Chip Kelly called Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens on the evening of Jan. 6 with great news: Kelly was turning down overtures from NFL teams, and he planned to return as the Oregon football coach.
Mullens said at a press conference the next day that he did not remember what he told Kelly in response. "I was probably high-fiving my kids and my wife at the moment."
Mullens high-fived too soon. Ten days after telling his boss that he would return to Oregon, three weeks before top recruits make their college commitments on National Signing Day, news broke on Wednesday that Kelly would be the next head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. According to Mike Garafolo at USA TODAY Sports, a source close to the situation said Kelly had a Tuesday night “change of heart.”
Just to clarify: This is a Chip Kelly story from 2013, not a Brett Favre story from 2009.
Kelly’s courtship with the Eagles, at least the parts of it to which the world has been made privy (an awful lot), has made as much logical sense as the typical Katherine Heigl romantic comedy. Their nine-hour lunch date was a “meet cute” that ended with apparent exasperation, not consummation. Kelly’s return home to Oregon was the sad “misunderstanding” that marks the story’s second act. The Browns were the “other guy” no one in the audience believed for a moment Kelly would end up with. The Eagles’ flirtation with Brian Kelly was obvious rebound behavior. Can I call you Chip? Wear this visor for me. The happy ending finds Kelly and the Eagles entwined, a coach with a 46-7 collegiate record (but zero NFL experience of any kind) matched with a proud organization coming off an extended success cycle (which crashed and burned horribly in the last two years).
Poor Rob Mullens. He plays the jilted lover forgotten at the altar. Or perhaps Mullens is the sassy, high-fivin’ confidante. Oregon recruits, those who grinned and bore Kelly’s NFL overtures last year, those who took the news of 10 days ago as a sign that they could make final decisions about their futures, are the ones who are really feeling jilted.
The Kelly-Eagles rom-com played out in front of a national audience thanks to plenty of 21st-century oversharing. Every move Kelly made during his whirlwind NFL tour was broadcast by his agent, so we knew just how coveted he was by the Eagles, Browns and others. After Kelly decided to either stay at Oregon or switch to the silent treatment, the Eagles fell on hard times, or so the story goes. Brian Kelly rejected them. Bill O’Brien elected to honor the commitment he made to group of college kids, go figure. Brian Billick appeared and disappeared from the radar screen. Gus Bradley flew in to Philadelphia hours after a heartbreaking loss, then flew straight to Jacksonville, which is never a good sign.
As candidates came and left, rumor had it that team president Howie Roseman came on too strong at interviews. Roseman wanted to assert his authority now that Andy Reid was gone, and that Roseman turned off coaching candidates by acting self-important, a trait they would no-doubt be shocked to see in an NFL executive. The rumor was red meat for the Philly talk-radio circuit, and for that breed of fan who sees Lurie and Roseman as geeky bean counters unfit for the manly business of hiring a good coach.
All the while, back-and-forth overtures between Roseman and Chip Kelly continued. A mutual friend – seriously – kept them talking, and perhaps passed notes back and forth between them in social studies.
When Kelly, Lurie and Roseman finally found each other, it cast doubt on everything we had heard for two weeks. Kelly’s return to Oregon looks like little more than a hardcore game of “hard to get.” The Roseman rumor sounds like another figment of the fertile Philly sports imagination, or there may be some truth to it, or it could just have been an elaborate smokescreen and stall tactic: We are closer to Kelly than anyone thinks; make sure no one thinks we are close to Kelly. The nine-hour lunch that appeared to amount to nothing … well, the phrase “it’s just lunch” just lost some of its spouse-reassuring allure. As for the “change of heart,” the continued Kelly-Roseman communiqués made it clear that Kelly did not pop up from his recliner during “NCIS” and think, “Gee, what Lurie told me over that ninth course last Sunday finally sank in.” Just as likely, he saw NCAA sanctions looming and knows as much about playing chicken as he knows about the spread option.
Regular readers know that I am both a lifelong Eagles fan and a Kelly skeptic, and that I have written about the Kelly infatuation in the past. Kelly arrives in Philadelphia as one the most gifted strategists in the college ranks. He is coming off a season in which his team went 12-1, finished No. 2 in the nation in points per game and blew Kansas State away in the Fiesta Bowl. He is forward-thinking when it comes to statistics, so there will be no Bill Polian rants in Philly. His lack of NFL experience can be mollified by surrounding him with veteran coordinators (which the Eagles will surely do) and a strong front-office presence (that’s not as clear right now). The Eagles need energy and new ideas. Kelly has them. What reason is there to be skeptical?
There’s Lurie’s official statement on Wednesday. “Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” the Eagles owner said. “He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words.”
Actions like misleading his athletic director and high school seniors? Actions like announcing one thing on a Sunday and doing the opposite the following Wednesday? Maybe it’s the image of Bobby Petrino leaving the Falcons a memo announcing his resignation with three weeks left in the season, or of Steve Spurrier not bothering to learn player names for the Redskins, or Nick Saban’s weekly assurances to the Dolphins that he was not in the running for the Alabama job, but nothing sets off the warning klaxons quite like a college football coach with a wavering commitment to his new NFL job. And nothing screams “wavering commitment” quite like saying, “Remember what I said 10 days ago? Never mind. Change of heart.”
That’s not just a reason for skepticism, but a reason to be more skeptical now than a week and a half ago, when the Kelly coaching search looked like a coaching search, not a romantic comedy. They don’t write ‘em like they used to, back when the coveted candidate was more than a fresh face, when the team came across as confident and capable, and everyone acted like smart, decisive adults. Viewers have lower expectations from their romances these days: an indecisive heartbreaker says yes to a desperate-acting sad sack, and everyone high-fives, except those who high-fived 10 days ago. Everyone lives happily ever after, hopefully, though the foundation of this new union does not feel like bedrock.
In other words, this story may involve Philadelphia, but it is no “Philadelphia Story.”