By Judy Battista, NFL.com
In the beginning of his excellent Arizona adventure, Chip Kelly was at the Super Regional and Veteran Combines, where few other head coaches personally ventured, his dark backpack slung over his shoulder.
At the end, he was somehow weaving Jimmy Johnson and Christopher Columbus into a non-answer about his interest in Marcus Mariota.
Throughout the now-concluded NFL Annual Meeting, Kelly was ubiquitous — walking as quickly as his offense runs, producing curiosity at details of his strategy (The LeSean McCoy deal came together in just 30 minutes? Kelly wanted to trade for Sam Bradford using only draft picks?) and even inducing a press conference in which Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie stood on a small patch of grass engulfed by reporters while his role in what has been perceived as Kelly’s recent palace coup was surgically dissected.
Since Lurie stripped Howie Roseman of the personnel powers he had always dreamed of having, and invested them in Kelly, the coach has systematically dismantled the roster Roseman helped create.
Kelly’s series of deals stunned the NFL, putting the league on notice that it has in its midst the brashest coach it has had in years. Kelly’s claim that he never asked for such sweeping football powers — that Lurie came up with the plan on his own — seems unlikely.
The comparisons to Jimmy Johnson — for sheer fearlessness, for devil-may-care swagger, for the need to never take your eyes off him — have come early and often. And while Kelly’s makeover designs might not have been hatched on a jog — as, NFL lore says, the idea to make a trade to rebuild the Dallas Cowboys came to Johnson — the bravado seems awfully similar.
In Johnson’s book, the coach wrote that he and owner Jerry Jones knew as soon as they traded Herschel Walker — in what remains the NFL’s most staggering deal — that a turnaround was inevitable. Nobody else knew it then, Johnson wrote. But that’s because nobody knew him.
Nobody really has a good read on Kelly, either.
Even his one-hour appearance at the NFC coaches breakfast did nothing to bring clarity to the aura currently in place around Kelly. His two most recent meetings with reporters — one held back in Philadelphia essentially to explain his burn-down-the-roster-to-save-it approach, and the one in Phoenix — have boiled down to a few impressions. Kelly is very smart, does not care what anybody thinks and has the requisite arrogance and combativeness to either be a Johnsonesque game-changer or to collapse spectacularly into the heap of similar smartest-guy-in-the-room also-rans that litter the NFL landscape.
Consider this exchange Kelly had with reporters about his philosophy of team-building vis-à-vis speculation that Kelly could bundle his picks to get in position to draft Mariota, who played for the coach at Oregon. Kelly said he does not believe in mortgaging entire drafts for one player and he got in a zinger at Mike Ditka’s expense when he noted the Ricky Williams-to-New Orleans deal as an example of why he wouldn’t do it.
“Philosophically?,” Kelly replied, when asked why he wouldn’t do such a deal. “More players are better than one player. Philosophically. Just look at the history of the game. Study all the trades. What set the Cowboys going forward? They traded one player for multiple players. The draft isn’t an exact science. You’ve got a better chance of hitting if you have more draft picks than if you have less draft picks. That’s basically it, philosophically.”
So, no exceptions to that philosophy?
“It’s a philosophy. There are exceptions to every philosophy. People used to think the world was flat, philosophically. Until that guy took the boat and just kept going and it didn’t fall off the edge, right?”
If Kelly got your head spinning with that sequence — Would Mariota be an exception or not? — you’re not alone. That, it is clear, is part of the interest in Kelly, though. His behavior is unpredictable because of the power now invested in him. Lurie, in his first explanation for why he took personnel power from Roseman and gave it to Kelly, said that he wanted to support Kelly’s vision for the team by making sure he would have the players he wanted.
Lurie also said that Kelly had presented him a plan for how to get the Eagles to go from good to great, after two 10-6 seasons and one playoff appearance under the third-year coach.
“I think we have to improve on defense overall,” Kelly told reporters. “We have to be better in the back end. We weren’t good in the secondary. We had too many X-plays over our heads. Offensively, we have to clean up the turnovers. They were at an all-time high for any system I’ve ever been in. We have to make decisions on how to be better at securing the football on the offensive side of the ball. And I felt we had to improve our depth at inside linebacker and in the secondary. From a football standpoint, that’s what we were talking about.”
Kelly has already gone to work on his list. McCoy, after all, was traded to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso. With Kelly looking everywhere to shake up his roster — on the day after the league meeting ended, Kelly was spotted at Utah’s pro day — he will be, as he was this week in Phoenix, the NFL’s most compelling coach.