The Chip Kelly Gamble

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This is where the Chip Kelly bandwagon makes a sudden stop on the hard shoulder and half of the occupants wander off in a daze. Thursday became the day when you were either all in with Chip or wondering why you ever had been. Paying Byron Maxwell like he’s Deion Sanders was aggressive and desperate, but understandable for a team that had no cornerbacks. Trading for Sam Bradford was worrisome, but you can understand a team with no quarterbacks taking a risk on a passer who might be a buy-low candidate.

Signing DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews on the same day? At full retail price? That’s a bridge too far. For days, we’ve been looking at the various moves the Eagles have been making while trying to figure out Kelly’s master plan. Now, more than ever, it looks like Kelly is equally in the dark.

The most troubling part about all of this is that it feels like one day’s moves have no relation to the next. On Wednesday, Kelly was describing the LeSean McCoy trade as a move designed to clear out the space needed for Maxwell, and the next day, he signed a running back who will make as much or more money as McCoy would have in 2015. Then, after signing two running backs who usually stick between the tackles and trading for an injury-riddled quarterback, the Eagles reportedly start shopping Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis around the league?

Given their other plans, you have to wonder when the Eagles really decided to make an offer this large to Murray. If they really wanted Murray this badly, why didn’t they go after him at the beginning of free agency? Were they planning on teaming up Murray and Frank Gore as opposed to Murray and Mathews? Or was it going to be Gore and Mathews, and after Gore had second thoughts, did the Eagles get desperate and go after Murray?

It’s hard to imagine that the Eagles were interested over the weekend and managed to sign Murray only after his price tag came down, because it’s also hard to imagine that Murray could have expected more money than this. After rumors that Murray would eventually go back to the Cowboys on a team-friendly contract, he got paid in full. The 2014 rushing champion signed a five-year, $42 million deal with Philly that guarantees him $21 million, a far cry from the four-year, $24 million contract with $12 million guaranteed that Dallas reportedly offered Murray.

In a vacuum, you can’t fault the Eagles for preferring Murray to McCoy in terms of what happens on the field. For whatever McCoy offers in terms of making guys miss in the backfield with his Barry Sanders–esque jukes, Murray is a better fit for the Kelly scheme as a one-cut back. Murray is not as patient as Gore, but he combines the patience needed for his lane to clear with speed and acceleration that Gore can’t reliably match anymore. Murray was also an incredibly effective receiver in Dallas, catching nearly 90 percent of the passes thrown to him last year, the highest rate in the league for a back with more than 50 targets. Bigger than McCoy and faster than Gore is a good combination.

The problem … is just about everything else. You start, naturally, with Murray’s health. Kelly suggested during Wednesday’s press conference that the Eagles had targeted players like Bradford and Walter Thurmond with the idea that they would be undervalued because they had struggled with a recent injury. That makes some sense, and it’s not a bad idea; the Patriots and 49ers do this a fair amount in the draft, hoping to find a talented player who drops a couple of rounds below his draft grade because of an injury that is likely to clear up.

Murray, though, is just the opposite. Last year was his only healthy season in Dallas, and even that included a broken hand. Murray dislocated his patella in college, has had hamstring issues at both the college and professional levels, and has gone through a sprained MCL, a sprained foot, and a broken ankle during his NFL career.

The Eagles could make the argument that they’re getting a reduced price for Murray because teams know about his pre-2014 injury issues, and I’m sure they expect the combination of a decreased workload (due to the presence of Mathews, who himself has made it through only one healthy season) and Kelly’s emphasis on sports science to allow them to keep Murray as healthy as possible. And it’s true, those are two great ways to mitigate some of Murray’s injury risk.

The damage, unfortunately, may have already been done. The Cowboys maxed Murray out last year, giving him a staggering 392 carries during the regular season to go with 44 more in the postseason. Murray recorded 436 carries and 497 touches during the entire 2014 campaign, which is more than he had in the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined. Jason Garrett’s overreliance upon Murray was borderline criminal at times, most notably when he ran or threw the ball to Murray on 18 of Dallas’s 22 second-half plays in a blowout win over Chicago in Week 14.

