Is Chip Kelly a great coach on the rise or merely a good one?

DONN30S3
Eagles coach Chip Kelly says he still gets excited about coaching in the NFL.

CHIP KELLY said again yesterday how much he likes his coaches, lauded them as good teachers. He said again that he "loves" coaching in the NFL - precisely because of the parity that has sabotaged his efforts to build on his first-year success.

"Because," he said, "every single game, no matter who you play, when you play it, where you play it, you have no idea if you're going to win or lose. I think that's a tough deal when you really look at it. But in college, it's not that way."

Which begs a question that has been obscured by all those other questions about the end-of-the season meltdown of his secondary and that epidemic of turnovers, mostly by his two quarterbacks, which he acknowledged yesterday he had never experienced as a head or assistant coach.

Namely, is Chip Kelly only a good coach, not a great one?

Will his blind spots, and inability to compensate for such holes in his game, doom him to the same also-ran status of his predecessor?

Already, there are hints of this. Kelly's staunch defense of his uptempo style is based on accumulating points and dictating the game's tone. But it gained its reputation via the expansive rosters allowed in college football and the lopsided matchups that permeate that level. And it creates a razor's-edge existence for his defense at this level, as the players are out on the field longer and have less time on the sideline to study the previous series and correct mistakes.

The results this season, especially in the wake of an injury to defensive leader DeMeco Ryans, were big plays after big plays, huge third-down conversions after huge third-down conversions, a mammoth number of points allowed (400 on the dot), and a defensive ranking that belied their 10-6 finish.

"All I can go off is this past year," said safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of the key free-agent acquisitions Kelly made after last season. "I knew coming into it, with the offense we have and the amount of snaps that we have, statistically we're never going to look like a dominating defense. Because you play games like you did [Sunday] with 50 pass attempts. It's not going to look good at the end of the day. So you focus on the things you can control."

For this year's defense, that was stopping the run and pressuring the pass. There was also the thought that they could disrupt route running, and sometimes it even worked. But several brand-name receivers had brand-name days, and, for the second season in a row, Kelly's team lost more games against playoff teams than it won.

In 2013, the Eagles were 1-3 against playoff teams. With a more challenging schedule this season, the record was 3-4. And one of those wins was against 7-8-1 Carolina.

There are plenty of qualifiers beyond Ryans' injury, of course. The offensive line that stayed healthy for 17 games last season did not play together once this season and, with a revolving door of offensive linemen, the rushing attack that fed the team's momentum was inconsistent.

Confusion on both sides of the ball led to penalties. Nick Foles struggled with the early season pressure triggered by those factors, and was eventually injured and lost for the season because of it. Mark Sanchez was hit or miss with passes and with reading his progressions, often trying to stick in a pass when another receiver was more open. Too often, the uptempo offense spent more time running on and off the field than it did running down it.

And, yes, the Eagles could have used a deep threat such as DeSean Jackson, especially with the apparent regression of Riley Cooper.

It all traces back to Kelly, his staff and his philosophy, and whether their teaching "culture" is conducive to winning a championship at this level.

"We analyze everything," Kelly said. "That's what the whole offseason process is. Is it scheme? Is it personnel?"

Or is it . . .

Teaching?

Consider, their top draft pick barely got on the field this season, and their cornerbacks performed just as erratically late in the season as they did early on.

"As a group, we've got a great bunch of teachers here," Kelly said. "But that doesn't mean we can't improve either . . .

"We've always gone with the philosophy that if they haven't learned it, then we're not teaching it the right way. We've got to continue to find different ways to make sure that part gets hammered home. Maybe find a different way to teach it. Maybe it's a visual tool. Maybe it's more filmwork. Maybe it's more walk-throughs."

And maybe it's a culture change - or at least further tinkering with it. Kelly came into this league with a reputation for being brash, going for two points early in games, taking risks on fourth down based on his gut.

He plays it more like his 31 peers do these days. It will be interesting, after a long offseason of analyzing, what else he adds or discards to his culture as he attempts that huge leap from good coach to great.

 


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon