Numbers And Reasoning Behind Chip Kelly’s Exit

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Jeffrey Lurie’s hiring of Chip Kelly had long been viewed as a risky one with high upside, but also with plenty of room for failure.

Before his time in Philadelphia, Kelly had experienced nothing but success. He was instrumental in turning Oregon into an elite college football mainstay, and was regarded as one of the bright offensive minds in the world.

At the end of the Kelly era, winds had changed. His offense was sliding, his team’s record was sinking, and his defense was breaking.

The Eagles were out of the playoff picture for the second straight season, which didn’t sit well with a fanbase and organization spoiled by Andy Reid’s four consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game in the early 2000s.

In 2013, Lurie handpicked Kelly from a minefield of coaching options. A few have proven to be deft hires; others have fizzled out and been fired.

After three seasons, Kelly was the third-most successful of the seven coaches hired that offseason.

Bruce Arians (34-13, 0-1)10-6 (0-0), 3rd11-5 (0-1), 2nd13-2 (X-X), 1st
Andy Reid (30-17, 0-1)11-5 (0-1), 2nd9-7 (0-0), 2nd10-5 (X-X), 2nd
Chip Kelly (26-21, 0-1)10-6 (0-1), 1st10-6 (0-0), 2nd6-9 (0-0), T-2nd
Mike McCoy (22-25, 1-1)9-7 (1-1), 3rd9-7 (0-0), 3rd4-11 (0-0), 4th
Gus Bradley (12-35, 0-0)4-12 (0-0), 3rd3-13 (0-0), 3rd5-10 (0-0), 3rd
Marc Trestman (13-19)8-8 (0-0), 2nd5-11 (0-0), 4thN/A
Rob Chudzinski (4-12)4-12 (0-0), 4thN/AN/A

Lurie had the chance to interview Bruce Arians, but cancelled the meeting. Consequently, Arians, whose Cardinals defeated the Eagles just 10 days ago, has been the most successful coach of the 2013 class despite being its last hire.

Arians has squeezed the most out of a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer, a stout and athletic defense, and a bevy of receiving weapons on the outside.

Reid, the coach the Eagles moved on from after 13 seasons together, has been the second-most successful coach of the class. His Chiefs are heading to the postseason for the second time in his three years, and are currently riding a nine-game win streak, the longest streak in the league.

Reid is doing it with Alex Smith, a cost-effective, game-managing quarterback, a banged-up stable of running backs, and Jeremy Maclin, whom Kelly watched walk away from NovaCare this past spring because the price tag was too high for Kelly’s liking.

Was Kelly the right hire after all? Consider the kind of coach the progressive Lurie was looking for — forward-thinking, invigorating — and acknowledge that Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley, who has 12 wins in three years with the Jaguars, seemed to be the organization’s second choice. It didn’t turn out quite the way Lurie, or fans, expected, but it was likely the right hire at the time.

However, Kelly is gone. Why? Let’s look at seven active coaches who have either experienced a prolonged amount of success in the league, or seem positioned to do so.

CoachFirst YearSecond YearThird Year
John Harbaugh (32-16, 4-3)11-5 (2-1), 2nd9-7 (1-1), 2nd12-4 (1-1), 2nd
Mike Tomlin (31-17, 3-1)10-6 (0-1), 1st12-4 (3-0), 1st9-7 (0-0), 3rd
Mike McCarthy (27-21, 1-1)8-8 (0-0), 2nd13-3 (1-1), 1st6-10 (0-0), 3rd
Bill Belichick (25-23, 3-0)5-11 (0-0), 5th11-5 (3-0), 1st9-7 (0-0), 2nd
Pete Carroll (25-23, 2-2)7-9 (1-1), 1st7-9 (0-0), 3rd11-5 (1-1), 2nd
Sean Payton (25-23, 1-1)10-6 (1-1), 1st7-9 (0-0), 3rd8-8 (0-0) 4th
Ron Rivera (25-23, 0-1)6-10 (0-0), 3rd7-9 (0-0), 2nd12-4 (0-1), 1st

Six of these coaches have won Super Bowls. The one outlier, Ron Rivera, has the best record in the league this season.

The first three years seem to tell a very similar story. Coaches who stay with the same team for a long time, and succeed with that team, succeed early on. Sometimes that’s a playoff win; sometimes it’s a big regular season. It can even be both. But there needs to be some sign of a coach’s system taking hold, a dot on the timeline which the coach can point to as undeniable evidence of their worth.

With Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick, those defining moments came early on. Their second seasons ended in Super Bowls. When you win one of those, you get a good deal of leeway for the foreseeable future. Just look at the kind of time two have bought Tom Coughlin.

For Pete Carroll, that defining moment came later, in his third season. While the up-and-down first season resulted in a playoff win, Carroll needed his 11-5 season in year three — and the subsequent postseason victory — to truly cement his sway in Seattle.

Kelly didn’t have that kind of a moment. His peak came in his first season, when Nick Foles played the best football of his life and the Eagles managed to make the postseason before being felled by the Saints. That was it. That was Kelly’s peak. A 10-6 season and a first-round playoff exit.

Not only did he lack a moment, but he lacked momentum.

For a coach like Rivera, postseason success hasn’t materialized just yet. But his Panthers are heading to the playoffs for a third straight year this season, with their third consecutive NFC South title in tow.

In his first three years at the helm, Rivera watched his team grow from a 6-10 afterthought into a 12-4 contender. The Panthers lost to the 49ers in the 2013 postseason, which was the peak of San Francisco’s powers. But, unlike Kelly’s lone playoff appearance, Rivera directed his team back to the postseason time and again.

There is, of course, always an argument to be made for each side of a decision, and the idea of retaining Kelly was not without its merit.

Kelly had more wins in his first three seasons than Belichick, Carroll, Rivera, and Sean Payton, respectively.

His teams showed flashes of brilliance; while most of his highlights came in that first season, his Eagles did manage to beat Belichick and the Patriots on the road this season, a difficult feat for any coach.

The problem, then, was the absence of both a moment and momentum. The cumulative numbers for Kelly were present and accounted for, but when they’re trending the wrong way, it’s hard to shake the fear of another step backwards, especially when you consider his peak came in the first year of his regime and has been fading out of sight with each passing year.

The numbers were stacked against a fourth season for Kelly, and Lurie decided to pull the plug, sooner rather than later, on a regime that was quickly sinking into mediocrity for the foreseeable future.