Win or lose Sunday, Chip Kelly a success this year with Eagles

New coach Chip Kelly has engineered a quick turnaround by the Birds, making his first year a success no matter what happens in Dallas.
New coach Chip Kelly has engineered a quick turnaround by the Birds, making his first year a success no matter what happens in Dallas. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 30, 2013

Leave it to Cary Williams to say what few players were willing to express three days before the winner-take-all season finale in Dallas:

Win or lose Sunday against the Cowboys, the Eagles' 2013 season - Chip Kelly's first in the NFL - has been an unmitigated success.

"I think about that every day, especially when I look at the [9-6] record and I look at what guys experienced last year winning only four games," Williams said. "I think this a huge turnaround. I think this is a positive season regardless of what happens this Sunday."

For the majority of the other Eagles polled, it was understandably difficult to look past the Cowboys and to an offseason of reflection. They're a victory from the postseason and have as good a chance as the other 11 playoff teams of winning it all considering the last decade of Super Bowl winners.

A 9-7 finish would mean they fell short, and the year will not be remembered for the five-win improvement many in Philadelphia would have taken before the season.

"Maybe upstairs they'll be happy with this in terms of the front office," center Jason Kelce said. "I can't speak on that. But I know that the players in this locker room, me included, will be disappointed if we lost on Sunday."

Jeffrey Lurie said before the season that Kelly would not be judged upon wins and losses after his first season. But the Eagles owner, general manager Howie Roseman, and team president Don Smolenski have to be high-fiving each other each time they cross paths on the second floor of the NovaCare Complex.

Kelly has been everything Lurie said he would be when he introduced the former Oregon coach on Jan. 17, nearly two weeks after initially being told, "Thanks, but no thanks."

After Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and then Kelly rebuffed them early in the coaching search, the Eagles really didn't have a Plan B. They flirted with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly; had conversations with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin; and likely would have settled on Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, now with the Jaguars, had Kelly not reconsidered.

There had been speculation that Kelly was holding out for Roseman to cede some control over personnel decisions, but that wasn't the case, according to two sources close to the situation.

Kelly had every intention of staying at Oregon, but there had been increasing friction between him and the university over his annual flirtation with the NFL, the sources said. He nearly left for the Buccaneers job a year earlier.

Mostly, Kelly wanted the challenge, and the Eagles were an appealing destination. They were also, technically, the only team that had offered him a job. The Bills were reportedly interested, but they hired Doug Marrone before an interview was canceled.

The Browns, with former Eagles president Joe Banner as CEO, were the only other team to interview Kelly. They left Phoenix, where Lurie and company also met with Kelly, either unsure about his commitment or tipped off that he wasn't interested in any team other than the Eagles.

While the Bills, Jaguars, and Chargers were unlikely to afford Kelly's eventual payday of a reported $6.5 million a year, the Cardinals, Bears, and Chiefs never were in on Kelly.

Of the eight teams in search of a coach, the Eagles had links to seven of their eventual choices. One year is hardly enough to evaluate the new coaches, but it is interesting to compare how they fared in their first season.

Bradley and the Jaguars are 4-11, as are the Browns, who hired Rob Chudzinski. Marrone and the Bills are 6-9. The Chargers (Mike McCoy) and Bears (Marc Trestman) are 8-7. The Cardinals (Bruce Arians) are 10-5. And former Eagles coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs are 11-4.

Expectations for the Eagles were mostly low because of how badly things ended last season and because Kelly was installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. But several players said this past week that they thought a quick turnaround was possible, especially on offense, because of all the injuries last season.

Few predicted the success quarterback Nick Foles would have, and running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson have scaled new heights in Kelly's system. The offensive line, which was down to one healthy starter by the end of 2012, hasn't had a missed start all season.

"We had a lot of the pieces, especially offensively, that were out last year," Kelce said. "I thought the offense was going to get going. It was really the defensive side of the ball that everybody was unsure how they were going to fill out."

Bill Davis' defense hasn't been dominant, but few are in today's NFL, and for the most part the unit has shown steady progress.

Even when the Eagles opened the season 1-3 or fell to 3-5, players said, Kelly had built up enough trust that his way would eventually prevail. There were initial suspicions, though, after he was hired.

"Guys were skeptical of a college coach before they got to know him," Kelce said. "There's different ways to run college programs, but if you get one that's an authoritative [jerk], that's what guys were worried about."

Kelly dispelled those fears quickly, according to Kelce. The other chief concern was how a college coach would adapt to handling the physical needs of professional football players. Kelly's conditioning and sports science programs and the remarkable health of the Eagles have answered those questions.

"In college there's 100 guys, you play 12 games, you go to school, you're younger, you play four years, and then you're done," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "We're not trying to play just four years. We're trying to play 10 years. We play 20, sometimes 24 games in a season."

The Eagles have already played 19 games, including the preseason. No. 20 is Sunday. They hope to play more. But if they don't, there's always next year.

"You don't necessarily want to lose, but it's part of the process," said Williams, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens last season. "You've got to deal with it, and you've got to come back in the offseason and get it done. But Chip's definitely put the cement down. He's laid the foundation."

For the first time in a long time, Kelly has everyone associated with the Eagles thinking from the bottom all the way to the top. And it may not take long to get there.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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