It is a curious organism, this Chip Kelly phenomenon.

While we feed it, question it and obsess over it, Kelly seems somewhat engaged, mostly amused. We don’t get him. He certainly does not get us. He doesn’t care what we think of him, what we know about him. And he doesn’t get that we wish he did.

He has taken a 10-win football team and blown it up. It’s like an unexplained event, a gathering storm in the heavens. We’ve never seen it before. It’s fascinating, a little frightening. But it has our attention, that’s for sure: What’s Chip doing? Hope it works. Could go either way.

He doesn’t understand that the Eagles are not just a professional sports franchise. It is your life, part of the everyday dialogue. And you have survived Buddy and Andy, cried with Vermeil and laughed at Kotite. Now you must Believe in Chip, the Captain Queeg of the NFL, on this detour of a season in the Year of Living Dangerously.

First, Kelly staged a palace coup to take control of the front office, muscling out the guy who fought hard to hire him and make him one of the highest paid coaches in pro football, a move that would make Michael Corleone blush or green with envy.

Then – according to the Elias Sports Bureau – Kelly was the first coach in NFL history to get rid of a 2,000-yard passer (Nick Foles), 1,000-yard rusher (LeSean McCoy) and 1,000-yard receiver (Jeremy Maclin) in the same off-season. First. Coach. Ever.

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio has been covering the NFL for 23 years. Covering Chip Kelly? That’s a whole new ball game

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio has been covering the NFL for 23 years. Covering Chip Kelly? That’s a whole new ball game

I will repeat myself: he blew the team up, taking everybody – all of us – along for that Thelma & Louise ride to the edge, pushed us to the brink. He’s been called a mad scientist, a beautiful mind, a genius. (Hard to call somebody a genius if they haven’t won an NFL playoff game. But, hey, no need to get picky.)

And he has asked us – the Philadelphia media, the Philadelphia sports fan – to take a leap of faith, to ride shotgun with Dr. Strangelove. Don’t bother to fasten your seatbelt. You won’t survive the fall. And if you ask an unworthy question about the mission, get ready for condescension and sarcasm.

And by you, I mean, the living, breathing Philadelphia sports fan – you know what that looks like, feels like. It is you, Larry from Cherry Hill, Mike from Moorestown, Vick from Voorhees, wandering the Philadelphia sports wasteland, waiting for another championship, while the Sixers tank and the Phillies and Flyers fade away.

Think about this for a moment: The average 15-year-old in Boston has celebrated four Super Bowl titles, three World Series Championships, a Celtics title and a Stanley Cup. That’s nine parades. Nine. They’re running out of fingers.

In Philly, if you’re 32 years old, you got one – a World Series title in 2008 that the Phillies have since relegated to the dark history of an empire dissolved by front office foolishness. Like Spain in the 1500s, only with 10,000 losses thrown in. Thank god for Chase Utley’s effortlessly delivered, perfectly rationalized profanity. That’s why you love Chase – he provided the exhale, opened that vein and allowed the anger to drain free.

Now, if you’re an Eagles fan, the only way you have celebrated a title is you had to be born when Eisenhower was president. Yes, Dwight D., the guy who led D-Day for the Greatest Generation. They don’t even write books about the Greatest Generation anymore. You have to go back to 1960 – 55 years ago, that’s two stadiums, six owners, 13 head coaches and 35 starting quarterbacks ago.

So, whenever the so-called cognoscenti in the national media starts stirring on its high horse and slams Philly sports fans, calls them boorish or impatient or, you know, too quick to judge, it drives me up a tree. Impatient? Eagles fans have a right to err on the dark side of frustration. While they’ve waited two generations for an Eagles title, their seat license money and tax dollars and season ticket checks built a stadium and financed some pretty nice vacation homes for Jeffrey Lurie, Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb – and Chip.

And now that he has that swanky new house in New Hampshire to get away from it all, Kelly – in the third year of a five-year deal that pays him $6.5 million per season – has decided to tear up this Eagles team and start over: 35 new players on the roster, 10 new starters.

I’ve never seen it before. Twenty-three years covering the NFL, 20 of them for the Worldwide Leader, I’ve never seen a head coach just decide, hey, let’s take a back-to-back 10-win team and rip it apart. All the great coaches – Parcells, Gibbs, Jimmy Johnson – want their own players. But they usually start slow and build something. By year three of The Program, it’s off to the races, not back to the garage. Kelly decided to rip the engine out, change the tires – go Mad Man in year three, then hunker down. And his bunker, surrounded by loyalists and apologists, has become nearly impenetrable.

At his opening press conference when he took the Eagles job two years ago, Kelly said he was like the Spanish conquistador Cortes, landing on the shores of Mexico, telling his troops there is no looking back, told them to “burn the boats.”

What he didn’t tell them was some of them would not be going with him.

And now you’re all captive with Colonel Kelly, looking for any method, any sign that this will turn out all right, hoping that this faith in a fearless leader will lead to a parade.

