Different Birds, Same Old Success
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
On Jan. 16, 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles lured Chip Kelly out of the college ranks to become the 21st coach in organization history. On Jan. 16, 2014, Kelly was selected as the 25th Greasy Neale Professional Coach of the Year. Happy Anniversary, Chip.
In Kelly, the Eagles hired one of the fastest rising stars in the college ranks, a man whose meteoric ascent was matched only by the Oregon program he called home for six seasons beginning in 2007. After serving two years as Mike Bellotti’s offensive coordinator, Kelly took over in 2009 and promptly guided the Ducks into a national powerhouse. In four seasons of unmatched revelry and splendor, he went 46-7, won three league crowns, appeared in four BCS bowl games and orchestrated a generation’s worth of highlight reel plays. Oregon was suddenly an A-lister, and Autzen Stadium was on the must-stop tour of college football venues. Yet, Kelly’s iconic stature in Eugene guaranteed him nothing in the NFL.
Mere minutes after the ink was dry on Kelly’s first contract with the Eagles, the skeptics and the critics began to unleash in full force. Neither the coach’s up-tempo offense nor his overall philosophy would translate to the NFL, they said, virtually in unison. He was destined to become the latest Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier, a college legend whose message would fall flat in the face of grown men, right? Those who forecasted failure for Chip Kelly had probably never spent much time around Chip Kelly.
“Chip just has an aura about him, and everyone wants to be a part of it” said Eagles’ defensive quality control coach Michael Clay, who also played for Kelly at Oregon. “He has a certain demeanor and a winning philosophy that bleeds into all of his players and his coaches.”
It didn’t take Kelly very long to silence his legion of detractors, extracting every ounce of potential from a squad that had gone 4-12 just a season earlier. The Eagles opened at 1-3 and slipped to 3-5, yet they finished on a 7-1 tear that led to a highly improbable NFC East title. In fact, Kelly became only the second head coach ever to capture a divisional crown in his debut on an NFL coaching staff. Chew on that for a while, doubters.
Kelly’s secret is that there is no secret. Never was, not even in Eugene. The coach is an innovator, yes, but he wins at such a consistent level for reasons that transcend the specifics of an offensive system or a wide-open playbook. He wins because, at its most basic level, he creates the best possible situation for his players and his assistants to excel.
“At his core, Chip Kelly is a great leader,” said former Oregon and current Denver Bronco S John Boyett, with an unmistakable tone of respect in his voice. “Coach has a way of getting all of his guys on one ship, striving toward a common goal. He’s always thinking outside the box, and when he believes in something, he attacks it with incredible energy. He’s not afraid to make changes or adapt to new situations or surroundings.”
That ability to acclimate on the fly served Kelly especially well in his first season in the NFL. Everything was unfamiliar for the coach, from the personnel and the offseason calendar to the competition and the coastline. And then starting QB Michael Vick went down in Week 5 with a hamstring injury, creating an opportunity for Kelly to showcase to the entire league just how agile he’s capable of being.
Vick fit the prototype of the stereotypical Kelly quarterback, athletic and inherently improvisational. Second-year pocket passer Nick Foles? Not quite. However, it was under the watchful eye and guidance of Kelly that Foles morphed into an unlikely NFL phenomenon in 2013. The relatively untested sophomore’s QB rating of 119.2 not only led the league, but it also ranked No. 3 all-time in NFL history. His touchdown to interception ratio of 27/2 was the best in NFL history, and he was the Pro Bowl MVP. Philadelphia probably doesn’t make the playoffs without Foles. And Foles probably doesn’t explode into one of the game’s best young quarterbacks without Kelly around to manage his development.
In less than a year, Kelly succeeded in revolutionizing the Eagles’ offense, using a one-time backup quarterback as his triggerman. Philadelphia set a single-season franchise record for points scored and total yards, deftly balancing the accurate darts of Foles with the prolific running of LeSean McCoy. It wasn’t the Quack Attack, which was born at Oregon and routinely vilified as a fad that wouldn’t fly straight on Sundays. This was the Eagles’ attack, an artfully crafted system that fully capitalized on the unique skill sets of the Philadelphia players.
Kelly is—and always will be—a forward thinker. He sees every day as a chance to learn, a chance to grow and an opportunity to sharpen each phase of the process, from the way the team practices and studies to the way it sleeps and eats. Kelly is constantly striving to maximize his allotted time and to win the day … every day. And it’s that attention to detail and willingness to buck conventional wisdom, regardless of the naysayers, that makes it possible for him to flourish with both Ducks and Eagles alike.
The shade of green on the uniforms is considerably different, and the players are quite a bit older, but Chip Kelly keeps on winning games and defying odds. No one saw Philadelphia’s 2013 season coming. Not by a longshot. Kelly was expected to stumble out of the gate, tripped up by an inability to smoothly transition from the familiar college game to the nuances of the NFL. Instead, the program-builder has quickly laid a solid foundation with the Eagles, and he has everyone within the organization believing that an elusive first Super Bowl title isn’t as far away as it seemed just six months ago.
Kelly has a long way to go before matching the career of Neale, the Eagles’ only head coach inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s gotten off to a soaring start, though, earning the award named in honor of one of Philadelphia’s coaching luminaries.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.