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Inside the Eagles: Kelly's decisions could have locker room implications

Chip Kelly could have a locker room problem. When the Eagles treated Riley Cooper's racial slur as a public relations matter rather than a football one, it undermined the new coach and his evolving relationship with his players.

Chip Kelly could have a locker room problem.

When the Eagles treated Riley Cooper's racial slur as a public relations matter rather than a football one, it undermined the new coach and his evolving relationship with his players.

Jeffrey Lurie made the ultimate decision to fine Cooper, but Kelly said the verdict was a collaborative one among the owner, the coach, and general manager Howie Roseman. He said Friday that decisions weren't made "from a football standpoint because it's not a football issue."

And now Kelly stands the risk of losing a faction of the locker room because the Eagles placed Cooper's well-being over the greater good of the team.

The Eagles would have likely faced some resistance from players, and more prominently, from the NFL Players Association, if they had released the wide receiver Wednesday. But that would have been nothing compared with the hailstorm that they have been hit with public relations-wise and, likely, in the locker room for the foreseeable future. If the Eagles had thought two steps ahead, they would have cut Cooper, not because his slur warranted it - although the argument could be made it did - but because the interests of the team took precedence.

It's admirable, in some ways, that the Eagles have given Cooper a second chance and plan, apparently, to use his mistake as a teaching moment. But if Cooper worked for almost any other company and was caught on tape saying what he said - that he would "fight every n- here" at a Kenny Chesney concert - he would have been fired.

Instead, the socially conscious Lurie, who has handed out second chances like lollipops, is resisting pressure to cut his losses and release the 25-year-old receiver. He stuck his neck out before, especially when Andy Reid persuaded him to sign Michael Vick fresh out of prison on dogfighting charges.

But Reid never would have added Vick to the fold if he knew the locker room wouldn't accept the disgraced quarterback with open arms. And whether you agree with them or not, there are African American players who can't seem to get past Cooper's slur and the way in which it was said.

Reid almost always seemed to know the pulse of his players. Kelly, who has been on the job for only eight months, can't possibly be expected to gauge the temperature of the locker room, let alone understand the mind of the professional athlete - at least not yet.

Further, Kelly doesn't even know what his final roster will look like. But one thing is certain - the majority of the players will be African American. It is likely some are wondering where he stands on the issue because Lurie took the initial lead and because, as cornerback Cary Williams said, Kelly has stressed to them "forgiveness" and "that as a team we have to get past it and understand" that they have a season to play.

"But this issue supersedes the season, and there is an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed," Williams said. He said that he isn't the only player who feels this way.

Kelly was also at the Chesney concert and took to the stage with the singer along with a dozen or so Eagles, and most were white.

In public, Kelly has been empathetic to the players who are struggling with what Cooper said and the fact that he remains on the team. "This isn't a situation that you brush under the rug," he said. Reid would have probably done his best to put Rileygate in the team's rearview mirror.

But would it have gone this far under Reid? In all likelihood, he would have been the one to discipline Cooper. Lurie and former team president Joe Banner would have been counseled, but Reid would have made the ultimate decision, and he would have made it with the team first in mind.

One prominent player told The Inquirer last week that Cooper "would have gotten more than a fine" if Reid were in charge. Many players looked at Reid as a father figure. Center Jason Kelce said a few months ago that Kelly was easier to relate and talk to.

But with 90 players on the roster, there is little chance of getting a correct read on how each relates to the 49-year-old coach. In many cases, the players spend significantly more time with their position coaches than they do the head coach and coordinators.

Kelly said Thursday that he was encouraging discussion within positional meetings. But it may be difficult for some African American players to speak openly considering only two of the 12 positional coaches are black.

Running backs coach Duce Staley and tight ends coach Ted Williams were already on staff when Kelly arrived. He hired 17 other coaches and all are white except for three lower-level assistants. There is a leaguewide problem of too few African American coaches hired into top positions.

So Kelly isn't alone in not having enough coaches who represent the majority of players. It may be something he regrets if there is a divide in the locker room along racial lines. Even if the Eagles eventually release Cooper, Kelly may need help to bridge the schism.