Kelly quickly made a believer of Lurie

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 01, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas - Outside the victorious visitors' locker room at AT&T Stadium, Jeffrey Lurie smiled again and again, posing for photos with one Eagles fan after another.

When media members entered the room after the Eagles' 24-22 win Sunday night over the Cowboys, Lurie was standing near the doorway, and instantly arms and microphones, arrayed like the spokes of a wheel, jabbed the air in front of his face. The man of the moment was Chip Kelly, of course, and everyone wanted to know if Lurie, the Eagles' owner, could see this improbable division championship coming so soon into Kelly's tenure.

Lurie said all the right things about the need to reestablish a winning culture within the Eagles' organization, about the transfer of leadership to Kelly from Andy Reid, and all of his words made the process sound so smooth.

So it would have been easy to forget how quickly everything could have unraveled for Kelly and the Eagles back in July, when that infamous video surfaced showing Riley Cooper at a Kenny Chesney concert using a racial slur.

After the celebration over the franchise's first NFC East crown in three years had subsided and fans slipped their iPhones and cameras back into their pockets and handbags, Lurie revealed he still kept fresh in his mind the earliest and most challenging crisis Kelly has had to confront as an NFL head coach.

"He brings people together, and he's dynamic," he said of Kelly. "Cooper's a good example, a really good example."

The point of bringing up the Cooper incident is not to ignite another series of e-mail screeds or dinner-table discussions about the state of race relations in 21st-century America. The point is to apprehend how Kelly managed to effect so rapid a turnaround from that ugly 4-12 season under Reid last year, and the explanation goes beyond the read-option or sports science or the rise of Nick Foles. The turnaround began, really, with his handling of that incident.

Every player on the roster was watching Kelly then. Lurie was watching, too, and when he called Kelly into his office to discuss what Cooper had said and how he'd acted on that video, Lurie was pleased to have Kelly greet him by saying,  "Here's how I'd like to handle it."

"Chip had a plan of how to deal with the humanness of it all," Lurie said. "He really was able to help get the team together through the adversity. That's what you have to do in the NFL, because you're always going to have things like that."

Kelly understood what was at stake: nothing less than the respect of his players and, maybe, his future with the Eagles. Lurie and the franchise's other power people could address the external ramifications of the incident. They could reach out to community leaders, let the public know how seriously the Eagles took Cooper's transgression. But Kelly's mandate - to ensure that a winning environment could still flourish - was something else entirely.

If he came down too harshly or leniently on Cooper, if he lectured the players about how they as grown men should think and react to what had happened, he risked fracturing the team and destroying any chance of establishing trust between him and the players. What if one or more refused to play alongside Cooper again?

But there was also no getting around two truths: The Eagles needed Cooper - he was their second-best wide receiver. And the natural dynamics of a professional locker room promised that if Cooper apologized and played well, his teammates would at best forgive him and at worst learn to live with him.

"It wasn't sort of a knee-jerk reaction," Lurie said. "It was a thoughtful reaction, and he understands the locker room and the players and the chemistry and what needed to be done. It wasn't like he was a populist politician or something. It's about true leadership, not superficial leadership."

In the end, Kelly held a team meeting to clear the air, and in its aftermath, he left it to Michael Vick, Jason Avant, and other veteran players to establish the terms of Cooper's reacceptance. Avant, for example, spoke to the entire team and to individuals, citing his Christian faith in asking them to give Cooper a second chance.

"I knew if we could overcome that, we could overcome a lot of different things," Avant said. "Now, it's water under the bridge for us."

Here they are five months later, and after a stunning 10-6 season, after another division title, that incident seems so distant. It didn't have to.

As that celebration deep within AT&T Stadium wound down and Jeffrey Lurie smiled and smiled, it would have been easy to forget how everything could have come apart for the Eagles in the summer.

Just understand: The man who hired Chip Kelly hasn't forgotten a thing.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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