Statistical analyses of overuse for NFL running backs are controversial. There is the Curse of 370 carries, which may be statistically unsound. In any case, we can observe in a small sample that players with the sort of extreme workload Murray endured in 2014 are unlikely to repeat that same level of performance the following year, with recent high-workload backs like Arian Foster (351 carries in 2012), Chris Johnson (358 carries in 2009), Michael Turner (376 carries in 2008), and Larry Johnson (416 carries in 2006) all either getting injured or suffering a serious drop-off. Only Adrian Peterson (363 carries in 2008) managed to stay healthy and effective the following year.

Even without setting an arbitrary cutoff, the more relevant concept here is our old favorite, regression toward the mean. Everything has to go right for a running back to get that many carries. He has to stay healthy. His team has to be winning regularly so it can run the clock out in the second half in lieu of throwing frantically to try to catch up. He needs a healthy, effective offensive line to clear out his running lanes. More than anything, he has to be productive. Nobody wants to give a running back who is averaging 3.5 yards per carry 350 rush attempts in 2015. It’s extremely difficult to have all of those things come together once for a professional running back, let alone twice in consecutive years.

It’s fair to say that Murray doesn’t seem like the kind of player who is likely to buck those trends. The 2014 perfomance stands out as an outlier for him in a number of ways. The injury history, obviously, suggests that he’s unlikely to last 16 games. His offensive line in Dallas was incredible and was able to make it onto the field for 74 of 80 possible starts. Philadelphia had a similarly impressive line in 2013 stay healthy for 80 of 80 starts, but it was annihilated by injuries last year and appears to be rebuilding, cutting Todd Herremans before shopping Mathis. The Cowboys also won 12 games last year; it would be tough to project any team, let alone these Eagles, to match that before a season begins.

You can argue that the Eagles won’t want Murray to be a workhorse back, that they’re also signing Mathews and they’ll use Darren Sproles in the lineup plenty. That’s true. The aftereffects of Murray’s workload from a year ago might still cause him to slow down on a per-carry basis. He could be more susceptible to injury, even if he has fewer chances to actually collide with a defender or plant at full speed and see that injury occur.

The Eagles gave McCoy, their clear no. 1 running back at the time, 314 carries in 2013 and 312 carries in 2014. I don’t think they want to use Murray that frequently. They’ll likely try to spot his time to have him end up somewhere in the 250- to 300-carry range, with 30 to 40 receptions thrown in for good measure. Philly surely plans on running the ball a ton, but it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Murray takes 275 carries, Mathews gets 125 of his own, Sproles chips in with 50 rushes, and a combination of quarterbacks and other backups gets them to 500 rush attempts. That’s exactly the number of times they ran in 2013.

In terms of keeping Murray healthy, that’s going to be the best way to manage his workload. In terms of maximizing the value of his deal, though, it’s crazy to imagine that the Eagles just gave $21 million guaranteed to a running back who they will constantly be afraid of overworking. Part of why you would give a running back that much money is the idea that you’re going to get a huge chunk of the workload taken care of with a premium back. If the Eagles don’t treat Murray like a workhorse, it will be even harder for him to justify $8.4 million per year.

The structure of Murray’s contract remains a mystery, but if the Maxwell deal is of any relevance, the Eagles will try to shift money into the first few years of the contract by turning some of the signing bonus (which gets spread over the length of the contract for cap purposes) into a first-year roster bonus (which applies only to the first year). Maxwell’s first three base salaries are guaranteed; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Murray’s first two base salaries guaranteed with the Eagles able to get out of this deal without too much pain after 2016.

The track record for running backs who recently received this much money in guarantees is mixed at best. Even the concept of what represents guaranteed money can be up for debate, with different levels of guarantees representing different totals. (Some sources have Murray’s deal guaranteeing $18 million for skill and injury.) In any case, using Spotrac as the primary source, here’s what I could find for comparable running backs who were recently guaranteed $15 million or more:

Matt Forte is just on the fringes, with $13.8 million fully guaranteed and $17.1 million partially guaranteed. Even if you include Forte, the success rate for this list isn’t great. How many of these teams would take back the deals if they could? The Eagles tried to do that with McCoy by trading him away, actually. You would definitely give Lynch that contract extension from 2012 again, and his new deal has only $12 million in guarantees. Peterson had that MVP season, albeit immediately after a lost year when he struggled with a high ankle sprain before tearing his ACL.

