In the end, Chip Kelly chose the NFL, giving the Eagles their guy.
Philadelphia hired Kelly on Wednesday, just 10 days after he decided to stay at Oregon. The 49-year-old Kelly, known as an offensive innovator, becomes the 21st coach in team history and replaces Andy Reid, who was fired on Dec. 31 after a 4-12 season.
He’ll be introduced at a news conference Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at the Eagles’ practice facility.
Kelly, who was 46-7 in four years at Oregon, interviewed with the Eagles, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills in a two-day span after leading the fast-flying No. 2 Ducks to a victory over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3.
The Eagles are known to have interviewed 11 candidates, including two meetings with Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. All along, Kelly was thought to be Philadelphia’s first choice in a long, exhaustive process that took many twists.
“Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. “He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words. He will be a great leader for us and will bring a fresh energetic approach to our team.”
On the day he fired Reid, Lurie appeared to be describing Kelly when he said he wanted to find a “real smart, forward-thinking coach” who is “strategic, a strong leader, very comfortable in his own skin.”
The enigmatic Kelly reportedly was close to signing with the Browns after a long interview on Jan. 4. He met with the Eagles for nine hours the next day, setting up a soap-opera scenario in which the Eagles were competing with Browns CEO Joe Banner, their former president and longtime friend of Lurie who left the organization after a falling out.
But that roller coaster ended when Kelly opted to remain — temporarily — in Eugene, Ore. At the time, it was the second straight year Kelly had entertained overtures from NFL teams only to reject them. He turned down Tampa Bay’s job deep into negotiations last season.
The Eagles interviewed two other high-profile college coaches — Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. Both of them elected to stay with their schools and Philadelphia issued a statement saying it would continue its search as planned.
“There is no question we spent a considerable amount of time and effort looking at who we thought were the best collegiate candidates. We did so knowing that there was a remote chance that these coaches would leave their current posts,” the team stated on Saturday. “We understood that going into the process, but we wanted to leave no stone unturned while trying to find the best coach. We have no regrets about the effort we made in that direction.”
Bradley was considered by many to be the leading contender, though former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and former Ravens coach Brian Billick were in the mix.
That all changed when Kelly had a change of heart.
The visor-wearing Kelly built Oregon into a national powerhouse. The Ducks went to four straight BCS bowl games — including a bid for the national championship against Auburn two seasons ago — and have won three Pac-12 championships.
Kelly originally went to Oregon in 2007 as offensive coordinator under Mike Bellotti. Before that, he was offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, where he started devising the innovative hurry-up offense the Ducks are known for now.
Oregon finished last season 12-1. The team was ranked No. 1 and appeared headed for another shot at the national championship until a 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford on Nov. 17.
It’s unknown whether the possibility of NCAA sanctions based on Oregon’s use of recruiting services factored into Kelly’s reversal. Kelly indicated in Arizona that he isn’t running from anything.
“We’ve cooperated fully with them,” he said. “If they want to talk to us again, we’ll continue to cooperate fully. I feel confident in the situation.”
Following the bowl, Kelly said he wanted to get the interview process over “quickly.” Turns out, it was anything but.
“It’s more a fact-finding mission, finding out if it fits or doesn’t fit,” Kelly said after the Ducks defeated the Wildcats, 35-17. “I’ve been in one interview in my life for the National Football League, and that was a year ago. I don’t really have any preconceived notions about it. I think that’s what this deal is all about for me. It’s not going to affect us in terms of we’re not on the road (recruiting). I’ll get an opportunity if people do call, see where they are.
“I want to get it wrapped up quickly and figure out where I’m going to be.”
Kelly, who never said if he was leaning one way or another following the bowl, doesn’t have any pro coaching experience, but aspects of his up-tempo offense are already being used by some NFL teams, including New England and Washington.
“I said I’ll always listen, and that’s what I’ll do,” he said at the time. “I know that people want to talk to me because of our players. The success of our football program has always been about our guys. It’s an honor for someone to say they’d want to talk to me about maybe moving on to go coach in the National Football League. But it’s because of what those guys do. I’ll listen, and we’ll see.”
The Eagles fired Reid after two forgettable years. A late flurry brought the team to an 8-8 finish last season, but this season, Philadelphia endured an eight-game losing streak, and dropped 11 of its final 12 games. A 3-1 start soon washed away, and Reid’s 14-year tenure ended not long after. Within a week, Reid was Kansas City’s new coach.
Still, Kelly has tough shoes to fill. Reid won more game than any coach in franchise history and led the Eagles to nine playoff appearances, six division titles, five conference championship games and a loss to New England in the Super Bowl following the 2004 season.
Kelly and the Eagles, who have won just 12 games the last two seasons, after winning the NFC East in 2010, have the No. 4 overall pick in the draft as well as some talented players on offense who could fit his up-tempo scheme. Running back LeSean McCoy and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin seem like an ideal match. Quarterback Nick Foles, however, isn’t.
“I’ve never run the zone read,” Foles said after the season. “I’m more of a dropback guy. I’ve been under center. I’ve been in the gun. If I can adapt, I want to. But I’m not a zone-read quarterback. Some people are gifted with different things. That’s just not one of my skill sets. I can work on the speed in the offseason and get better with that. But I’ve always been a dropback guy in the pocket. I’ve been able to make plays on my feet throwing the ball or running for a first down.”
On the other hand, Michael Vick could be perfect. But it’s unlikely the Eagles would want to pay the $16 million they’d have to shell out for an injury-prone quarterback, who will be 33 next season.
Kelly had high praise for Foles after Oregon beat Arizona 56-31 in September 2011.
“I’ll tell you what; I’m glad Nick Foles is graduating,” Kelly said at that time. “I catch myself watching him in awe sometimes. Nick is a hell of a football player. That kid’s a warrior. He’s as good as anyone in the country.”
Others interviewed by Lurie, general Howie Roseman and president Don Smolenski were former Bears coach Lovie Smith, Atlanta assistants Mike Nolan and Keith Armstrong, former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
The first Eagles to react to Kelly’s hiring on Twitter were defensive players.
Defensive end Brandon Graham wrote: “Happy to have Chip Kelly!! Now it’s time to get to work!”
Safety Kurt Coleman wrote: “Welcome Chip Kelly to the Eagles family. Can’t wait to see what he brings to the team in 2013!”
Oregon’s players gave Kelly a Gatorade bath at the end of his last game, and some seemed resigned to their coach moving on.
“We’re all behind him. He’s an unbelievable coach,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “He’s not only a coach, but he’s someone that you can look to and learn a lot of life lessons from. Whatever happens, happens.
“We’ll see where it takes us.”
Kelly took the road to Philadelphia and the NFL.
In the end, Chip Kelly chose the NFL, giving the Eagles their guy.
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