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How Chip Kelly Handles Troubled Players

At Oregon, Chip dealt with several difficult characters starting at key positions. What does this tell us about the DeSean Jackson situation and future conflicts?

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Chip Kelly laying down the law
Chip Kelly laying down the law
Steve Dykes

There has been a lot of complaining from DeSean Jackson fans about Chip Kelly "having a ton of ego" in this episode, or "not being able to handle divas." Clearly none of these folks are familiar with Chip's history at Oregon, where many of his best players were discipline cases. I'm going to go through these one by one and hopefully illustrate Kelly's approach.

First, let's note that it's not clear why DeSean was released, or who made the decision. I wrote an article earlier today asking whether Chip or Howie Roseman was the driving force, and it's not a simple question. I realize it's frustrating when the team won't say anything about it, but let's be clear: no one on the team has said anything about gangs, or money, or attitude or performance being an issue. People are making all kinds of assumptions and don't know what they're talking about. None of us do, except Jimmy Kempski, and he's not talking.

During his 4 years with the Ducks, Kelly had run-ins with most of his best skill players, especially the first couple of years when he was less involved in recruiting. That includes RB LeGarrette Blount (the undisputed star of his first team), his starting QB Jeremiah Masoli, RB LaMicheal James (his most successful player), insanely gifted CB/returner Cliff Harris, and TE Colt Lyerla.

One player who was NOT a problem was De'Anthony Thomas, who is an interesting counter-example. DAT switched to Oregon on signing day from USC, which he had verbally committed to, and came to Eugene in large part to get away from the destructive influences he grew up with. Thomas went to Crenshaw High School and before that, played on Snoop Dog's Pop Warner football team. (Thomas, who ran a 4.2 40 in high school, was also a track star and Oregon has a world class track team, which Phil Knight ran for.)

I suspect that in evaluating DeSean Jackson, Kelly saw him in contrast to DAT and didn't like the comparison. Chip is not the sort to spout religion at players, but he has a strong moral sense based on hard work, egolessness, flexibility, and putting the team ahead of personal goals.

The term that comes to mind is "integrity," a word you don't hear much these days, and it's not simply about who's a good or bad person. I think Chip really believes that good character players will perform better in the long run, because they will learn faster, last longer, and be less distracted by negativity and selfishness.

Put it another way -- the NFL has a steep and constant learning curve. Young naive guys come straight out of college and have to learn a completely new scheme at a massively higher level of competition while negotiating every temptation a rich, famous man can face. However talented you may be, you don't have a lot of extra focus to fritter away on petty resentments or posing as a bad boy. Your competition will grow past you if you're screwing around or not giving it your all.

OK, back to Oregon. It's worth remembering that when Chip Kelly took over as the Ducks' head coach in 2009, it was his first head coaching job. Ever. At any level. (It's also worth remembering that he took them to a BCS Bowl that year.)

Oregon had been above average since 1994 but never elite (and they flat out sucked before then). The school has a pot of money donated by Nike CEO (and alum) Phil Knight, but they've never been able to recruit with PAC-12 rivals like USC, UCLA and Stanford. They still can't.

So Chip never had access to the top talent. He always had to be creative and work with second-level people, those who didn't fit the ideal size and speed for their positions, small school hidden gems, "athletes" who fall in between the defined positions. This seemed to suit him. He is a teacher type of coach; last year was his first year not at a college since the early 1990s, and he genuinely seems to enjoy helping young guys grow, both athletically and as people.

Oregon's second-level talent meant that he never had to wrangle with the biggest stars, your Cam Newtons and Nick Fairleys. At the same time, Kelly was all the more desperate to hang on to the talent that he was able to get. If he was ever tempted to cut corners and allow misconduct, it would have been after his first game, which I write about in my book "The Tao of Chip Kelly."

LeGarrette Blount

Despite hype about Chip being an offensive genius, his Ducks were beaten 19-8 by Boise State and racked up the fewest total yards of any Oregon team since 1994. Star running back LeGarrette Blount, who had 17 TDs the previous year, totaled -5 yards (yes, minus five). After the game, BSU's Byron Hout yelled in his face and Blount punched him in the jaw.

After this disastrous loss in his first game, Kelly had to wonder if his schemes (and career) were falling apart. It would have been easy to weasel around disciplining Blount, but Chip held firm and suspended him for the season, a punishment criticized as excessive by many commentators. Kelly kept his scheme, and freshman LaMichael James stepped up. The Ducks went on to beat 4 ranked teams, losing only to Stanford and (in the Rose Bowl) to Terelle Pryor's Ohio State. After meeting several benchmarks, Blount was allowed to return at the end of the year but wasn't much of a factor even then.

Cliff Harris

Cliff Harris was a drastically talented CB and kick returner; he had 6 interceptions and 4 punt return TDs in 2010 (his true sophmore year) alone. He was also a character, introducing himself to teammates at his freshman training camp by saying "My name is Cliff Harris and I'm here to lock sh*t down." He also had a habit of getting arrested for speeding and marijuana possession; when arrested at 4:30am for going 118 miles an hour on I-5, with a suspended license, the patrolman asked "Who’s got the marijuana in the car?" Harris answered "You can search the car, sir. Just smoked it all." (You can watch the dashboard cam video here.)

