Coaching a successful major college program does not qualify you to be an NFL personnel executive.
In fact, there are few high-profile football jobs that leave a person less qualified to be an NFL personnel executive than coaching a successful college program.
General managers and other top NFL decision-makers spend years working their way up through personnel, scouting or cap-management departments. The head coaches who gain personnel control usually climb through the coordinator ranks—where they deal regularly with general managers and administrators and learn the fundamentals of roster assembly—and almost always keep an experienced personnel director around as a combination logistical coordinator/consigliore.
The person with final say on major roster moves in most NFL franchises has spent years at the professional level learning the ballet among players, agents, competitors and the holders of 32 separate sets of salary-cap purse strings. There are messy, counterintuitive elements of that dance: complex webs of loyalties and agendas; negotiations and machinations that combine chess, poker, Survivor and the roll of a roulette wheel.
A major college coach, meanwhile, knows nothing of salary caps, or salaries. Trades do not exist. Agents are kicked off campus, theoretically. The only competition for talent involves showing 17-year-olds a good time on Fraternity Row and promising them a shot at a starting job as freshmen.
Major college coaches think and operate in terms of two- to four-year windows for retaining players. Their authority is emperor-like. The only times they match wits with other adults who don't share their rah-rah agenda is on the field itself, or perhaps when NCAA investigators knock.
This brings us to Chip Kelly, who was a brilliant college coach until 2012, an NFL strategic revolutionary in 2013 and a backroom power-brokering ninja when the calendar flipped from 2014 to 2015. He is now the Eagles' top personnel man, as well as the head coach.
Kelly has some lieutenants, like Player Personnel Vice President Ed Marynowitz (a recently promoted wunderkind) and Senior Advisor Tom Donahoe. But after the coup that stripped Howie Roseman of most of his authority, the Eagles are now written, produced and directed by Kelly.
Having just traded Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, traded LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, essentially swapped out Cary Williams for Byron Maxwell at cornerback, sent Jeremy Maclin packing, played Wicked Tuna with Frank Gore and thrown his hat into every trade and free-agent rumor on earth that did not involve Kevin Durant, Kelly has established himself as a wheeler-dealer who is as impatient about thinking through his moves as he is about huddling between plays.
Kelly is flailing. He's overmatched. Like an inexperienced swimmer in a riptide, he is thrashing about madly, sometimes getting nowhere, often making things worse.
The best thing that can be said about Sam Bradford for Nick Foles (plus some draft-pick window dressing) is that it was not Jay Cutler for Nick Foles.
Bradford is older than Foles, has never had a year remotely as good as the one Foles had in 2013, is far more expensive than Foles and has an injury history that would make Dr. James Andrews lie down for an hour. Two ACL tears—same left knee—in the last two years. A high ankle sprain in 2011. Shoulder problems at the end of his college career. Expensive, damaged goods acquired at higher-than-retail price.
Experienced general managers see Bradford as a guy you trade for a late-round pick: You are doing the Rams a favor by clearing him off their ledger. Kelly apparently saw a Heisman Trophy winner who was the biggest collegiate star in the nation and the first pick in the NFL draft back in 2010, when Kelly himself rose to become the toast of college football.
As Heisman winners go, Bradford appears to be as unsuited for Kelly's option-tinted offense as you can get—he once ran for negative-18 yards in a college season, and that was when both ACLs worked—but in fairness, Bradford on crutches was probably as fast as Foles.
Kelly surely saw some things about Bradford that he loved on film, but that film was dated Oct. 20, 2013, at the latest: one week after Foles' first win as Kelly's quarterback. Foles' entire rise and fall as Kelly's (briefly successful) pet project can fit almost perfectly into the time Bradford has missed with ACL surgeries, which says a lot about both Kelly and the trade.
Bradford was not Kelly's first choice on the quarterback free-agent market. The 49ers denied the Colin Kaepernick rumors, but people I trust said that something was going on and the Eagles were involved. Perhaps Kelly and Trent Baalke realized that both of their power trips were headed in the same direction and they decided to try carpooling. For whatever reason, no deal for Kaepernick (young, healthy, almost tailor-made for the Eagles offense) materialized.
There is scuttlebutt that the Bradford trade is actually a precursor to a Marcus Mariota deal. Since the Eagles actually sent the Rams more draft-pick value for Bradford than they got back, it's hard to get excited about the Eagles sloughing off resources as they piggyback trades until Kelly gets his prized protege.
If Kelly is trading Foles for Bradford for Kaepernick for the rights to Mariota, the whole musical-chairs game could end with an Eagles roster consisting of Mariota and no one else. Kelly might not even mind, at least until he is reminded that he cannot just fill the rest of the roster with recruits.
The Kaepernick speculation landed on a scrap heap of failed Eagles big-name bids. Philadelphia was reportedly a player in the Devin McCourty sweepstakes but lost out to the Patriots. The Eagles materialized in conjunction with Darrelle Revis, and then the rumors moved on without them.
Agents will sometimes introduce a team into negotiations just to drive the price up. Veteran general managers know which agents like to tease and which shoot more or less straight about client interest. Those executives gained that experience with the ebb and flow of negotiations and the vagaries of agents when Chip Kelly was beating up on Arkansas State.
Frank Gore's 49ers-Eagles-Colts cutback run underlines the Kelly confusion in thick red ink. Forget for a moment that Gore, like Bradford, is older than the player he was slated to replace (McCoy) and coming off a statistically inferior season for a less successful team. Gore was clearly not sold on joining the Eagles, which is why he signed with the Colts.
