Around 6:30 p.m. on March 3, there were murmurs at a number of tables during an annual awards dinner at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill. More people checked their phones, and the buzz grew. Some fans raced to the bathroom, wondering whether it was really true.
Did the Eagles trade LeSean McCoy?
No seats at the event were empty because Chip Kelly was scheduled to speak. It came during the crux of the Eagles' turbulent offseason, and Kelly's speech marked the first time the coach would speak publicly after a front-office shake-up in January left him with full control of the Eagles' personnel decisions.
Throughout the gymnasium, youths and adults wore No. 25 Eagles jerseys for McCoy, perhaps the most popular player on the team and the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Fifteen months earlier, McCoy spoke at the same event.
When ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted that McCoy would be traded to the Buffalo Bills for Kiko Alonso, Kelly was in a car on the way to Cherry Hill, stunned by an announcement he was not prepared for the world to know. He was not even ready for McCoy to know. He had worked on a trade with the Bills, but he did not expect the deal to be finished until the following morning, and Kelly had not called McCoy.
When it was Kelly's turn to speak, he addressed the crowd for 15 minutes. It was broadcast on live television. Kelly gave anecdotes about John Lennon and John Rockefeller. He never mentioned McCoy.
That day set off a chain of events that altered Eagles history and Kelly's time in Philadelphia. It created friction between McCoy and Kelly that remains unresolved as the Bills visit the Eagles on Sunday. It reunited Kelly with Alonso, a talented linebacker coming off a major knee injury. And it led to the free-agent spending spree capped by signing reigning NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray to replace McCoy.
McCoy trained in Miami during the winter. He wondered whether the Eagles wanted to restructure his contract, which was set to pay him $10.5 million in 2015 and would count nearly $12 million against the salary cap. But a trade? To Buffalo? That's not what he expected.
His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, "called up, and he said: 'Hey, it's not a joke. Eagles are trying to trade you to the Bills,' " McCoy told The Inquirer in April. "I'm like, 'What?' "
McCoy said he was never given a reason. He never accepted a call from Kelly, although he eventually spoke to owner Jeffrey Lurie and vice president of football operations Howie Roseman.
McCoy said he heard the change was made because of his running style, and Lurie said in March that Kelly felt he needed one-cut runners to "maximize his power spread offense."
But at the time of the trade and again last week, Kelly cited McCoy's salary as the motivating factor for the decision.
"We traded an outstanding running back for a linebacker, but we also traded $700,000 for $11.9 million," Kelly said Thursday. "So I think with all those situations there is money involved. . . . Those decisions aren't made because we don't think they're good football players or we don't think they are good people. I think people kind of forget that. When we look at it, that's a lot of money."
When asked on Wednesday, McCoy was surprised that salary was the reason for the decision.
"We never had a money issue," McCoy said. "That was never brought up. Ever. Restructure, nothing. That never was brought up."
McCoy has said he would have restructured his contract, but Kelly said that was not what the Eagles were told. Left in the dark about the trade, McCoy directed his anger at Kelly.
"I don't think he likes or respects the stars. I'm being honest," McCoy told The Inquirer in April. "I think he likes the fact that it's 'Chip Kelly and the Eagles.' "
In a June issue of ESPN the Magazine, McCoy said "there's a reason he got rid of all the black players - the good ones - like that."
McCoy has not wanted to revisit his comments, but he has stood by them. He said last week that he does not have a problem with Kelly but that he will not shake his former coach's hand on Sunday.
"We've got nothing to shake hands for," McCoy said. "Some of the dudes, players there, I'll shake their hands. Probably going to talk to Lurie a little bit. A couple different coaches. A lot of players over there I'm still tight with. I'm going to give Duce [Staley] a big hug. But that's pretty much it. . . . What are we shaking hands for? We don't have that type of relationship."
Kelly regrets the way the trade was handled. He said the Eagles follow a protocol for transactions that includes Kelly's meeting with the player or speaking to him directly, and the news leak prevented that dialogue. When the Eagles traded Nick Foles to the Rams for Sam Bradford, Kelly coordinated with Rams coach Jeff Fisher about when to call the quarterbacks.
