Chip Kelly is either the smartest man in sports or the dumbest, and right now we have no idea which.
That was actually the lead to a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago and I simply changed the name to protect the not-so-innocent. Two weeks ago, it was Sam Hinkie, the general manager of the 76ers who has made so many baffling (at least to us) personnel moves. Now, it’s Kelly, the Eagles coach who in a short amount of time has gotten rid of a lot of very good players and has busted up what was a pretty good team.
But the biggest similarity between these demolition experts is that we have no idea how their moves and machinations are going to work, since it’s apparent neither personnel mastermind is done wheeling and dealing.
The biggest difference? With Hinkie, we may not know the results of his mad scientist routine for years. With Kelly, we’ll know in a couple of months, after free agency and the draft are finished. And that’s important, because nobody expects the Sixers to be good for years, if ever, but everybody expects the Eagles to compete for the NFC East championship they won just one year ago.
We have to assume Kelly has some kind of master plan. A lot of people think he’s doing all of this to set up a blockbuster deal that will enable him to draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. But it’s difficult to see how that could be possible, because the Eagles don’t have the bargaining chips to move up far enough from their current No. 20 spot in the first round, especially after trading away running back LeSean McCoy and quarterback Nick Foles, two players who were worth something.
Here’s what I think Kelly’s overall plan is, although I have absolutely no unnamed sources to back me up: He wants to spend almost everything he has – free agency money and draft picks – to build up his defense. Kelly has to add some offensive pieces, especially since he traded McCoy and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin left for Kansas City via free agency. Plus his offensive line needs new blood. But Kelly is convinced his system is the real star of the offense and that system will generate enough points no matter who runs it. And right now (we understand this could change at any moment) the Eagles’ skill players appear to be Sam Bradford at quarterback, Ryan Mathews at running back and Jordan Matthews and Riley Cooper at wide receiver.
But Kelly can’t control what happens on defense, and that defense struggled mightily at times last season, especially on third-down situations. If the Eagles can get off the field in those situations, if their defense can get more three-and-out possessions, that means the other guys are scoring fewer points and his guys get more offensive possessions and more opportunities to light up the scoreboard.
That’s why Kelly was willing to trade an All-Pro like McCoy to Buffalo for a still-unproven linebacker, Kiko Alonso, who missed last season with a knee injury. That’s why Kelly was willing to give Byron Maxwell – a very good cornerback, but not a great one – a $63 million contract over next six years, but wouldn’t open Jeff Lurie’s wallet for Maclin. That’s why he signed cornerback Walter Thurmond and linebacker Brad Jones and re-signed linebacker Brandon Graham. And we have to assume he’ll focus on defense in April’s draft, although he may now have to go after a blue-chip wide receiver in the first round instead of the defensive player everyone assumed he would take.
That determination to build a top defense would explain why Kelly was willing to get rid of so many exciting offensive players. And that points to an obvious irony in several of the moves Kelly has made. Many people believed he took the Eagles job two years ago instead of another NFL opening because of all the exciting, big-play athletes already on their roster. It was a group that seemed like a perfect fit for Kelly’s pedal-to-the-metal offense – Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. And now they’re all gone, even though Jackson, McCoy and Maclin each had his best season in Kelly’s offense and added a Pro Bowl to his resume.
So, Chip Kelly seems to think he’s the most important person in the Eagles’ offense and he could be right. Thankfully, we’ll find out soon enough whether he’s a genius or an idiot and whether he’s rescued the Eagles franchise or ruined it.