Poor decisions are part and parcel of teams that have gone more than half a century without a championship, but Tuesday’s shock dismissal of Chip Kelly is a doozy even for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kelly went 26-21 in the three years since he was handpicked by owner Jeffrey Lurie to rebuild a team that had deteriorated badly in the winter of Andy Reid’s mostly rosy 14-year tenure. Lest we forget the dumpster fire he inherited, the Eagles were losers in 11 of their last 12 games in Reid’s final campaign to finish 4-12 – and only six points from 0-16.
From that disrepair Kelly lifted the Eagles to 10-6 and a division title, then missed the playoffs at 10-6 in year two after losing his first-choice quarterback to injury after eight games. This year Philadelphia slumped to 5-9 after Kelly wrested control of player personnel decisions in a Christmastime power play and made a series of off-season moves that backfired. That regression proved a fireable offense.
But it shouldn’t have been. The NFL is too luck-dependent to base a wholesale change in organizational direction on one bad season, which is exactly what the Eagles have done. This was never a three-year reclamation project. Kelly deserved at least one more season to further implement his vision, a perfectly reasonable ask in a trade where the average tenure of the last 40 coaches to win the Super Bowl is nearly six years.
How many NFL teams have more than 26 wins in their last 47 games? Ten, exactly. Only four in the NFC. Certainly none in Philadelphia’s division.
The Eagles have cut loose a good coach who made some bad personnel choices, most glaringly with the deficiencies at skill positions on this year’s team. Clearly, that falls on Kelly, the de facto general manager. But to think that he didn’t recognize those flaws and that somebody else would be better at solving it is nonsense.
The most popular theory for why Kelly had to go: he’d lost the locker room. Remember a few months ago when the Seahawks were divided and everybody hated quarterback Russell Wilson and the toxic environment would drag the whole team asunder? Now Seattle are bound for the playoffs with a third straight Super Bowl trip within reach.
That’s because “lost the locker room” is a phrase without meaning, the timeworn logical fallacy of correlation without causation. When teams lose for on-field reasons that are hard to pinpoint because they are complicated and football is more random than observers care to admit, they rely on off-field pop-psychology to sound like they have something to say about it.
Ask a dozen football writers what exactly they mean when they say “lose the locker room” and you’ll be assured a variety of responses. Is it that players don’t listen to the finer points of coaching at practice? That they don’t play as hard, whatever that even means? That they won’t play hurt? That they aren’t running the plays the coaches call? They they just don’t like him? What element of “lost the locker room” translates to the field, where NFL players have no shortage of personal stakes, and how does it occur?
If you’re not playing hard because you don’t like your coach as a person, what does that say about you?
The takeaway is that it’s a blessing to be chased out of Philadelphia, which hasn’t won a title since the Eisenhower administration and is hardly as attractive a job as Lurie would believe. While Kelly’s predecessor is doing the dab in Kansas City with the Chiefs veering toward the playoffs, reports indicate the Eagles will make a play for Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who was run out of town five years ago when he was on Philadelphia’s staff.
The next few seasons will be choppy waters. Kelly offloaded a lot of talent in service of a long-range vision he was not given the opportunity to see through. Supporters can only hope the next coach gets a fairer shot than Kelly or they’ll be right back where they started in three years’ time, possibly watching Kelly lift a trophy with another team after subsidizing his on-the-job training.
The Eagles have been a lot of things in Lurie’s two-decade ownership, but they’ve never been rash and they’ve never been rudderless. No longer. Now they are Washington.
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