Should Philadelphia Eagles fans remain patient with Chip Kelly?

Sep 27, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly coaches against the New York Jets during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 27, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly coaches against the New York Jets during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Philadelphia Eagles continue to struggle, it’s becoming harder to say fans should remain patient with head coach Chip Kelly. 

After leading the Eagles to back-to-back 10-win seasons his first two years on the job,  Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly may be on his way out. At least it appears that way from the last few weeks of sports media chatter. You can’t click open a new tab in your browser window without encountering another piece about Kelly’s tumultuous, sub par year. Philadelphia’s poor play, their on-field performance in 2015 a mere shadow of what it was last season, combined with the usual speculation that emerges when college football coaches get the proverbial ax, has created an environment in which rumors are flying and fans’ patience with Kelly’s control over the Philadelphia franchise is dwindling.

Football fans are a fickle bunch, and it appears the Philadelphia faithful have just about had enough of Kelly’s managerial system, one that resulted in reorganizing a good 2014 team, emphasizing things like culture over talent. While there are still a few weeks left to go in the regular season — and the Eagles, thanks to playing in the abysmal NFC East, still have an outside shot at the playoffs (but don’t bet on it) — it’s easy to see why Philadelphia fans are already considering this season a failure. It’s hard to retain any semblance of optimism considering Philadelphia’s last three losses: a blown lead against the Miami Dolphins, a dismantling at the hands of Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and an utter meltdown against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. Those are three demoralizing losses to suffer in the weeks leading up to a showdown against the red-hot New England Patriots.

Even more troubling for Kelly than his team’s on-field play has been the constant presence of rumors about his relationship with players. Sports media squeezed as much juice as possible out of the off-season “is Chip Kelly a racist?” story — remember those fun few weeks? — and although Kelly has no control over what the yammering talking heads on ESPN crow about for ratings, the amount of general dissension and discontentment rumored to be infecting the Philadelphia locker room is approaching “if there’s smoke, there’s fire” territory. According to Mike Lombardo at NJ Advance Media, an agent for one of Kelly’s starters recently said that the third-year coach has “lost the team” and that the “players have tuned him out.” When you consider how overall lifeless and disengaged the Eagles looked against the Buccaneers and the Lions, it’s not hard to feel like the team is dealing with some internal issues. Consider incidents such as running back Darren Sproles, who recently complained about playing time, getting into an ugly sideline argument with quarterback Mark Sanchez, and anonymous players questioning the effort of DeMarco Murray, whose decision to slide instead of taking contact in the Tampa Bay game was controversial, to say the least.  Those aren’t signs of a healthy locker room.

Internal turmoil doesn’t have to be insurmountable, but the complexities of the situation are magnified due to Kelly’s influence over the direction of the franchise. Kelly is more than just Philadelphia’s coach; he was given managerial powers during the off-season. The decision was a controversial one when it was announced and it continues to be so, as that level of front-office influence is unprecedented for a third-year coach. Granting that much personnel control to Kelly was a huge vote of confidence in his vision for the team, and it’s safe to say expectations haven’t been met. By taking on a more GM-like role, Kelly opened himself up to even more avenues of criticism than if he’d just remained the team’s coach. The pressure on Kelly won’t soon relent, as Philly fans dissatisfied with the current team can take a two-pronged approach when it comes to criticizing Kelly. It’s open season on both his in-game decision-making and his long-term plans for the roster.

In many ways Kelly in 2015 is a victim of his own previous success. He came into the NFL after leading the University of Oregon to unprecedented heights, and he brought with him his much-praised ideas about up-tempo play and the unimportance of time of possession. Whenever a successful college coach makes the leap to the NFL, and especially when said college coach is portrayed as some sort of gridiron innovator, the scrutiny he faces ratchets up a few notches. It sounds cynical, but there are many NFL watchers who take delight in seeing college coaches flame out in the pro game, or at the very least be forced to abandon the strategies that worked at the collegiate level. “The college coach finding out just how hard things are in the big boy league” is a cherished football narrative. That’s the lens through which all of Kelly’s decisions, past and present, both in-game and behind the scenes, have been and will continue to be analyzed. All the things that confirm the narrative become magnified in a “see, I told you so” sort of way. By inheriting a four-win team from Andy Reid and posting consecutive 10-win seasons — and by doing it his way, with his offensive ideals — Kelly appeared to be bucking the narrative, to be defying the natural order, which is what makes his current struggles loom all the larger: he’s now embodying the narrative, and for football fans narratives are powerful, irrefutable things. In that sense Kelly’s 2015 season seems more like a harbinger of bad times to come than simply a down year. Fans’ pessimism seems warranted.

So how much patience is Kelly owed? It’s hard to definitively say, but things don’t look good. If Kelly were just a coach struggling through a bad season, the victim of some front-office missteps in terms of talent acquisition, then it’d be easy to sympathize with his predicament, to say that he’s just doing the best with what he has available. He did lead the Eagles to those back-to-back 10-win seasons; it’d be easy to give him the benefit of the doubt, to stand by him, to direct blame at the front office. But Kelly spearheaded the roster changes that have given so many Eagles fans headaches this year; he is the front office; the responsibility for personnel decisions falls on his shoulders. It’s one thing when fans have questions about play calls and strategy. Mistakes in those areas, although undoubtedly frustrating, are the sorts of errors fans can tolerate, at least for a little while. No coach is infallible. But Eagles fans are dealing with more than that. They are mired in a situation in which the entire direction of the franchise seems uncertain, perhaps trending downward. Kelly appears to have some serious shortcomings in terms of evaluating talent, and his once-vaunted offense, one that provided many fireworks his first two years in the league, has sputtered, and Philadelphia’s defense isn’t good enough to keep the team afloat. From a fan perspective, it’s far harder to justify patience when faced with that sort of bleakness.

Sure, there are other solutions than firing Kelly at the end of this year. Fans can hope that a healthy Sam Bradford — now there’s a bit of a pipe dream — clicks with Kelly’s system in year two, although any improvement on Bradford’s part won’t matter if the offensive line remains unsatisfactory and ineffective. There’s also the option of getting defensive coordinator Bill Davis, a man not exactly popular with the fans, out of the picture. Defense was never one of Kelly’s strong suits when he was at Oregon, and any sort of improved defensive identity — heck, after the last few poor performances any identity at all — would be a boon for the Eagles, but switching coordinators is no guarantee of success, and doing so wouldn’t address the full array of problems in Philadelphia. There’s always the hope of improving the team through free agency, but the level of control Kelly has over even the small aspects of players’ lives isn’t the easiest sell, especially for veterans. Again, it’s hard to mine any sort of optimism out of the current predicament.

If Kelly wants to remain in Philadelphia, he has to give the fans something to believe in, some sort of sign that the ship can be righted. He has to show that his first two seasons weren’t a fluke, and he has to do it while battling against the short leash given to former college coaches in the NFL. It is not going to be an easy task, especially if the locker room truly is as divided as is rumored, and with the end of the season fast approaching, any sort of turnaround has to happen now. Philadelphia fans put up with a turbulent off-season, and their team has been almost unwatchable the past few weeks. If collectively they are reaching the end of their ropes, it’s hard to fault them.