Chip Kelly began his first stint as an NFL general manager the same way he coaches — fast, decisive, and not giving a damn with what anybody thinks. In the first three days of the official NFL year, when free agency and trading first become possible again, he outmaneuvered the entire rest of the league put together by adding 7 players, letting 8 go, and re-signing two (including emerging stud OLB Brandon Graham, a surprise to stay). Everyone was left staring, confused and awed.
NFL teams struggle to defend against Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offseason.
— Matt Ufford (@mattufford) March 12, 2015
Like many, I’m not exactly sure what Chip Kelly is doing, but I do know this: He’s one of the smartest football men I’ve ever known.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 12, 2015
I won’t even try to get into all of the crazy turns, from the NFL Network falsely reporting that the Rams were giving Philly the No. 10 pick, to 49ers RB Frank Gore agreeing to a deal before changing his mind. You’ll have to go through my Twitter timeline (@taoish) from 4 p.m. EST Tuesday until the minute you read this column to capture it all. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Forget the “emotional rollercoaster” cliche. This was hang-gliding in a hurricane, soaring toward the sun on a thermal one minute, then plummeting to the cliffs the next. Rollercoasters only offer the illusion of danger. Your biggest risk there is getting hit in the face with a goose.
This was the real deal. One in a thousand hang-gliders die, every year, even in good weather. Chip has the courage to jump off the cliff and either soar through the sky or crash to death on the rocks.
Philadelphia’s fans are not shy about expressing their feelings, either. When he traded LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, straight up, there were complaints mixed with grudging acceptance. After it turned out that the Sam Bradford trade required the Eagles to give up their 2016 No. 2 pick, without moving up for Mariota, even the most level-headed Philly fans — and yes, I do mean Tommy Lawlor — were ready to run Chip out of town. And that was just Tuesday afternoon. Coach Kelly powered through.
By Thursday, when both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews signed on to form the NFL’s best backfield while crippling the hated Cowboys, stunned fans either cheered or struggled fiercely to maintain their habitual grumpiness.
There is no way one column can summarize everything that happened, so I’m going to note a few less-noticed aspects and then look at the big picture.
“If only someone would write a book about this whole crazy season, so that Diversion Books of New York could release it in July under the title ‘Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution!’ ”
Great idea, imaginary bro-dude. I’ll see if I can’t make that happen. For now, here is Jimmy Kempski’s graphic representation of what went down.
– The Eagles added two much needed cornerbacks, Seattle’s excellent Byron Maxwell and a potential steal in the oft-injured Walter Thurmond III, who was Chip’s first defensive star as Oregon’s rookie coach in 2009.
– For about the same amount of cap money, Philly replaced LeSean McCoy, the No. 3 NFL rusher, with DeMarco Murray, the No. 1 NFL rusher, PLUS stud inside linebacker Kiko Alonso (plugging a major defensive hole) AND Ryan Mathews, another great if often-injured RB. Both backs are quick and powerful north-south runners more suited to Kelly’s scheme than McCoy, who was admittedly great but declined last year at 27, as most RBs do.
– The combination of Murray, Mathews and Darren Sproles resembles Chip’s great Oregon backfields, with two quick, tough RBs and a TAZR, like De’Anthony Thomas. The Eagles even have Jeff Maehl and Josh Huff to block and catch the occasional pass.
– The overdeveloped running game should fix the Eagle’s red zone woes and offer QB insurance in case Sam Bradford flops or gets hurt. Backup Mark Sanchez throws a lot of picks but he hands off pretty well.
– Jeremy Maclin, the team’s best WR, got away. That sucks but Kansas City vastly overpaid him at $11 million a year.
– Since WRs are overpaid and RBs are undervalued, it’s smart to get runners in free agency and draft receivers at low rookie pay rates.
– Releasing Trent Cole and re-signing Brandon Graham to start in his place gave the team a young, ascending OLB in place of a fading lion who cost $4 million a year more. The linebacking corps of Barwin, Kendricks, Alonso and Graham is rock-solid now.
– Did I mention that the Cowboys and their fans are broken, angry and befuddled? That would be big fun even if Philly didn’t play them twice a year.
– Kelly cleverly traded for a QB who might be a brilliant Drew Brees-like reclamation project, or a quickly injured bust, or a key trading asset to deal for the pick that nabs Marcus Mariota. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Here’s the big picture.
Chip Kelly’s master plan is coming into focus. He signed a five-year contract and took that seriously, I think. The goal is a Super Bowl; with this franchise, nothing less is acceptable, but that takes some building. This will be a rough year, uneven at best just from all the changes. If Bradford or both new RBs or Jason Peters get injured, it could be ugly.
I believe Chip has a two-pronged strategy. The short-term plan makes the most of Murray, Thurmond, and some of the team’s older veterans — Peters, DeMeco Ryans, Sproles. They will help the team win, mentor the young’uns and establish Chip’s offensive and defensive schemes over the next two to three years.
The long term plan is a Super Bowl window from roughly 2016 – 2021, opening in the last two years of Chip’s contract (and guaranteeing its renewal). That window is built around a great core of young players, including Alonso, Huff and Kendricks, Jordan Matthews, Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson and the entire DL. For a team built on culture, a group of high-character studs playing together for several years is the best possible situation.
Oh, by the way, Oregon had its Pro Day yesterday. Jake Fisher was impressive and may justify Philadelphia’s first round pick, which would help rejuvenate the elderly offensive line. Marcus Mariota was NOT impressive, which is excellent, because it means that he might fall into Philadelphia’s trading range. (Reportedly, some of the teams with the highest picks would prefer Sam Bradford to either Winston or Mariota. Well, guess who has Sam Bradford to deal now?)
Tuesday afternoon, in the dismay immediately following the Bradford trade, this tweet was perfect:
— Chip Chantry (@ChipChantry) March 10, 2015
Chip Kelly has held two press conferences since then, and “dispelled” the notion that he would trade the farm for Mariota. But he is the son of an Irish lawyer and chooses his words carefully. Kelly never said he wouldn’t trade for Mariota, though many heard that. He just said he wouldn’t “mortgage the team’s future.” OK, great.
All his wild trading so far has earned grudging respect from even the most bitter Eagles fan. But if he nabs Mariota too, it will be an astounding act of showmanship and pure GM talent. That smashed Timex will emerge as a Patek Philippe Tourbillon.
Thursday, every national draft analyst agreed that Mariota looked bad throwing at his pro day, and this vision seemed almost possible. That led to this tweet, which a lot of people seemed to like even though I was mostly joking.
Mariota’s tanking his pro day. The final pieces are falling into place. Chip is conducting a frickin’ symphony here.
— Mark Saltveit (@taoish) March 12, 2015
Featured Photo: from video, courtesy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com