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Chip Kelly silenced the critics

Fans, experts feared hiring offensive-minded coach would be wrong, but Chip Kelly has silenced the doubters.

Chip Kelly walks the field before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Chip Kelly walks the field before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)Read more

When Chip Kelly was hired last January, many thought the Eagles had missed the mark. In a defense-first town, after repeated heartbreaks and heartaches over 14 seasons with offensive-minded Andy Reid in charge, grabbing a pro-experienced coordinator, ideally one with a defensive background, seemed the savvier choice than another coach with innovative offensive schemes on his resumé, but no pro experience and no title.

Someone such as Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. So when Kelly changed his mind and accepted the Eagles job shortly after Bradley came to town for a second interview, some of us - like me - bemoaned the path chosen.

Not so much anymore.

Gus' first season at Jacksonville has gone about as expected, if not worse. The Jaguars have played more competitively of late, but they have surprised no one, intrigued no one, lost a bucketful of games. If they have a long-range plan, it has offered few clues this far.

Kelly's hire, meanwhile, made the Eagles relevant immediately, creating a debate over whether Oregon's get-up-and-go offense would work the same in the NFL, or whether it would sabotage the Eagles through mistakes and injury. It's a debate that began in January and has continued 12 months later, despite mounting evidence that the new Eagles coach can adjust his offense to his personnel, and that his philosophies about practice and nutrition have left his team healthier and stronger into the dog days of December.

The Eagles are on the precipice of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2011, with a roster that many predicted would allow them to pick one of the elite college quarterbacks available in next April's draft. In a division that featured the most dynamic young quarterback in the game, a two-time Super Bowl winner in Eli Manning and the quixotic Tony Romo, the prevailing opinion was that Kelly would take his lumps while he assessed whatever talent he had, and used up whatever football Michael Vick still had left.

Not so much anymore.

Robert Griffin III is finishing the season on the bench after a dismal season that has cast doubt about his long-range prospects. Manning is setting club records for futility. Romo again entered December as if it were some sort of football Bermuda Triangle.

The Eagles, meanwhile, have played themselves right out of that quarterback lottery, largely because of the play of a quarterback who began the season as a backup. In only his second NFL season, Nick Foles has presented his coach with both an opportunity and a conundrum. Foles' relative immobility has altered Kelly's playcalling. But his phenomenal success in leading the team into winning six of its previous seven and into the playoff picture has proved to those too lazy to delve into Kelly's past that he is far more than a guy with a gimmick.

Ricky Santos became a Walter Payton award winner as an anchor-footed quarterback at the University of New Hampshire. Like Foles, he was a backup promoted through injury. Kelly has coached mobile guys, immobile guys, shared his schemed with Tom Brady and the Patriots once upon a time. As running back LeSean McCoy said in the week after Kelly gave him only eight carries in the upset loss to the Vikings: "He's an offensive genius. I don't have to tell him I need the ball, I want the ball. He knows the plays I need to run. The right time to call the plays. I don't know that stuff."

"I had a good understanding of what the league was all about, was prepared for it," Kelly said recently. "I think the difference between the college and the pros is that every single week is a challenge. You can look at some of the games you've played in college and you may hype them up that way. But in the back of your mind, you know what the outcome of the game will be before it's played, because there is such a big discrepancy.

"In this league, there is no discrepancy. You've got to come to play every week. The team that executes the best usually ends up the team that's on top. But in terms of a surprise, nothing that's really come out that's been like, well, I didn't think that was ever going to be that way."

That's one last point to be made about the man. He's been a master at keeping his locker room from imploding, even when the defense was being gashed weekly over that 3-5 start, even when he was down to his third quarterback, even after Riley Cooper rolled a grenade into it with his drunken racist taunt of an African-American security guard during a summer concert.

Cooper's still on the team, and has become a weapon over the second half of this season. Foles has been mentioned as an MVP candidate. The Eagles have a chance to make the playoffs. And Kelly has a chance to prove naysayers wrong, much quicker than any of us had a right to expect.