Chip Kelly the general manager deserves all the blame he has received, but Chip Kelly the coach is also part of the problem.
Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
In January of this year, I was sharply critical of Jeffrey Lurie’s decision to make Chip Kelly the head of player personnel. I did not like the decision to vest that much power in one person, especially when that person already had to handle being the head coach and play caller.
I was equally concerned with the manner through which Kelly sought to rebuild this Eagles franchise. Kelly seemed to take a page out of the playbook employed by the Daniel Snyder-led Washington Redskins of the early to mid-2000s: high roster turnover, big free agent signings, and even a new wrinkle: relying on oft-injured players.
Many others saw these issue too. Perhaps the most ominous warning came from Bill Barnwell, after the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell to big money free agent contracts:(and Barnwell is looking especially on point, predicting that the Eagles would fail to live up to the preseason hype and finish the season 9-7):
“Here’s the simplest way I can put this: Pretend, for a moment, that the Raiders or the Jaguars or the Browns made this exact same pair of moves. They would be the laughingstocks of the league, fools making the same stupid mistakes that bad franchises always make. The Eagles understandably aren’t being painted with that brush because Kelly has earned a certain level of credibility as a forward-thinking coach. With the moves Kelly has made this offseason, that credibility is on the line.
Kelly may very well make these signings work, but the Murray deal is a classic example of what bad teams do in free agency. Two years from now, we may very well look back at the past 72 hours in Eagles history as the moment when Kelly sealed his status as the next Bill Belichick. We also may look back at it as the time when Kelly sealed his fate.”
And yet, we largely ignored these problems, giving Chip Kelly the benefit of the doubt because he had won 20 games in his first two seasons. Perhaps part of us ignored the issues because we wanted Kelly to succeed at all costs, warning signs be damned. You can only so through so many years of disappointment before you start grasping on something, anything to believe that this year is finally the year.
But there are certain truisms to building a successful team in the NFL that should not be ignored. You build through the draft, supplement with free agency, and do your best to retain “your guys.” Get lucky along the way with some late round picks, secure a franchise quarterback, and keep the roster intact, and you give yourself a chance.
Those aren’t platitudes. They aren’t catch phrases used to opportunistically criticize a coach because he is having a bad season. They are tried and true methods that we have seen work over the years for teams like the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New England Patriots.
Chip Kelly wholly ignored this blueprint for success: he has 11 new starters on this team — many of whom are in significant positions — and was one of the biggest spenders in free agency. Couple that with a marginal success rate in the draft, and the team is currently mired in a season that is as disappointing as it is frustrating.
Up until this point, we have largely blamed Chip Kelly the GM for most of the Eagles issues. But watching the Eagles latest loss against the Miami Dolphins reveals that Chip Kelly the head coach might also be part of the problem.
Now, to be clear, this is not a “fire Chip Kelly” #hottake. I still think Kelly is a good football coach. You do not go 20-12 in your first two seasons in the league by accident. And while Kelly never “revolutionized” the game in ways that some may have predicted, his fingerprints are now seen all over the league. Every time you see a team tout their investment in sports science and player monitors, or hear a team using loud music during practice, or watch a team run spread concepts at a fast pace, just know Kelly had a hand in it. And for those facts, Kelly deserves credit.
But we cannot continue to ignore that Chip Kelly not only failed in acquiring talent this offseason, but is also failing in how he manages and utilizes that talent during the season. I covered a few weeks back during our self-scouting series, but it deserves further attention.
Miles Austin is this year’s Bradley Fletcher
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. We can and should criticize Kelly the GM for signing Austin to a $2.5 million contract, with $1 million guaranteed, when no other team seemed to have any interest in signing him. That is especially true when Kelly could have found much better production elsewhere.
Nate Washington’s stat line of 26 catches, 411 yards, and three touchdowns rivals Austin and Riley Cooper’s combined stat line of 23 catches, 417 yards and three touchdowns. Only the Eagles are paying Cooper and Austin a combined $7.1 million while Nate Washington is making $1 million.
The Eagles could also have signed Michael Crabtree, the 28-year old former first round pick, who signed a $3.2 million contract to play for the Oakland Raiders. Instead, they spent $2.5 on Austin, who is three years older and has a significantly longer injury history. Crabtree’s production: 51 catches, 646 yards, and five touchdowns.
Or if you really want to make your blood boil, consider that the Eagles are currently paying Riley Cooper $4.5 million, while the New England Patriots are paying Julian Edelman $4.25 million this year. (Yes, the Cooper extension occurred when Howie Roseman was the GM, but Kelly is reported to have pushed for the deal, so he deserves some of the blame).
Even if you dismiss the criticism of the personnel moves as benefiting from hindsight 20/20 — and I think it is a mistake to do that — you should recognize that Kelly is compounding his mistake by playing Austin week in, week out, despite mounting evidence that he is not a competent wide receiver.
