What Is Being Overlooked in the Aftermath of the Chip Kelly Firing
Chip Kelly isn’t Joe Philbin or Dennis Allen. He’s not your typical NFL coach.
When the Philadelphia Eagles fired Kelly this week, the story wasn’t just that he had failed to satisfy Jeff Lurie. Kelly’s failures were being presented as an indictment of wider philosophies. His arrogance, his out-of-the box thinking and his handling of professionals opposed to that of his students overshadowed what actually happened on the field.
One of the most common phrases uttered in response to Kelly’s firing was some variation of: “Chip Kelly the General Manager got Chip Kelly the Coach fired.”
Even though many of Kelly’s failings did come in player acquisition, this phrase suggests that he was a great coach. He was a great coach during his first year in the league, he was just as impressive during his second. In his third season, independent of his actions as General Manager, Chip Kelly was a bad coach.
Kelly’s scheme is something that is referred to often. Mostly it’s referred to when someone wants to suggest that his scheme is a college scheme, something that is too simple or too complex to work against professional defenses. It ranges from being labelled simple or complex because most of the people talking about Kelly’s scheme don’t actually discuss specifics.
If they did discuss specifics, they’d recognize that Kelly wasn’t running the same offense in 2015 that he had been running in previous years.
During his first season in the NFL, Kelly built his success on running the ball. The Eagles averaged 160.4 yards per game during the regular season, 16.2 more than the second-placed Buffalo Bills. They averaged 5.1 yards per rush, also the best mark in the league, while being twice as efficient as the second highest rated team in DVOA.
Kelly had an extremely talented offensive line with Jason Peters and Evan Mathis still in their primes. He based everything the offense did around their ability to run between the tackles. Nick Foles was able to succeed throwing the ball down the field without being a precision passer because the Eagles running game allowed Kelly to scheme his receivers into wide open space.
During that season, the Eagles ran the ball 47.4 percent of the time and 50 percent of the time on first downs.
Through 15 games this season, the Eagles have run the ball just 40.3 percent of the time and just 46.1 percent of the time on first down. Game scripts haven’t forced Kelly to alter his approach, during the first half of their Week 1 game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sam Bradford threw the ball 27 times. Not only did Kelly distance himself and his offense from running the ball, he also changed how he ran the ball.
When the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray, it looked like they had found an ideal back for their offense. In the scheme that Kelly ran during his first two seasons in the NFL, Murray would have been a perfect fit.
Murray is a bulky back with the athleticism, vision and aggression to repeatedly work between the tackles. Unlike LeSean McCoy, he is a one-cut back who will get downfield with aggression while running through arm tackles. From the first week of the season, it was clear that something had changed.
Not only was Murray not getting the ball enough, when he was getting it he was being directed towards the sidelines. Against the Falcons specifically, the Eagles never looked to run between the tackles or behind Jason Peters, even though he had an obvious matchup advantage against rookie Vic Beasley.
Instead, the Eagles did what they would do throughout the season as a whole, give the ball to their backs on sweep plays from shotgun formations.
This change in philosophy appeared to be a result of the lack of guard talent on the roster. Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans both departed. Mathis and Herremans had been good players for the Eagles but both have since proven to be inadequate starters with the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts respectively. Herremans was even been released from the Colts.
Asking Murray to run these sweep plays was completely counter-intuitive to his skill set. More significantly, the Eagles were no longer an effective play action team.
Without the threat between the the tackles, Jordan Matthews couldn’t be schemed open downfield from the slot and it was tougher for the outside receivers to beat press coverage. Sam Bradford is a talented deep passer but he never played with deep threat receivers in St. Louis. The Eagles also lacked deep threat receivers but more importantly, Kelly wasn’t even trying to push the ball downfield anymore.
Shallow crossing routes became the staple of the Eagles passing game.
For as much attention as tempo and the running quarterback received, it’s these differences that truly impacted the output of the Eagles offense. The passing game went from resembling the Steelers’ downfield passing attack to that of the New England Patriots, but it did so without receivers who could create after the catch point or consistently catch the ball to keep the offense in favorable down-and-distance situations.
A staple play that epitomized their change in philosophy saw receivers from either side of the field run shallow crossing routes in the hopes of creating a pick play. Meanwhile, the running back ran to the flat and the remaining two receivers would regularly run intermediate routes such as skinny posts or deep out routes.
While Sam Bradford has a reputation as someone who checks the ball down too much, he was once again finding himself in a situation where the offense was set up for him to throw the ball short.
Matthews was supposed to be a focal point of the passing game. He had enjoyed a productive rookie season but he hadn’t been tasked with making contested catches over the middle of the field. Matthews was used to using his size and athleticism to stride to space downfield, not to extend in front of linebackers to expose himself to big hits.
Kelly asked Matthews to carry out a role that he wasn’t capable of carrying out.
A lack of talent was a problem in Philadelphia. Kelly’s first year in charge of personnel didn’t reap immediate rewards. That’s not unusual for someone who is only setting out in that role. In truth, it was too early to judge Kelly’s personnel moves. If LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Evan Mathis, Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams and Nate Allen had played like stars last season, it would have been fair to have major questions.
In reality, the questions over Kelly’s moves should have been minor. The running backs he acquired, Murray and Ryan Mathews, are clearly very talented. So is Sam Bradford. Bradford’s second ACL surgery was a concern and it slowed him beginning the season but the quarterback was playing better as the season went on. Nelson Agholor was struggling like rookie receivers typically do.
Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso were the big misses for Kelly, but neither player is a big reputation carrier so they often get overlooked in favor of other moves.
The toughest move for Kelly was the consecutive losses of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Both receivers were hugely important when they were on the field. Jackson’s departure was clouded by bizarre reports about gang ties and his attitude. Jackson was also looking for a new contract, which was a concern considering he was already very well paid. The Eagles couldn’t find anyone to trade for the receiver, which was telling.
Maclin was apparently someone the Eagles wanted to retain. He had enjoyed an outstanding season in Philadelphia but a previous relationship with Andy Reid drew him to Kansas City in free agency.
Where Kelly really failed as a first year general manager was with his offensive line. He didn’t add proven guards to replace those who departed. He couldn’t have anticipated the decline in the play of Jason Peters and Jason Kelce, but even if he expected both players to be All-Pros the quality of his guards would have derailed his offense.
Surpassed that, most of his worst moves came on the field. His play calling and stubbornness in sticking to a scheme that simply didn’t work made his acquisitions look much worse than they were. This scheme isn’t “his scheme” it’s a scheme he used in 2015, a different one from his first two years in the NFL.
There was good reason to be skeptical of Kelly coming out of college. There’s greater reason to be critical of him for everything he did this year. It was still too early to fire him though. He had been too good of a coach, too successful of a coach during his first two seasons at this level.
Kelly isn’t your typical coach. He makes the choices that he thinks are right, not the ones that follow convention. That put a target on his back, and maybe more than anything else, it cost him his job.
Maybe he’s arrogant, maybe he’s stubborn, maybe he doesn’t connect with his players. Are we supposed to buy that every other coach in the league is a humble, player-friendly coach? Are we supposed to buy that the humble, player-friendly coaches are the ones who win? Or maybe it’s about the media storm that comes with the unconventional route.
In the end, Kelly deserves a lot of criticism for his mistakes, he also deserved more patience so he could possibly correct them. If he had been more like Jeff Fisher, maybe he’d have got that.