Kelly gambles on injury-prone playmakers

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Chip Kelly’s dramatic reshaping of the Philadelphia Eagles brought shock and — a bit less so – awe to fans of pro football.  This was a team, coming off two 10-6 seasons, that seemed but a couple of cornerbacks away from Super Bowl contention.

Kelly heard resounding criticism:  You don’t improve a team by losing LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin.  You don’t make the playoffs by trading the quarterback who got you there for one who’s injured more than not.

But look at the Eagles now, compared to what they were before Kelly went to the casino.  Sam Bradford passing and DeMarco Murray running compared to Nick Foles and McCoy.  And defense?  Stronger with ex-Seattle Seahawks Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond holding down the corners and a ballhawk, Kiko Alonso, patrolling the middle.

What disturbs Eagles fans is the disruptive impact of Kelly’s up-tempo carrousel.  They remember how his predecessor, Andy Reid, showed you can assemble a team of Pro Bowl players, but that doesn’t make a team.  In the NFL, continuity is valued.

Perhaps overvalued.  Jenny Vrentas, on the website Monday Morning QB, posts an interesting interview with former Eagles president Joe Banner.

Kelly’s shakeup surprised Banner, “just because it’s out of the norm for the league.  But it shouldn’t be.”  He praised Kelly for “not overrating the importance of continuity. . . . I think more teams should have been doing this sooner.” 

For all of McCoy’s speed and elusiveness, at 5-11, 208 pounds he’s not the hammer you want on 3rd-and-1.  Murray, 6-0, 220, is both fast and powerful.  And he promises instant rapport with the new quarterback, Sam Bradford, his teammate at the U of Oklahoma.

Considering Murray’s health records are almost as extensive as Bradford’s, Kelly made a high-stakes gamble.  He saw that Murray led the league in rushing and was tough enough to play effectively with a broken hand.  And his contract is easier to carry than McCoy’s.

In fact, after signing Murray there was enough cap space left for another talented, if also injury-prone, running back, Ryan Mathews.  He’s 27 and just a year removed from rushing for 1,255 yards for San Diego.

By luring Murray from Dallas, Kelly has weakened his main opposition in the NFC East, making his Eagles the team to beat.

As for the passing game, there’s only so much to be done with Foles, a third-round draft pick with below average arm strength and accuracy.  Bradford, the league’s No. 1 overall in 2010 and subsequent Rookie of the Year, brings a cannon.  The Eagles, unlike the St. Louis Rams, have an O-line that might keep him upright.  And as Bradford noted, with Kelly’s system “the ball’s getting out quick, always places to go with the ball.

Will Bradford’s skills be enhanced by Kelly’s warp-speed offense?  We’ll see.  Mark Sanchez was still Mark Sanchez. 

And yes, receiving is an issue.  Maclin, while talented and effective, didn’t entirely buy into Kelly’s regimen that included lengthy Saturday practice.  But Philly has in Jordan Matthews an emerging No. 1 receiver who is all in.  And there are three useful tight ends in Zack Ertz, Brent Celek and James Casey. They will be more useful in setting up the inside-outside forays of Murray and Mathews.

There’s less controversy about Kelly’s defensive shuffling, though with Alonso he once again is betting on doctors.  The middle linebacker was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, but is not fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered in a workout last August.

Since Alonso played for him at Oregon, Kelly trusts him to do everything possible to be ready for the season.  Alonso and Thurmond, another ex-Duck, are not put off by a coach who demands more than some want to give.  When Frank Gore shunned Kelly’s overtures, Thurmond said: “You either gravitate towards him, or you don’t.”

Whatever happens, fans can appreciate the boldness of Kelly, who’s not satisfied with 10-6.  Now we understand why he was known at Oregon as “Big Balls Kelly.”  In the NFL, his deals have made a big deal out of what’s usually a sleepy football off-season.

Click here for Vrentas’ Talking Football, MMQB.

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