Can Chip Kelly Win In the NFL?

Or will he be the latest NCAA coaching roadkill? History is not on his side.

Chip Kelly at a 2013 press conference announcing his hiring as Eagles head coach. Photo | Jeff Fusco

Chip Kelly at a 2013 press conference announcing his hiring as Eagles head coach. Photo | Jeff Fusco

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have played 60 minutes of football during the 2013 season, and already possible successors are being suggested for coach Greg Schiano.

That’s what happens when your team loses to the circus that is the New York Jets.

It’s possible the Bucs will rebound and make a run at the playoffs in the tough NFC South, but it’s more likely that a six or seven-win season awaits, a performance that will no doubt lead Schiano back to the collegiate ranks. If that happens, he’ll be the latest NCAA coaching carcass left by the side of the road by the unforgiving NFL, which doesn’t often reward those who jump from campus to the big time.

Which brings me to Chip Kelly, who makes his debut tonight against the Washington NFL franchise. Unlike Schiano, who at least spent three years on a professional sideline as an assistant with the Bears, or San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, who spent 14 years as an NFL quarterback and two as an assistant coach, Kelly has never been on a sideline during a regular-season game in the pro ranks—unless he was the guest of a friend. So, even though Kelly has a fun offense that moves real fast, he has zero experience in the NFL, not the best place for on-the-job training.

In other words, it’s highly likely that the Kelly Era in Philadelphia is going to be a relatively short one.

History is not on his side. College coaches who move to the NFL without experience in the big time do not fare well. The exception, of course, is Jimmy Johnson, who turned the Cowboys from bums to winners after Tom Landry left town. Other than that, it’s practically impossible to find a coach who made the jump and won big. (Don’t give me Barry Switzer; he won a Super Bowl with Johnson’s players.)

After spending the past several weeks examining the Eagles, it’s hard for anyone with a shred of objectivity to predict big things for 2013. The Birds are rotten defensively and lack the wide receiver depth to put consistent pressure on opponents. While the hurry-up system sounds great, the better teams in the NFL get their business done with a QB who spends some time under center and have the ability to bulldoze some rivals when necessary. Oh, and talent means more than scheme. Much more.

The thing Kelly has had going for him most since his arrival in January is the fact that he hasn’t coached a real game yet. Because he’s not Andy Reid, whose tomato-with-a-mustache routine in KC began with a win Sunday, Kelly was welcomed warmly by a frustrated fan base. At about 10:15 Monday night, Kelly will have an official NFL resume, and the anybody-but-Andy cries will be replaced by real assessments of Kelly’s work.

The fact that owner Jeffrey Lurie has made Kelly not only head coach but chief personnel exec—with assistance from Howie Roseman—makes things even scarier for the Eagles. The brain trust in charge of accumulating talent features a college coach with no experience selecting players for the NFL and a man whose body of work includes the disastrous 2010 and ’11 draft classes. That’s another reason to worry about Kelly’s longevity in town.

From the moment Lurie began his coaching search, it was clear he wanted to make big headlines with a hot coach capable of energizing the fan base. Kelly has done that. The talk leading up to Monday night’s opener hasn’t been about this team’s many deficiencies. Instead, it has centered on how the new offense will fare and how excited people are to see the new-look Eagles. The national media has played along, buying into the mystery of the speedy spread and speculation about how Michael Vick will do operating it. It’s typical promotional hype by a collection of propaganda partners not willing to look at warts in the pursuit of hyping the league.

So, it’s time to stop the conjecture. There will be real football to speak of Tuesday morning, and even if the Eagles win (the pick here is Washington, 27-19), it’s unwise to get too excited. Kelly has done everything right to this point by creating excitement with his methods and schemes. Believe it or not, the fans in Jacksonville were actually fired up about Gus Bradley’s debut, before the Jags were routed by KC, 28-2.

It’s unlikely the Eagles will be that fetid Monday, or at any point throughout the season. Jacksonville is a mess. But the Birds aren’t exactly poised for big things, either. Their QB situation is shaky, and their defense is weak. The team’s depth is basically non-existent. And even though the coach brings all sorts of fun stuff with him from Nikeland, he’s likely to be back on a college sideline (USC?) in a few years.

The 2013 curtain is about to rise for the Eagles and their college coach. Fans should hope he can do better than most of the other guys who have tried their NFL luck.


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