COACHING a high-level college or professional sports team is a risky business these days. Today's hero can become tomorrow's bum in an instant.
Consider LSU football coach Les Miles' case. Miles is the most successful coach in school history, having won over 77 percent of his games. His team won the national championship in 2007 and has been in the top 10 almost every year since. This year, the Tigers stared out undefeated and were ranked second in the nation when they got crushed by Alabama. They went into a tailspin and lost the next two. The wolves came out, calling for Miles to be fired. Cooler heads prevailed: Miles was retained as coach, and his players carried him off the field at LSU's last home game.
This brings me to the issue that has seemingly obsessed Philadelphians over the last month - whether Chip Kelly should stay or go as Eagles coach. The issue is really just academic, however, because, in reality, owner Jeffrey Lurie will not fire Chip Kelly and certainly will give him another season to turn the Birds' fate around. But some Eagles fans hope Kelly will leave on his own and take one of the vacant high-profile college coaching jobs. Earlier in the week, Kelly debunked that myth by saying he is not going anywhere and wants to make it work here in Philadelphia.
The last straw fans are holding on to is the idea that the Tennessee Titans, who need a coach after firing Ken Whisenhunt in November, will trade the Eagles their top draft choices in return for Kelly, which would reunite him with Marcus Mariota, his quarterback at Oregon. This simply won't happen, as Tennessee needs those draft choices to build around Mariota.
So let's take a deep breath and understand that we are going to live with Chip for at least the next 21 games. Most Eagles fans are filled with despair, not only because the Birds are 4-7 right now, but also because there does not seem to be a path to turn this around quickly. We can almost count on one hand the number of blue-chip players the Eagles have who are under 30, and they have a huge question mark at quarterback, the NFL's most pivotal position.
Is there reason to hope? Well, let's take a look at Kelly's record. Two years ago, he brought in an entirely new system, and his up-tempo offense took the league by storm. The Eagles finished 10-6 and made the playoffs, where they lost a heartbreaker to the Saints. Last year, they roared out to a 9-3 record and looked like a solid bet to get to the Super Bowl, before losing three of their final four games and missing out on the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
This season has been nothing short of a debacle. People are saying that the league has caught up with Kelly's system and that the "culture" he has created simply does not work and has been lost on most of his players. Initially, I believed Kelly was a brilliant innovator and a riverboat gambler who would bring us a championship.
Frankly, that belief has been shaken, not only by the 4-7 record but by the Birds' dispirited, lackluster play against the Buccaneers and Lions in their previous two games. Despite Kelly's claim to the contrary, it was clear to me that the players were not putting forth maximum effort. Can he regain his credibility with the team? Can he find a way to make the read-option offense work without a quarterback who is a legitimate running threat? Can he find a way to bring his defense back to where it was in the first half of the season?
The answer to all of these questions is a resounding maybe.
Clearly, Kelly's read-option offense would work better with a running quarterback. Do you remember his first game as coach, with Michael Vick at quarterback, when the Eagles put 26 points on the board in the first half? The offense was dazzling. Vick was unstoppable. The network announcers could not stop talking about how this offense would revolutionize football.
Well, Vick got hurt a month into the season and the Eagles never truly had a quarterback who could run at the helm to make the read-option threat a reality.
Notwithstanding that fact, Nick Foles, who ran about as fast as a hippopotamus, took the Eagles to two 10-win seasons. It is the reason why all of us hoped that Sam Bradford, who is a smidge faster than Foles, could lead the Birds to the promised land. It is pretty clear that he can't, and the question becomes, is there a quarterback out there who possibly could next year? Two NFL quarterbacks who are superb runners probably will be available - Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. But Kaepernick might be a hopeless head case and RGIII can't stay healthy.
The only likely college quarterback in the upcoming draft who could fit the bill is Baylor's Seth Russell. He has shown he has a strong, accurate arm and is an incredibly effective runner. In seven games this season, he averaged 300 yards passing per game, throwing for 29 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He also rushed for six TDs and averaged 57 yards rushing per game. However, after suffering a season-ending neck injury that required surgery, he might not be recovered enough to contribute to any team next year.
Lastly, many fans say that Kelly the coach might be OK, but that Kelly the general manager and talent evaluator is terrible. While it is true that he made some horrendous mistakes - giving up such playmakers as DeSean Jackson, Shady McCoy and Jeremy Maclin, and overvaluing new additions such as Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell and Alonso - it is a little too early to fully evaluate him in his role as GM.
It is always tough to grade players 11 games into their rookie season, and I believe that Nelson Agholor will turn out to be a first-class NFL receiver and that linebacker Jordan Hicks will come back as good as he was before injury. I even have hope that Eric Rowe will turn out to be a more than adequate defensive back. He is young and playing an unfamiliar position - his first start at cornerback is Sunday against the Patriots - but he shows speed and size that could potentially bear fruit.
It is fair to say then that, although things look exceptionally gloomy, the jury is still out on Chip Kelly. If I had to choose now, I would say the riverboat gambler has lost this bold bet and certainly won't be here the next time the Eagles make the playoffs, but, boy, do I hope I'm wrong!