Eagles coach Chip Kelly never got his comeuppance in rookie year as Eagles soar into playoffs

Dan Wetzel

ARLINGTON, Texas – A mock championship belt rested in the locker behind LeSean McCoy. A hat commemorating the freshly captured NFC East title, courtesy of a 24-22 victory over Dallas here, was over to the side. This season's NFL rushing crown and the Philadelphia Eagles' all-time single-season rushing mark (1,607 yards, including 131 on Sunday) was tucked off in the record book.

And so, sure, if there was ever a time for Shady McCoy to acknowledge his initial doubts about coach Chip Kelly, this was it, amidst a room of a glowing satisfaction and bold optimism. It was just a year ago when Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fired the franchise's long-time coach, Andy Reid, and then handed the reins to a college guy from a program perhaps best known for its neon uniforms.

"Being with Coach Reid for so long, he's been a guy that's established, a winning coach," McCoy said. "… Coming from college, I just didn't know what to expect … I didn't know what to expect from Coach Kelly."

Kelly's Oregon offense might be a gimmick that NFL defensive coordinators would quickly figure out. The college success might be the product of superior talent. Was this a guy who could adjust on the fly, like the pro game demands? Could someone with no NFL coaching or playing experience command the respect of a locker room of grown men?

The doubts went beyond McCoy and his teammates. The NFL had seen this act before – hotshot college coach arrives only to flail and fail, and then limp back to the NCAA. And with Kelly arriving with breathless media hype of being an innovative genius, there were plenty of people rooting for a comeuppance.

McCoy figured he'd listen. And if there is one thing Kelly can do, it's talk. Fast. Furious. Convincingly.

"I think after I talked to him I was very optimistic," McCoy said. "Because he was just amazing, like the strategies of how he wanted to run the ball, the thought process behind how he wanted to get the ball into the playmakers' hands. And I bought into it.

"And then I got to see all the extra stuff he has, with the sports science, and I was a believer. And he's proven it. His first year and he's a playoff coach."

Kelly didn't just deliver one of the biggest turnarounds in the league this year, taking a four-win team to 10-6, a divisional championship and a home playoff game against New Orleans on Saturday night.

He changed the way college coaches may be seen by the NFL. This wasn't someone who bounced between the pros and colleges. This wasn't a veteran guy with a deep network of peers. This wasn't a former player. He was a chalkboard guru, who as recently as 2006 was a small college coordinator and had only four seasons of head coaching experience.

There was no road map for success, just a well-worn path of failure.

There was also a profound acumen that immediately convinced players he knew what he was talking about. Kelly didn't just talk to McCoy. He talked to everyone. They all immediately realized he knew of what he spoke.

"Chip is just an outstanding coach, it's the only way to put it," center Jason Kelce said.

There was also a deep respect for the players. Kelly treated them as more than something to mold or bully, more than just chess pieces to move around the field. He handled the potential minefield of preseason scandal involving Riley Cooper using a racial slur at a concert. He deftly juggled adversity, injuries and other setbacks that happen in this league. He won everyone's trust.

"Outstanding coaching job, but I think outstanding leadership job," Lurie said. "Outstanding job of handling an NFL team coming in and in every way showing motivation, class at all times, understanding where the players are coming from, instituting a new offense and defense, hiring great people.

"[You can] create a new program and a new culture, but can you get it across?" Lurie continued.

Can you get the players to believe in you? And then the plan? And maintain that when it all, inevitably, falls apart.

Perhaps Kelly's best attribute is for all his obvious confidence – "I expected us to win," he noted – he knows that there is always a better way.

The schemes that he trotted out in an exciting opening night win against the Washington Redskins were not the same ones he used here to grind out a victory in what was essentially a playoff game against the Cowboys. Many of the principles are the same, but so many wrinkles are new. So too is the quarterback – more traditional pro-style Nick Foles replacing the mobile Michael Vick.

"That's a testament to how great an offensive mind he is," Kelce said. "The quarterback we have has been successful for us of late but it's a little bit different than what he's used to having up at Oregon."

Those are the adjustments of a winning team. That's how you start 3-5 only to enter the playoffs white-hot. When things broke bad, he spent time listening, not screaming like so many college dictators.

"There's just so much to Chip," Lurie said. "Obviously extremely bright but what you saw was leadership at all times, whether you were riding high or riding low. Big obstacles, small obstacles, attention to details, but at all times bringing people together."

Now the Eagles are looking ahead. The playoffs were a regular occurrence under Reid, so for all the satisfaction of turning things around – "I see you, playoffs," DeSean Jackson shouted, "Playoffs, I see you" – the celebration was only so loud. This is a franchise desperate for it all.

"It's one win," Lurie reminded.

Still, this was bigger than one win or even one divisional title. This was a coach proving that while his ability to draw up big plays is, indeed, significant, he's more than just some college sensation.

In the postgame afterglow, Kelly simply gave the credit to the players, who hailed as a "special group." Deep down, he must know so many in this league were waiting for him to fall, watching for him to be overwhelmed by the challenge.

"I can't tell you how [easy] they made this transition for me coming from colleges to the pros," he said. "Everything we asked them to do as a staff from the first day until tonight, they bought in. It's an awesome feeling seeing it pay off. "It's a real credit to those guys," he said. "They didn't flinch."

They just battled and believed, and won, and then here late on Sunday night laughed and carried about wrestling belts and adjusted their championship game hats.

"How's it look?" Kelce asked.

"This is a pretty nice one to wear," he noted. "Now we've got a shot at the Super Bowl."

The next step is on Saturday. Just like they play them in college.

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