Even after Chip Kelly announced he was returning to the University of Oregon earlier this month, the Philadelphia Eagles still hoped he would consider making the jump to the NFL.
Their perseverance paid off on Wednesday, when Kelly surprisingly opted to become the 21st head coach in Eagles’ history.
Kelly, 49, will be formally introduced Thursday at 1:30 p.m. during a news conference at the NovaCare Complex.
“Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said Wednesday 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.”
Hiring Kelly marked the end of an exhaustive search by the Eagles. He was among 11 candidates interviewed to fill the vacancy created when Lurie fired 14-year coach Andy Reid on Dec. 31.
Lurie, president Don Smolenski and general manager Howie Roseman interviewed Kelly in Scottsdale, Ariz., for almost nine hours on Jan. 5 after his Oregon Ducks won the Fiesta Bowl with a 35-17 victory over Kansas State. The next day, Kelly announced that he was going to be staying at Oregon, even though the football program faces sanctions from the NCAA.
When Kelly turned down overtures from the Eagles, Cleveland and Buffalo, the Eagles appeared to be focusing on Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
Bradley, 46, was the only one of the 11 coaching prospects to be invited for a second interview. He flew to Philadelphia on Tuesday for a six-hour meeting but headed to Jacksonville Wednesday morning to talk to the Jaguars about their coaching vacancy.
“I was sold on the Eagles the first time I met them,” Kelly told WPVI-Channel 6 upon arriving in Philadelphia Wednesday night. “It was just my ties to Oregon (that delayed the decision). I have great players there, an unbelievable coaching staff, and that’s what made it hard because it’s a human decision.
“It was really tough. I left a special, special place. And that’s probably what took me so long to make a decision. The challenge is what I was excited about, and that’s why I came. (Philadelphia) is a great city, it’s an iconic franchise, they’ve got an unbelievable owner. The Eagles are the Eagles. This is the NFL.”
Kelly comes to the Eagles after registering a 46-7 record as head coach in four seasons at Oregon. He also spent two seasons as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, preceded by a 13-year stint as a coach at his alma mater, the University of New Hampshire (1994-2006).
Along the way, he developed the exciting, spread-offensive scheme that enabled the Ducks to average 44.7 points per game during the last four seasons, including 49.6 in 2012.
This season, the Eagles averaged 17.3 points per game, which is what the Ducks used to score in a quarter. Their 29 offensive touchdowns were the fewest since they scored 23 in 1999, Reid’s first season.
But skeptics wonder if Kelly’s fast-paced, wide-open approach will translate to the NFL, a league where defensive players are every bit as fast as their offensive counterparts.
“I’m real excited,” Eagles tight end Brent Celek said Wednesday in quotes provided by the team. “It’s obvious by his track record in college how good he was.”
The biggest question surrounding the Eagles will be at quarterback. They have talented skill position players in running back LeSean McCoy, as well as wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but Kelly has to decide who will be getting them the football.
Nick Foles, who started six of the last seven games, lacks the mobility to operate Kelly’s read-option offense. Michael Vick could do it, but he would have to agree to restructure his contract. Vick is scheduled to make $15.5 million in 2013. The Eagles can release him now without any compensation, but Vick would receive a $3 million bonus if he is still on the roster after Feb. 6.
“I don’t think anybody knows any answers until somebody does it,” Kelly told reporters at the Fiesta Bowl. “I think Washington Redskins quarterback (Robert Griffin III) does a decent job and the kid at Carolina (Cam Newton) has good a pretty good job. It depends. I don’t know. I’ve never coached in that league.”
Kelly’s lack of NFL experience is also a concern. Unlike the other 10 candidates interviewed by the Eagles, he has never been on an NFL sideline during a regular-season game as either a position coach or offensive coordinator. His only experience came last summer, when he spent some time with New England coach Bill Belichick when Belichick sought a way to speed up his offense.
The Patriots, who play host to Baltimore in the AFC championship game on Sunday, led the NFL with 24.9 seconds per offensive play, according to ESPN’s “Numbers Never Lie.” The Eagles averaged approximately 26 seconds. Oregon’s offense was at 20.9 seconds.
“My dream is to just win and this was the best opportunity for me to win,” Kelly told WPVI Wednesday. “I never thought a lot time ago that I would be able to coach in the NFL. I’m excited about the opportunity.
“I know there is a rabid fan base here, which is good. I got a text on the plan that I was getting tracked like Santa Claus, which is flattering until I remembered the Philly fans booed Santa Claus. I hope they don’t boo me.”
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