"I know he was pissed, and he should be pissed, rightly so," Kelly said. "He was an all-time leading running back here, felt like he was disrespected, and it was wrong. Because I was part of it, it's on me. . . . I would apologize for that, because it didn't happen the right way. . . . I understand where he's coming from, and if he doesn't want to shake my hand, I understand that. But I will always shake his hand."
The trade took about 30 minutes to complete. Members of the Bills' front office were on a retreat drinking wine and smoking cigars when the call came about McCoy's availability, according to an April story on theMMQB.com. Bills coach Rex Ryan said his first question was about price.
"They told us they did not want to use draft picks and to look at their roster and then give us a name you'd be willing to ask for," Kelly said in June.
Kelly said Alonso was the only player the Eagles requested.
"We were very surprised that we could get Kiko," Kelly said.
Alonso played for Kelly at Oregon. The Bills selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft, and he was one of the NFL's most productive linebackers as a rookie before missing all of 2014 with a knee injury.
When Bills general manager Doug Whaley called Alonso to inform of him the trade, Alonso was working out with Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. They were set to become teammates.
Alonso returned in time for the offseason program, but further knee injuries caused him to miss much of training camp and the preseason and five weeks during the season. He has just 20 tackles in seven games, along with one interception. He played a season-high 70 snaps last week against New England, but the coaching staff thought that was too many. Alonso's first season in Philadelphia has been as much about recovery as production.
"We're glad with where he is now," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Tuesday. "It looks like the injury is in the rearview mirror, and now it's about playing within our scheme and making the most of him."
Meanwhile, McCoy has rushed for 792 yards in 10 games. He gas topped 100 yards in three of the last five games with an early-season hamstring injury now behind him. The trade should be judged with a sample size greater than three months, but the Bills are happy so far.
"I never wanted to let [Alonso] go. But when it came for LeSean McCoy? I said, 'Absolutely, yup, we'll take him,' " Ryan said Wednesday. "I'd make that trade again. That's not disrespect to Kiko Alonso. That's all the respect in the world to LeSean McCoy."
One day before the Eagles and Bills agreed to the McCoy-Alonso trade, the Dallas Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Dez Bryant. That move pushed Murray into free agency two months after he was named the NFL offensive player of the year.
The Eagles, with more salary cap space after opening an additional $8.55 million by dealing McCoy, were set to be players in free agency. But the money was not allocated for Murray. They acquired Bradford and signed Byron Maxwell.
Kelly's initial plan included signing veteran running back Frank Gore. When that failed and Jeremy Maclin signed in Kansas City instead of staying with the Eagles, Kelly had more money to spend - and still a hole at running back.
Two days into free agency, Murray remained available. The price was suddenly within the Eagles' range, and the team's quick recruitment finished with Murray's replacing McCoy at a cost of $40 million over five years, with $20 million guaranteed. That contract counted only $5 million against the salary cap this season. Combined with the cap numbers for Ryan Mathews (who signed after Murray) and Darren Sproles, Kelly reasoned the Eagles had three rushers take up the cap space that would have been allocated for McCoy this season.
"We have three running backs this year [and] their salary cap hit this year for us is $11.1 [million]. We had one guy making $11.9 [million]," Kelly said. "So we just had to make a decision: 'Can we get by or handle this a different way?' And we always talked about how we had to reallocate money to the defensive side of the ball."
Kelly is technically correct, but the variable is how much McCoy's contract could have been adjusted. His salary cap number in Buffalo this season is $5.5 million after he renegotiated his deal.
Murray's contract becomes costlier for the Eagles in future seasons, although Kelly said the Eagles accounted for salary cap increases in future seasons.
Either way, the decision could have been viewed as a boon in March. The Eagles let go of McCoy, but they acquired an ascending linebacker on a cost-controlled rookie contract, and they had money to make other moves. They replaced McCoy with the NFL's reigning rushing champion, who was advertised as an ideal fit for Kelly's scheme.
Except Murray is not playing like that this season. He is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry, which is the fewest of any running back with at least 150 carries. He took only 14 offensive snaps last week, and the coaching staff has given no indication that Murray will be the top running back on Sunday.
So on the day that McCoy returns to Philadelphia, the Eagles still have not seen what they expected when they acquired Alonso and Murray. And the jury remains out on the trade that stunned Eagles fans.
"With the benefit of time," Kelly said, "I think we did the right thing at the time."