November 30, 2015
When Jeffrey Lurie hired Chip Kelly in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles were getting an innovative, energetic coach who had the promise to win big in unconventional ways.
It's a move that was applauded by many, and rightfully so, in my opinion. There are 32 NFL teams, and if they were all equal, individually they'd each have a 3.1 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl each year. The Eagles shot for the moon in a league where it is extraordinarily difficult to win a championship, as Eagles fans have learned.
However, after just three years with Kelly at the helm, it's already time to analyze whether or not the future of the franchise dictates that Kelly must go. In my view, it's time. Here's why:
Kelly's tenure in Philly got off to a tremendous start, when he inherited Andy Reid's disastrous 2012 team, and made the playoffs in his first season after finishing 10-6 during the regular season. In year two, the Eagles finished with the same record, but on the eye test, they didn't look nearly as good as the 2013 version. In 2015, they are 4-7 so far, and a complete train wreck after losing three consecutive games to bad teams in extremely embarrassing fashion.
More specifically, however, Kelly's offense has gone from a high octane machine in his first season to one that often can't get out of its own way in 2015. Back in September, we pointed out that because of the fast-paced offense the Eagles run, they have more drives (and have to defend more drives) than any team in the NFL. As a result, their statistics are often skewed, both offensively and defensively. For example, in 2014, the Eagles were third in points per game and fifth in yards per game. However, they were only 13th in points per drive, and 14th in yards per drive. In other words, they scored a lot of points and racked up a lot of yards because they had more drives than the typical NFL team.
Conversely, in 2014, the defense was 22nd in points per game, and 28th in yards per game. However, they had the misfortune of facing more drives by the opposing offense than the typical NFL team. In terms of per drive stats, the D was 15th in points per drive, and 7th in yards per drive.
The offense has put up good numbers in terms of traditional stats, but in the process has put their defense at a severe disadvantage.
Here are the Eagles' "per drive" stats since Kelly began in 2013:
|Year||Points/drive rank||Yards/drive rank||Turnovers/drive rank|
That is steady (and drastic) regression. So, the question becomes... Why have they regressed?
Are opposing defenses better prepared to handle up-tempo offenses, as they have become more popular league-wide? Have opposing defenses figured out how to stop Kelly's limited playbook? Do the Eagles simply not have personnel that is as good as what they had in 2013?
Take your pick, really. If you respond "yes" to any or all of the above questions (and others), no matter how you slice it, they all reflect poorly on Kelly and the long-term sustainability of his system.
In the NFL, you either have a franchise quarterback, or you don't. And if you don't, you have no chance unless you have some kind of historic defense like the 2000 Ravens or the 2002 Buccaneers. The Eagles don't have a historic defense. Well, it's not historic in a good way, anyway. And obviously, they certainly don't have a "franchise QB."
Looking ahead to the Eagles' options at quarterback, their three most likely choices are to (A) extend Sam Bradford, (B) sign a free agent such as Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III should they become available, or (C) draft a quarterback high.
• (Option A) Extending Bradford: Signing Bradford could actually be difficult, as Bradford may not even want to return to an offense that doesn't seem to fit his skill set, whatever that is. During the 2015 season, while he has improved as the season progressed (a low bar for achievement) it's hard to come up with things Bradford actually does well. Can you win a Super Bowl with Sam Bradford? From my perspective, that is a resounding "no," and therefore not a good option going forward.
• (Option B) Sign a free agent quarterback: As noted here previously, Kaepernick isn't good and has experienced a similar regression as Kelly. RG3, meanwhile, is probably done. The reality about free agent quarterbacks is that if they're on the market free to sign with any team, you probably don't want them. The Drew Brees example would be the exception here, but there won't be any Drew Breeses available this offseason.
• (Option C) Draft a quarterback: There are no shortcuts in finding a franchise quarterback. Almost any team that has one drafted and groomed them. While there are no clear-cut "No. 1 or No. 2 overall" type quarterback prospects like there were a year ago with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, this could be a very deep quarterback draft, with appealing options in rounds one, two, three, and beyond. The Eagles simply cannot miss out.
If their ugly slide this season continues, there's a good chance the Eagles will be picking in the top 10, or even the top 5. That will put them in a position to draft a quarterback. Kelly, in my view, is not the person with whom that quarterback should grow. To begin, the Eagles' selections of quarterbacks during Kelly's tenure have left a lot to be desired:
• The team traded up to select Matt Barkley with the first pick of the fourth round in 2013. Obviously, he was a major disappointment, and is now gone.
• Mark Sanchez is the 29th highest paid quarterback in the NFL, which makes him one of the highest paid backups. Clearly, Sanchez has not played like one of the best backups in the NFL.
• Kelly traded Nick Foles, a second-round pick (which will likely be somewhere in the 30's), and draft position in the 2015 draft for Bradford, who is the highest paid player on the team. Unquestionably, that has turned out to be an awful trade.
• You can even go so far as to include Foles, who was drafted by the Reid regime. However, after the 2013 season, the Eagles seemed to be convinced that Foles was "the guy" after his 29-touchdown, two-interception season. In the 2014 draft, after the Eagles' six desired targets (Anthony Barr, Odell Beckham Jr., Kyle Fuller, C.J. Mosley, Brandon Cooks, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) came off the board, they settled on OLB Marcus Smith, a player they did not ideally want to come away with in the first round. They drafted Smith over quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr, both of whom look like they may have bright futures in the NFL. The Eagles wrongly projected Foles as a franchise quarterback and missed the boat on quality quarterback prospects.
