Michael Vick and the Eagles' Long-Term Future
The preseason is half over, and it is all but certain that Michael Vick will be the quarterback under center when the Eagles take on Washington in the Monday Night Football opener. Although Nick Foles has played admirably, Vick has simply been better and has earned the right to be the starting quarterback going into the season.
Of course, that is an opinion that might be held by a "go-with-the-flow" fan - somebody who is only thinking about this season and not what Kelly might be trying to accomplish five years from now. A fan who is looking down the road might still take Foles' clear upside over Vick's performance based entirely on the fact that Foles is young and can provide a stable option at quarterback for the foreseeable future. Sitting Nick for another year for a few more wins may not make the most sense when looking at the big picture.
But then again, maybe it does. Of all the things Chip Kelly brings to the table, there is one thing he does not have: credibility on the professional level. No matter how bright or innovative he appears to be, it will mean nothing if it doesn't translate into wins. And winning is the only thing that will get the league to buy into what he wants to do. When you're building a football program, credibility is everything. Just look at the head coaches around the league. All of them are certainly qualified to lead football teams; they either have a lot of promising talent or a load of experience. The most significant difference between ones that fail and ones that succeed is how much the players believe in what he is trying to do. We've seen first-hand what happens once the coaches have lost the players to doubt, and it's not pretty. Coaches have a short leash these days for precisely that reason: if you've lost the players, you've lost the program.
On the flip side, when players do buy into the program, the results are strong enough to cement the team as a perennial contender. The Patriots are probably the best example, with their program even dubbed as "The Patriot Way." The players may not necessarily like Bill Belichick, but he commands respect and they believe in him because of his excellent track record. In the NFC, Jim Harbaugh has found success almost entirely by getting the players to believe in him and took the team to the conference championship game in his rookie season with almost no roster turnover. You may dislike Harbaugh for his lack of professionalism, but you can't argue with what he has been able to accomplish.
And this brings us to Chip Kelly. He is under even more pressure to establish credibility than Harbaugh or Belichick were because his program is radically different from everything else in the NFL. Sure, the personalized smoothies, loud music at practice, and highly organized drills are nice, but if it doesn't yield results almost immediately it will be quickly viewed as a quirky experiment that failed. Kelly, more than any other rookie head coach in the NFL, needs to win as many games as possible to prove to the players that what he is doing is done because it works.
This is how Vick, should he continue to play at the level he has in the preseason, can have a lasting impact on the team. Let's say that if Vick starts all sixteen games the Eagles win eight games and if Foles starts they win six. In the first case, the team probably would not make the playoffs and some would say that Foles should have started to get him the experience. While that point has some merit, the difference between an 8-8 season and a 6-10 season is enormous, especially if they got hot down the stretch (which I personally expect them to). As a .500 team, the Eagles were probably on the bubble for the postseason at one point, and that will generate buzz and excitement. Winning eight games is a clearly defined improvement over four games, and it would be enough to vindicate Kelly's methods, or at the very least buy him two more seasons to install his program.
And just as horrible teams seem to be caught in a vicious cycle of futility, teams with a credible head coach often enjoy long stretches of success. This is the end goal for Kelly and the Eagles. To get there, he needs to establish himself as quickly as possible, and Vick seems like the most viable option to make that happen. If he can do enough to validate Kelly's methods then he will probably have done more for the long-term future of the team than Foles would have by getting the experience. After credibility is gained, everything else falls into place: the locker room unites under the common goal of the program and play with drive, heart, and tenacity. The Eagles would also become a popular destination in free agency. As a result, the rebuilding period is shortened immensely.
Of course, given by his play, there is no reason to think that Foles could not win eight games. It's just that Vick appears to be the more reliable option at this point. If Michael Vick becomes the 2011-2012 Vick once defenses stop playing vanilla and apply more pressure, I don't think Kelly will hesitate to pull him should things start to spiral. It would have to be a carefully calculated decision; the current faith in the program would be weighed against locker room repercussions of benching who is possibly the most respected player on the roster. But make no mistake that the decision would be made if necessary.
In any case, the Eagles will certainly be fun to watch this year (at least on offense). And while we, as fans, will argue, bicker, and speculate about how the season will go, there is no doubt that we're all in this together and strapped in for what should be a wild ride.
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