If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, it should. Kelly had the same issue last season when he refused to bench Bradley Fletcher, despite Fletcher playing at a comically bad level. It was not until this past offseason that Billy Davis finally admitted that not benching Fletcher was a mistake, which he attempted to write off as a result of having “tunnel vision” during the season.
Regardless, the decision to stick with Austin represents the continuation of a troubling trend for Kelly, who seems either loyal to a fault or unable to correctly determine when a player no longer warrants the playing time he is receiving.
I do not like to call for anyone’s job, but in this instance, I am willing to make an exception. Miles Austin should not be starting for this team, and he arguably should not even be on this roster anymore. This fact has become increasingly obvious as the season has progressed. As we covered before, Austin has an embarrassingly low 50% catch rate on the season, one of the worst marks in the league.
During the Dolphins game, there were at least five plays in which Austin made critical mistakes. Benching Austin after one or even two of those mistakes probably would have been justified. Allowing it to progress to the third, fourth and fifth mistake? Seems like coaching malpractice to me.
Let’s take a look.
In the third quarter, the Eagles were clinging to a 16-13 lead and in desperate need for some positive momentum. Sam Bradford delivered an absolute perfect strike to Austin streaking down the sideline, but Austin (predictably) dropped the ball.
Here are multiple angles of the drop:
Had Austin made that catch, the Eagles would have been set up nicely inside the Dolphins redzone. Instead, the drive stalled, and the Eagles were forced to punt from the Dolphins 38 yard line.
Later in the third quarter, Sam Bradford notices that Austin is wide open at the line of scrimmage in what looked like to be a designed run play. Bradford attempted to change out of that play and make the quick throw to Austin. The only problem? Austin does not realize he is open, and instead tries to block his defender 10-yards down the field. The result is Bradford having to take a sack for the loss:
When Sanchez came into the game, the quarterback was different but the result was the same. To start the fourth quarter, Austin broke free on a go route in the end zone. Sanchez found Austin in stride for what should have been the go-ahead touchdown:
But Austin could not drag his foot down, despite having a solid two to three yards with which to operate:
On a critical second down on the last drive of the game for the Eagles, Miles Austin broke free on a crossing route. Prior to the snap, Sanchez seemed to be directing Austin to run a slant, almost telegraphing that he was coming in Austin’s direction:
Austin was wide open, but did not lift his head up to look for the ball. Here is a better angle:
That’s four bad plays, five if we count the interception Mark Sanchez threw in the endzone when Miles Austin appeared to stop short of his route.
Given Austin’s poor performance to date, Kelly would have been justified benching Austin after the first bad play — the egregious drop in the third quarter. Instead, Kelly stuck with Austin, putting him in a position to fail to make the play over and over again.
Perhaps the most alarming trend was how willing Austin’s teammates were to throw him under the bus. Look at that last vine again and see Sanchez’s reaction. Now consider Agholor’s reaction after Austin dropped that perfect throw from Bradford:
And finally, watch Bradford’s reaction after Austin failed to realize he was open, leading to the sack:
It’s one thing for the fans or reporters to get on Austin for his poor play. It is an entirely separate matter when his own teammates start to publicly call Austin out through their body language. Simply put, Chip Kelly must bench Austin this week.
Who Can Replace Austin?
A number of you on Twitter have asked who should replace Austin. And given that the Eagles receivers aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, it is a fair question to ask.
Let’s start with the offensive snap count, courtesy of Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Miles Austin played 47% of the offensive snaps, which equates to 45 snaps. Splitting up those snaps should not be too difficult of an issue.
The name that immediately jumps to mind is Darren Sproles, who played only 17 offensive snaps Sunday (18%). Why are we paying Sproles $3.5 million this year if we aren’t going to use him? To put his salary in perspective, consider this:
All this offseason, we heard from the coaching staff that it was going to be a priority to get Sproles more involved in the offense. Yet, it is week 10 and Sproles still is being underused.
It is not unreasonable to give Sproles 15 of those 45 snaps (bringing his total to 32), and splitting the rest between Matthews (who played 59% of offensive snaps), Celek (60%), Agholor (55%), and Huff (44%).
And don’t get fixated on the positions: while Celek and Sproles play different positions than Austin, they are still creative ways to make this offense work without leaving Austin on the field. For starters, the Eagles can run more 12 personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers, one running back) to have Celek take over some of Austin’s stats. Similarly, they could line up Sproles in the slot, pushing Matthews to the outside, to take Austin off the field. Or, they could even split Ertz out wide (something the Saints and now Seahawks use to great success with another blocking deficient tight end, Jimmy Graham), with a combination of Matthews, Agholor and Huff sharing the outside reps.
(Note: I split this up into two parts; click the number 2 below to get to the second page)