PHILADELPHIA — The road twisted and turned and somehow ended up exactly where it began.
Thursday afternoon, in the same NovaCare auditorium where he announced the firing of Andy Reid 18 days earlier, Philadelphia Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie introduced Chip Kelly as his new head coach, the 21st in franchise history.
The 49-year-old coach from Oregon gives Lurie what he was seeking — a chance to electrify his fan base with a bold, energetic head coach who can put the Eagles at the forefront of the wave of offensive innovation sweeping the league.
It isn’t an accident that Kelly personifies much of what Lurie outlined the day he dismissed Reid; Kelly was the top name on the “very, very defined” list Lurie started making up weeks before the Birds’ 4-12 season ground to a close. A source close to the situation confirmed what everyone assumed Kelly and Penn State coach Bill O’Brien were the prime targets when the Eagles began their search.
Less than two weeks ago, right after the Eagles’ nine-hour “lunch meeting” with Kelly in Arizona, in the wake of the Ducks’ Fiesta Bowl triumph, this hiring would not have been a surprise. But on Jan. 6 Kelly told Oregon and the Eagles he’d decided to stay in college, so the Birds’ search moved on — and on and on, through 11 candidates.
In fact, the Eagles were on the verge of hiring Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who interviewed Tuesday afternoon and evening at Lurie’s Wynnewood mansion, when Kelly ultimately decided to take the job.
The decision didn’t come out of the blue, even if it seemed that way to Eagles fans and to everyone at Oregon, where Kelly went 46-7 in four seasons. An Eagles source said two days after Kelly told the Eagles he was staying in Eugene, general manager Howie Roseman was in Nashville, Tenn., for the NCAA coaches’ convention. Roseman went to dinner with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who’d lost the BCS national championship game the night before to Alabama, and was ready to at least talk about the Eagles’ job. At a restaurant, a coach who knew both Chip Kelly and Roseman took the GM aside and told him Kelly really enjoyed his interview with the Eagles, and might not be fully committed to staying at Oregon. Roseman re-established contact, but nothing seemed to be happening, really, until last Saturday, when the possibility started to seem real again, the source said.
Tuesday, the day of the breathless “Gus Bus” coverage, the Eagles actually were negotiating on two fronts — with Kelly and agent David Dunn, and with Bradley and agent Trace Armstrong, in case the Kelly talks broke down again.
Late Tuesday night, Kelly agreed to terms. He signed Wednesday morning, and the Eagles didn’t try to stop Bradley from continuing to Jacksonville for an interview there.
“Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” Lurie said in a statement released by the team. “He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words. He will be a great leader for us and will bring a fresh energetic approach to our team.”
There are two huge questions with Kelly: the fact that he has no NFL background whatsoever, playing or coaching, something successful college coaches transitioning to the NFL usually have; and whether his run-oriented, spread-option offense is adaptable to the NFL, where defenders are bigger and quicker and quarterbacks aren’t normally exposed to injury quite as frequently.
Former Buccaneers and Colts coach Tony Dungy, whose son Eric is a Ducks wide receiver, told Comcast SportsNet: “In watching them practice, and seeing what they do in the spring and training camp while I was there, they practice like an NFL team. I don’t think the adjustment is going to be too big.”
Dungy said he wondered if one of the factors behind Kelly’s change of heart was watching 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who plays the Kelly style, succeed in the NFL playoffs.
“But he’ll do what his personnel dictates,” said Dungy, who noted that Oregon had three starting QBs the past three seasons and the offense was a little different with each of them.
Kelly has produced national championship-contending teams without top-ranked recruiting classes. According to Rivals.com, the best of Kelly’s four recruiting classes, the 2011 group, ranked ninth in the country.
“He thinks outside the box, and he’s not afraid to be a risk-taker, and to be a little different from the crowd,” Dungy said. “I know this was Philadelphia’s first choice. I happened to talk to both Chip and Jeffrey Lurie way back when this thing first started. I had a little bit of self-interest; I was trying to talk like a dad and talk coach Kelly into staying.”
Dungy said he didn’t shade those remarks to Kelly too much — he also gave Kelly his positive perspective on coaching in the NFL and on the Eagles organization.
“I think he was intrigued by that,” Dungy said.
Dungy noted that Kelly was quite impressed with quarterback Nick Foles when Foles, now the Eagles’ starting quarterback, was an Arizona Wildcat.
“I’ll tell you what; I’m glad Nick Foles is graduating,” Kelly said after a 56-31 Oregon victory over Arizona in 2011. “I catch myself watching him in awe sometimes. … Nick is a hell of a football player. That kid’s a warrior. He’s as good as anyone in the country.”
While it’s true that Foles, who ran the slowest 40 of any quarterback at the NFL Scouting Combine last February, isn’t an ideal spread-option wheeler-dealer, it’s also true that New England coach Bill Belichick invited Kelly in and picked his brain for some concepts the Patriots have used to very good effect this season. Tom Brady also is no speedster.
You might think Michael Vick would be an ideal Kelly quarterback, but Vick is going to be 33 this season, seems to have lost at least a step, has trouble staying healthy even in a conventional offense, and most critically, is due at least $15.5 million if he plays for the Eagles and nothing whatsoever if they cut him right after the Super Bowl.
But what about the defense? At Oregon, current Eagle and former Duck Casey Matthews has said, Kelly had little to do with the defense.
Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti confirmed that in a conversation minutes after the Fiesta Bowl win.
“Chip has not said one word to me on the headset in four years as a head coach,” Aliotti said. “He’s never been in a meeting, he’s never questioned a call. He’s never said anything when we’ve played badly. He doesn’t say a whole lot when we’ve played well. He’s left me completely alone. It’s been unbelievable autonomy. It’s been a fantastic relationship. I really appreciate it.”
This is hardly going to reassure Eagles fans who want to see last year’s defensive train wreck cleaned up and order restored. Kelly’s defensive coordinator figures to be his most crucial hire.
Various reports have linked Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with the Eagles.
Grantham coached in the NFL, for Houston, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Dallas, before going to the Bulldogs in 2010. Like Kelly’s Ducks, the Bulldogs ran a 3-4, which would be a significant transition for the 4-3 Eagles.
Kelly’s departure was a shock to fans, players, coaches and reporters in Oregon. It brought to mind how he reportedly agreed to coach the Tampa Bay Bucs a year ago, then backed out a few hours later.
“When Chip called me the Sunday after the Fiesta Bowl, I thought that was it” for the NFL, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens told reporters Wednesday. “The timing is less than ideal … I got a call at 7:15 this morning from Chip and that was the first I’d heard anything of Philly since he said he was staying.”
An incredulous recruit tweeted that Kelly “was in my house two days ago.”
But it’s worth remembering that Kelly never made any public statement about staying at Oregon; the announcement came from Mullens. And though it was widely assumed Nike chairman Phil Knight opened his wallet to keep Kelly in the Northwest, there is no evidence that ever happened.
Kelly reportedly made about $3.5 million a year at Oregon. He will make more than that in Philadelphia, probably considerably more, though terms have not been released. Kelly is believed to have signed a five-year deal.