WHATEVER happened - and, given the manner in which it was announced, there's little question something happened - the Eagles now stand at one of those critical junctures where every decision they make is a potential multiplier for the time it will take for them to get to the place where they thought Chip Kelly would take them.
Jeffrey Lurie has always acted like a man who understands this point, which is a significant reason Tuesday night's announcement of Kelly's release came as such a surprise. The end of the Andy Reid era exposed Lurie to charges of loyalty to a fault, but his reluctance to move on seemed more likely a product of a solid grasp on reality: It is extraordinarily difficult to find a quality NFL head coach, particularly for an organization with a power structure that enables - or requires - its coach to be the dominant football voice in the organization. We'll attempt to substantiate that claim about the Eagles' pre-existing power structure in a moment, but it doesn't seem debatable that Kelly became that guy when Lurie reassigned Howie Roseman and gave Kelly final say in all personnel matters last January. And it doesn't seem debatable that Lurie understood the implications, considering the fact that you could almost see him rubbing the arm he'd had twisted behind his back when he announced and defended the move.
Lurie already had seen that Kelly was a guy who needed everything fit to his specfications. The guy had spent two years molding the NovaCare Complex in his image, from the smoothies to the training table to standard NFL operating procedures like the players' day off. He already had parted ways with the team's only deep threat. He already had drafted Josh Huff.
Lurie had to know that last January was the appropriate time to get off the pot, and that waiting until now came with a significant risk of a ruptured bowel. He had to know he essentially was deciding whether he trusted Kelly enough to give him the keys to his baby for at least the next three years. That's the only way that move made sense, and it's the reason why the one he made Tuesday has an even greater chance to blow up in his face.
Not only did Lurie allow Kelly to radically alter the composition of the roster with a slew of moves that had ramifications beyond the current season, he has now virtually eliminated the possibility that those moves prove to be prescient. That is an important point, and even the most ardent of Kelly's critics must allow for the potential that the Eagles would have been 6-9 even if DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles were still around. And that even if they did beat the Redskins, 39-38, and the Lions and Bucs, 46-45, or the Falcons, 27-26, and the Cowboys, 21-20, to back into the playoffs, they still might not have been a serious Super Bowl contender. And that they would then be entering 2016 with another year of mileage on bodies that have already started breaking down on their new teams' watch.
There's a possibility they've fired the one guy who can actually score points with this personnel (or two, if you count Reid).
The point isn't that those moves will definitely prove to be smart, or that Lurie should not have made this decision, even if he thought not doing so would cause the franchise irreparable harm. The point is that he has only himself to blame; not just for last offseason's decision, but his initial one to hire Kelly away from Oregon, because anybody should have been able to see that Kelly was a guy who would accept only so many vetoes before demanding the things he ultimately did.
That's where the whole thing went wrong: luring a king away from his fiefdom and expecting he would submit to somebody, just because that somebody was listed above him on the chain of command. The Eagles did not have a strong front-office power structure with a dominant football voice who would automatically command deference and respect. Few teams do: the Steelers, the Packers, the Cowboys (for better or for worse). In those organizations, the coach knows where he stands. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but so do absolute power vacuums, and the departures of Reid and Joe Banner left one that a guy like Kelly was destined to fill.
Even as a segment - majority? - of Eagles fans rejoice at one of this city's swiftest falls from grace, they would be wise to consider that the vacuum again exists. Lurie announced that he had elevated veteran front-office man Tom Donahoe from adviser to senior director of personnel. But Donahoe left the Steelers in 1999 right around the time they began to get good, and Lurie also announced that the same three-member team that hired the last coach - Roseman included - will hire the next one. They also would be wise to remember that Kelly was not a party to the disastrous 2010-11 drafts that could have gone a long way to providing the depth this season's roster lacked.
Kelly's biggest flaw as GM was in those less obvious moves: in cutting Evan Mathis, in giving Miles Austin guaranteed money, in his lack of a grasp for what an NFL player looks like, for his inability/unwillingness to adapt some of the foundational tenets of his offensive scheme. More than anything, the Eagles need a personnel chief who understands the skill sets required on an NFL team: among the players, yes, but also in the evaluative and individual coaching departments. A team like that affords itself some margin for error when it hires a head coach.
At this point, the Eagles have none.