Friday, January 15, 2016

Eagles’ dysfunction confirmed through coaching search

It’s hard to say this was surprising. But it was certainly disappointing. Last night, Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News reported that the Philadelphia Eagles were going to name Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson as their new head coach.  On the same day former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was hired by the San Francisco 49ers, the Eagles’ coaching search concluded.

Where do we start? Well it’s obvious owner Jeffrey Lurie was just so fed up with Kelly that he wasn’t going to allow him to coach the final game against the New York Giants and wanted him gone as soon as possible. Lurie’s reason for firing Kelly before the last game of the season was to get a jumpstart on finding the next coach.  There were seven head coaching job openings this year and the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins all hired coaches before the Eagles.

Not only is it clear Lurie didn’t really want to get a jumpstart on finding the next coach, but Lurie and Howie Roseman didn’t seem to have much of a plan following Kelly’s firing. They opted not to interview hot names like Hue Jackson, Sean McDermott and Josh McDaniels. Right before the Browns announced Jackson as their next head coach, the Eagles reportedly called him in a last-ditch effort to speak about their opening but it was too late. While it’s easy to argue the best players on the Eagles roster are on defense, not one defensive-minded candidate was interviewed. Adam Gase and Ben McAdoo decided to take other jobs and Tom Coughlin withdrew his name from the search. Just like that, a poorly organized search came down to Pat Shurmur and Pederson, and Pederson was the pick.

                           Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
Kansas City's offenses certainly haven't lit
the world on fire in Pederson's three years
as offensive coordinator. 
The Tennessee Titans are the only team with a vacancy remaining. Pederson’s name was not linked to any of the other five teams that have already hired coaches. When you look at his resume, there isn’t much of a reason to be confident in his ability as a head coach. Before joining the Eagles in 2009 as an offensive quality control coordinator, Pederson was a high school football coach. In 2011, Pederson was elevated to quarterbacks coach, a title he held for two seasons. In the first of those two seasons, Eagles’ quarterbacks threw the most interceptions in the NFL. In the second season, the team was 25th in the league in passing touchdowns. Then in 2013, Pederson followed Andy Reid to Kansas City as Reid’s offensive coordinator, where Reid did most of the play calling.  It certainly doesn’t help Pederson that in his tenure in Kansas City, the Chiefs went 18 consecutive games without having a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass. While the Chiefs threw just seven interceptions in 2015, an NFL season low, there aren’t many reasons to think Pederson is ready to be an NFL head coach.

What made him so attractive to the Eagles is certainly a question I’m sure Lurie will address at the introductory press conference after Kansas City is eliminated from the playoffs. But after Kelly, it’s certainly easy to make a conjecture or two about why the Eagles settled on Pederson. Lurie stressed the importance of a coach being able to relate with players. Many current and former players have spoken highly of Pederson as a person once the news broke. There is also a history between Pederson and the Eagles. As previously mentioned, Pederson was a part of the coaching staff at the end of the Andy Reid era. He also started nine games at quarterback for the Eagles in 1999 before handing the reins to Donovan McNabb. So when you consider his history with the Eagles and relative inexperience when it comes to holding positions of power on NFL coaching staffs, Pederson is just what Lurie and Roseman were looking for. He is an NFL coaching neophyte that will not challenge their decisions.

With this being the end result of the coaching search, some have even gone as far as suggesting Kelly was fired too early. It was clear Kelly had gone downhill since winning the NFC East in his first season. Defenses seemed to catch up to his unconventional offensive philosophy.  His personnel decisions blew up in his face. His dismissal was certainly warranted. But, Kelly was only part of the problem.

                                                  Robert Deutsch/USA Today
Lurie is not the kind of owner whose
decisions deserve to go unquestioned.
The first seven years of the Reid era were some of the most successful years the organization has ever had as the Eagles went to four straight NFC championship games and appeared in one super bowl. In bringing Pederson back to the organization and having Roseman running the personnel department, it looks like Lurie is trying to re-create an old era of Eagles football, rather than start a new one. Now in his 22nd year as owner of the Eagles, Lurie has repeatedly failed to surround himself with the appropriate football minds necessary to win a championship. Many people have been in and out of the Eagles’ front office, but Roseman remains Lurie’s confidant having been employed by the Eagles
since 2000.

Some have pointed to the fact that no one really knew what to expect from Reid when the former Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach was hired in 1999. Can Pederson be the next Reid? That’s what Lurie and Roseman are hoping for. But Reid had two very important constants as Eagles coach that we aren’t sure if Pederson will have or not. Reid had a very sound and reliable coaching staff with defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s units always keeping the Eagles in games and current Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh in charge of special teams. Reid also had a franchise quarterback in Donovan McNabb. Will Pederson have the right coordinators that a head coach with his limited experience needs?  What will the Eagles do at the quarterback position this offseason? These are two very important questions to which the answers may determine the future of the Eagles.

Some rumors swirled last night that Brad Childress might come from Kansas City to be Pederson’s offensive coordinator. Childress spent seven seasons on Reid’s staff in Philadelphia. As much as the Eagles may want to go back to the Andy Reid era, it’s going to be hard to find another Jim Johnson and potentially even harder to find the next franchise quarterback. Sam Bradford is slated to become a free agent, which gives the Eagles a huge decision to make at the most important position.

