Year-End Review: Fairly Evaluating Chip Kelly
Since the Eagles lost three straight games in December and were eliminated from the playoffs, the range of opinions on Chip Kelly has widened considerably.
Some view him as an over-hyped coach whose team collapsed down the stretch in Year 2. Others defend his every move, regardless of the evidence/results right in front of their eyes.
Below is a thorough evaluation of Kelly, along with a look at the state of the Eagles heading into his third offseason as the head coach.
ESTABLISHING A CULTURE
The clip surfaced during the week following the Eagles’ 27-0 win over the Giants in October. Kelly was mic’d up for the game, and cameras caught him having a conversation with practice squad member Jordan Kovacs during pre-game warmups.
“Culture will beat scheme every day,” Kelly said.
The victory put the Birds at 5-1 heading into their bye, and the quote was cited repeatedly by Eagles faithful. But the concept of establishing a culture can be misinterpreted and warrants a closer examination.
It does not mean that Kelly is a strict disciplinarian who covets a bunch of boy scouts in his locker room. Take, for instance, the Riley Cooper incident in the summer of 2013. The Eagles announced on Aug. 2 that the wide receiver would be leaving the team to seek outside counseling. Four days later, on Aug. 6, he was back at practice. Neither the team nor Cooper specified how he spent his time away, other than to say he was with his family for part of it.
Cooper started that season and was re-signed to a five-year, $22.5M deal in February. Despite his off-the-field transgression that embarrassed the franchise, Cooper still apparently fit the culture Kelly was trying to establish.
In many cases, the Eagles look for high-character guys, but that can be said of most franchises. The culture has more to do with a commitment to the program: players taking care of their bodies, practicing hard, being good teammates, acting in an unselfish manner, etc.
“This is really a good group in terms of like nobody really rebels,” said cornerback Brandon Boykin. “In the NFL, there’s always a couple of guys that are me-guys, and that’s non-existent on this team, and that’s extremely rare. So just the atmosphere we’ve created here is special. Definitely proud of that.”
The emphasis on practice specifically cannot be overstated. It’s the foundation of Kelly’s philosophy. Win the rep. Win the drill. Win the practice. Win the day. Every game is the Super Bowl. No one task is more or less important than another. All else aside, a failure to get on board with this particular philosophy appears to be a deal-breaker for Kelly.
He has been described as a players’ coach. And that’s true to a point, but there’s a qualifier: only if the players are buying into his program (see: Brent Celek, DeMeco Ryans, Jason Kelce). Regardless of talent, players who don’t buy in won’t be here long (see: DeSean Jackson).
In some ways, Kelly is conducting an experiment. Can an NFL coach really expect all 53 of his players to completely buy into his program? Can he win a Super Bowl without making exceptions? Those are the questions we’ll get answers to before his tenure is over.
SCHEME AND TEMPO
For many teams, tempo is a tool – something they can call on depending on situation and opponent. For the Eagles, it’s the program. Per Football Outsiders, they ran one play every 21.95 seconds in 2014. That was the fastest pace in the NFL and faster than they moved in 2013 (23.38).
In Year 1, the offense finished third in DVOA. It dropped all the way down to 13th in Year 2. The Eagles got inconsistent QB play from Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez. And a year after they started the same offensive line for all 16 games, the Birds were hampered by injuries up front in 2014.
The operation is built on the run game. And the Eagles were mediocre in that area in Year 2. In two of the team’s six losses, opponents (the 49ers and Seahawks) suggested that Kelly’s attack was predictable. The Eagles do not have a massive playbook. Kelly believes in perfecting execution with a smaller number of plays. We see him go back to the same concepts over and over again throughout the course of a game. Shrink the volume, but have the players in position to execute against a variety of different looks.
The philosophy makes sense, but Kelly will have to continue to guard against predictability and add new tools and change-ups.
In 2013, the Eagles faced a lot of man-free coverage. That’s man coverage across the board with a single high safety. The look allowed defenses to get a safety in the box as an additional run defender, but the Eagles were able to pound the ball anyway and do damage downfield in the passing game.
