It used to be that the most important qualification for being a member of Chip Kelly’s Eagles was to be a former University of Oregon player. Now the main criteria seems to be that you must have had at least one serious injury in the last couple of years, and if you’ve had more than one, all the better.
So, if you’re looking for a can’t-miss Eagles prospect, find a former Oregon player who’s had multiple injuries recently. Then Kelly would sign him for life, or at least the 1,000 years that he promised Nick Foles would be his starting quarterback.
It’s become clear that Kelly is counting on good fortune as much as good play as he prepares for the 2015 NFL season. That’s the only possible reason he would bring in or retain oft-injured players like quarterback Sam Bradford, running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, linebackers DeMeco Ryans, Brad Jones and Kiko Alonso, and now wide receiver Miles Austin.
All of them have had terrific seasons in the past, but all of them have also been dogged by injuries. And that’s the risk-vs.-reward gamble that Kelly has decided to take.
The biggest gamble, of course, plays the most important position in team sports and, more than any other move, trading Foles to St. Louis for Bradford shows what a risk-taker Kelly is. He knows you need a franchise quarterback to succeed in the NFL and if he needed confirmation, all he had to do is look at the QBs in the Final Four last season – Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. Kelly obviously didn’t feel Foles was the QB of his dreams and he also knew it would be next to impossible to trade up in the draft for a potential All-Pro like Marcus Mariotta.
That left Kelly with one option – roll the dice. And that’s what he did, trading for a former No. 1 overall pick with loads of talent and hoping that Bradford can stay healthy and live up to the potential he showed when he was the NFL rookie of the year in 2010, before he had shoulder surgery and tore the ACL in his left knee twice in two years.
That same mentality is what led Kelly to add or keep so many other players with a history of injuries. And it’s just a fact that some players can be in the league for 20 years and never miss a game and others always seem to have something wrong with them. When QB Jim McMahon was with the Eagles back in the 1990s, he took exception to the notion that he was injury-prone. McMahon’s defense was that he was just the victim of a series of fluke injuries.
Which, of course, is the definition of injury-prone.
We’ve already mentioned Bradford, and two of the running backs to whom he’ll hand the ball have also had injury issues. Murray was seemingly invincible last season when he rushed for an NFL-best 1,845 yards on an NFL-high 392 carries, but it was also the first time in his NFL career that he played all 16 games and in the last eight years – four at Oklahoma and four at Dallas – he only had two injury-free seasons. His problems over the years include a strained hamstring, dislocated patella tendon, knee sprain, foot sprain and fractured ankle. Plus you have to wonder if last season’s crushing workload will catch up to him this season. Obviously, Kelly is betting that it won’t.
The other running back is Ryan Mathews, the former San Diego Charger. Like Bradford and Murray, Mathews has had some great moments in the NFL, including his best season in 2013 when he rushed for 1,255 yards on 285 carries. But that was also the only time in his eight-year career that Mathews played in all 16 games and he’s also been sidelined by different injuries, including a sprained knee, a severely sprained ankle and a badly-bruised shoulder.
The newest injured Iggle is Austin, who has also had his moments in the sun, especially in 2009, when he caught 81 passes for 1,320 yards for Dallas. But pesky hamstring injuries, as well as a bruised kidney, have severely limited Austin the last two years when, combined, he had fewer catches and yards (71 for 812) than he had in that single season of ’09. Austin said that his hammy problems are in the past – we’ll see.
On the other side of the ball, the questions marks are mostly at linebacker, and there are a bunch of them. For starters, Kelly traded away All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso (another one of those former Oregon Ducks). Alonso had an impressive rookie season in 2013, but then missed all of 2014 with an ACL tear, an injury he suffered while working out in July as he rehabbed after undergoing hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in January. Alonso is supposed to be ready for training camp, but knee injuries are tricky things and nobody really knows if the Eagles will end up getting fair value in exchange for the leading rusher in franchise history.
Kelly also gambled when he re-signed linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the de facto leader of the Eagles defense and an all-around great guy to have in the locker room. He also used to be a great guy to have on the field, but last year he tore an Achilles tendon for the second time and Ryans will be 31 when the 2015 season starts. Even a linebacker Kelly signed simply for depth and special teams, former Packer Brad Jones, has only played 16 games once in his four years in the league.
It’s been said that Kelly is relying on his team’s advanced sports medicine and nutrition programs to keep his new players healthy, but he also knows no smoothie or fat-free diet or workout regimen can protect a fragile knee when a 300-pound man falls against the side of it.
No, Kelly is gambling, pure and simple, and he’s doing it with a smile on his face. Even more than talent evaluation, Chip Kelly is banking on the luck of the Irish to carry the Eagles in 2015 and beyond.