After the Eagles fired Kelly, I argued that Lurie shouldhave cleaned house entirely. Instead it looks like the organization is trying to rekindle the magic of the early 2000s.  It’s a questionable plan at best and one that didn’t appear to be well thought out following the firing of Kelly.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Problems for Eagles go beyond Chip Kelly

I was in the car on Tuesday night with my family pulling into a local restaurant for my 21st birthday dinner. My phone started blowing up.  I walked into the restaurant with my phone battery at 75 percent and walked out with just 25 percent left. The Eagles had fired Chip Kelly. I was shocked. I didn’t think owner Jeffrey Lurie was actually going to do it even though the 2015 season was an utter disaster.

There was so much irony in all of this for me.  If you know me well, or have just paid attention to this blog since I started it in August 2013, you should know I’ve been a Chip Kelly supporter. I wrote this in August 2013 with the first season of Kelly’s tenure right around the corner.  Then I wrote this in August 2015, as the Eagles were getting ready for the season after Kelly flipped the roster over in the offseason and took heat for not being able to associate with certain black players. There were plenty of other blog posts about Kelly, but I think you get the idea. I liked his unconventional approach and thought he could win the Eagles their first Super Bowl title. On my birthday in 2013, the Eagles clinched the NFC East and finished 10-6 in Kelly’s first season after winning just four games in 2012. Two years later on my birthday, Kelly was fired. That quickly it was over.

But I’m not blogging now to say this was the wrong move. There is no one else to blame for the fiasco that was the 2015 Eagles than Chip Kelly. He jettisoned a lot of talented football players in his three years in Philadelphia, most leaving in his roster overhaul last spring after he gained full control of player personnel over former general manager Howie Roseman in January.  It didn’t work. The offseason now looks a lot like the 2011 splurge in free agency by the Eagles when Vince Young deemed the Eagles as the “Dream Team” and the Eagles looked like anything but.  That season the Eagles started 4-8, won four meaningless games to finish 8-8, and Lurie delayed the inevitable coaching change, only for the Eagles to go 4-12 in Andy Reid’s final season. As the season went on, it became clear that regardless of how weak the NFC East was, the Eagles were just a bad football team and Kelly was the one who put the team together and was also coaching the team.  He did nothing that inspired confidence moving forward so it felt like the roster flip was a failure that couldn’t be salvaged and had Lurie held on to Kelly things would have only gotten worse the way things did in Reid’s final year in 2012.

For most of Tuesday night and early on Wednesday, I was just trying to let the dust settle from the shock that Lurie actually did it before thinking about what was next. I listen to a ton of sports talk radio as it is, so with this news only gave me more of a reason to keep listening. Lurie had a press conference on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the news broke. The more I tried to read between the lines of what Lurie said, and the reaction I heard from fans that called into the radio stations, the more frustrated I was getting.  One Eagles fan texted me that this was “one of the best weeks in Philly sports history” and plenty of fans echoed similar sentiments on the airwaves that the future was already pointing up now that Kelly was gone.

What many fans were missing, and what I believe to be true after listening to Lurie speak is that Roseman is returning to a role of equal or perhaps even more power compared to when he was the general manager for five seasons from 2010 to 2014.  Lurie said on Wednesday that Roseman is “responsible for making sure our player personnel department is as good as it gets in the NFL.” That seems like a guy that’s going to be making a lot of decisions regarding player transactions and deciding who comes and goes on the personnel staff. While Roseman may keep the same title of Executive Vice President of Football Operations, it’s very clear that he’s the big winner from Kelly’s firing after being exiled one year ago to allow for Kelly to run the show. I kept thinking to myself, why Roseman was even kept around to begin with last year when Kelly won the power struggle? Maybe Lurie just told Roseman to hang tight and if it didn’t work he’d be back.  But why not just fire Roseman the minute you decide to entrust Kelly with all the power and then fire Kelly and start completely fresh?

                                                                              Getty Images
Howie Roseman appears to have lost the battle, but won the
war against former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.
Roseman has been employed by the Eagles since 2000 and slowly ascended to positions with more power throughout the years. Do people know that since Roseman was named general manager in January of 2010, the Eagles are 48-49 and 0-2 in the playoffs as Mark Eckel points out here? Roseman’s draft history isn’t exactly anything to write home about. In 2010, the Eagles traded up in the first round to select Brandon Graham. At the time it looked like a decent pick until you realize that the Eagles passed on a better defensive end in Jason Pierre-Paul and safety was another position of need and the Eagles opted not to take Earl Thomas who is now one of the best safeties in the NFL. Graham and Riley Cooper are the only players still with the team from the Eagles’ 2010 draft. Jason Kelce is the only player from the 2011 draft class still on the roster. The first three selections in that draft were Danny Watkins, Jaquan Jarrett and Curtis Marsh. No additional comment necessary. In the first round in 2014, the Eagles traded back and reached on Marcus Smith who many pegged as a third round talent. Smith could not get on the field in either of his first two seasons and may not even be on the team in 2016. Now there have been some good picks like Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks in 2012 and Lane Johnson and Bennie Logan in 2013, but I don’t think anyone would tell you the Eagles have drafted well recently. To whiff like Roseman did, and be given another chance, with potentially more power this time doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. The one time Roseman tried to make a big splash in free agency was in 2011, and as I mentioned earlier, we all know how that turned out. 

