Chip Kelly Is Not the Best Fit for Eagles’ Next Coach

Is Oregon head coach Chip Kelly the best fit for the Eagles?The Eagles seem dead in the water right now. Of all the years where Andy Reid could have lost his job, this year seems like the most likely unless the team turns it around in a way that no one will be able to see coming. I don’t want to harp on why Reid needs to go because my colleagues here have done the same for two weeks now. I want to look to the future, to who might replace Reid on the sidelines. There are three choices the Eagles could go for: an up-and-coming coordinator, a retread former head coach or a college coach. The last of the three has produced a name that is quite interesting for the position in Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. He seems sexy for the position with his coaching prowess creating an offensive juggernaut in Eugene that has run rampant for years now. However, there is a cautionary tale that needs to be told to anyone who prefers to have him as the head coach.

What do Dennis Erickson, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino have in common? They’re all football coaches who excelled in college but faltered in the pros. Some of them really didn’t have a whole lot of time to succeed, obviously. If these coaches were able to have five years to work their systems in the pros, would they have succeeded? It really isn’t clear, because in at least the cases of Petrino and Saban, they went back to college before the teams had a chance to fire them. Why did they fail at the pro level?

I feel the root cause of it is that pro and college football are completely different games despite having very similar rules and structures. Obviously, there are some systems that work in college that don’t work in the pros. There’s a reason why Tom Osborne never entertained going to the NFL during his amazingly successful tenure at Nebraska. The option is not a viable offensive scheme in the pros because defenses are way too fast and smart to let it continually gash them. However, I almost feel like those kinds of roadblocks are the exception rather than the rule. We’ve seen stuff like the spread offense and offenses that run through mobile, dual-threat quarterbacks start to filter into the pro game after being innovated on lower levels. That also doesn’t explain why guys like Saban or Erickson, both of whom ran pro-style offenses and defenses, struggled to find success with NFL teams. It doesn’t explain why guys like Pete Carroll can succeed at both levels if scheme is the only thing that matters.

The main difference to me why college coaches fail so hard in the pros as a trend is that they aren’t used to the way teams are built. In college, there’s no such thing as a salary cap. If you’re at a sexy school like Alabama, Florida or Oregon, you may have to turn away high-caliber athletes who want to come to your program because of oversigning rules. The only limits they have are the amount of players they can recruit, not the level of player, which is effectively what the salary cap does in the NFL. You can’t put together a starting line up with the best players at each of the 24 starting positions (11 apiece on offense/defense and your two kickers) and back them up with the second and sometimes third best players in the NFL because it would cost too much money. Theoretically, you can do that in college.

So, while Saban was able to accrue awesome recruiting classes at LSU and now Alabama just by saying “Come to my school,” that kind of free reign over stocking his roster on the Dolphins was impossible. Then you have to ask yourself is Saban such a great coach because of his defensive schemes and motivational techniques, or does he just get the best players or better players than everyone else at key positions on a consistent basis. Obviously, it’s a combination of the two, but it’s clear that he is not suited on the player personnel management side of being a coach in the NFL because he has so much power in choosing the caliber of player in college that he’s out of touch with the restraints.

With that in mind, it’s fair to ask whether Chip Kelly has succeeded in Oregon because he has the schemes and superior play-calling, or whether he’s been able to load up on quality offensive linemen and running backs in order to pile up the massive statistics he’s been able to do with his teams. You guys see how awesome De’Anthony Thomas has been this year? He’s not even the top rusher on the team this year. It’s Kenjon Barner. Oh yeah, they have another guy in Byron Marshall who could start for a lot of programs as well. And who could forget that when Thomas was breaking in last year, he was doing so behind LaMichael James, who himself spent years piling up stats despite the fact that he split carries with at least one if not two other backs.

Obviously, if Kelly were to come to the Eagles, he’d have the best back in the league in LeSean McCoy to use to his discretion. However, for him to have the kinds of weapons he’d have at Oregon to implement his gameplans fully at the NFL level, he’d need to back McCoy up with Ray Rice and Doug Martin. That just isn’t happening under the salary cap. Obviously, there’s a chance that Kelly would be able to do his thing with getting the most out of not just McCoy but also Bryce Brown, Stanley Havili and Chris Polk. Anything’s possible, but to me, it’s not a sure thing.

Then again, nothing in the NFL is a sure thing. Even the most successful coaches in NFL history have flopped on their faces when going to new teams. To me, it feels like going for a hot coordinator or assistant coach to tap as the next big thing is the best option, but for every Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton and yes, Andy Reid, there are countless Rod Marinellis, Ray Rhodeses, Cam Camerons, Rich Kotites and Todd Haleys who don’t work out. There’s no sure thing for the Eagles to pursue and not only pick up where Reid is going to leave off but exceed him and win a Super Bowl.

However, I’d feel a lot more skittish about hiring a guy like Kelly than I would be about any other hire the Eagles could make. The NFL is a hard league in which to succeed, and I’m not entirely sure that Kelly would be able to have the time to implement his offensive philosophy, as innovative as it is, without having the relatively limitless bounty of college recruiting rules as compared to NFL team building. If there’s anyone in college the Eagles could look at, it’s a coach at a mid-major level, someone like Chris Petersen from Boise State or Gary Patterson from Texas Christian, who had great success coaching against the bigger names without the benefit of getting the first pick of the litter in terms of recruits. Still, I’d feel a lot better if they left the college ranks alone in general. Again, it’s a different game, and the Eagles aren’t a franchise that can afford to experiment with college coaches, regardless of how innovative they may or may not be.

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Tom Holzerman

Tom Holzerman has been a fan of Philadelphia sports teams for as long as he can remember. He's been writing about them and other things for almost ten years now, first as a columnist for the Drexel Triangle and then as a freelance blogger for several pages, including his own site The Wrestling Blog. He believes sports are meant to be both analyzed and savored and thinks that all the fighting between the "nerds" and the "meatheads" is unnecessary. You can follow him on Twitter @tholzerman, especially if you're a wrestling fan like he is.