Let us begin, not for the first time, by making the presumption that Chip Kelly has at least a vague idea what the hell he’s doing, and let us dispense with the notion that Kelly is engaging in some kind of precarious social experiment that may wind up causing Philadelphia to implode in a mushroom cloud of its own considerable self-loathing.
There is no question that this offseason, Kelly is putting his reputation for eccentric genius on the line. There is no question that the Eagles are now the most interesting team in professional football heading into 2015, largely because Kelly has overhauled the Eagles’ roster by (among other things) trading what appeared to be a perfectly serviceable NFL quarterback for an injury-prone one, and by jettisoning a beloved All-Pro running back in favor of a different All-Pro running back (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear). But now Kelly has achieved the Pro Football Talk commenter coup de grâce, the signing of Tim Tebow to a one-year contract.
There is, of course, no way to sign Tim Tebow without arousing a spectrum of emotions. I have no doubt that Kelly is smart enough to recognize the talk-radio implications of what he’s just done; but I also wonder if these implications are what at least partially inspired him to take a chance on a quarterback with an odd skill set who hasn’t played the sport in two years. I wonder if Kelly feels a certain kinship with Tebow, because at this point in whatever remains of his career, I think people hate Tim Tebow for the same reasons they’re suspicious of Chip Kelly: They both violate the orthodoxy of professional football. They both feel, to a lot of people, like they’re somehow cheating the system.
This, I think, is what’s fascinating about Tebow, at age 27, on the verge of what might be his last chance for a pro career. His religion is no longer the primary flashpoint; his abilities are. The people who don’t like Tebow tend not to like him these days because they feel he doesn’t deserve another shot at the NFL, because they feel that he is being propped up by the media cycle at ESPN, because they feel that he’s a college quarterback with college skills who couldn’t possibly make it in the rough-and-tumble real world of professional football. They don’t like Tebow because he doesn’t fit any sort of professional template, and therefore, they feel, he doesn’t deserve any more chances.
And it’s possible that these people are right. It’s possible that Tebow will never play in a regular-season game with the Eagles; it’s possible that Kelly will tinker with him and decide, as Bill Belichick before him, that Tebow isn’t a fit for his team. But the fact that Kelly is willing to try, that he’s willing to endure the media scrutiny and the annoyances that scrutiny brings with it tells me that Kelly is willing to try pretty much anything. And this is a rare trait for a relatively young NFL coach to have; this is a league, after all, where coaches and general managers are often judged by their mistakes and therefore tend to err on the side of caution.
If nothing else, Kelly has now proven that he is not that kind of person. And perhaps this experiment in radical thinking will fail, and perhaps Kelly will get nothing out of Tebow – but what if he does? What if he really does have some plan to use Tebow within the league’s (impending) new PAT rules, or what if he plans to utilize Tebow in the running game in some heretofore unforeseen formation? What if this is the beginning of a minor offensive revolution?
Maybe that’s unlikely. Maybe the chances of that happening are less than one percent. But here’s the difference between the NFL and college football: In the NFL, the sport often regresses toward a conservative mean, toward things that have worked in the past; in college football, at least over the past 10 years, the sport has embraced an experimental vibe that encourages out-of-the-box thinking.
This is not to say the NFL needs either Tim Tebow or Chip Kelly. Even with all of its attendant problems, it would get along just fine without them. But it’s a hell of a lot more interesting just imagining that they’re out there, huddled in a room together, attempting to conspire against the system.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb