Joe Santoliquito is a longtime, award-winning boxing writer from Philadelphia. He's also the Eagles beat writer for CBS Philly, and has contacts with a lot of NFL players as well as inside the Eagles organization.
After the team stunned fans by releasing DeSean Jackson in 2014, Santoliquito was the first to report how unpopular DJax had been with his teammates. One memorable quote:
""You see little kids and how they cry and whine when they don’t get their way, that was D-Jax," another source said. "I don’t think [Jackson] gave [Kelly] the respect he deserved. Kelly tried to reach [Jackson] plenty of times and [Jackson] tuned him out."
That article defended Chip Kelly against widespread attacks for his role in cutting DeSean. On Wednesday, though, Santoliquito wrote an explosive article that Chip will not enjoy nearly as much.
It had two major revelations from inside sources. First, "[r]oughly 30 unnamed NFL players not on the Eagles" told him that they liked the team as a free agent destination, but "a predominant portion" of the group wouldn't consider signing with Philly if Chip was still the coach. Second, he reported that Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie had a "silent ultimatum" before the 2015 season even started: he was going to fire Chip if the team didn't make the playoffs.
That's a lot to chew on for one column.
49ers fans frustrated by the team's inactivity in free agency have wondered if Chip's reputation was preventing acquisitions. Of course, the franchise had a shaky reputation before he was hired.
Last year, the Niners' roster had significant roster turnover after Jim Harbaugh (another rough-hewn college coach) was canned. And despite the $60 million of cap money burning a hole in his pocket, GM Trent Baalke is not prone to the kind of expensive free agency signings that proved so disastrous for Kelly (in his GM role) last year in Philadelphia.
The Lurie revelation is consistent with other inside reports, but still hard to make sense of. After a fierce turf battle with previous GM Howie Roseman over the firing of Tom Gamble, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie gave Chip Kelly total control of his team as GM and coach, power rivaled only by Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll.
Yet Lurie didn't fire Roseman; in fact he gave him a raise (
reportedly tripling his salary of $200,000 to $1.7 million) and "kicked him upstairs" to a job with less power. By all accounts, Lurie has complete trust in Howie Roseman, though the GM's reputation with the rest of the world is as mixed as Chip's. Even at the time this all went down (January of 2015), reporters wrote that this was a dangerous and unstable arrangement.
Santoliquito's new story confirms and fleshes out those concerns.
Privately, Lurie had his reservations if Kelly knew what he was doing. Compounding that were the tremors Lurie was hearing throughout the NovaCare Complex about how cold and abrupt Kelly was. It didn’t help that Kelly wasn’t exactly Mr. Warm and Fuzzy. So in Lurie’s head, it appears, he carried a silent ultimatum of his own, months before the 2015 season, according to a few sources close to the Eagles: make the playoffs or fire the coach.
There is no reason to doubt this report -- Santolquito has a strong track record -- but that doesn't make the situation he describes any less peculiar. It seems incredibly reckless to give total control of your billion dollar team to a coach you don't trust. It's as if Lurie was setting a trap for Chip, using the team he loved as bait. Perhaps it's best to think of it as a poker move, going all in on a borderline hand because he didn't want to fold that early.
The common thread in both reports is Chip's stand-offish personality alienating people. Reached for comment, Santoliquito had this to say about Kelly.
"[Chip] is a highly intelligent guy. He's not an evil man. He's actually a pretty good man. He just needs to learn how to talk to people. And he may need to reevaluate what an NFL player is."
I asked him specifically about the ex-players (and ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith) who have accused Kelly of racism.
"Chip is not racist in any way. He's prejudiced against everyone. He just needs to work on his people skills. You can't treat people like you did 20 years ago."
The problem may be generational. Chip is at the older end of Generation X and may not appreciate how quickly word travels among millennials, with their crazy texting machines and what not.
Consistent with other reports, Santoliquito identifies LeSean McCoy as the fulcrum of disillusionment. Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine wrote a cover story in August, 2014 on how Shady was apparently won over to Chip's methods. When Chip then traded McCoy, the Eagles all-time rushing leader, for former Duck Kiko Alonso, the running back felt betrayed, stabbed in the back.
The problem for Chip was that McCoy was very popular in the Eagles locker room, as beat writer Jeff McLane reported, and his disillusionment carried disproportionate weight with his former Eagle teammates. This -- and Kelly's rapid fire series of transactions last spring -- unsettled the locker room, while the team's performance fell short of Lurie's unspoken ultimatum.
Santoliquito writes that this all came to a head when the Eagles played Buffalo on December 13th. The Eagles won, 23-20, but watching Alonso face off against McCoy crystallized the owner's disillusionment. According to the article:
Lurie was watching from the owner’s box, bristling. Kelly had wanted Alonso, and here Lurie was witnessing the guy the Eagles traded for unable to tackle the player Kelly got rid of. It made Lurie question what Kelly was doing. That may have been the last straw.
It's hard not to view these events through the lens of Kelly's bureaucratic battle with Howie Roseman, but Santoliquito told me that there's only one person responsible for what went down.
"Everything that happened to Chip in Philly happened because Chip brought it on himself, by making dubious personnel decisions and alienating everyone in the building."
His article concludes with a harsh judgment that can't be encouraging for Niners fans:
Lurie considers his team to be a family. Though publicly Kelly espoused "culture, culture, culture," his was hardly a fully inclusive culture. To the contrary, Kelly’s Little Lord Fauntleroy act inside the NovaCare Complex cultivated a more grating environment.
Hopefully, everyone has learned from what happened, and the problems were linked to incompatibility between some very particular and strong personalities. But this article is a reminder that the community of people involved in NFL and major college football is surprisingly small and close knit.
What went down in Philly, like what happened in San Francisco with Jim Harbaugh, is the equivalent of a messy divorce in a small town. People move forward and try to do better next time. But everyone has heard what happened, and that talk colors everyone's relationships going forward.
UPDATE: Found a better source for Howie Roseman's raise in December 2014. Tripling the salary was apparently my misreading; the source said triple the compensation but that apparently included extending the length of the contract as well as the annual salary involved. h/t Greg Richards for catching my mistake.