Chip Kelly's session with reporters at the NFC Coaches' Breakfast got all the attention Wednesday. Hilariously, more Philly reporters interviewed him than the Eagles' actual coach, Doug Pederson, who spoke at the same time.
All this fuss overshadowed some very interesting comments Tuesday by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, discussing Chip Kelly (and his front office nemesis Howie Roseman) at length. Let's compare what Kelly and Lurie revealed about the dysfunctional front office in Philly.
Chip's last year with the Eagles was very confusing because of Lurie's rapid reversals. The owner said right after the 2014 season that Howie Roseman had done a great job as GM and would return. Three days later, though, Roseman fired Eagles' VP of Player Personnel Tom Gamble -- Chip's closest ally in the front office -- with Lurie's approval. Before the week was over, Lurie had changed his mind, stripping Roseman of any real power and giving Chip GM duties if not the actual title. Got all that?
There was one weird thing about the move, though. Roseman -- a legendary bureaucratic warrior -- didn't get fired, as you might expect. He not only remained with the Eagles but got a $200,000 raise (to $1.7 million a year), an extension of his contract until 2020, and the title "Executive Vice President of Football Operations."
That doesn't sound like a guy who just lost a power struggle. And sure enough, Lurie fired Chip before the 2015 season ended, reinstalling Roseman as the guy in charge of all football operations.
In his comments at the owners' meeting Tuesday, Lurie painted Roseman's 2015 as a sort of highly paid internship.
"First of all, the whole plan was for Howie to really spend the time studying state-of-the-art decision making around the globe in sports, and we really opened it up to like from English premier League, NHL, NBA, try to find out who the best general managers or quote head of football operations were, try to make sure that Howie was able to spend a lot of time with all these people ... and really learn from the best."
Paying the guy a million and a half per year to study GM best practices? That sounds a lot like someone who is being groomed for a near-term return to power as the team's GM. Last Friday, we interviewed Philly writer Joe Santoliquito about his report that Chip Kelly's firing was "pre-determined," and Lurie's comments dovetail with that story pretty neatly.
Santoliquito wrote that Lurie had his doubts about Chip from the beginning of that final year, and planned to fire him if the team didn't make the playoffs (without notifying the coach of this requirement). Sure enough, Kelly was canned as soon as the Eagles were eliminated from playoff contention.
Lurie's new comments (as well as his actions) make it clear that he did not expect Kelly to succeed. The Eagles have only been to the playoffs once since Roseman rose to power in 2011. That was in 2013, Chip's first year.
"I'll put it this way. I think it was a necessary way to go to find out if Chip was the right guy. Let him be responsible for all the decisions he wanted to inject and make, and no matter, no question I have that it was the right way to dissect if Chip was going to be the right guy going forward or not. We dissected it and decided that with all, some of the great things he brought, he wasn’t the right person going forward. And it was helpful to have him be accountable for those decisions so that we could move on in a great way."
If Lurie's goal was to set up a situation for Chip to be fired and Roseman to return, his actions make perfect sense. The plan may even have been Roseman's idea. At his press conference Wednesday, Chip said that he never asked for GM powers. According to beat reporter Martin Frank, Chip said
"I would’ve been content to just go hire a general manager [to replace Roseman]."
Instead Chip got a job he was unqualified for, with a plan to fire him quickly if he didn't perform well. And he didn't.
Kelly was widely criticized for the expensive free agent signings of RB DeMarco Murray and CB Byron Maxwell last spring, as well as for giving a million dollar guarantee to fading veteran WR Miles Austin. Once back in charge, Roseman promptly cut Austin and traded Murray and Maxwell for draft picks, a move made easier by the structure of those deals.
Wednesday, though, Chip said that Roseman had negotiated all those contracts in the first place; Kelly simply identified the players he wanted and left the rest to Howie. This fits with the job duties Lurie originally described for Roseman, which included contracts and salary cap. Asked point blank at the Combine this year if he had negotiated those deals, Howie dodged the question:
"I think the best thing we can do is just move forward this year and talk about what's going on this offseason."
In contrast, Chip was emphatic and detailed in his response Wednesday.
I’ve never negotiated a contract in my life. I never had a conversation with an agent in my life. I had nothing to do with any contracts. Ed talked to [Roseman] about contracts. I never dealt with a contract. I never have written a contract, looked at a contract, gave a guy this."
("Ed" is Ed Marynowitz, the 30-year-old Eagles personnel whiz Chip got promoted to VP of Player Personnel. Roseman fired him the same day Chip was canned.)
A reporter asked the logical question, isn't that kind of a weird system? Shouldn't the contracts/salary cap guy and the head personnel guy have a system for working together? According to Frank, Chip replied
"Yeah, you would think. It wasn’t set up that way,"
Kelly's clear implication was that Roseman was not doing everything he could to make last season a success, if not actively sabotaging Chip so he could return to power. It's also fair to say that Chip took next to no responsibility for the very real problems that the Eagles had last year, so his version of events should be taken with a grain of salt. But the picture he presented is at least consistent with Lurie's remarks.
Taking Lurie at face value, he made a very strange leadership choice. Apparently he had real doubts about Chip Kelly's ability to be effective as a combined GM/coach -- which makes total sense, for a guy with a total of two years of NFL experience at that point, and only 6 years of head coaching experience at any level.
So, according to Lurie, he decided to just try it anyway and see what happened, and fire Chip if it didn't go well. As Eagles beat writer Tim McManus noted:
Neglects more sensible path: protect a young coach from himself, withhold full power until he's ready for it. https://t.co/00SMe3vm2H— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) March 22, 2016
The real question that should have driven Lurie's decision was: could Roseman and Kelly work together successfully? If they could, then McManus' concept is the right path: just say "no, stick to your job, kid" and let Kelly walk if he couldn't handle that.
If they couldn't work together, as seems clear now, then Lurie needed to choose one or the other. Fire Roseman, or fire Chip. Keeping them both in house was never going to work, and it appears that Lurie knew that all along.
The problem was that, at the end of the 2014 season, Chip was 20-13 in his NFL career, even counting the playoff loss in 2013. Keeping Howie and firing Chip would have led to a firestorm of complaints, and Lurie is very attuned to fan opinion. So it appears that he chose the path of least criticism.
Asked Tuesday if he had learned an expensive lesson from the whole episode, Lurie said:
"I would say no, I mean the expense of the lesson is just time, it's not money."
True, the salary offset in Kelly's coaching contract means that the Niners picked up most of his contract money. But a less charitable way to frame that might be to say that Lurie set up a season likely to fail, because he didn't want people to be mad at him for firing the coach he wanted to fire. Season ticket holders might well consider that a waste of both time and money.
Then there's the question of whether Roseman faces the same consequences Chip did if his GM moves don't work out. A reporter asked the owner if Roseman would be held accountable for the personnel moves this off-season.
"Yes, without question, and he'll be accountable for how well the personnel department does in the future..."
No one believes that Roseman will be fired if the Eagles don't make the playoffs this year, though. The Eagles are 32-33 during the four years Howie has had GM powers, with just that one playoff appearance in Chip's first year. And Lurie's faith in Howie only seems to be getting stronger.
h/t to Greg Richards (@igglesnut) for straightening me out on the details of Roseman's raise in 2015.