One of the reasons Lurie cited for Kelly’s release was “downward trajectory” he felt the team was on. As Geoff Mosher points out in this column, when you haven’t won a playoff game since 2008, and haven’t won a home playoff game since 2006, for a franchise that almost always has super bowl or bust expectations, isn’t that almost a decade of a downward trajectory? Don’t forget that in 2008 the Eagles went 9-6-1 and got into the playoffs on a miracle on the final day of the regular season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers losing at home to the lowly Oakland Raiders and the Chicago Bears falling to the inferior Houston Texans which set up a playoff play-in game against Dallas which the Eagles won 44-6.

So it’s very easy to argue that the downward trajectory of the organization started long before Kelly was even hired.  Now, one of the people primarily responsible for the franchise’s mediocrity is back with a major role in constructing the roster. Lurie, Roseman and team president Don Smolenski are going to head the team’s coaching search. Those are the same three people that decided on Kelly three years ago. Lurie’s firing of Kelly was essentially admitting what he thought was a mistake, so as the owner why not choose to be surrounded with some different football people this time around?

Another winner from Kelly’s firing was Tom Donahoe. In 2012, the Eagles brought in Donahoe as a senior advisor and Lurie announced Wednesday that Donahoe would be elevated to Senior Director of Player Personnel after Kelly’s hand-picked personnel guy Ed Marynowitz was also fired.  Lurie described Donahoe’s role as running the “day-to-day player personnel department” and called his promotion a “crucial hire”. So what kind of track record does Donahoe have? He was the general manager in Pittsburgh with the Steelers from 1991 to 1999. The Steelers made the playoffs in five of those nine seasons and appeared in the Super Bowl in 1995. But in 1998 and 1999, the Steelers were a combined 13-19 and eventually Donahoe was fired after losing a power struggle to Bill Cowher. Cowher went on to win a Super Bowl in 2005. Donahoe was then hired to be the Bills general manager in 2001. In five seasons in Buffalo, Donahoe’s teams went 31-49 and missed the playoffs in all five years before he was fired in 2005. Donahoe was out of the game until 2012 when the Eagles hired him.

It looks like Jeffrey Lurie has surrounded himself with a personnel department ran by two men that have each lost power struggles and more importantly just aren’t particularly good at assembling a football team that can win a championship. But it’s the particular loyalty towards Roseman from Lurie that is mind boggling given Roseman’s resume doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.  Keep in mind that Lurie’s loyalty to Roseman probably won’t be all that attractive to head coaching candidates the Eagles interview. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport believes Roseman is back in the driver’s seat.

There’s really no reason to think otherwise at this point.  Lurie’s firing of Kelly was a bold move. There is no doubt about it. But he should have cleaned house entirely rather than going back to Roseman and promoting Donahoe. He should have learned from a team just 90 miles north. The New York Jets went 4-12 last season. Owner Woody Johnson opted to start over and fired head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik. But he did so with the assistance of Charlie Casserly in finding replacements. Casserly was once the GM of the Redskins and later on the GM of the Texans and Johnson implored his help as Casserly has been in broadcasting for the better part of the last 10 years. New GM Mike Maccagnan fired the two most experienced members of the Jets’ college scouting department who worked under Idzik.  The Jets then hired Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles as their head coach. Maccagnan filled lots of holes in the offseason by trading for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, making another trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, signing safety Marcus Gilchrist, and bringing back cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to the Jets after both played elsewhere in 2014. One year later the Jets are 10-5 with a win-and-in game on the horizon on Sunday in Buffalo against…Rex Ryan. Revis said this week Maccagnan should be the NFL Executive of the Year.  One of the candidates for Coach of the Year, Arizona’s Bruce Arians, endorsed Bowles for the award this week as the Jets have rediscovered their defensive identity.
                                                           Robert Deutsch/USA Today
Jeffrey Lurie needed to bring in some new football minds
into the Eagles organization.

The chain of command for a football team needs to flow effervescently from the owner to the general manager to the head coach and all the way down to the players. Everyone needs to be on the same page in order to achieve success and when it’s time for change, the owner must know who to remove and who to hire and must be surrounded by good football minds in the process. It sounds simple, but it’s been an ongoing problem for the Eagles’ brass that started long before Chip Kelly was hired.  The biggest reason I believed in Chip Kelly was because of all the change I thought he could bring to the organization. He certainly made a lot of changes and I was proven wrong as not many of his changes were for the better and so Kelly’s firing was certainly warranted. Jeffrey Lurie deserves credit for having the guts to pull the plug. But shame on him for not pulling more plugs. So was this really one of the best weeks in Philly sports history? Not even close.