MOBILE, Ala. – Like colleague Jeff Lurie in Philadelphia, Dallas owner Jerry Jones went the route of hiring a college coach to run his beloved Cowboys.
A couple of times, actually.
It led to his greatest success, but only after his greatest failure.
"We won one game," Jones said, raising his right index finger to emphasize the point about his first year as owner of the Cowboys in 1989, when he hired longtime friend Jimmy Johnson out of the University of Miami. "One. Only one. That was hard. But I remember after that season getting a call from [late Oakland Raiders owner] Al Davis. He said: 'Don’t take your marbles and go home. You’re on the right track.
"The most important thing Al said was: 'You didn’t lose the team. They played hard for you all the way to the end. That says something about what you’re doing.’ "
Lurie and the Eagles made the boldest hire of the offseason when they lured dynamic coach Chip Kelly from Oregon. Like Johnson in the 1980s when he built UM into a brash power, Kelly took a rising Oregon program to a higher level, competing for national championships.
Also like Johnson, Kelly comes to the NFL with zero experience in the NFL. While Johnson went on to create a team that won three titles in four years (the latter coached under similarly inexperienced coach Barry Switzer), the number of good college coaches who have tried the college-to-NFL transition and failed miserably is long.
Lou Holtz couldn’t survive one season with the Jets. Steve Spurrier got run out of Washington when players tuned him out. Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino had short lived NFL head-coaching existences as well.
"The pro game is a different mindset," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "You’re dealing with men who have adult perspective, adult problems, adult pressure. You don’t have control over them the way you do in college."
Or as Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said, generally speaking about coaching: "If a player doesn’t think you can help him, he’ll tune you out and you can’t get him back. You get enough of those guys on your team and you’ve lost the team in a hurry."
Spurrier was a prime example during his stint in Washington, which lasted two seasons. At one point during his second season, Spurrier designed a pass protection scheme that featured the center trying to pick up a blitzing linebacker off the edge of the formation.
"If you had Barry Sanders at center, he might be quick enough to get there," a former Washington player said. "The players saw what he was trying to do and they laughed. This guy was supposed to be an offensive genius and he didn’t understand how fast this game works."
Spurrier also developed a quick reputation for not wanting to put in the time it took at the NFL level.
For Kelly, the speed consideration is important, particularly if he wants to attempt the up-tempo play-calling that defined his time at Oregon. While most coaches said this week at the Senior Bowl that Kelly’s designs appear sound and the tempo issue is not just some gimmick offense, there is an overriding issue:
Kelly isn’t going to have the mismatches he had at Oregon.
"The Eagles have some fast players, no doubt, but everybody has fast players and the difference between the Eagles and the rest of the league isn’t that great," one head coach said. "The other thing is there were probably only four or five games where Oregon really got tested physically. When you have that kind of talent, you can put a game plan together in 15 minutes, practice for a day and be ready to roll up 50 points."
Kelly acknowledged that the challenge of designing a gameplan would be much different at the NFL level and said he was open to playing a number of different ways depending on the talent of the team.
"We’re going to run things that work for our players, not just things that people think are my system," said Kelly, who reportedly signed a five-year deal with the Eagles. "There are a lot of ideas out there about how to do it and people steal ideas all the time. People think I came up with the up-tempo style, but these ideas go back to Amos Alonzo Stagg. Everybody steals from each other."
One thing that may help Kelly get acclimated is the hiring of former Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur as his offensive coordinator. Strangely, though, the pair had never met until Shurmur interviewed for the job.
Ultimately, what may help Kelly most of all is a trait straight out of Johnson’s time in Dallas: the willingness to get the people he needs to run his system. Or, more accurately, get rid of the guys who can’t do it.
Johnson was well known for his willingness to cut players at the drop of a hat when he was with the Cowboys, making all the players nervous about job security even as the team was losing so much in his first season.
Kelly appears open to applying the same philosophy.
"We’re going to find a group of players who want to work hard, are tough and are physically capable of playing our brand of football, whatever that is," Kelly said.
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