Chip Kelly is Walking a Fine Line in the NFL

Caleb Couturie FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

There’s a famous Johnny Cash song, way before my time but great nonetheless, that summarizes Chip Kelly‘s NFL off-season perfectly.

Kelly is walking a fine line, and if he slips it could end catastrophically for the former Ducks coach. If he succeeds, he could revolutionize how GMs and coaches approach player management and personnel decisions entirely.

Kelly’s off-season began with the higher-ups in the Eagles’ organization putting him in charge of all personnel decisions. Essentially, they promoted Kelly to the role of GM, as well as coach. It didn’t take long for Kelly to start making waves, as two of the coach’s very first moves involved releasing aging but fan favorite defensive players Trent Cole and Cary Williams. But these moves, although controversial, were mere peanuts compared to what was to come.

Kiko Alonso starred at Oregon, and will hope to replicate that under his former coach.

Kiko Alonso starred at Oregon, and will hope to replicate his role under his former coach.

On March 10, Kelly finalized a deal to trade star RB LeSean McCoy and his extra $9 million in cap space for Kelly’s former standout linebacker Kiko Alonso. Although Alonso performed admirably in 2013, even receiving some defensive player of the year discussion, it was a big risk for Kelly.

Alonso has only one year of NFL experience and has already endured a tough injury, while McCoy was arguably the brightest talent in the NFL during the past five years.

But here’s the deal: Kelly couldn’t care less. McCoy was talented, there’s no questioning that, but in Kelly’s eyes there were other talents that could benefit the Eagles just as much, if not more.

Just two days after trading his star away, Kelly landed perhaps the brightest star on the market, the highly desirable running back and former division rival, DeMarco Murray. The same day though, Kelly finished a less noticeable signing. He brought on injury-prone RB Ryan Matthews — whose talent has never been showcased properly due to his inability to stay healthy — from the Chargers.

That’s quite a statement by Kelly. The same day that he signed 2015’s No. 1 RB (Murray), he also brought on a former starter also designed to be a featured back.

There were more controversial moves – such as the acquisitions of Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford and the disposal of Pro-Bowl QB Nick Foles — but I’m not here to nitpick every single one of Kelly’s decisions. If there’s one thing I learned from studying Kelly and how his offense operates, it’s to not doubt him. The chances are that he knows what he’s doing.

There’s another point to be made, though, and it’s a crucial one. Despite Kelly’s success in his first couple of years in the NFL – like guiding the Eagles to back-to-back 10-win seasons – he needs to be careful with how he conducts his business. Success is good only if it comes with a ring, and no one is happy with a simple 10-6 finish.

There are more pressing issues. Maintaining a happy locker room, and more importantly maintaining your players’ respect, will always come before winning. Because honestly, without those things, you can’t win as a coach in the NFL.

Kelly has dealt with many issues this offseason, but none greater than being called a racist.

Kelly has dealt with many issues this offseason, but none greater than being called a racist.

Kelly has mastered the art of winning, that much is clear. He still needs to prove he has an ability to win come playoff time, but he has time for that. I mean the guy is only two years deep into his NFL career — he’ll be fine. But Kelly will only get that shot at proving himself if he can hang around, and right now he’s walking a line that few, if any, NFL coaches could replicate.

It begins with his locker room’s atmosphere. Kelly has already stirred up a lot of doubt about his locker room bias, so to speak, ranging from racial outcries to an obvious Oregon bias. Kelly has accumulated nine former Ducks on his team, which triples the amount of the teams with the second-most Ducks on their rosters.

He’s also shown how dispensable players are in his system by trading away McCoy, who some considered to be the franchise player. This prompted McCoy to declare Kelly a racist, which although untrue, doesn’t help his image. If no one feels safe, then what’s the incentive to play well? What’s the incentive to build a home and forge community ties in Philadelphia if no one can feel at home in Kelly’s system?

The reality is that Kelly’s offense operates on the principle that even if players are lost, the offense can still thrive. It relies heavily on establishing a run game and utilizing play action. Constant personnel changes and the high-paced tempo keep defenses on their heels, and ultimately Kelly is just trying to get the opposing coach to engage him in a shootout.

An old photo of Kelly and his friends.

An old photo of Kelly and his friends.

And, by the way, Kelly is the king of shootouts. He is 17-3 over the past two years when his offense has scored more than 25 points. There’s no questioning Kelly’s offense anymore, as it has proven itself at all levels.

The only key left to Kelly’s ultimate success is whether or not the players will buy into this. In college they didn’t have a choice, since they were provided with the best opportunities to showcase their skills.

In the NFL though, Kelly is barking up a different tree. Players like to feel special, not like a cog in Kelly’s machine.

But here’s the trick: Kelly’s offense will only reach its maximum potential when players truly play like cogs. There shouldn’t be featured backs, and although Murray dominated the NFL last season, he should be more than prepared to take a receding role in 2015. Murray should see carries, obviously, but so should Matthews, and Darren Sproles, and even Kenjon Barner.

Kelly’s offense will succeed no matter who plays under him, but for it to truly thrive, the players must recognize that they are part of something bigger. The constant rotation of players, the seemingly never-ending array of fresh legs for defenses to face and the speed at which the players are performing, are all crucial to Kelly’s offense breaking through and taking the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

If Kelly can prove to the players that they’re all part of something bigger than themselves, and that with the right mindset the Eagles can contend seriously for a championship, he will see success.

If it backfires, he will lose everything. Players will no longer want to play for him, teams won’t want to hire him, and if he’s lucky he will be able to regress back into the college level.

If he succeeds, not only will the Eagles organization benefit, but he will revolutionize how coaches view their own power. The “single star player” mantra will vanish, and coaches instead will rely heavily on their own unique style of coaching. The game could be changed completely … so I guess there’s only one thing left to say:

Good luck Chip; it sounds like you’ll need it.

Feature photo by Kevin Cline

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