Before the Eagles' stunning upset win in Foxboro on Sunday, it was open season for trashing head coach Chip Kelly. Perhaps he has a one-week reprieve.
"Finishing 10-6 and not going to the playoffs is just like going 4-12." Yes, Chip said that before the 2015 campaign began - and now the worst the Birds can end is 5-11. But even if the Eagles lose out this year, Chip should not go. Instead, three overlapping issues must be addressed: scheme (plan), talent (players), and culture (process).
Overall, Kelly needs to throttle down and run fewer plays. In college, a coach welcomes a fresh, new 25 percent of his team every year - and has 85 scholarships to dish out (plus walk-ons). So he can make his squad play at breakneck speed. When fatigue is about to set in, just insert another wave of players. In the NFL, by contrast, a team is permitted 53 players on its active roster but can dress only 46 for a game. So the professional coach has about half as many bodies to burn. These individuals are older and are taking more brutal hits. They tire and are injured more quickly and more often. And of course, pro teams - especially those that go deep into the postseason - play several more games.
The Eagles' offense has become predictable. It is like a power pitcher in baseball who can throw only fastballs - and therefore, is eminently hittable. The best major league pitchers manage four variables: speed, movement, location, and context (in relation to prior and subsequent pitches). Why can't the Birds vary their offensive pace throughout a game - and keep defenses off balance?
Based on his moves to date - especially during the past offseason - Kelly is wanting in talent-evaluation. A mantra of his is that "bigger people beat up little people." But how about smarter, tougher, and faster people? Chip needs help - whether it's former general manager Howie Roseman or someone else. Only the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick is equally effective as both a coach and a general manager.
Kelly mimics the late management guru Peter Drucker by claiming "culture will beat scheme every day." (Drucker's line was "Culture eats strategy for breakfast.") But is there enough slack in Kelly's organizational world to retain incandescent talent that is prickly? Releasing DeSean Jackson last year may have cost the Eagles one or two games and a playoff berth. Wide receivers are notoriously narcissistic - from Terrell "T.O." Owens to Calvin "Megatron" Johnson to Jackson. "Attitude" comes with that position. And it's not only wideouts.
So after all of this, and a dismal 5-7 record so far, why am I sanguine about Kelly? Because he is both an innovator and a learner.
Football has become more basketball-like because of the speed of the game and new offensive sets that emphasize spontaneity, all of which began with the West Coast offense. Legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh acknowledged that he developed his short-passing scheme after watching point guards bring the basketball up court and distribute it. Kelly has the potential to craft football's evolution beyond Walsh, whose teams won three Super Bowls.
Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of intelligence: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized is based on experience - accumulated learning over time. Fluid intelligence is dynamic - based on the ability to respond effectively to novel situations. Most successful NFL head coaches probably rate high in crystallized intelligence. Kelly likely rates high in both.
For my book Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business I interviewed Carl Peterson, then president of the USFL Philadelphia Stars (and former Eagles general manager and later Chiefs president). I asked him to what extent an NFL game reduces to preparation versus adjustment. Peterson posited 75 percent/25 percent - with most significant changes occurring during halftime.
For quite awhile afterward, I quoted the 3:1 ratio to underscore the importance of top-down planning in football. Then recent statistics gave me pause. Roughly half of all NFL games are decided by six points or fewer, and about one-quarter by only three or fewer; hence, even though football is preparation-intensive, adjustment is pivotal.
I am certain that Chip Kelly will learn from this year's struggles and adapt - and hope that he has the opportunity to do so with the Eagles. Owner Jeffrey Lurie should go long.