On Evan Mathis Release: Is Chip Kelly’s Ego Killing the Eagles?
In the ripest days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was ruled by dictators named Khrushchev and Brezhnev, a dissident voice would be punished by a variety of human humiliations. “If you weren’t with us, you were against us,” was the refrain. And whispers in a potato line could get a family shipped to warm and friendly Siberia.
I thought about that a lot this week as I watched and listened to Philadelphia Eagles players support head coach Chip Kelly’s banishment of offensive guard Evan Mathis. See, in the world of professional sports, it’s odd to hear players turn their backs on teammates in times of contract squabbles. Players are normally in this fight together, brothers in arms, strengthened further by their own brotherhood union.
Get as much money as you can for as long as you can, is their mantra. Because at any one moment, after any one torrential hit, your career could be over. NFL players put more than their careers on the line when they line up on Sunday afternoons; frankly, they put their lives on the line.
Mathis was released by the Eagles the other day after Kelly decided a contract dispute had gone on long enough. Forget about how valuable Mathis is — he was an All-Pro guard two years running and it doesn’t appear the Eagles have a bounty of suitable players to replace him. Mathis was released even after he had told people that he would report to the Eagles mandatory mini-camp this week. There was even evidence that Mathis would still play under his existing contract this season. Kelly admitted that he “didn’t know” if Mathis was planning on holding out this coming fall.
The message, then, is this: Nobody rubs up against Kelly without facing consequences. The man is trying to build a unified football team. Culture is more important than scheme, as Kelly often says. And to the person on the street, that all sounds good — no one man is bigger than his team.
But it is quite unusual when teammates pile on, as Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz — and of all people, Jason Kelce, who might be Mathis’ best friend on the team — all did. Think about your own situation in real life: Suppose you are a salesman in a company and a co-worker is in a beef with management over pay. You might not want to show visible support for your co-worker and buck management, but coming out in support of management against your co-worker would be a weasel move. Johnson, Ertz and Kelce supporting Kelly and not Mathis comes off as a see-through attempt to brown-nose a coach who has shown Khrushchev-like tendencies. You don’t buy in, “I will bury you!”
Surely there will be other Eagles players with forthcoming contract beefs. I remember years ago how important it was to Brian Westbrook that Donovan McNabb supported him publicly in the running back’s contract clash. I also remember how Terrell Owens freaked when McNabb didn’t do the same for him. The locker room is the only sanctuary the players have. Would it not have set a better precedent had Kelce and company said simply, “Evan is an important player for us and I hope he and management can work it out”?
Perhaps the most important issue here is whether Kelly’s ego is interfering with the depth chart. The Eagles aren’t better without Mathis. In dispatching LeSean McCoy, Kelly at least added talent to replace him. There is no way the head coach can make the case that the journeyman offensive linemen on his roster make up for Mathis, a two time All Pro.
If Mathis were willing to play this season under his existing contract, why was it not worth it to Kelly to take the chance? Or even hold on to Mathis into training camp — when offensive linemen throughout the league go down with injuries — when he then would have had trade value?