Sometimes, as a reporter covering this team, I feel like Captain Willard, taking that journey to the heart of darkness, looking for any sign post, any signal amid the cacophony of doubt  – that in this strange dismantling of my town’s football team, there is a plan.

“Are my methods unsound,” the madman says to the Captain.

The Captain replies: “I don’t see any method at all, sir.”

Okay, so let’s drop the metaphors and movie references, and get into the 2015 NFL season. A brief reminder: the Eagles won 10 games in 2013, won the NFC East. In 2014, the Eagles won 10 again, missed the post-season by one game.

So, Kelly didn’t have to destroy the village in order to save it, but that’s what he did. This season, all he needed to do was win another game or two, get to 12-4, getting home field in the NFC playoffs.

The Eagles have an easier road schedule this year — only two of their first six games are on the road

The Eagles have an easier road schedule this year — only two of their first six games are on the road

Here’s how that can happen:

Beat Dallas in the home opener on September 20.

Sounds obvious, right? But it’s not that easy. On their way to a 12-4 season last year, the Cowboys were 8-0 on the road. They did that by running the football, making Tony Romo more efficient and productive. Sound football.

Chip Kelly took away their No. 1 asset, running back DeMarco Murray. We won’t labor over the fact that Murray was not his first choice. That was Frank Gore, but the former Niners back chose the Indianapolis Colts instead, forcing Kelly to overpay for Murray. But he’s got him now, with Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles, giving Kelly the best trio of running backs in the NFL. If he can’t beat the Cowboys in the home opener with that stable of horses, he should consider going back to the Pac-12.

Beat the Redskins at FedEx Field in October.

Another one of those games that should be a no-brainer. But the Eagles could not accomplish this simple mission last year with Mark Sanchez at quarterback. He could not make two simple plays in the fourth quarter, including throwing an interception on the final meaningful drive that led to Kelly’s off-season epiphany to go down the road to oblivion to find a remedy.

That fix: Sam Bradford at quarterback. Bradford has a much stronger and more accurate right arm, enough to pass the Eagles out of trouble. Sanchez is good enough to get you into trouble, Bradford should be good enough to get out of it – if he can stay on the field. Back-to-back left knee injuries have sapped Bradford of the mobility and confidence he had in college. But he should be good enough to beat the Redskins defense, which gave up 27 points a game last year – third from the bottom in the league – and has not done much to improve.

Beat Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

You will have to play that Turkey Bowl game before lunch on Thanksgiving Day, because the Eagles kick-off against the Lions at 12:30 Eastern. You won’t be able to convince your family to play your game after the Eagles are done, because then it will be time for dinner – The Bird after The Birds.

Eagles beat the Lions, you will be drinking the wine before anybody carves the white meat. Eagles lose, it’s right to the stuffing.

Eagles should win more games on the road. They have a much easier road schedule than last year. Consider this: first of all, only two of their first six games are on the road, and they only travel 6,820 miles this season, compared to 17,530 miles last year! Huge difference.

Finish strong in December and January.

Last year, on the day after the Thanksgiving night massacre in Dallas, on that Black Friday, on the doorstep of December, the Eagles were 9-3, giving them a 91.2-percent chance of making the playoffs. And then they collapsed. Since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, only three teams that started the season 9-3 did not make the playoffs – the Eagles were the fourth. Not good history to make.

It was the first time in 11 years – since he was at the University of New Hampshire – a team coached by Chip Kelly did not play in the post-season. If everybody is always calling you a genius, you better not miss the playoffs. Maybe that is why he was so hell-bent on a total makeover.

How does he avoid the same late-season swoon? Find a way to give his defense a break. Last year, because the Eagles offense ran so fast, the Eagles defense was on the field for 212 possessions, 13 more than any other team in the league.

Think about that. That means the opposition had 13 more opportunities to score. In an average game, an offense gets six possessions. So that’s nearly two extra games of offensive opportunities for the opposition.

To take this one step further, let’s look at the Seattle Seahawks, who own the best defense in the league and have gone to back-to-back Super Bowls. Last year, the Seahawks defense was on the field for just 171 offensive possessions – that’s 43 fewer than the Eagles, or six full NFL games less!

This is classic Hummingbird Effect, a concept they teach first-year MBA students: something supposedly positive in one end of your organization ends up compromising something else. This could be Kelly’s undoing. And he refuses to budge. He’s not going to slow down on offense. Even his defensive coordinator at Oregon begged Kelly to reduce the white-hot pace in practice to save his defensive players. Kelly ignored him.

He has told us over and over that his approach to football and to life has never been governed by what other people think of him. So, the question is:

Do you believe in Chip?


Sal Paolantonio has been a National Correspondent at ESPN for 20 years. His book, How Football Explains America, is now available in paperback. He lives in Moorestown with his wife Lynn.

September 2015
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