The Chip Kelly Error: Why Do College Coaches Fail in the NFL?

The Philadelphia Eagles ended their grand experiment last week, firing Kelly after three seasons. Will he get another chance in the pros?

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Chip Kelly
What went wrong during the Chip Kelly Era in Philly? Just about everything. Rich Schultz/Getty

Chip Kelly was not the kind of coach who would stop his players in the hallway and ask what they had watched on TV the night before, or inquire about their family. He was not exactly a people person, according to former players, who have painted a picture of him as an aloof taskmaster who would briskly walk by those guys without offering so much as a hello.

"He could do that to a college kid, because that works for a kid, but you do it to a pro player and he's going to say, 'I'm supposed to fight on Sunday for you?'" says Philadelphia sports radio personality Mike Missanelli. "I think as a head coach, he didn't realize he was in the NFL – or didn't have a true appreciation of what it takes to be successful there."

Last week the Eagles said goodbye to Kelly, but it wasn't due to that perceived lack of warmth and fuzziness. He was fired because of a lack of wins.

Kelly joins a long list of successful college football coaches who were unable to hack it in the NFL. A big part of why he and guys like Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier never found success at the pro level has to do with trying to be a college coach to professional ballplayers.

"These days, where the methodology in college is you can plug and play and this 'culture-beats-scheme' thing, maybe that works," Missanelli says. "But in the NFL, when you're dealing with grown men and guys who are getting hefty paychecks, you really have to be more intricate than that. And in that way, I think he really failed."

Like radio hosts around the sports-crazed city, Missanelli was called back from his vacation to man his spot behind the microphone at 97.5 The Fanatic in Philly to take calls from an Eagles fanbase that was both stunned and elated when news of Kelly's firing broke just before New Year's Eve. Nobody in line at Wawa was surprised Kelly got the axe, but the timing, smack in the middle of a holiday week and with one game left to play in the regular season, was a jolt.

But the writing should have been on the wall from the moment Kelly took the job – because big-time college coaches historically do not pan out in the NFL.

Kelly, who took the Oregon Ducks to four straight bowl games before Philadelphia hired him, is the latest example of the trend. He joins a long line of successful college coaches like Saban, Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Lou Holtz, Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino, Mike Riley, Frank Kush, Dick MacPherson, Rich Brooks and Greg Schiano, who were all steaming piles of NFL failure.

Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly with Oregon Ducks on October 6th, 2012 Steve Dykes/Getty

Only Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks and Southern California), Barry Switzer (Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma), Jimmy Johnson (Dallas Cowboys and Miami) and Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns and Ohio State) managed to win in both college and the pros. Carroll had to go back to college after a failed NFL stints with the Jets and Patriots before he won at USC.

The postmortem of Kelly's brief tenure with the Eagles shows many of the same symptoms that led to the demise of other headstrong college coaches.

"College coaches have held a hammer over kids for so long that they feel they hold a hammer over everybody," Missanelli says. "So when they get here, they feel they can use the same methodology. A kid in college is in the hands of his coach. He has to do everything that coach asks, anything to get playing time. If he doesn't, he can't get to the next level. So it's easier to cultivate a program if you're the dominant figure and everything you do and say goes.

"When you get to the NFL, you gotta understand you're dealing with all these different individuals," he continues. "You have to pat them on the butt every now and then."

Kelly was briefly hailed as a visionary in Philadelphia. His uptempo offense was fun and new.

"We all thought the first year, especially the first game when Michael Vick was at quarterback and that offense was unveiled, we were calling him the greatest innovator since da Vinci here," Missanelli says. "It's amazing how it fell off. What happened was that offense and that pace got on tape and there are a lot of smart people in the NFL that figured out what the Eagles were going at. It was up to him to adapt."

Michael Vick; Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly with Michael Vick during game in September 9th, 2013 Rob Carr/Getty

But over the last two years, many talented players were also exiled out of town as Kelly was given the freedom to put his personal stamp on the Eagles. He was granted the authority to shop for the groceries, as Bill Parcells used to say. When popular players were sent packing, you started to hear stories about a head coach who didn't relate to pro players.

Big-time talents like DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin were all cast off by Kelly. McCoy called Kelly a racist as went out the door. Jackson revels in every Washington win against Philly like it was his own personal Super Bowl. Brandon Boykin, traded to the Steelers in August, has been especially critical of Kelly, calling his former coach "uncomfortable around grown men of our culture."

And yet, if the wins and playoff games piled up, Kelly would have gotten a pass. But those personnel decisions conspired against the coach and his offense sputtered without their playmaking abilities.

"It was a cumulative effect," Missanelli says. "In the NFL, you need talent to win. Him thinking you can just plug anyone in there is really faulty thinking. Look at the Eagles' offensive line, you could tell it was going to be a little porous this year. He didn't really pay that much attention to that. He didn't have an outside wide receiver who could really be a threat. I just think he miscalculated what it takes to win in the NFL. Yeah, they had their moments this year, but they were also consistently poor on defense – and the reason is that their defense was on the field too much."

It cuts both ways. Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan has always been viewed as a true players' coach, a guy you would run through a wall for. Yet, Ryan's team is not in the playoffs again this winter. On the flipside, Bill Belichick has maintained a persona of a quiet, businesslike taskmaster not known for being a warm and affable guy. Unlike the wild and fun Ryan, Belichick will go down as one of the most successful coaches in NFL history.

"Once you have that winning program, then what you say goes," Missanelli says. "Unfortunately for Chip Kelly, he didn't have that. All the stuff, the smoothies, the heart monitors, the stuff that they look at as Charlie College, they've never done that before. If it works, fine. If it doesn't work, and they start to lose and you start to lose faith in this guy and you start to think this guy is a college phony.

"I think that's what happened," he continues. "I think a lot of the team, towards the second half of this year, it was evident he lost a lot of veterans."

In December, Eagles left tackle Jason Peters reportedly took himself out of a game to avoid risking injury playing for a losing team. On a flight home from a win in New England, running back DeMarco Murray reportedly complained to owner Jeff Lurie about his lack of confidence in Kelly.

Jason Peters
Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagle during game on November 23rd, 2014 Rich Schultz /Getty

"When you start losing your veteran players," Missanelli says, "you really don't have anything left."

As in Carroll's case, some coaches do learn from their previous mistakes. And the Eagles, like every other NFL team looking for a new head coach, will have to consider handing the program over to a college coach yet again. Lurie told reporters last week he is going to consider college and NFL coaches for Kelly's replacement. But no matter who the next guy is, to be a successful NFL coach is going to require being more flexible and open-minded than at the college level.

Kelly may still find work in the NFL – he's reportedly interested in the opening in San Francisco, and already rumored to be in the running for the Tennessee Titans job, where he would be reunited with former Oregon star Marcus Mariota.

"I think he can still be a good coach," Missanelli says, "if he just changes his ways a little bit."

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