The four personnel moves that cost Chip Kelly his job
The prevailing wisdom is that Chip Kelly the GM cost Chip Kelly the Head Coach his job, and now both guys are unemployed.
The truth is more complicated than that, but we can certainly point to multiple personnel decisions that were questioned at the time and look no better after the relative failure of this season (6-9 and out of thee playoffs). When you make bold moves that are heavily criticized, you need to win to justify the decisions, and Kelly couldn’t do that this season, ultimately leading to a position that became untenable.
Here are the four personnel moves that cost him his job:
1. Cutting DeSean Jackson
Kelly’s offense hit the ground running when he came to the NFL, and with the rushing threat the Eagles posed on the ground, they were able to open up plays down the field for DeSean Jackson to be single-covered all day long. In the first two games in the system, Jackson caught passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns, and he ended the 2013 campaign with 85 catches for 1,385 yards and nine scores. The first two are career-highs and the last trails his best season by just one touchdown.
Jackson was a perfect fit for Kelly’s offense, but the two did not match from a personality standpoint, and the speedy receiver was cut loose. (It’s important to note that Kelly wasn’t technically in charge of personnel decisions at that time, but there’s little question that he played a big part in this decision.)
Severing ties was bad enough, but Kelly got rid of a player who had just shown he had the ability to be a dominant force in the NFL without getting anything in return, and he has been trying to replace that threat ever since. This season first-round rookie Nelson Agholor has been the latest attempt, and Agholor is currently the lowest-ranked wide receiver in our PFF grades, having caught passes for just 260 yards all season — or only 107 fewer yards than Jackson managed in his return meeting with the Eagles this past week alone, in Washington’s division-sealing win.
2. Signing DeMarco Murray
Another controversial set of personnel moves was how Kelly handled the running back position. LeSean McCoy was another player who dominated in his first season with Kelly as the coach. He earned the NFL’s rushing title and was the second-best-graded running back at PFF behind only Jamaal Charles in 2013. He averaged over five yards per carry and forced 57 missed tackles as a runner, both excellent numbers. The next season was not nearly as successful, however, and though McCoy still gained 1,323 yards rushing (on an identical 314 rushes), he gained almost a full yard less per carry, avoided fewer tackles (40) and generally made less happen.
Kelly opted to trade McCoy (who carried with him a big salary) to the Buffalo Bills for Kiko Alonso, a talented (and cheap) young linebacker coming off a knee injury. While Alonso has yet to rediscover his pre-injury form, the issue is more about what happened at the running back position. The McCoy trade might have been able to be justified from a cost and positional value standpoint, but then Kelly dipped into the free-agent market and invested big money (five years, $40 million, with $21 million guaranteed) on another rushing champion: DeMarco Murray. Murray was coming off a season in which he carried the ball 393 times for Dallas, and signing a player with that kind of mileage on the clock is always a risk. (Not to mention that Murray was coming off what had been by far his most productive season to date.)
This season, while McCoy has played relatively well for Buffalo, Murray has been a disaster for the Eagles, gaining just 574 yards this season on 159 carries. That’s an average of 3.6 yards per carry, or 0.2 yards less than Le’Veon Bell was averaging after contact before he got hurt for the Steelers.
Murray may have been a great fit for the Eagles when their line was a dominant force, but behind the current unit he has floundered, bringing us to our next point …
3. Cutting both guards
In 2013, the Eagles had by far the best run-blocking offensive line in football. All starting five linemen graded well in the run game and were consistent presences together as a unit. That line set the foundation for everything the offense achieved.
Evan Mathis was the best guard in football, and he and Todd Herremans were the best two graded guards as run blockers. Behind that kind of line, most runners would have success, but Kelly was unable to replace the play of Mathis or Herremans after they left. Both Herremans and Mathis suffered injuries in 2014, and the warning signs were there that the in-house replacements may struggle to replicate their quality of play. All of the backups fared relatively well in terms of run-blocking grade, perhaps giving Kelly the false sense that it was his system rather than the personnel that was making things work, but their pass-protection was an issue.
