Chip Kelly’s March Madness

Chip Kelly is not afraid. He came to the NFL with a vision, and he's putting his philosophy into practice.

That's hard to do. The NFL is a terribly risk-averse league, where anything different is frightening. That's why so few head coaches are innovative or daring: do something unusual, and if it fails even once, you'll be blamed forever. Only coaches with an established record of success — like Bill Belichick — can really take chances.

Chip Kelly is taking chances. Free agency is only a week old, but the Eagles have created more headlines than anyone else in the league. Most notably, the Eagles:

* Traded Nick Foles and two draft picks to the Rams, for Sam Bradford.

* Traded LeSean McCoy to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso.

* Replaced McCoy with free agent RBs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews.

There have been a few other moves, most notably parting way with veteran pass rusher Trent Cole, but those are the headline-makers, and there are some doozies in there.

In 2013, LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing yards (1,607) and yards from scrimmage (2,146), with an exceptional rushing average (5.12), double-digit TDs, and only one fumble. His 2014 was comparatively disappointing, but McCoy still ranked third in rushing (1,319), with a good average (4.23). He's only 26, he's always played well when healthy, and he's rushed for nearly 3,000 yards the last two years.

It takes some serious cojones to part with a player like that. Kiko Alonso played for Kelly at Oregon. He had a great rookie season in 2013, but missed all of last year with an injury. We'll return to this trade and examine its merits, but to me, it's by far the most interesting move the Eagles have made this offseason.

Sam Bradford was the top pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, ahead of Ndamukong Suh. In five NFL seasons, he has played 49 games — about 10 per year. In only two of those five seasons has Bradford played more than 10 games. On the field, he has been okay. His interception rate is very low (2.2%), but his average yardage is terrible (6.3 gross, 5.4 net) and his 79.3 passer rating is poor. He's not a runner, so no help there.

Even if you think Nick Foles is worthless (which he's not), Philadelphia gave the Rams two draft picks — a fourth-rounder and a 2016 second-rounder — to acquire Bradford. That's a huge price to pay for a guy who was good in college six years ago. Some observers speculated that Bradford was trade bait, in Kelly's quest to draft Marcus Mariota, but that speculation largely disintegrated when the Eagles acquired Murray.

Bradford and Murray were teammates at Oklahoma. Acquiring Bradford now looks to have had two purposes. One was to attract Murray, the NFL's leading rusher in 2014. The other is to operate Kelly's fast-paced offense with players who flourished in that system in college. The Sooners didn't run Kelly's offense, exactly, but Bradford and Murray are comfortable working uptempo.

Murray was a big-name free agent, and it appears he was Kelly's primary target all along. McCoy was shipped out to clear a space for Murray. Bradford was brought in to work with his old friend. Mathews was signed to provide insurance for Murray's injury history and workload.

I expressed concern last year about Murray's league-leading 392 rush attempts. No player in the last 25 years has carried so often without falling apart the next year. Mathews is worrisome, too. If you type his name into a search engine, you'll get suggestions like "Ryan Mathews injury" and "Ryan Mathews injury update". Dude gets hurt a lot. But signing both Murray and Mathews gives the Eagles some cover. If Murray gets hurt, Mathews is the best backup RB in the league. If they both get injured, Darren Sproles and Chris Polk are still on the roster. I think Murray is going to break down some time soon, but his signing is less worrisome in combination with the team's other moves.

Sam Bradford has failed, so far, at the NFL level. His play has been mediocre, and he can't stay healthy. But it seems Kelly believes that Bradford is the right fit for his offense. Mark Sanchez is still around to fill in when Bradford gets injured, and trading for Bradford may have eased the signing of Murray. Bradford's addition sends a clear message that the Eagles do not view Matt Barkley as their QB of the future.

The other piece is Kiko Alonso. He has the potential to be a dominant linebacker, and as long as he's healed up, the kid has his whole career in front of him. He's proven he can play in the NFL, so the main "if" is his health.

The Eagles started with Foles, McCoy, Cole, and a couple of draft picks. Now they have Bradford, Murray, Mathews, and Alonso. There's a little more to it than that, because of salary issues, but that's the nuts and bolts of the thing.

In a vacuum, I hate the Bradford deal (gave up too much) and the RB signings (can't stay healthy). I'm neutral on the McCoy-Alonso trade, with a wait-and-see approach, but I lean towards thinking it's a savvy move. But it's all part of Kelly's vision. I think the Eagles will be fine at RB, one way or another. I'm curious to see whether Bradford stays healthy, and if he does, I'm fascinated to learn whether he's such a perfect fit for Kelly's scheme. Cole is a 10-year vet who's been slowing down, and Alonso is a 24-year-old with potential, and connections to Kelly.

At the end of the day, I don't know if the Eagles have gotten better, or worse, or just different. But it's a fascinating experiment. Kelly's unique attitude toward shaping a team could pan out like Josh McDaniels in Denver and Steve Spurrier in Washington, or he could be a poor man's Bill Belichick. But the Eagles are built to win now, and I think they're early favorites in the NFC East. Philly was unlucky with injuries in 2014, while the Cowboys were mostly fortunate. DeMarco Murray has switched sides, and some of the Cowboys' key players — like Tony Romo and Jason Witten — are nearing the age when you expect their play to decline. Regardless, the Eagles have begun the offseason with a serious bang, and it's been quite a show already.

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