The Education of Chip Kelly

The Eagles' coach has improved considerably since September. Here's how the former college coach is adjusting successfully to the NFL game.

Photo | Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Photo | Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday was a good day for the only two purely college-to-pro coaches in the NFL. Both Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano and the Eagles’ Chip Kelly notched wins, and though it remains unlikely the Bucs’ boss will survive the season, Kelly continues to grow in his role with the Home Team. No one can predict whether he will ever win a Super Bowl, but Kelly has shown the ability to grow into the job and has the Birds in a great position, even if that spot is first place in the NFC Island of Misfit Toys Division.

It’s impossible to give Kelly all A’s on his report card, since his decision Sunday to go into the four corners early in the final quarter allowed Washington to sneak back into the game. He has yet to grasp the nuances of clock management, something that was never much of a concern while he was at Oregon and blowing out most opponents.

One would imagine Kelly will develop a better touch in that regard as he spends more time in the NFL and has to protect leads in close games. When it comes to the more important stuff, however, he has improved considerably since the beginning of the season.

The biggest step forward has come on offense, in large part because Nick Foles has taken over at quarterback for Michael Vick. If Vick were still under center, Kelly would be trying to run an attack that resembles more of a college scheme. With Foles at QB, the Eagles’ offense has more of an NFL look, with a mature passing game. Sure, the inside zone read remains a staple, and Old Twinkletoes averaged 5.2 yards on his nine carries against Washington, but the Eagles’ passing attack looks diverse and, well, professional.

Anybody concerned about whether Foles is the man for 2014 is missing the more important fact: He is absolutely the right quarterback for the remaining five games. Kelly has developed an extremely comfortable relationship with his quarterback and has been calling plays that suit Foles well, rather than trying to fit him into an attack that doesn’t match his skills. The result is a QB with a ridiculous 132.5 passer rating and a 63.2% completion percentage. Take out the Dallas disaster, and Foles has completed 70.1% of his throws. Kelly deserves considerable praise for adapting to his QB and creating a situation that is highly beneficial to both parties. After the season, we can debate whether Foles is better than Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota or Johnny Manziel. (He is.)

The running game still needs a little help, despite Shady McCoy’s league-leading rushing total. It would be nice to see a fullback used in short-yardage situations, and it remains a mystery why Kelly would ever give Bryce Brown the ball on the zone read. The man needs to take a step, plant and go. He can’t dance and pick his way.

The Eagles defense has been particularly surprising, and though Kelly isn’t directly responsible for what happens on that side of the ball, he deserves credit for assembling a staff that has built a unit that continues to stuff opposing offenses. Washington entered the game as one of the top 10 offenses in the nation. Sunday, the Eagles forced two turnovers, sacked Robert Griffin III four times and surrendered only two TDs, one of which came when a pair of Eagle defenders slammed into each other and allowed fullback Darrel Young to rumble 62 yards for a score. It wasn’t an overpowering performance, but the Birds were in control for most of the game.

Bill Davis wasn’t hailed as a great hire, but he has taken a collection of players that lacks a superstar and built it into an effective contingent. Sunday’s performance was even more impressive considering who wasn’t there: linebacker Mychal Kendricks, cornerback Bradley Fletcher and safety Earl Wolff. Just like the offense, Davis’s D has worked around the talent and grown more productive every week.

Despite all of Kelly’s energy and ideas, the NFL was going to be a new experience for him and expecting him to be completely comfortable right away was unwise. There is no guarantee he will succeed where other purely college coaches haven’t, and the goal for the Eagles remains a Super Bowl title, rather than contention in an awful division.

Give Kelly credit for growing in his job and adapting to his new surroundings. It’s one thing to trample Cal, Washington State and some of the other overmatched teams Oregon eviscerated in the Pac-12. It’s quite another to build a winning team in the NFL. Kelly has learned that it’s important to grow and progress from week to week, and today’s Eagles squad is much different than its September counterpart. That’s a good thing, and that’s Kelly’s doing. He has learned. He has grown. He has improved. With five games remaining, he has the opportunity to do even more. It will be interesting to see whether he continues his development.

As for Schiano’s future, it’s going to be hard to sell back-to-back wins over Miami and Atlanta as enough to stick around. The good news? He can probably find a college job if he wants one.

Kelly sure doesn’t.

Sucker Punches

• The Sixers’ 135-98 blowout loss to New Orleans was definitely a step in the right direction. Anybody who watched the doubleheader last Tuesday night that featured top draft prospects Julius Randle, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker now understands what is at stake. It’s time to kick the futility into overdrive and get in position to draft one of those three players.

• We can’t tell for sure whether 36-year-old Marlon Byrd will continue his strong play from 2013 and remain clear of any other P.E.D. trouble — even though it’s rare that players reach career-high levels of homers at such an advanced age. What is clear from his return to the Phillies and GM Ruben Amaro’s early off-season work is that the Phillies are hamstrung, thanks to the worst contract in Philadelphia sports history. The team owes Ryan Howard $85 million over the next three years, a horrible deal that has hurt the Phillies’ ability to chase higher-end outfield targets. Be sure not to forget that when you read comments from Amaro explaining his open-market limitations. They are all his doing.