Beyond the misfires in quarterback selection, there are several other reasons not to trust Kelly with a rookie quarterback:
• If the Eagles keep Kelly in 2016, he fails again, and the Eagles are looking for a new head coach in 2017, they may have already drafted a quarterback that does not fit what the new coach wants to accomplish. A new coach in 2016 can hand-pick his quarterback and grow with him, a la Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb.
• On that same premise of Kelly drafting a quarterback in 2016 only to lose his job after that season, that rookie quarterback won't develop properly in Kelly's scheme, and could essentially lose a year of development. After the Eagles traded Barkley to Arizona, he commented on how the Eagles' offense stunted his growth to some degree, via Josh Weinfuss of ESPN:
"It was different being in Philly for sure," Barkley said. "Different than anything I've ever done and it took a while to get used to the footwork and some of the schemes but this is what I've done the majority of my career."
Barkley said the Eagle's offense wasn't nearly as complex as Arizona's, adding: "The last few years have been a little simplified in terms of protections and how the quarterback would handle things."
While that may sound a little like sour grapes from Barkley, his commentary is dead on. Unlike Reid and many other offensive minds around the league, Kelly does not appear to be a "quarterback whisperer" in any way.
This has been covered at length by anyone and everyone, but clearly, Kelly's offseason roster moves have been bad. Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, Kiko Alonso, and Byron Maxwell have set the team back both financially and in some of those cases, what they gave up to get them in trade compensation.
Meanwhile, their focus was in the wrong place. During the offseason, at one point the Eagles had the oldest projected starting offensive line in the NFL, and three starters over the age of 30. It probably would have been a good idea to re-load with some youth along the OL to prepare for the imminent decline of those players. However, over the last three years, the Eagles have drafted the fewest offensive linemen in the NFL, with just one. The NFL average during that span is 4.125 drafted offensive linemen per team. They've drafted none over the last two years.
On top of that, despite having very little depth along the offensive line and a capable player not ready to step in and start, Kelly cut LG Evan Mathis over what seemed to be a p***ing contest over a minor contract dispute. That LG position has been an absolute disaster all season long.
And I didn't even mention LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, or Jeremy Maclin. (OK, now I have). Personally, I can see some logic in the decisions that were made with all three players, however, it's fairly clear that the team would be better on the field with them than without them.
Kelly likely realizes that he asks his players to buy in on a hell of a lot more than other coaches around the league. Faster-paced practices, far fewer days of rest, and pressure to adhere to other sports science measures like sleep monitoring are just a few examples of that, as we've seen former players harshly criticize his approach. And so, Kelly's emphasis on players who will buy in to his culture is really more of a necessity than it is some kind of innovation.
In Kelly's last six full years as a head coach at either the college or professional level, he has racked up an extraordinarily impressive record:
During those six years, Kelly's culture initiatives were never really put to the test of losing. Now that it has, we're seeing how the players have responded, and that response shows that a great culture foundation may have never really been there in the first place.
Despite all the borderline excessive emphasis on adding character players, the locker room has begun to crumble rather quickly after its first real test of adversity. That has to be viewed as a huge disappointment.
One reason for keeping Kelly could be that he hasn't had enough time for his previous offseason acquisitions to gel. That is a sentiment that I simply don't buy, for two reasons:
1) The team has gotten worse as the season progressed, with the previous three weeks being among the most embarrassing losses of the last 15 years.
2) It's not as if Kelly was trying to turn the ship around with young players who are still trying to get acclimated to professional football. He overhauled his roster with seasoned veterans. In fact, the Eagles have gotten progressively (and significantly) older since he took over the team in 2013. Here are the Eagles average ages after 53 man cutdowns each of the last four seasons, with their NFL rank in parentheses:
|25.55 (2)||25.74 (10)||26.26 (19)||26.69 (28)|
The Eagles went from the second-youngest team in the NFL in 2012 to the fifth-oldest in 2015. "Time to gel" simply isn't a valid excuse. And frankly, the fact that Kelly's roster has gone from one of the youngest teams in the league to one of the oldest in such a short period of time while experiencing rapid regression also looks very bad.
While the Eagles have faltered this season under Kelly, one thing that can be said for him is that he was very innovative and influential around the league. Many teams have already taken his best ideas such as his sports science initiatives and various offensive schemes, and implemented them. That does not come as a surprise. The challenge for Kelly in that regard was if he would be able to stay ahead of the league as they poached his ideas. That has not happened. So while it's somewhat cruel for the league to say, "Thank for the innovations, Chip, buuuuut... see ya," that could be the reality of this situation.
Many of the most successful franchises around the league have had the same head coach in place for a long time. The importance of stability at the head coaching level cannot be understated. However, there comes a point when the negative outlook of a franchise dictates that a move is necessary to begin the process over again. I believe the tea leaves say that a continued regression is more likely than a turnaround to some kind of Super Bowl contender.
The only thing keeping the Eagles alive at this juncture in the 2015 season is that the NFC East is woefully incompetent, with the division-leading Redskins at the top with a 5-6 record.
Barring some sort of miraculous turnaround that involves the Eagles playing well down the stretch, winning the division, and playing reasonably well in the playoffs, the Eagles should be looking to part with Kelly after this season.