In 2014, they faced a lot of Cover 3 – a zone coverage with man principles. Teams still played with a single high safety and were able to get the second safety in the box. But they were able to limit some of the Eagles’ downfield passes with more deep defenders.
Overall, turnovers were the main issue. The Eagles gave the ball away on 17.4 percent of their offensive possessions; that was the worst mark in the NFL. They also averaged just 4.56 points per red zone trip (20th).
When the run game hasn’t worked, the offense has stalled. Kelly has often pointed to execution, but this explanation only goes so far. Players are not robots, and execution will never be perfect. Blocks will be missed. Throws will be off-target. Receivers will have drops. Those issues are not exclusive to the Eagles. Any offensive coach in the NFL can point to failed execution as a reason for struggles.
Because of the way Kelly has structured practice, Eagles players get more reps than most others. But how then can the coaches get the players to execute better?
“We’ve always gone with the philosophy that if they haven’t learned it, then we’re not teaching it the right way,” Kelly said. “We have to continue to find different ways to make sure that part gets hammered home, and you’ve got to continue to stress that and to find that. Maybe you have to find a different way to teach it. Maybe it’s a visual tool; it’s more film work. Maybe it’s more walk-throughs. There are a lot of different things that you have to investigate as you go through the offseason here.”
Kelly’s response should be encouraging to Eagles fans. He sounds like a coach willing to adjust his program going into Year 3. We’ll find out in the spring what changes he and his staff come up with, and we’ll find out next year whether those changes produce results.
This is one of the more fascinating storylines of the offseason. Up to this point, Kelly has been calling the shots. He has confirmed that he has final say over the 53-man roster, and all evidence suggests Kelly’s reach has extended beyond that. Jeffrey Lurie confirmed that it was Kelly’s call to release Jackson in the offseason. And it doesn’t take a genius to see Kelly’s fingerprints all over the draft.
In 2014, two of the Eagles’ first five picks were used on Oregon players whom Kelly coached – Josh Huff and Taylor Hart. Kelly admitted that he wanted to take Hart earlier than the fifth round, but Howie Roseman convinced him that the defensive lineman (who never dressed for a game as a rookie) would be available later.
A month ago, it seemed like Kelly’s power might grow even more in his third offseason. The team had overcome injuries to beat the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and improved to 9-3. But with the way the season ended, it’s possible Lurie prefers to shift some of the control back to Roseman.
Tim reported last month that the Kelly-Roseman relationship had cooled. On Monday, Kelly pointed out that Roseman’s strength is managing the cap and dealing with contracts. On the surface, that seems like a compliment. But Roseman has put in work to be viewed as more than that, to be seen as someone skilled in evaluating personnel. During the same press conference, Kelly called vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble “a heck of a football guy.”
Regardless, a front-office shakeup seems unlikely at this point. Earlier this week, Lurie gave Roseman a strong vote of confidence. And as he’s reminded everyone in the past, the owner is the man with the scorecard. He knows why the Eagles ended up with Marcus Smith II in the first round of last year’s draft. He knows why they went with Huff and Hart perhaps earlier than they needed to. He knows whose decision it was to give Cooper $10M guaranteed and part ways with Jackson. And he knows the details of the Kelly-Roseman relationship.
Overall, the Eagles have taken an evidence-based approach with the draft. When scouting outside linebackers, they don’t want to project. They want to take someone who has dropped into coverage, set the edge and rushed the passer at the college level. When looking at outside corners, they demand a specific size. Measurables have been emphasized under Kelly, which means that some talented players can get overlooked. While it’s unfair to judge a draft class based on one season, early results from the 2014 group have not been encouraging.
It’s tough to project an end game here. Does Kelly maintain his level of control over the roster? Does Lurie step in and give Roseman back some of his responsibility, specifically as it pertains to the draft? How would such a decision fly with Kelly?
When it comes to the goal of building a Super Bowl-caliber roster, those are the storylines to watch this offseason.