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Engineering the Eagles: Chip Kelly, Brandon Boykin, and the Columbia Disaster

Is the Eagles cornerback being shafted by the coaches? Or can one of the most tragic accidents in NASA history shed some light on the situation?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

With all of the moves Kelly has made this offseason, the Brandon Boykin situation has flown largely under the radar. The saga surrounding the Eagles' slot cornerback dates back to 2014, when fans were calling for him to start over the ineffective Bradley Fletcher. Boykin has publicly made known his desire to start on several occasions and the coaches have also gone on record to state they intend to let him compete for a starting job. But, for better or for worse, that claim has been largely baseless as Nolan Carroll has held a monopoly on the open corner spot so far. With Nolan (by all reports) having a good spring, the talk about Boykin has died down a bit.

Then I saw an article on Fox Sports the other day where Boykin is quoted as saying, "If they don't want me in Philadelphia, I'll be somewhere else." And that got me thinking not only about Boykin, but about the approach to building a roster in general. More specifically, how Kelly and Reid both judged players in a completely opposite way.

Kelly, as we all know, is a numbers guy. He primarily bases his decisions on quantifiable specifications that can be measured, as I profiled in an article last April relating Kelly's roster-building to research and development. Andy Reid tended to look at intangibles and take so-called "overachievers" who may not have the physical numbers but put up great stat lines on the field. The best example of this was the five-foot-eight Brian Westbrook, and the last of these types of acquisitions by Reid was none other than Brandon Boykin.

Chip's Head-Scratching Handling of Boykin

Boykin, at an underwhelming five-foot-ten, has delivered great results on the field and made the game-clinching interception to seal a division crown for Chip in his first year as an NFL head coach. And yet, to the chagrin of the fan base, the coaching staff has refused to let Boykin work the outside, in spite of the fact that Kelly has gone on the record to say "the best players are always going to play."

So, what gives? Why is Chip ignoring in-game performances and giving preference to physical specifications, which by definition lack context? We all understand (and even love) the phrase, "big people beat up little people," but there clearly seems to be times where the shear talent of an elite athlete compensates for physical shortcomings. After all, it's not like Bradley Fletcher's size advantage did him any favors. It seems almost myopic to stick so religiously to specifications when the on-field results reap greater benefits.

I have two theories about this. The first is that Kelly simply subscribes to the "Law of Averages," or if you want to be scientific, the "Law of Large Numbers." Essentially, Chip believes that Boykin's small stature is his limiting factor and will eventually catch up with him. The idea is that he cannot possibly overachieve forever and will give up a big play at an inopportune time. For a Kelly team, allowing a big play is a death sentence, because his offense dictates that the defense adopt a "bend-but-don't-break" philosophy that lets teams dink and dunk their way between the twenties and forces a healthy amount of turnovers. In Kelly's eyes a five-foot-ten corner with a proven track record in limited play is more of a liability than giving a tall corner with question marks the opportunity to prove his worth. For all intents and purposes, Chip sees Boykin as a two-seater sports car - it's an awesome ride that performs well in good conditions, but there's no way you're going to drive it through the snow to work.

While that theory makes some sense, it also seems relatively close-minded to me. If Kelly truly thinks like an engineer (which is the premise assumed in these "Engineering the Eagles" posts), he would consider exploring every possibility to some extent. Boykin would at the very least be running with the ones in training camp, which is the football equivalent of an engineering feasibility study. But he hasn't done that, which makes me think that he has gone more long-term with his thought process and taken a page out of the lessons learned from the Columbia disaster.

The Slot Corner and the Space Shuttle

Yes, you read that right. The Columbia disaster could be an example of why Brandon Boykin has been chained to the slot. Before you go to the comments and call me crazy, hear me out. The Columbia space shuttle broke apart during reentry on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members on board. At the age of ten, I was only a wee lad at the time, but I still remember how shaken the nation was over the tragedy. The following investigation determined that a piece of insulation foam had broken off the external tank and caused damage to the left wing. This made the ship vulnerable to a catastrophic disaster during reentry.


Later that year the Columbia Accident Review Board, in a scathing critique of NASA, claimed that a disaster like Columbia was inevitable because of their practice of "acceptable deviation." NASA's own specifications state that there is zero tolerance for any sort of debris to strike the shuttle during launch. However, this exact event happened on numerous launches leading up to Columbia and the engineers did nothing to resolve the issue because it never caused any problems during previous missions. Simply put, the engineers accepted deviations from their own specifications based upon real-world experience. This willful negligence directly contributed to the eventual disaster because no prior attempt had been made to address the issue. Instead, it was subjectively deemed a "non-issue" and everyone looked the other way.

If you're catching on you can see how this relates (albeit somewhat distantly) to the Brandon Boykin situation. If Kelly goes against his own requirements for defensive backs and lets Brandon start based upon his previous performance, he will intentionally be blurring the line concerning what is and what is not a starting-caliber player. Making the decision to start Boykin moves the criteria out of the quantitative (height, weight, length), and into the qualitative (on-field performance). Suddenly every undersized overachiever will require the analysis that Kelly would have given Boykin and the concretely-defined requirements for a player become meaningless. Once that happens, the definition of "talent" becomes more subjective and the whole team collapses. You can arguably state that this is what happened to Andy Reid's Eagles post-2008. In three short years, the team went from a scrappy Super Bowl contender to a joke, all because Reid doubled down on his own, more loosely-defined qualifications for starting-caliber players.

Now, I won't even entertain the idea that Kelly actually studied the Columbia disaster when he was creating his approach to team-building, and the real-world implications of letting Boykin start are certainly less significant than NASA's space shuttle program. Seven people aren't going to die purely because a five-ten corner is starting on the outside. There is even a real possibility that Brandon would thrive on the outside and he and Maxwell would be a formidable tandem. But once you open the Pandora's Box of acceptable deviation, you are creating the inevitability of disaster by compromising the integrity of your program. My guess is that Kelly knows this and that creating an exception for Boykin will, in one way or another, predicate an eventual roster collapse, even if it takes a few seasons. As much as it may even pain him to relegate Boykin to the slot, he knows that the overarching priority of keeping the program on course far outweighs the immediate benefit of putting Boykin on the outside. And if that truly is the case, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

As with all of these "Engineering the Eagles" articles, this is purely my speculation. I don't know Chip, so I can't tell you why Boykin is stuck in the slot. But I certainly enjoy offering my two cents (whether or not it's actually worth that much), so offer yours in the comments below!

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