Herremans was released by the team after the 2014 season, and Mathis was ultimately cut after a contract dispute which seemed like it would have been easily settled with a renegotiated deal for a player still playing among the best in the NFL at his position. (In just nine games in 2014 he was the sixth-best-graded guard, allowing only nine total pressures and run blocking well).
2015 has seen the Eagles struggle badly to field a cohesive unit on the line. Only left tackle Jason Peters is grading significantly above average, and even he had bad days this season and ended up taking himself out of the game this week rather than risk injury for a team that was going nowhere. Matt Tobin, Dennis Kelly and Allen Barbre have combined to surrender 14 sacks and 116 total pressures, and have not been difference-makers in the run game. In 2013 the Eagles averaged 5.7 yards on either side of the guards, scoring six rushing touchdowns, but this season that figure is just 3.4 yards per carry and they have only scored twice.
Maybe it was time to move on from Herremans, given his age, but failure to replace the production of both he and Mathis has been a huge problem at the root of the Eagles’ woes on offense.
4. Signing Byron Maxwell to big money
The biggest splash Kelly made in terms of pure money was his decision to sign cornerback Byron Maxwell in free agency to a six-year, $63 million contract.
The team was letting both starting corners from 2014 (Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher) walk in the offseason, so they needed to find a replacement, and outside of an aging Darrelle Revis, Maxwell was arguably the marquee name available at the position. The trouble is that Maxwell was far from a sure thing. In Seattle he had only ever been the second corner to Richard Sherman, and played almost exclusively on the right side of the defense. He had put up outstanding numbers, almost matching those of Sherman, back in 2013 when he first played as an injury replacement for Brandon Browner, but in 2014 (his first as a starter), his play was far more average. That year he allowed 63.4 percent of targets into his coverage to be caught, and while he only gave up one touchdown, he yielded a passer rating of 81.1 when targeted and was flagged nine times.
Kelly signed Maxwell to a deal that forced him immediately into the role of a No. 1 corner and shutdown guy — a role he proved he was spectacularly unqualified for when he was forced to track Julio Jones in the first game of the season. That day Maxwell surrendered nine catches for 154 yards and a touchdown on just 10 targets.
To his credit, Maxwell hasn’t been bad this season, but neither has he been capable of going one-on-one against the game’s elite receivers and shutting them down — something he needs to be able to do to justify that contract, and Kelly’s investment in him.
Kelly has certainly dealt with some bad luck. He traded away Brandon Boykin, the team’s impressive slot corner, because he was so pleased by the early performances of guys like rookie CB JaCorey Shephard — only to see Shepard go down with a season-ending injury almost immediately after. He reportedly tried to retain Jeremy Maclin, only to see him reunite with his old coach Andy Reid in Kansas City, and Alonso has yet to show the kind of ability we saw in his rookie year in Buffalo — though how much is the fact that he’s still recovering from the severity of his knee injury is certainly debatable.
Kelly has also made some good moves. Walter Thurmond was signed as an afterthought and moved to safety where he has had a fine season, complementing Malcolm Jenkins well in the Philadelphia secondary. Brandon Graham was retained and finally given a starting role, and while he hasn’t been dominant, he has generated pressure, notching 52 total pressures for the season and performing far better than Trent Cole, whom he replaced has in Indianapolis. This offseason he traded away Nick Foles, who graded out as our fifth-worst quarterback this season in St. Louis, for Sam Bradford, who ranked No. 12 in his first season with Philadelphia — that type of quarterback upgrade in the NFL isn’t easily attained.
The bottom line here is that Kelly gambled on his system and his guys being the answer and the way forward for the franchise, and when this season unfolded the way it did he was always going to find himself with more to answer for than had he simply evolved the roster in a less abrasive manner.
Kelly went all-in with his decisions when he was given full control over the direction of the team, and he ended up losing.