Chip Kelly: Oregon Bias?

Jonathan Ferrey

Chip Kelly has a lot of heart. Does he love his Oregon players (and coaches) too much?

You might not see it much, but Chip Kelly has a lot of heart.  A reporter asked him once why he was so rough on the media, but close with his players.  He said:

"I'm different with our players because I trust our players... It ain't gonna be Kumbaya and hug you the first time I meet you.  But if I see you every day and understand what you're about every day and that you share the same vision I have, then I'll die for you."

That bond is sincere, and part of what makes his teams strong.  But does it tempt him to put his thumb on the scale and favor ex-Ducks when he's hiring in Philadelphia?  The Eagles have a number of of Oregon people, not only players but coaches from DL coach (and Assistant Head Coach) Jerry Azzinaro to chief of staff James Harris and defensive quality control man Michael Clay, who graduated from Oregon (and the Ducks' squad) last year.

Chip drafted Josh Huff in the third round this year, and Taylor Hart in the 5th. Clay was not only Hart's roommate, he helped him plan how to propose to his girlfriend last year. In fact, Clay fixed them up in the first place.  These bonds are pretty tight.  Is Chip leaning toward Oregon players too much?

Honestly, I think there is some risk of that. People are only human, and how we feel about someone personally affects our evaluation of their talent.  Chip said he wanted Hart in the 3rd round, and Howie Roseman had to convince him that he was safe waiting until the 5th. That outside perspective was important.

Luckily, Chip seems open to hearing people who disagree with him, and takes their points. He says (and Roseman confirms) that he essentially recuses himself from Oregon players, letting Howie and his scouts do most of the evaluation.  That's smart.

The question is, what's your alternative?  Draft only people you've never heard of?  Should the Eagles ignore Marcus Mariota -- the most commonly projected #1 pick for 2015 - for fear of bias?

Evaluating any draft pick is very difficult.  On top of that, the Eagles have a different and very specific set of criteria, looking for particular package of intangibles: athleticism, versatility, intelligence, work ethic, toughness, coachability, humility and upside.  These are the hardest qualities to evaluate, and inside information is essential -- whether it's Chip's direct experience coaching, Zach Ertz practicing against Ed Reynolds for years, or OL coach Jeff Stoutland's SEC experience.  That's why player interviews were so important to the Eagles.

Chip has -- and uses -- the same college coach knowledge advantage that Jimmy Johnson, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh used to develop champions.  Was it a mistake for Carroll to draft Malcolm Smith from USC? Not too many people would say that.

Besides, Kelly is not just another coach who worked his way up the ladder and thought he might try a spread attack with a 3-4 defense just to see what happens. He has a thoroughly envisioned and completely implemented football program. He's trying hundreds of new ideas and avidly seeing what works and what doesn't.  As NBC's Cris Collinsworth said on May 9th, "I am slow to second guess anything Chip Kelly does. He seems to be reinventing the game a little at a time."

This is a completely unique program.  It has existed in all of history for only five years; Kelly was never a head coach until his third year in Eugene. Oregon players -- and last year's Eagles -- are literally the only football players on earth with experience in it.

And that program has been incredibly successful.  5 years, 4 BCS Bowls and an NFC East title.  It's not like he took over USC or the Patriots, either. Kelly's program kicked ass while he rebuilt two teams to his specifications.  Frankly, it's a surprise he doesn't have more Oregon players on his roster.

The very question of Oregon bias is honestly a measure of disrespect for the Ducks, who have been an elite program since Chip took the head coach job there in 2009. Oregon is the only college team that has been in the BCS final top 10 rankings every year since then, and only Alabama and Stanford are close. (Stanford missed in 2009, Alabama was #16 in 2010.)  Would anyone have criticized Kelly for drafting two players from either of those schools?

Most of the Oregon players on the Eagles have been camp bodies (such as Isaac Remington) and bottom-of-the-roster marginal guys (Brandon Bair, Jeff Maehl).  Players like Casey Matthews -- drafted by Andy Reid -- barely count, since he only played two years under Chip. These guys are helpful in building the unique culture that Chip is developing.  You could consider them player-coaches as much as anything, guys who can explain some of the more foreign concepts (like the Faceless Opponent).

Then you look at specifics. Expert evaluators generally love the Taylor Hart pick.  Why? Because he's a two-gapping 3-4 DE, a perfect match for the Eagles (and a tough get).  Of course other teams and mock drafts had him ranked lower-- they didn't need him.

Josh Huff raised an eyebrow or two as a third rounder, but he produced at a very high level last year, with 24 catches of 20+ yards and 12 touchdowns.  Evan Silva of Rotoworld didn't like the pick, but ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay loved it.  So did the anonymous NFL player personnel that Paul Domowitch interviewed:

"He's another guy I really like. They took him exactly where we had him - in the third round. The kid has outstanding hands. Not good, not excellent. Outstanding. He's a quick-twitch receiver. He explodes off the line of scrimmage. He's versatile."

The best thing is that Chip seems well aware of his own limitations. He invites contrary opinions, steps back from evaluating his former players, and freely admits that drafting is all a big crapshoot.  No one will know who really was a good pick for 2 or 3 years.  As long as he keeps that humility, I'm not going to worry about Oregon bias.

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