And so another grand experiment ends, one more cautionary tale of a college coach who doesn’t have what it takes in the NFL. One more owner convinced that the flavor-of-the-month on the sideline of the best college program in the land can translate his skill set to the NFL, and in the end disappointed and sobered to learn that it hardly ever works at this level.
Chip Kelly is gone from the Eagles, one game short of three full seasons in the NFL and leaving behind a trail of unfulfilled expectations and hard feelings from the dysfunctional roster he fashioned in Philadelphia. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie took the calculated risk that Kelly would be the antidote after Andy Reid flamed out at 4-12 in 2012, and Kelly had two winning seasons with the personnel Reid left behind.
But less than a year after Lurie gave Kelly the keys to the kingdom by taking away power from general manager Howie Roseman and dropping it in the coach’s lap, Lurie realized he had a colossal failure on his hands and cut bait. Lurie will restructure his front office once more, and almost certainly take a more traditional approach to finding a successor.
He learned too late that college coaches, even the best of them, rarely make the jump to the NFL without falling flat. The list is decades old, yet the stories are almost all the same. Lou Holtz with the Jets. Steve Spurrier in Washington. Mike Riley in San Diego. Nick Saban in Miami. Bobby Petrino in Atlanta.
Genius college coaches one and all, yet abject failures at the NFL level.
The one notable exception, and maybe the biggest reason owners keep taking chances with college coaches, is Jimmy Johnson, who won a national championship at Miami and then worked his magic as a coach and personnel evaluator in Dallas, where he built the Cowboys into a dynasty in the early 1990s before Jerry Jones’ ego got too big to allow Johnson to take all the credit he so richly deserved.
What about Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, you ask? They’re both different, in that they had either worked or played in the NFL before moving on to succeed in college and then hitting it big in the NFL. Carroll, who coached the Jets and Patriots before going to USC, is still going strong in Seattle, having won two straight NFC titles. Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback and later a position coach before taking the Stanford job, was terrific with the 49ers before return to college to run the Michigan program.
Kelly thought he was the smartest football guy in the room, and Lurie became his enabler, allowing the coach to run the entire show after two seasons. The coach shed his roster of talented players like DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and Jeremy Maclin, and either signed or drafted replacements who turned out to be spectacularly inferior. Tailback DeMarco Murray was a colossal bust after signing as a free agent; his fumble near the end of Saturday night’s home loss to divisional champion Washington was the ultimate example of just how wrong Kelly turned out to be in fashioning his roster.
Lurie couldn’t even wait until the Eagles finished out their season against the Giants before throwing Kelly out the door.
“I spent the last three seasons evaluating the many factors involved in our performance as a team,” Lurie said in a statement. “As I watched this season unfold, I determined that it was time to make a change.”
Pat Shurmur, the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and former Browns head coach, will coach against the Giants before the Eagles begin the search for a full-time replacement.
And while some owners likely will pay heed to the lesson here — that Kelly and most other college wunderkind coaches aren’t suited for the NFL — someone else will surely be smitten by Kelly’s swagger. The Browns were desperate to hire Kelly in 2013 before being outbid by the Eagles, and with Mike Pettine’s future not assured, Kelly could surface again with the Browns. And there was already speculation that the Titans, whose quarterback, Marcus Mariota, was Kelly’s prized pupil at Oregon, had interest. The Colts may be tempted, too.
No, the NFL almost certainly has not seen the last of Kelly. But rest assured we’re not looking at the second coming of Johnson wherever Kelly winds up. More like the next Spurrier.