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Chip Kelly, SUPERGENIUS: A Qualified Defense

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While I was engaged in Thanksgiving-related program activities, Barnwell wrote most of what I would have had I been around on Thursday. At the risk of strangling a dead eagle, I do think he’s (understandably in context) somewhat understating the issues with Kelly’s sub-Matt Millen work as a GM. It’s true that with the exception of the Alonso trade, the key moves in isolation — paying a decent second corner like an elite #1, paying a huge salary to an injury-prone running back who had insanely high workload and an exceptional offensive line in front of him, giving up a top-50 draft pick and $13 million to swap replacement-level QBs — were indeed terrible. But anyone can blow a free agent signing or three. The deeper problem was the philosophy behind the moves — you just cannot hollow out your wide receivers and offensive line to pay running backs. Even if you pick better players, it can’t work. Kelly was just miles in over his head, which isn’t surprising. I mean, Pete Carroll is a great coach, and his strengths are more in talent evaluation/development than tactics, and he got his first job as an NFL coordinator during the first Bush administration, and I wouldn’t give him the control over personnel Kelly demanded after 2 years in the NFL.

But this is where we make the obvious transition. Kelly is a horrible GM, but we shouldn’t let the fact that Belichick couldn’t win with Kelly picking his players obscure that his track record as an NFL coach qua coach is still, on balance, very good:

Start with Kelly as a coach. He doesn’t exactly have the résumé of a guy about to be forced out of a job. Put the Thanksgiving mess aside for a moment and consider the body of work. The 2015 Eagles are a disappointing 4-7 after Thursday’s blowout, but Kelly is a combined 24-19 (.558), leading a team that had gone 4-12 in 2012 to consecutive 10-win seasons. To contrast, Gus Bradley took over a 2-14 Jaguars team that same offseason and has gone 11-31 (.262) since, and there has been no rent deposit put on a guillotine in Jacksonville. The argument from Kelly doubters is that the man has gone 5-10 in his past 15 games, but that’s a totally arbitrary end point. For reference, Kelly went 11-4 in the 15 games before that stretch, and you can see how much predicative value that 15-game sample had.

What’s even more impressive is thinking about who Kelly’s quarterbacks were during this stretch. He has managed to stay above .500 with Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford taking snaps under center. Getting that motley crew of passers to keep their heads above water both speaks to Kelly’s ability to coach up limited quarterbacks and hints at the promise of how his attack could sing with a more accomplished passer at the helm.

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Instead, it’s more likely that the offense is struggling because the changes Kelly has made as a general manager limit his options as a coach and playcaller. Bradford, who struggled to throw downfield in St. Louis, hasn’t been able to stretch the field vertically, forcing the Eagles into a million short throws designed to stretch defenses horizontally. It hasn’t helped that Kelly has allowed starting wideouts Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to leave in consecutive offseasons while retaining Riley Cooper and bringing in Miles Austin. First-rounder Nelson Agholor has yet to stand out while likely dealing with the lingering impact of his sprained ankle.

It’s possible that the fact that the Eagles are now underachieving based even on the Kelly-emaciated roster indicates that Kelly’s high-pressure Panopticon doesn’t fully translate to the pros. But I think that would be premature. Regardless of the coaching style, losing tends to feed on itself in this league, and the accounts I’ve read don’t suggest that he’s an Eric Mangini-level asshole or anything. Given that he presumably doesn’t want to go back to the minor leagues, what’s next? Barnwell’s take is interesting:

The problem for the Eagles, then, is that they might not be able to get Kelly the coach at this point without Kelly as their general manager. It would be a humiliating climb down to give up personnel duties, and Kelly will have plenty of offers to run college programs if the Eagles fire him. The offseason power struggle between Kelly and deposed general manager Howie Roseman, who remains in the organization, may have sufficiently poisoned the well.

If Kelly were to leave the organization, though, it would be easier to justify taking a coaching-only gig. Kelly likely realizes that he won’t get personnel control again anytime soon, but he would likely find some level of comfort with a more traditional, scouting-driven front office setup than the more modern, cap-driven approach Roseman was taking in Philly, even if he’s not the one in charge of picking the groceries.

Could that be Washington, which might end up with an opening at head coach, and a scouting GM in Scot McCloughan? Indianapolis, where Kelly could get to work with Andrew Luck if Chuck Pagano loses his own power struggle with GM Ryan Grigson? Or Tennessee, which has an interim coach, an overdue regime change at general manager (and/or possibly new ownership) and Kelly’s former Oregon quarterback, Marcus Mariota? Kelly shouldn’t lack for suitors at the professional level if the Eagles want to move on, and the idea of a trade for a low-level draft pick after the season might serve both parties.

The Colts are interesting in that Kelly paired with a health Luck could be a fearsome offense, although Grigson wouldn’t be a huge improvement as a GM. (Kelly had about as bad an offseason as you can have and yet I don’t think any one of his moves was as stupid as the Richardson trade.) McCloughan has a pretty stellar track record, but I remain skeptical about Cousins (perhaps wrongly) and Snyder/Kelly doesn’t seem like a great fit. Tennessee would be really fun if they can make a deal work, although I doubt that a low-level draft pick would be enough.

On Barnwell’s Peter Principle point, another possibility on paper would be for Kelly to be the OC of a team with a defensive head coach who doesn’t really care about the offense. I’d love to see him work with Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo with another head coach who overachieved for two years and then went backwards (for different reasons), although of course neither Ryan or Kelly would want to be a second banana so it wouldn’t work. Given the blog I’m writing on, I’m also probably obliged to mention that Taylor wanted to play with Kelly, but the czar was too busy wanking on with Tim Tebow.

Barnwell is also right that the division is so terrible that the Eagles could still win it despite getting the crap kicked out of them by below-average teams in successive weeks. But this would probably be bad for the long-term interests of the organization. This is not a good roster, and if Lurie is given a reason to kid himself about Kelly’s personnel abilities it will be bad for all involved. He needs to convince Kelly to do what he does best, or he needs to take the best trade offer he can get for him and move on.

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