I don’t think I’ve been surprised by any NFL transaction as much as I was yesterday, when the Eagles shipped away Shady McCoy to Buffalo straight-up for Kiko Alonso. Other than maybe the various cuts made by Belichick over the years, I can’t remember being this surprised. I don’t think anyone had reported that McCoy was really on the block, but there he went in a blink of an eye, much like his own running style. The trade is far more complex than the Eagles saying ‘We think Alonso is better than McCoy’, because he almost certainly is not, and is unimportant as people think RBs are right now, ILBs are not that much more important. When we look beyond the players moved, this opens up a boat-load of cap room for the Eagles to do other things, like sign people they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Still, any time Chip Kelly does something extreme (like trade away DeSean Jackson last offseason), we have to look at this with duck-colored glasses, as another move Kelly is making to make the Eagles his team and his alone. And that is the more interesting part of the trade, is Kelly becoming a little too tied to wanting players that fit his system, or more accurately his mindset?
It is really hard to separate systems and talent in the NFL. The best coaches can really do both. Bill Belichick does have a system on offense, to which certain players are more valuable than others (TEs, pass-catching RBs, slot receivers; there’s a reason why the only true outside receiver to ever really succeed in that offense was one of the most singularly talented players ever); but on defense there is no system. Belichick has gone from a 4-3, to a 3-4, back to a 4-3, to back to a 3-4, and done all to varying degrees of success. He’s always been flexible on defense to fit a scheme to the players he had. Other great coaches have done the same, like John Harbaugh’s Ravens, who have been very different teams on both sides of the ball at different times of his tenure. Or Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers on offense, who have been able to tailor offenses differently to the strengths of Alex Smith and the strengths of Colin Kaepernick. Chip Kelly does not seem to be one of those coaches, but does he have to be?
There is a long history of ‘system’ coaches coming from college and failing. That history is even recent as well, with Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Bobby Petrino all failing since 2000 (Nick Saban is a different category, as he isn’t known for an offensive style). Chip Kelly seemed to be above those issues, mainly because people thought he was. He always spoke about his offense at a higher level than Spurrier did, and seemed more adept to transitioning to the NFL. Belichick spoke highly of him (of course, that isn’t always a sign of future success), as did other coaches. He came to the NFL and after a tough start (3-6 in 2013), the Eagles ran off 7 straight wins, amassed hundreds and hundreds of yards, and turned Nick Foles into a HOF-level QB for half a season.
16 games later, despite the record staying the same, Kelly’s ‘system’ seems far more questionable.
First, Nick Foles came back to earth, then he got hurt. Many thought his system was not QB-dependent, something that would be utterly unique in the 21st Century NFL. Turns out it isn’t, as Mark Sanchez posted stats that were basically in-line with what he did with the Jets. The offense stagnated, couldn’t score in the red zone, and failed repeatedly late in the season as a 9-3 start became a 1-3 finish and missing the playoffs. Kelly’s system still seems above reproach, or at least he feels that way. Questions should definitely be asked at this point, though, about his insistence on having his players to run it.
The first move was trading away DeSean Jackson, who had a really good season in 2013. The offense remained explosive, but their deep passing was not as effective. Losing Jackson was a huge part of that. Now it is McCoy. RBs are not all that important in today’s NFL, though the success of the Seahawks is at least one data point that RBs may in fact be undervalued today. They do provide value, and getting a RB who is adept as receiving and running like McCoy is a rarity. He’s still relatively young, and hasn’t had the overuse that so many other RBs have had. I guess he just didn’t fit what Chip Kelly wants to do.
What Chip Kelly wants to do, it seems, is basically have full control of everything. There was a very public spat/power-struggle between him and Howie Roseman this offseason. Roseman preceeded the Kelly regime, but was shoved aside (literally, as now his office has been moved away from the Eagles facility). It was a weird affair, but also a weird resolution, a sort of compromise that wasn’t. Kelly kept his job (and there was at least strong rumors that he might leave in a Harbaugh-ian exit), and Roseman got a promotion that effectively neutered any involvement he has on the personnel. This is Kelly’s team now, through and through, and it remains to be seen if he will be flexible in his system.
It is not like system head coaches have never worked. The most famous success story has always been Bill Walsh, who found and acquired players that fit his West Coast Offense, but that offense isn’t a system as much as a style. Pretty much everyone can fit in a West Coast Offense if you have a QB who can run it well. I don’t know if any coach has acquired so much power and so much clout so early when his background is just a system. Chip Kelly has won all those battles so far, but the main battle on the field remains a question mark. Trading away Shady McCoy helps in some ways, but it is another sign that Kelly’s tenure will be one that will be analyzed and remembered for a while.