fans if you create the right environment. Hinkie has established from the beginning that winning is not important right now. Despite no previous record of success, he has encouraged fans to trust his process, while refusing to provide a timetable for this rebuilding plan.

So far, Hinkie’s PR approach has worked a lot better than his roster reconstruction. A small cult has lined up behind him, offering support everywhere but at the turnstiles. A conservative estimate is that Hinkie won’t have to win for at least a couple of more years before dealing with speculation about his job security.

Kelly has no such luxury. His brusque attitude and his disinterest in lowering expectations have already made him a target. It hasn’t helped that there are a growing number of dissenters working right next to him in the NovaCare Complex. The coach isn’t doing any politicking in there, either.

Chip Kelly will probably leave Philadelphia before Sam Hinkie, despite their dramatically different records. It is becoming increasingly clear, at least to me, that they are both destined to fail here.

But – for what it’s worth – at least Kelly has made a far more honest effort during his three years here than Hinkie.

***

The seventh installment in the iconic Rocky series is opening on Thanksgiving Day, and the early word on Creed is extremely positive. In fact, many reviewers are calling it the best Rocky movie since the original.

The only better news for boxing would be if the sport actually staged a fight that brought this much interest. Unfortunately, boxing is far more popular as a fictional vehicle these days than as a fan attraction. And that’s a shame.

I am a former boxing writer who spent a week training (more or less) with Marvin Hagler; who was ringside for the last truly big heavyweight fight, Tyson-Spinks, 27 years ago; and who spent the most exciting night of his professional life interviewing and dining with Muhammad Ali.

At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, one of the greatest trainers of all time, Angelo Dundee, told me boxing would never die because no other sport had the big-event drama, the genuine anticipation that anything could happen.

Of course, Dundee was wrong about the actual sport, but not about its continued relevance in movies like Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, The Fighter, The Southpaw and now Creed – all hit films that were released in the past 11 years. During that time, the sport itself has sagged under the weight of bad acts like Floyd Mayweather and overpriced pay-per-view events that never fulfill their hype.

Ironically, the best hope for fighting in the ring (or octagon) is the UFC, which actually got the attention of mainstream sports fans nine days ago with the stunning upset of Ronda Rousey by Holly Holm. Maybe the UFC can replace boxing as the next big-event sport in America. Maybe there is hope yet for fighting to return as a major attraction.

Hey, if people are willing to spend their money to watch fictional fisticuffing like Creed, it’s comforting for old boxing fans like me to think there’s still a market for actual fighting, too.

And finally ...

How bad is Philadelphia sports right now? The three teams playing in November have combined for a 3-22 record so far, 0-12 at home. And the team that isn’t playing just finished with the worst record in baseball. If you are still a big sports fan right now, congratulations. You’re resilient.

• The Flyers have scored 15 goals in their first 10 games at the Wells Fargo Center this season. At $100 per ticket, patrons are spending about $67 per goal. That’s why the team is having a tougher time filling the seats this year. The only thing worse than a bad team is a boring one. Right now, it appears that the Flyers are both.

• Regardless of how the Eagles’ QB situation plays out the rest of the season, at least nobody is still arguing the case for Nick Foles. The ex-Eagle has been a total bust in St. Louis, proving his 2013 season here was a fluke. Still, the Rams figure to win the Foles-Sam Bradford deal because the Eagles threw in a second-round draft pick. In the end, that pick is going to be worth more than either quarterback.

• The most nauseating story in sports right now is the drama surrounding Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy, who refuses to take responsibility for the domestic-abuse case that sidelined him earlier this season. Last week, Hardy actually said “the world is against me.” Yeah, domestic abuse alienates people. Imagine that.

• The persistent rumors that the new Phillies front office is trying to trade closer Ken Giles are a joke, right? No GM would be dumb enough to deal a home-grown 25-year-old pitcher who can throw 100 miles per hour. OK, maybe one would. But that’s why Ruben Amaro Jr. isn’t here anymore.