That’s about all the positives. The deals for Johnson1 and Williams were disasters. Foster got injured in 2013, although he had a nice bounce-back in 2014. It would be unfair to use the missing 2014 seasons from Peterson or Rice as proof of anything, but it is fair to mention that Rice was awful post-extension in 2013 while playing through a hip injury. The hit rate on these deals, it’s fair to say, is low. And when they miss badly, they can be franchise-haunting failures.

The Mathews deal isn’t quite as high-stakes, but it raises some of the same questions. The former first-round pick has had a mostly disappointing pro career, only really putting things together at a Pro Bowl level in 2013, the lone season when he wasn’t injured or fumbling. That remains his only full professional campaign, and he missed half of 2014 with knee, shoulder, and ankle maladies.

Again, the Eagles will spot Mathews’s workload so he isn’t overwhelmed and susceptible to injury, trying to avoid what happened when the Chargers gave him 107 carries over the final four weeks in 2013 and saw him suffer an ankle injury that zapped his playoff effectiveness. And again, it’s going to make it much harder to return value on his deal. Mathews will get $11.5 million over three years with $5 million guaranteed, which should make him about the 20th-highest paid back in football.

In all, Kelly is committing a lot of money to his running backs. Let’s assume that Mathews’s deal eats up about $4 million in cap space this year. Assuming that it has a roster bonus, Murray should come in at about $9 million. The Eagles already have Sproles on their cap at $4.1 million. Even if they cut Chris Polk, that means about $17 million in cap space is committed to running backs.

The only team that even comes close to the Eagles on running back spending would be the Vikings, who have $18 million committed to backs this season, but $15.4 million of that money belongs to Peterson, who is likely to be released or traded. Otherwise, nobody else is spending more than $10.9 million on running backs, which leaves the Eagles as an enormous outlier in terms of how they’re choosing to use their cap space.

And that doesn’t seem to make sense. If there’s anything that a Kelly offense should be able to generate on the cheap, wouldn’t it be running backs? The uptempo attack requires a quarterback capable of making instant reads at the line of scrimmage before delivering accurate throws, often downfield, in the blink of an eye. That can be tough to find. It requires receivers with ideal speed and size, which Kelly is in the process of finding. It needs big, athletic offensive linemen who can run outside the hashes on screens, and he has those.

Running backs, however, shouldn’t be a premium position in Philly’s scheme. Kelly needs his backs to be versatile, but the league routinely undervalues receiving as a skill for backs, anyway. He needs them to be decisive with their cuts and quick to the hole, but that’s not a hard back to find in the middle-to-late rounds of a draft. Murray was a third-round pick. Foster was an undrafted free agent. Couldn’t the Eagles have drafted somebody like Javorius Allen, plugged him in as part of a rotation with Mathews and Sproles, and used that massive outlay for Murray on players like Mike Iupati or Torrey Smith before they signed elsewhere?

Here’s the simplest way I can put this: Pretend, for a moment, that the Raiders or the Jaguars or the Browns made this exact same pair of moves. They would be the laughingstocks of the league, fools making the same stupid mistakes that bad franchises always make. The Eagles understandably aren’t being painted with that brush because Kelly has earned a certain level of credibility as a forward-thinking coach. With the moves Kelly has made this offseason, that credibility is on the line.

Kelly may very well make these signings work, but the Murray deal is a classic example of what bad teams do in free agency. Two years from now, we may very well look back at the past 72 hours in Eagles history as the moment when Kelly sealed his status as the next Bill Belichick. We also may look back at it as the time when Kelly sealed his fate.

Filed Under: NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Chip Kelly, DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, 2015 NFL Free Agency

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell