THE SPEAKER introducing Chip Kelly at last night's Katz Jewish Community Center Sports Award Dinner called him Philadelphia's most prominent sports figure.
At a table toward the corner, a man turned to his fellow diners and said, "Actually, he just TRADED Philadelphia's most prominent sports figure."
On a sleet-slickened, surreal evening, the coach who is taking a wrecking ball to the Eagles' roster stepped up to the podium in a jammed, decked-out Cherry Hill gymnasium. He told inspirational stories about happiness and resilience, never once mentioning the franchise-altering events that were unfolding. Contrary to what dinner organizers previously had said would be the case, Kelly did not take questions. Reporters who tried to get a word with him as he exited were ignored.
By the time Kelly spoke, the audience had been buzzing for nearly 2 hours, as word began spreading, first that the Eagles were on the verge of releasing 10-year defensive stalwart Trent Cole. Then came the real bombshell, that ESPN's Adam Schefter had reported the Birds had agreed to trade the franchise's all-time rushing leader, LeSean McCoy, to Buffalo, for former Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Many people in the crowd wore McCoy jerseys. Throughout the evening, several attendees asked reporters to explain the franchise's sudden fire sale, and got shrugs and upraised palms. The man with the real answers spoke to them only about winning the day.
As bizarre, awkward moments went, it was right up there with Andy Reid's first public appearance after Brian Dawkins left in free agency in 2009, Reid refusing to entertain questions about Dawkins at a news conference announcing the signing of offensive lineman Stacy Andrews because it was "Stacy's day."
Anyhow, the Eagles obviously aren't going to tell us what is going on - though the Bills apparently confirmed the trade, which can't be official until Tuesday's start of the league year - so we're all on our own.
The most obvious result of this week's moves, which include the release of longtime right guard Todd Herremans and starting corner Cary Williams, is the freeing up of cap room. The Eagles would now seem to have more than $40 million available, and can recreate the "dream team" summer of 2011 if they wish. They might need to, given that they've said goodbye to the leader of the offensive line, their all-time leading rusher, and their most prominent defensive name, while creating a situation where it would seem three of the four starters in the secondary will be new, given that they are expected to let corner Bradley Fletcher and safety Nate Allen walk in free agency.
Outbid the entire league for Seattle corner Byron Maxwell? Sure, why not?
New England safety Devin McCourty, as well? Come on down.
Sign C.J. Spiller, in a swap of running backs for that Buffalo visit to Lincoln Financial Field this season? Synergetic.
Or maybe Dallas' DeMarco Murray instead of Spiller? He'd embody the straight-ahead running style Chip apparently prefers.
Anything and everything now is possible, especially if the player under consideration attended Oregon or perhaps once played well against the Ducks.
The second obvious observation is that Kelly is going to do exactly what he wants, and he doesn't care what I think or you think. If you thought he wouldn't trade, say, the next four No. 1 draft picks to get Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, well, clearly, it's time to think again. The man just agreed to trade LeSean McCoy for a former Oregon linebacker coming off ACL surgery. Alonso will become the ninth former Duck on the Eagles' roster. Kelly knows what he likes, and he will do what he has to do in order to obtain it.
Somebody who got an up-close view of the roster churn over the past week told me yesterday that he thinks the goal is to eradicate every trace of the Andy Reid-Howie Roseman era, to totally remake the team in Chip's image. It was hard to argue his point.
Three years ago, when Joe Banner left the organization and Roseman and Reid were riding high, the Eagles seemed to want to change the Banner-era perception that hard work and loyalty weren't sufficiently rewarded. McCoy got a contract, Cole got a contract, DeSean Jackson got a contract, Evan Mathis got a contract, Herremans got a contract.
That isn't the vibe right now. Jackson's departure last year, you could talk about him not having bought in completely, or not being big and durable enough, or not being good at blocking. Cole is an all-time great, a tough, durable player who made the difficult late-career switch from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker and never complained. He thought he would retire as an Eagle, was willing to restructure his deal, which carried an $11.625 million cap charge this year.
The restructuring talks didn't get far. The Eagles apparently weren't interested at any figure near what the Cole camp had in mind.
"No respect!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Caption that!" Cole tweeted last night. An even 20 exclamation points, including the one at the end.
McCoy broke the franchise single-season rushing record in 2013, with 1,607 yards, led the NFL in rushing, seemed a perfect fit for Kelly's run-based attack. Last year was less perfect, and now McCoy heads for Buffalo. At least he won't stay in the NFC East, like Jackson.
In the wake of all this, one has to wonder whether Jeremy Maclin's optimism about getting a deal done with the Eagles before free agency next week was misplaced. Maclin worked his way back tirelessly from a 2013 ACL tear, caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, started every game, was the most loyal of soldiers. It isn't clear anyone is going to care. He was drafted by Reid and Roseman, went to school at Missouri. If the Eagles were going to sign him, one would think they would have done it before they lost the leverage of the franchise tag on Monday.
DeMeco Ryans, who turns 31 this summer, is the leader of the Eagles' defense, the man Kelly called "Mufasa" when Ryans went down with a torn Achilles' at midseason. Alonso would seem to be Simba; he certainly isn't coming here to start in place of up-and-coming Mychal Kendricks.
Though he has won 20 games in his first two seasons, Kelly clearly thinks he needs to undertake a complete overhaul, and he feels we're just going to have to trust that he knows what he's doing. Reports indicate the Bills were amazed they acquired McCoy after just a few minutes of negotiations. Some Eagles fans on social media were amazed that Alonso was all their team got; Oregon jokes aside, it's possible to wonder whether Kelly had any grasp of Buffalo's roster, other than the guy he liked who once played for him. Would Roseman, before being deposed in January, have done this deal without even getting the Bills to toss in a future fourth-rounder? Doubtful. Howie would have taken more than a few minutes to part with LeSean McCoy.
In his speech last night, Kelly told a story about a man whose business was failing, and who ended up telling his troubles to a stranger. The stranger supposedly gave the man a $500,000 check, with the proviso that the man return to the same place a year later and tell the stranger how things worked out. The check was signed "John D. Rockefeller."
In Kelly's telling, the man with the failing business was so inspired, he went back and galvanized his workers, who turned the business around, the man never actually cashing the $500,000 check. He returned to the same spot a year later, saw the stranger approaching, but before they met again, the stranger was accosted by some "men in white coats," one of whom explained that they were recapturing this deluded guy who liked to tell people he was John D. Rockefeller.
It was the sort of boilerplate bootstrap/inspiration story common to such events, but given the context, it was tempting to try to apply it to the Eagles.
We just don't know yet if Chip is the guy who gets inspired and turns the business around, or if he's the guy who gets led away by the men in white coats.