Lurie May Have Lost His Way

Photo courtesy: USA Today Sports Images

Jeffrey Lurie. (USA Today Sports)

It may have been a ruse and it may have been a miscalculation. Either way, it was one of several moments of late that has shown this owner in an unflattering light.

Jeffrey Lurie did the awkward one-podium-two-people shuffle at Doug Pederson’s press conference, emerging from the shadows stage right to take on big-issue questions that ended up dwarfing the not-so-minor matter of introducing the new head coach to the public.

If there was angst within the media, it was built up over time as a result of vagueness on Lurie’s part about the level to which Howie Roseman should be held accountable for organizational moves. He ducked several questions along those lines shortly after firing Chip Kelly, saying only: “[Roseman] will have a say in personnel as a collaborator” while pointing to Tom Donahoe as a “crucial hire in a crucial position in terms of player personnel” despite the small fact that Donahoe is little more than a consultant at this stage who commutes from his home in Pittsburgh to Philly a few days a week. After being tracked down by several reporters outside the NovaCare following that presser (despite media relation’s efforts to whisk him away), Lurie suggested they would not be adding a general manager and that the collaborative process would be between Roseman, Pederson and Donahoe.

Pederson’s press conference was another chance for Lurie to clear things up. Instead, he used the search for a new personnel head as an out.

“What I’d like to do is really talk to you more about structure and the exact nature of those once the search is over, because I don’t want to sort of telegraph anything we’re doing,” he said. 

“But trust me, as soon as we finish this search, accountability will be 100 percent.”

Of course, that search has since been put on hold. After talking to a handful of potential candidates, it was determined that the best course of action was to wait until after the draft when much of the scouting talent would be available. Teams are highly reluctant to let their top evaluators go this time of the year, after all, considering they’ve spent the season gathering valuable information to be used come draft time. Of course, that’s not new intel. The search committee had to know going in that the talent pool would be limited. Did they think they would be able to land a big fish anyway — one that would be willing to enter a power structure that already had Roseman in the big chair and a with a head coach in place?

Was the search that went nowhere just an elaborate ploy to avoid the bad PR that would come with admitting what everybody already knows — that Roseman is pulling all the strings? Or should we just chalk it up to a lack of foresight? Regardless, the Eagles are in a position where Roseman (who was largely out of the scouting game last season), Donahoe (essentially a part-timer) and Pederson (a green head coach) are the power trio linked with an undermanned scouting staff that spent the better part of the year looking for Kelly-specific players.

If we’re judging off recent history, lack of foresight might be the answer.

It’s what bit Lurie at the close of the 2014 season. Asked if Roseman would return as general manager, he scoffed, “Is that a question? Yes.” He then removed Roseman as GM days later.

Maybe he didn’t see Kelly’s power play coming, but he should have. Word was out on the souring relationship between Kelly and Roseman. Some league insiders were predicting a showdown in the offseason, and they were right. Kelly, riding the momentum that comes with a pair of 10-win seasons and a sail-full of hope, won out — at least temporarily.

That lack of foresight is what allowed Lurie to agree to a move that sent Kelly’s ride with the Eagles into a ditch: giving a coach brand new to the NFL scene an amount of unchecked power that only Bill Belichick — who has been in the NFL coaching ranks since 1975 and now has four Super Bowl titles to his name — enjoys. Speaking to Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the owners meetings that offseason, he told us that Belichick earned that level of power “over time” in New England. Kelly got it just two seasons in and before winning a single playoff game. Teamed with the 30-year-old Ed Marynowitz, Kelly went into the delicate job of crafting a roster riding an over-sized bulldozer of which he had little command.

Lurie justified his decision by saying that he “wanted to make Chip accountable for everything he wanted to have happen. And one of the ways to make him accountable was to have him make those decisions, because that is what he insisted on decisively doing. So if you want to make those decisions, be accountable for them, and that’s the direction it took.”

What Lurie failed to do both in that response and in all the hours since the Kelly regime collapse is hold himself accountable. (Asked what his biggest misstep was hours after the Kelly firing, Lurie responded by weaving together a response about not wanting to be risk-averse.) Whether Kelly was insistent or not, Lurie was Kelly’s senior both in NFL experience and rank. He’s the one that has to know better. It’s his job to be the steward of this franchise and use sound judgment in the name of guiding it towards Lombardis. The “you asked for it, you got it” approach set the wheels in motion for the downfall of a coach that Lurie himself believed was the man that would help deliver this city a championship at last. Kelly played a major role in the destruction, no doubt, but the free rein certainly did him no favors.

