Here's why polarizing Chip Kelly needs another year with Eagles

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·NFL columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Those who insist on ignoring NFL nuance and must live in a black and white world already have their Chip Kelly goggles. And surely the focus is finite: Good Chip, Bad Chip … Love Chip, Hate Chip. Some days he seems more like a political candidate than a head coach. And he knows this. He seemingly answers some form of popularity question every week.

Some of that is deserved, of course. The Philadelphia Eagles are giving the one-or-the-other argument plenty of ammunition in 2015. One moment the Eagles are getting plowed under in losses to the Detroit Lions or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the next they're beating the defending champion New England Patriots on the road. So the pendulum of opinion swings – Chip is the next Steve Spurrier, Chip is the next Jimmy Johnson.

Chip Kelly and the Eagles are still in the hunt for the NFC East crown. (AP)
Chip Kelly and the Eagles are still in the hunt for the NFC East crown. (AP)

Neither is a fair estimate at this point. Forty-five meaningful games have passed and it's still too early to say what Kelly is, good, terrible or mediocre. Nearing the final stretch of his third season, Kelly has lived inside all three of those boxes. Determining which represents him best requires a larger sample size. And that means one thing at this point for ownership: making the correct determination on Kelly means letting this season and next play out.

That much was evident after Sunday's win, which for a moment, pushed Kelly's reputation out of the red and back into the black. Linebacker Brandon Graham, an Andy Reid draft pick in 2010, rolled his eyes at a recent report quoting an unnamed agent saying that Kelly had lost the team. Graham pointed at the score Sunday, as if to say "evidently not." Other players talked of the team believing and sticking together, and all kinds of other stuff that sells motivational videos. This all falls in that aforementioned "good" box, which was nowhere to be found in embarrassing losses to the Lions and Buccaneers.

"Anybody who said our confidence is low is probably outside of our building," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I think the entire time, even though we weren't getting the results we wanted, guys were confident in themselves and we were confident in the scheme. It was obvious that we needed to change some things. But we were confident in what we could do because we have seen it in the past. And I think, really, that was Chip's message from the beginning of the week, just reminding us of who we have been."

Mind you, this is the same Jenkins who last week questioned the coaching staff for not calling out players in more of a team setting. Clearly the Eagles' problems are not just that of confidence or talent. There is a basic factor here of whether players can be productive within the scheme. Guys like running back DeMarco Murray, who has been a bad fit and is finally being relegated to a lesser role in favor of smaller, more versatile players. Kelly is still figuring out personnel decisions, and it's fair that he's criticized for that.

But in a larger sense, Jenkins is reaching for what the Eagles have been from the start of this campaign, going back to training camp and in the early weeks of the season. Which is many things. They're better defensively than they have played in recent weeks, and some of the shortcomings deserve to fall on defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who essentially has carte blanche with his game plan. But the offensive struggles belong to Kelly, and they are vast. That's expected when wholesale changes at the skill positions are made.

Beyond the bottom-line record, that's what is really getting Kelly skewered by critics – an offense that is screaming mediocrity. The Eagles are 15th in the league in scoring, 16th in yardage and 25th in third-down conversions. Even in the Patriots win, Philadelphia was housed statistically on offense and scored only 14 points (with the other 21 being produced by the defense and special teams).

Sam Bradford (AP)
Sam Bradford (AP)

This is what lies ahead for Chip: getting that offense turned in the right direction. And there is a long, scary consideration ahead about whether Sam Bradford is the right guy to lead it. Kelly says Bradford is still growing in the scheme, but his play leaves a massive argument to the contrary. In fairness to Kelly, he tried to get the quarterback he believed was the right guy when he offered the Tennessee Titans a massive package for a draft pick that would have been used to take Marcus Mariota. Had Kelly pulled that off, this tenor of the conversation in Philadelphia would likely be vastly different, even if the team had the same 5-7 record.

If Kelly is ultimately undone, whether that happens after this season or next, history will likely look back on the failed bid for Mariota as the definitive fracture in the master plan. That's not to discount some of the other personnel moves, many of which can be debated either way when factoring age, scheme and price tag. The one that can't is the quarterback spot, and Bradford hasn't proven to be anything more than a middling swap for Nick Foles. How Kelly recovers from that will largely tell the story of his tenure in Philadelphia.

It's worth noting that despite all of the fits and starts, and mood swings, the Eagles still have a chance to win a terrible NFC East. There's a month left and the division isn't likely to be decided until the last week of the season. And the Eagles have three home games in that final four weeks, and play both of their chief competitors – the Washington Redskins and New York Giants – before it's all over. From locker to locker Sunday night, this feeling was clear, that something better than the previous three months is still within the Eagles' grasp.

"If we wanted to turn this season around, it had to be with a team like this," wideout Jordan Matthews said of the win against New England. "These are the types of wins that get your team going and get that feeling in the locker room that we can go out and beat anyone."

That's an excited statement that will be received skeptically elsewhere. But there is plenty still left on the table this season. Chip Kelly could finish with his third straight winning record. He could still qualify for his second playoff berth in three years. He could still push that pendulum back into his favor.

Today, he's far closer to Steve Spurrier than Jimmy Johnson. But Chip Kelly still has four weeks, and as we've seen this season, that's an eternity in this love/hate relationship.

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