The Eagles' Chip Kelly-Lane Johnson connection

Posted: July 24, 2013

AS PLAYERS seeped into the NovaCare Complex yesterday for physicals and paperwork, the questions from last winter, spring and early summer repeated themselves. Who would be the quarterback? The tight ends? Was Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense difficult to learn? Has it been embraced?

Will it work in the NFL?

Big-sized free-agent prospects like Ifeanyi Momah and Michael Bamiro were asked about their choices and their chances, veterans like Jason Kelce were asked about adjusting.

But the player who will tell us the most about Chip Kelly this season may be tackle Lane Johnson, the fourth pick overall just signed to a contract worth almost $20 million. Big promise, big risk - he is his coach personified, just as Donovan McNabb once personified Andy Reid's vision.

A linebacker-sized quarterback with a large arm and running back speed, McNabb was more than a draft pick or a quarterback: He was a mission statement.

Chosen instead of quarterbacks Akili Smith or Daunte Culpepper and instead of a running back named Ricky Williams, McNabb, for the next decade, embodied what was smart about Andy Reid, and what was not.

Reid had never been a head coach at any level prior to 1999. Four years ago, Kelly had zero head-coaching experience at any level. Now he is one of the NFL's highest-paid head coaches. Four years ago, Lane Johnson was a quarterback who weighed 230 pounds. Now he is a 310-pound tackle.

"Now, I feel normal," he said after reporting yesterday. "Back then I was starving."

Johnson embodies Kelly's grand scheme, whether we are talking about playing big, playing fast or playing smart. Johnson transitioned from quarterback to tight end to defensive end and then offensive tackle. Kelly is betting that there are some quick-thinking brains attached to that brawn, and that the rawness that seemed to drop him from the tippy top of the draft late will be short-lived due to such smarts.

"Playing quarterback, knowing defenses, knowing schemes, knowing where blitzes are coming from," he was saying after reporting yesterday. "It helps you out. The more quick-footed you are handling my position . . .

"You need quick players for a quick offense. You have to be able to think fast and be on your toes."

There is a story University of New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell likes to tell about his former assistant's quick mind. Kelly loathed timeouts, recalled the UNH coach. He would rather burn a play. Once, though, as the Wildcats were churning down the field on one of their frantically efficient drives, Kelly suddenly signaled for a timeout.

"What are you doing?" asked McDonnell.

"I was thinking too fast," McDonnell recalled Kelly saying. "I was too far ahead. I had to slow myself down."

Andy Reid called plenty of timeouts in his 14 seasons as the Eagles head coach. None likely for that reason. His playbook was likely larger than Kelly's will be, filled with checkdowns and contingencies and trickery. On his best days, opponents seemed the more confused team. On his worst ones, it was his team, and specifically his franchise quarterback, who seemed constantly discombobulated.

Reid had no aversion to timeouts, or to using most of the play clock to run a play. One lasting image of his tenure will be the perplexed face of Bill Belichick during the Eagles' final mess of a Super Bowl drive, asking an aide if the score was correct as the Eagles burned valuable seconds running plays.

Another one will be his quarterback, hunched over late in that fateful game, perhaps heaving, perhaps simply having a panic attack.

Either way, we have come to realize that it wasn't Andy or Donovan, but rather Andy and Donovan. They were perfect for each other and that Green Bay-based offense and they gave us a ton of thrills. At times they were also poison for each other, and that gave us angina, too.

So what happens here? Like Reid in 1999, Kelly's self-confidence belies his experience, at least at the NFL level. Clearly, he believes his college approach, with just a few minor tweaks, will work at this level, and he is assembling his team that way, with high-risk, high-reward types. In Momah, he has a 6-7 receiver in camp who last played football in 2011. The recently signed Bamiro is a 6-8 offensive lineman who played 3 years at Stony Brook after what apparently was a nondescript high school career.

High risk. High reward. Kelly's heroes will run themselves to glory or they will run themselves into the ground. The career of Lane Johnson is almost certain to be intertwined with that equation.

"I can't control everybody's expectations," he said. "But that's OK. Because I have pretty high expectations of my own."

DN Members Only : Howie Roseman says the Eagles aren't close to figuring out their roster.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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