Wake-Up Call: Chip Kelly, NFC East Champ

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Arlington, Texas — Chip Kelly took the podium with a little water in his eyes and a smudge mark on his right cheek — presumably eye black that rubbed off one of the players during the celebration.

It was late in Dallas but the energy from Sunday night’s breath-stealing conclusion was still dancing in the air. The 16-game schedule was complete. And, though it took everything they had, the Eagles were still standing. Year One of the Chip Kelly era, and the Eagles are NFC East champions.

“I told those guys, I thought the first time I met them that it was a special group. I can’t tell you how much they’ve made this transition for me coming from college to the pros, it was those guys,” said Kelly. “They’ve bought in. It’s an awesome feeling when you can work as hard as they’ve worked and to see it pay off, and the results are you’re 10-6 and you’re division champs, it’s a real credit to those guys. They didn’t flinch.”

Looking back, did you honestly expect this to be the end result to your first regular season?

“I expected us to win,” said Kelly.

At the owners meetings in Arizona this past March, Jeffrey Lurie cautioned that you can’t institute a complete culture change in one offseason, and that he was hopeful that the team would begin reflecting the vision of the head coach “as time goes by.” Given the massive overhaul that was underway, expectations were tempered for the 2013 campaign.

“My main concern coming into the season was, can we shift the leadership from an excellent coach in Andy Reid to an excellent coach in Chip Kelly, could you accomplish it all in one season where the entire locker room and the entire organization bought in to a whole new way of doing things,” said Lurie following the win. “And that was accomplished a while ago. Now we’re just trying to execute and execute really well.

“Outstanding coaching job but I think the main thing is, outstanding leadership job. Outstanding handling of an NFL team, coming in and in every way showing leadership, motivation, class at all times; understanding where the players are coming from; instituting a new offense, a new defense; hiring great people.”

LeSean McCoy shot a look to a nearby reporter when he was asked if he had any reservations about Kelly at first, as if to say, “Hell yes.” The star running back, who had just set a new single-season rushing record for the Eagles, admitted that he was unsure at first, seeing as Kelly was coming from college. But over time, after hanging around his new coach, he grew more and more excited and eventually bought all in.

It wasn’t an easy sell initially for some of the Reid holdovers, and the same was true for some newcomers.

“He’s a little different than most coaches are. He goes against the grain, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s great,” said Cary Williams. “It was different coming from where I was coming from, doing things the old school way. But it’s just proved that you can win and play as well as those guys did — if not better — with the way Coach has been taking his approach this season.”

This time last year, the Eagles were finishing a dismal 4-12 campaign and Reid was about to be officially dismissed. It looked like a long road ahead back to contention. Lurie, with his players all wearing NFC East Championship apparel around him, was asked to reflect on all that has transpired in the last year.

“When you are down, it gives you an opportunity to change things,” said Lurie. “It drove us all to try and make a great decision on who we wanted to lead the way out of that and to bigger things. You have to analyze it and make a bold decision and we wanted to make a bold decision. I didn’t have any worries that Chip would not be able to translate to the NFL. That was the least of my concerns.

“It’s not easy to change coaches and find a coach you really want to go after. And that’s why we were patient and went after Chip.”

Since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, 141 teams went 4-12 or worse. Twelve of those teams won their division the next year. That number now stands at 13.

“He always talks about how on December 29, we’re going to pick our head up and see where we’re at. And [after the game he told us], ‘This is a good place to be,’ ” said Nate Allen. “Division champs.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

Kelly said his players “just found a way.”

Sheil provides his observations from the Eagles’ dramatic 24-22 win over the Cowboys.

The playoff picture is set. How it breaks down for the Birds.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Reuben Frank says the Eagles are team nobody wants to play right now.

This isn’t the team that opened the season 3-5. The Eagles since Week 5 have been as good as almost anybody in the NFL, and there’s no reason not to reset expectations. It’s not a fluke that the Eagles are playing postseason football for the first time since 2010. They’re a good football team right now.

Can they beat the 49ers? Can they beat the Seahawks? Can they beat the Panthers? Can the Eagles play with the NFL’s best?

Yeah.

Why not?

Domo looks at the performance of the run defense.

The Eagles entered the game with the third-best yards-allowed-per-carry average in the league (3.8) and did a good job on DeMarco Murray, holding him to 51 yards on 17 carries, well under his 5.4 average.

Grade: B-plus

COMING UP

Playoff football. We’ll speak to Kelly at 1 p.m.

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