Coach Kelly had two problems with Harris; besides these repeated violations, the consensus All-American was an undisciplined player who missed a lot of tackles from bad technique. He didn't start Harris for half of his best year (2010), suspended him in 2011 after that traffic stop, and eventually dismissed him from the team after further incidents.

Jeremiah Masoli

Jeremiah Masoli was Chip's first quarterback at Oregon, and his prototype dual-threat QB. Masoli finished an outstanding 2009 season as the 9th leading rusher in the PAC-10, leading the team to the Rose Bowl and several impressive comebacks. That summer he pled guilty to burglary for taking 2 laptops; speculation was that he was tryiing to recover some embarrassing images he thought were on them. Kelly suspended his star QB for a season, and dismissed him altogether after a later arrest for traffic and marijuana violations.

LaMichael James

The biggest star of all during Chip's Oregon years was LaMichael James, who had a very rough background (father shot and killed before his birth, mother not in his life). He pled guilty to misdemeanor harassment after a domestic incident with an ex-girlfriend, and Kelly suspended him for one game. He had no further incidents and went on to a great career.

Colt Lyerla

One of Kelly's most talented and troubled players was Colt Lyerla, who also had a messy family life (his father actually disappeared for six months at one point, apparently drifting back to Hawaii unannounced). When the big tight end did not show up for the first several practices in 2012, Kelly said he was "excused" and added, "he’s got a couple things to take care of. He’ll be at practice shortly." While this was never officially confirmed, it was rumored that Lyerla was in rehab for cocaine addiction.

While Kelly protected his talented TE from scrutiny, he also limited Lyerla's playing time, apparently in relation to his attitude and work habits. Lyerla played a key role in Oregon's 2012 Fiesta Bowl victory but never really lived up to his tremendous potential. After Kelly left for the Eagles, Colt seemed to deteriorate, and he quit the team last year shortly before his arrest on cocaine possession charges.

Kiko Alonso

BGN'er 76Mustang reminded me of the best example of all.  Before he became an NFL star, Kiko Alonso was just a shy Oregon player from Los Gatos, a 3-star recruit who had a problem with alcohol.  After his first season as a backup, he got a DUI, and Chip Kelly suspended him for an entire season.  Then, just as he was coming back, he was arrested for burglary and criminal mischief.  As the Oregonian's Aaron Fentress put it, his role on the team and NFL career "were in a fire pit, doused with kerosene waiting for him to strike the next match."

He plead down the charges, the team suspended him again, and coaches -- especially his position coach Don Pellum -- worked intensely with him, and Kelly set very strict guidelines for behavior and academics.  Remember, this is a kid who had played one year as a backup in 3 years at Oregon, counting his redshirt year.  He was on nobody's list as a future star, though he was 6'4" and had excellent natural instincts, which then-DC Aliotti described as ""See the ball, get ball, eat ball. Eat the ball carrier."

Kiko started maturing as well as improving as a player.  His senior year he became a role model and team leader as well, and of course is continuing to overachieve at Buffalo (PFWA defensive rookie of the year as a second-round pick.)

Josh Huff

Oregon had a mix of players who grew up in healthy, supportive environments (QB Marcus Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu, RBs Byron Marshall, Kenjon Barner, and Thomas Tyner), and others who did not. Kelly worked closely with Josh Huff, who had a very rough background, and by all accounts helped him a lot. Huff's only blemish was a DUI arrest for which he was acquitted -- the officers alternately claimed he was drunk or smoking marijuana, and the lab technician admitted that the THC metabolites found in Huff's urine didn't match the profile of someone who was stoned. Friends testified that he was the designated driver at a party where a lot of weed was smoked.

Overall, Kelly had a consistent pattern in his discipline at Oregon. He gave players second chances and worked to help them, especially kids from difficult backgrounds. At the same time, he did not appear to bend his rules for star players, and adjusted a player's minutes and touches to fit their attitude and work ethic. When players were dismissed from the team, it was for discrete incidents, usually arrests. Kelly does not have any history of ego battles with players, and he worked well with some very difficult characters such as Colt Lyerla. So it seems unlikely that the Eagles released DeSean for his behavior, alone, unless there is some very serious incident we don't know about.

Of course, the NFL is different than college. No one just graduates, and few players get as many years in the league as they'd like. Furthermore, money and contracts are always an issue. Jackson's output last year -- boosted by Kelly's offensive schemes -- must be compared to what he cost the team, in money, his bad example for younger players, and sheer amount of coaching energy he requires to manage him.

DeSean under-produced in his 6 playoff games for the Eagles, and simply isn't the punt return threat he used to be. I suspect that fond memories of the second Miracle at the Meadowlands are warping some fans' perception of his actual value on the field.

Jackson disappeared in the crucial 3 last games of 2013 -- averaging only 37 yards for those games and getting shut down by the Saints' Keenan Lewis in the playoffs. A lot of his yards came on shorter passes, and in the first part of the season when Michael Vick was still quarterback. Foles can't extend plays with his legs the same way Vick can, and it may be that this limits Jackson's ability to get open deep.

I'm not saying Jackson isn't a great weapon at wide receiver, but in the balance I don't think discipline was the reason he was let go. More likely, his value declined a bit while his cost stayed sky high, and the team decided he simply wasn't worth it any more.


Update:  added Kiko Alonso's story.  H/T to BGN'er 76 Mustang.

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