The decision to keep Roseman in-house didn’t help, either. While it can be viewed as shrewd that he held tight to a trusted ally in case the high-risk Kelly experiment didn’t pan out, it’s also fair to wonder whether having Kelly’s adversary as your right-hand man makes for an environment where all parties are “pulling in the same direction,” as Andy Reid once said. It was a judgment call that blew past red flags and remains highly curious.

Put it all together, and you can make a case that a pattern of questionable decision-making has emerged.

Overall, Lurie is well thought of around the league. That was evident in Jim Schwartz’s response when asked why he chose Philadelphia as his re-entry point into the NFL.

“It starts with ownership. Don’t let you anybody tell you any different. Ownership is very, very important in this league, and Jeffrey Lurie was very, very attractive as an owner,” he said. “Being a head coach for five years, being around the NFL, understanding the respect that he has from the other owners, and just the building that you guys are in here every day; the things that he does for this franchise, this city, that was number one.”

Similarly, potential “personnel head” candidates that we spoke with cited Lurie as a primary reason why the Eagles would be a desirable destination. (It was the role itself that gave some people pause.) He has a reputation for being a non-meddling owner with a personal touch that provides all the resources you can ask for. From that end, he’s a big asset.

He is also liberal in his approach and will not tie himself to one specific power structure or way of operating, but rather adapts to the current set of circumstances. While there is value in that, it is certainly worth exploring whether he has been too loose in his ideals and is too easily swayed.

A touch over four years after he took over as owner of the Eagles,  Lurie came to a firm conclusion having watched the Ray Rhodes era unravel up close.

“I’ll tell you something I’ve never said before,” Lurie told reporters back in ’98 per a Sal Paolantonio article for “Going in, my idea was always to hire a top general manager and take it from there. So, I always felt in my gut that one person couldn’t do it all.

“The debate is about whether a head coach can do it all. He can’t.”

Lurie later amended that quote by saying he was referring to Rhodes, not all coaches.

He had given Rhodes final say over personnel and neglected to build a support system that the head coach felt compelled to lean on. The results were not pretty. Rhodes went 9-22-1 over his final two seasons and 3-13 in his final year. The power shifted to Tom Modrak, but that proved to be short-lived, as Andy Reid gained say over personnel two years into his tenure and Modrak was shown the door.

After Reid’s successful run, Lurie wanted to go back to the split structure, only to change courses when Kelly applied the pressure. Following a lesson re-learned that (many) coaches can’t do it all, he’s gone back to the “collaborative approach” that he feels most comfortable with.

In 2012, Lurie concluded “the person that was providing by far the best talent evaluation in the building was Howie Roseman,” then bumped Roseman out of the talent evaluation business when Kelly suggested/demanded it. He spoke glowingly of Nick Foles after the 2013 season, allowed him to be traded along with a second round pick the next, and now may or not be exploring the option of bringing him back. Last year, he talked about how the Eagles had Sam Bradford as the highest-rated QB coming out of college since Peyton Manning and said it was worth rolling the dice on a quarterback with that type of upside. Now, he may allow Bradford to walk without a sure-fire replacement plan (and arguably insufficient data on the QB).

Following the disastrous free-agency spending spree of 2011, this team vowed to get back to back to its roots and follow the path of building through the draft, which they knew was the way of title contenders. That lasted all of a couple years before Kelly was allowed to blow it all up.

From personnel to power structure to personal philosophy, a man known for his consistency has run hot and cold.

He determined after 14 years of Reid that it was time for a new and innovative coach that would put the Eagles on the cutting edge of the NFL. Left chilled by how that experiment went, he has since wrapped himself in the warmth of an era gone by, complete with Roseman, Reid’s protege and a handful of familiar faces in tow that reflect a time when his Eagles were among the best and most respected organizations in the league.

You wonder whether that’s an indicator that Lurie is back on course, or one of several signs of late that the shepherd of this franchise has lost his way.