Players have the right to change their minds before signing a contract—we all do, much to the chagrin of realtors everywhere—but executives and agents have ways of smoothing over these situations. The Eagles could have scheduled a visit with Gore this week, for example. The Bills spent a little too much money to appease the reluctant McCoy after the trade, but at least they appeased him.
If nothing else, the Eagles should have re-prioritized Gore to the top of their to-do list when the veteran running back shifted gears. But Kelly's front office was busy with the Maxwell signing, the Kaepernick and Bradford discussions and any and all hat-in-the-ring efforts for Patriots defensive backs.
Front-office logistics and communication flow is not intuitive, and there is nothing like it in college. Experienced hands pulled the Eagles through offseasons past, good and bad: Andy Reid and Joe Banner, then Reid and Roseman, then Roseman and Kelly. Now, it's Kelly and Ed Marynowitz, with Tom Donahoe "advising" and Roseman stapling the TPS reports.
This configuration does not appear to have figured out how to adjust, prioritize, delegate and pivot on a dime yet. Gore and his agent basically got the Eagles to make a public offer for them to shop around, even if that was not their original intent (it doesn't appear to be).
Eleven years ago, the Reid-Banner Eagles brokered an elaborate three-team sign-and-trade maneuver for Terrell Owens. While Owens brought later migraines, he also brought a Super Bowl appearance, and his acquisition represented the Eagles front office at the zenith of its powers, carefully managing free agency, the draft and the salary cap to create what was probably the NFL's strongest roster at the time.
The Gore fiasco, another three-team pileup involving the Eagles and 49ers, represents just the opposite: a head coach trying to make his roster older and younger, cheaper and more expensive, ready to compete and fully rebuilt at the same time.
And after the Bradford trade, the Gore incident is just a footnote in Kelly's wild offseason, which is officially just a few hours old.
When you look at free agency from 50,000 feet in the air, you can see that only a few things really happen.
A team can make a major move or series of moves to make itself better. The Seahawks trade for Jimmy Graham and ensure that they will never again screw up a fourth-quarter Super Bowl goal-line situation. The Dolphins sign Ndamukong Suh to blast them out of the .500 doldrums.
A team can suffer defections, usually because of cap problems, and grow significantly weaker. The Ravens lost Haloti Ngata to the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to the Dolphins: a major market correction for playoff teams facing a cap crunch. The Saints, at the end of a success cycle, must cut into their core by trading Graham.
A team can make minor moves and suffer minor defections but do everything it can to maintain the status quo. The Packers and Patriots have treaded water in rougher seas than these and always find their way to shore.
A team can make a major series of moves and come out worse. This is not usually easy to spot when it happens. When the last Eagles regime orchestrated its Dream Team splurge in 2011, they appeared to get better by adding Nnamdi Asomugha and others, not worse. The Dolphins' Mike Wallace-headlined spending spree of 2013 got generally positive reviews. Even the most disastrous of the Dan Snyder binges looked pretty good on paper when the crocuses were blooming.
The last week of Eagles moves looks horrible. Here is what they have to show for two major trades and several free-agent moves:
- A quarterback with seven starts and three wins in two seasons, for $13 million in cap space.
- No experienced "workhorse" running back to lead a run-heavy offense.
- A receiving corps led by Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper and Josh Huff now that Maclin is gone.
- The fourth-best player in the Seahawks secondary at one cornerback position. A question mark at the other cornerback position.
- A former Oregon linebacker (Kiko Alonso) coming off an ACL tear.
- Assorted draft picks and sundries.
The Eagles fans in my neighborhood, on my Facebook timeline and on my voicemail are either throwing a full boo-bird panic attack or curling into the In Chip We Trust fetal position. Kelly the maverick, the strategic visionary, the lunch buddy of Bill Belichick, must have a plan.
Sure, one transaction that appeared to clear cap room gets contradicted by the next move which gobbles it up. Sure, a massive roster overhaul like this—so common in college, where a dozen starters per year might graduate or leave—wreaks havoc on the continuity so critical at the NFL level. But Kelly must know something that we don't.
Perhaps. But perhaps Kelly didn't know what he was getting into when he took over personnel control. Maybe he just realized that agents and other general managers can snooker him. Maybe he just discovered how fluid the free-agent market can be. Maybe the deep science of the salary cap is still beyond him.
Maybe 32-year-old running backs and players with multiple ACL tears are a little outside his comfort level after years of bidding farewell to strapping 22-year-olds in gaudy helmets. He never had to think about any of these things, at all, until two years ago, and they were somebody else's problem until January.
It's not that he doesn't know that ACL tears are bad, overspending is bad and running backs get old. Chip Kelly is not stupid. It's just that applying all of those principals in the mad rush of free agency is like trying to perform neurosurgery while hacking into a computer network during a firefight.
Things happen fast, situations change, you get outflanked, and if you are in over your head, you overreact, try to do too much, make mistakes. If you are not careful and unlucky, everything blows up around you.
Kelly, inexperienced and overextended, is learning this general manager stuff as he goes along. Unfortunately, he's going along at his usual lightning tempo. Kelly is not just making mistakes; he's making three mistakes per minute, with no huddle in-between.
If this keeps up, the Eagles will be forced to punt, and another NCAA mastermind will learn that there are some things college does not prepare you for.