Back in 1958, the Eagles went 2-9-1. The team had six Pro Bowl players - Norm Van Brocklin, Tommy McDonald, Pete Retzlaff, Billy Ray Barnes, Jerry Norton and Tom Scott. The Eagles had big-time talent, but were adjusting to a new coach in Buck Shaw. Things turned around quickly and those Eagles won the NFL Championship in 1960, defeating the Green Bay Packers and their young coach, some guy named Vince Lombardi. That would be the only playoff loss of Lombardi's legendary Hall of Fame career.
Chip Kelly takes over an Eagles team that finished 4-12. Some people have talked about the Eagles needing to rebuild. I don't agree with that at all. The Eagles had one of the youngest rosters in the NFL in 2012. You don't rebuild a young team. You fix it. There will be plenty of change, but that is just a fact of life in the NFL. You generally expect 10 to 12 new faces a year, whether there is a coaching change or not.
One of the things I'm most curious about is Kelly's approach to fixing the Eagles. Some new coaches come in with the "win now" mentality and sell out to acquire veteran players. Ray Rhodes did this when he took over the Eagles in 1995. He went to the playoffs that year. The strategy worked in the short term, but he failed to build the team for the long term and that caught up with him quickly.
Andy Reid talked of building a program when he took over the Eagles. I loved that word. You rarely hear it in reference to the NFL. Program is a college word. Reid's mentality was to build more than just a team of 53 guys. He wanted a program that could be sustained, through coaching and player changes. The Eagles did this well from 2000-10. Things got a bit erratic in the final couple of seasons. Still, Reid's style of doing things left Kelly with a young roster that indeed has some very good talent in place.
Kelly comes to the Eagles from college football. He is accustomed to working with young players. That makes me wonder if he'll prefer to stick to dealing with young players. The flip side is that Kelly has never had the ability to make trades or sign free agents. Will he want to explore that avenue where he can add players who are proven and ready to go?
When you think of other coaches coming over from college, the focus seems to be on young players. Jimmy Johnson rebuilt the Cowboys by loading up on draft picks. Pete Carroll has a very young team up in Seattle. Jim Harbaugh's Niners have some veteran stars, but many were already in place. The team has added a lot of young guys as well. Those three coaches had success for a variety of reasons, but a couple of keys were the ability to develop young talent and also find a quarterback.
What Kelly does at quarterback will tell us a lot about his mentality. Johnson drafted Troy Aikman with the No. 1 pick in 1989. Carroll tried to acquire a veteran quarterback in 2010. He made calls to find out about Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb, but ended up getting Charlie Whitehurst. That didn't work so well. Carroll acquired Tarvaris Jackson for 2011, but that also led to mixed results. In 2012, he signed Matt Flynn and drafted Russell Wilson. The fourth quarterback he acquired, Wilson, turned out to be the right one. Harbaugh inherited Alex Smith and then drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Smith played in 2011 and the first part of 2012 before Kaepernick hit the field and proved to be a revelation.
So what will Kelly do? That really is the million dollar question.
If Kelly drafts a player or sticks with Foles, that is a sign he is thinking long term. If Kelly goes with Vick or another veteran, that is a sign he wants the team to win right away. Don't worry about the Eagles repeating the Rhodes era. Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman are not going to load up on 30-year-old players. The Eagles have had a serious commitment to youth for the last 14 years. That won't go away. Kelly could push for a few key veterans to be added, but the Eagles will focus on building through the draft. A few of you may wonder about the free agent rush of 2011. That was an anomaly due to the CBA situation and availability of lots of players. It was like a great sale, where the bargains were too good to pass up. That situation won't be happening again any time soon.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
Kelly does inherit a very talented offense.
When you combine the skill players with a healthy offensive line and Kelly's ability to scheme, I expect the offense to play at a high level in 2013. There will be some bumps in the road as the players learn and as Kelly adjusts to pro football, but I do think the overall results will be impressive.
The defense is a bit trickier. We still don't know who will run that side of the ball or what system the defense will run. The front seven has some very talented players ready to go.
The secondary is a mystery. The Eagles could bring back as many as three starters or completely overhaul the two positions. This situation is complicated by contract issues.
Kelly and his new defensive coordinator have some tough decisions to make. The secondary started the 2012 season playing well, but that ended when Todd Bowles was shifted from position coach to coordinator. He no longer had the time to focus on that unit. Bowles also tried to make some changes to the way that the defense covered. That led to confusion and more than a few open receivers. If you watch the secondary in September, you'd want to keep a few of the guys. If you watched the November games, you might not want anyone back.
It is easy to say "start from scratch," but having four new starters on the field in the secondary would be very challenging. That is a unit that must play cohesive football. They need to trust each other, see the same things and work well together. Can you coach up the current guys and just try to fix their issues or do you need new players? That's for Chip Kelly to know and us to find out.
There is no right or wrong answer on how to approach 2013 and the future. My guess is that Kelly will balance the short term and long term. He'll see the offense has very good talent. He'll see some good pieces are in place. Kelly is a very driven, very competitive man. He will want to win. That said, he's also smart and understands the big picture. At Oregon, he wasn't afraid of playing freshmen. Just this past season he went with a freshman quarterback, despite having an overall team that expected to challenge for a national title. Kelly went with the best player and his Ducks went 12-1. That freshman quarterback will probably be an NFL star in a few years.
I'd love to promise you Kelly will deliver a title in a year or two like Shaw did, but there are no guarantees in the NFL. I do think the Eagles can be a winning team in 2013 if the right pieces fall into place. I think very highly of Kelly and expect him to do a good job. He needs to solve the quarterback mystery, hire the right defensive coordinator and make a few personnel changes on defense. Winning right away isn't as important as making the right moves for the future. The goal remains winning a Super Bowl. I'd rather sacrifice a couple of games in the short term to get the best possible team on the field for the next five years.