The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
- Japanese proverb
For the second straight day, Chip Kelly was asked on Wednesday to clarify the perplexing question of why he chose to dismiss an accomplished starter who had two years remaining on his contract.
And for the second straight day, Kelly said a lot without saying very much, content to allow one explanation to chase the other's tail like a dog spinning in a tight circle while going nowhere. Kelly is a pretty good football coach, but he's untouchable in debate class.
Not that it matters. Kelly's pronouncements aren't made verbally anyway, but by his actions. There is no mistaking the meaning of releasing the only player to skip the Organized Team Activities that preceded this week's mandatory minicamp.
Kelly is big on conformity, and in the culture (that word again) he is building, conformity extends to showing up even when it is not mandatory. Being a part of this team isn't about doing the minimum required. It is about doing the maximum possible . . . and several other slogans that would look good on a T-shirt.
In his explanations, Kelly didn't cite that, of course. The NFL and its players operate under a collective bargaining agreement. If the coach said he got rid of a player for not attending a voluntary workout, there would be hell to pay, not to mention a very large fine.
So, Kelly said he was merely granting the wish of the player, who had requested his release in order to seek a better contract somewhere else. Mathis said that ploy had been used in March, not recently, and that he intended to take part in the minicamp. Unfortunately for him, when you drop a letter into Kelly's mailbox, he's going to deliver it eventually. You just don't know when. It took two seasons for Cary Williams - who went shopping for sconces during one OTA session - to get his mail, but it finally arrived.
"We were in constant contact with his agents and with myself personally; March, April, May, June," Kelly said, when asked about the time frame of Mathis' request to be released.
He didn't say the request continued, just that there was contact. In fact, he didn't answer the question at all, or really indicate much of substance. On Tuesday, within the space of a minute, Kelly said the Eagles weren't sure Mathis would ever show up and then, asked if a training camp holdout worried him, said, "No, that wasn't a concern at all."
Kelly is a moving target on this kind of stuff and pinning him down is like trying to punch a hummingbird. What remains is that it was too late for Mathis to do more than the minimum required. He put his understandable desire to get one last pay bump ahead of the team, and this time the postman only had to ring once. You've got mail!
None of it would be very meaningful if the options to replace Mathis were better. The offensive line that must protect a vulnerable Sam Bradford (if that hopeful scenario works out) is like a checkerboard with three solid pieces in the right places and two gaps in between.
Kelly said he is confident that Allen Barbre, who has started one NFL game since 2009, can fill one guard position, and some combination of Matt Tobin, Andrew Gardner, Dennis Kelly and others, can provide an answer for the other.
Well, maybe, but he's handling his roster as if he still has 90 players on the team and expects them all to lose their eligibility pretty soon. This is how you run things in college, where if a player wants to explore his options, he does so at another university, and very quickly.
What Mathis did is standard procedure in the NFL. Professionals try to maximize their earning in the short time they have. If they have leverage, they can be successful at that. If not, then it probably won't work. But they all try.
For better or worse, if Howie Roseman were still the general manager, Evan Mathis would be on the field at the NovaCare Complex this week. Roseman has his faults, but failing to understand how the league works is not one of them.
The new boss doesn't care about that. He likes the nails to be uniformly flat and he isn't afraid to show the hammer when that is not the case. At some point, there will be a problem because elite athletes are not all the same, and treating them that way doesn't work forever, at least not if the goal is going where only elite players can take you.
Kelly coaches as if his objective is to finish first in the cultural standings with a roster of indistinguishable parts. He just might win that championship.
As for the loftier goal, sometimes the nail that sticks up is also the one that trips the opponent.