Keep Chip Kelly WeirdRich Schultz/Getty Images
Let us presume, at least for the moment, that Chip Kelly has not lost his ever-loving mind. Let us accept that Kelly has an elaborate plan for the future of the Philadelphia Eagles, and that Kelly truly believes this plan could be more easily consummated by trading one of the best running backs in pro football for a former University of Oregon linebacker who most casual football fans knew nothing about until Wednesday afternoon. Let us imagine there is a perfectly reasonable way that all of this might work out just fine, as pretty much all the other conventional wisdom Kelly has tinkered with has.
I don’t think these are unreasonable assumptions. But despite all of that, despite the fact that Kelly’s personnel/salary-cap choices might blossom into yet another counterintuitive stroke of genius, there is still a divide here. There is still a sense, among some, that Kelly is a college coach utilizing a collegiate system and making collegiate decisions that contradict the hard-won wisdom of professional football. And this means that certain sectors of the NFL will regard Kelly’s decision-making with a snooty condescension. This means that some people are going to view Chip Kelly as a troll.
“The owner is placing a lot of trust in a guy who, 8-9 years ago, was coaching at a Division [I-AA] school,” a league personnel man told the Philadelphia Daily News’s Paul Domowitch. “He had some success at Oregon, but it wasn’t like he had dominating success there. He didn’t win a national championship. There’s no one with a great historical resumé making decisions for the Eagles right now.”
Never mind that Kelly came within a couple of plays of winning a national championship, and never mind that Kelly’s system (and his recruiting, which is essentially a form of personnel evaluation) pretty quickly elevated Oregon into a national power. There is a long (and understandable) tradition of the NFL dismissing college coaches. It seems clear that there’s a sense among certain pro football people, such as the one quoted above, that college coaching does not require the same intellectual rigor and overarching skill set as the professional game — that the only way to really become a pro football coach is to toil for long hours as a coordinator and buy into the conservative wisdom that has, for so long, defined professional football.1
Sometimes, of course, this condescension has proved justified, as when Dr. Lou contrived that Holtzian fight song in an attempt to motivate the woeful 1976 Jets, or when Bobby Petrino bailed on the Falcons in midseason, or, most famously, when Steve Spurrier took over the Washington Redskins with the notion that his Fun ’n’ Gun offense could translate readily to the NFL. Spurrier came into the NFL with the notion that he could essentially troll the league; Mark Bowden’s sharp and funny New Yorker profile of Spurrier when he was coaching the Redskins was centered on the notion that the Ol’ Ball Coach believed he could alter the very nature of professional football. Instead, Spurrier went 12-20 in two seasons, then got canned by mercurial owner Dan Snyder.
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It would be easy to liken Kelly to Spurrier, since they both attempted to stockpile players they once coached in college; if Kelly does wind up drafting Marcus Mariota, then the comparisons between the two will no doubt hit some kind of critical threat level. And this is why, as someone who doesn’t have an allegiance to any NFL team, as someone who loves the NFL but will always consider the college game my first love, I hope Kelly’s plan works in all the ways Spurrier’s didn’t. I hope he manages to spit in the faces of those cranky personnel men; I hope he continues to import the quirkiness and variety and impetuousness of college football to a league that often takes its best ideas from the college ranks. Don’t get me wrong: Pro football (and I’m just talking about the game itself, not the myriad attendant issues surrounding it) is great, but it could be even greater if it learned to stop worrying so much and embraced more unpredictable iconoclasts like Kelly.
I would argue, for those reasons, that the Eagles have been the most interesting story in pro football the past couple of seasons. And they’re only more interesting now post–LeSean McCoy, because Kelly doesn’t seem to have interest in “adapting” to the NFL, but in forcing the NFL to adapt to him. Maybe all of this will blow up in his face, but until it does, this is one kind of trolling I can get behind.
Michael Weinreb (@michaelweinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.