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For Chip Kelly, Three is the Magic Number

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The third season has historically been telling for the Philadelphia Eagles and its head coaches.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Training camp is just G.J. Kinne days from ending an offseason during which expectation and intrigue sat on a see-saw across from a big hammer.  And man did they have a blast.  The hammer dropped often: Howie Roseman, Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray, Evan Mathis, Marcus Mariota… And every time the hammer dropped, the expectation and intrigue attached to Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles shot upward.  This is where we are right now, in a seemingly perpetual state of excitement and unknown expectation.  It is under these conditions that Coach Kelly is entering his third season as the team’s head coach, a season that could very well determine the fate of this current iteration of the franchise, for better or worse.

Let’s start with "the worse."  Let’s say you were curious like me.  Let’s say you opened the history books to see how Chip Kelly’s first two seasons as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles compared to his predecessors.  You might think it a good exercise, if anything to project how Kelly’s third season as coach might turn out.  But then you found that Kelly is tied for second with Ray Rhodes for most regular season wins (and highest win %) after two seasons with 20 (.625). And then you discovered that [the wretched] Rich Kotite holds the record for most wins after two seasons with 21.  Obviously, you wouldn’t be thrilled.  This is not great company.  In fact, it’s damn near nightmarish.  Kotite and Rhodes won a combined 24 games in a combined four seasons after their respective second seasons.  That’s four seasons with no playoff appearances.

But here’s "the better": the first two seasons don’t matter.  Not in the least.  What does matter, and seems to matter a lot, is season three.

Coaching transitions have not gone smoothly in Philadelphia


Throughout the team’s 82 year history, there have been nineteen different head coaches standing on the Philadelphia sideline during week one.  Eight of those coaches finished their Eagles’ career with a winning record.  Only four of them had a winning record after two seasons.  And three of those four were Kotite (1991-94), Rhodes (1995-98), and Kelly.  The fourth (or the first, depending on your perspective) was Jim Trimble, who was head coach from 1952-55.  And that’s it.  Generally speaking, you can see that coaching transitions have not gone smoothly in Philadelphia.  Indeed, all nineteen Eagles coaches have a combined record of 202-279-13 (.409) during their first two seasons.

Since the first two seasons don’t matter, we can divide the Eagles’ coaches into two camps: those who had a winning third season, and those who did not.

Eagles Coaches with Third Season Record <= .500

Third Year

Coach

Season 3 rec

Seasons 1, 2 Win %

Season 4+ Win %

Notes

1997

Ray Rhodes

6 - 9 - 1

0.625

0.188

1993

Rich Kotite

8 - 8

0.656

0.438

1985

Marion Campbell

7 - 9

0.344

--

1975

Mike McCormack

4 - 10

0.429

--

1971

Jerry Williams

6 - 7 - 1

0.250

--

1963

Nick Skorich

2 - 10 - 2

0.464

--

1938

Bert Bell

5 - 6

0.130

0.091

1935

Lud Wray

2 - 9

0.350

--

Of the fifteen Eagles head coaches who graduated from their second season, eight had losing records in their third.  Of those, only Rhodes and Kotite had a win percentage above .500 through two seasons.  With the exception of Bert Bell, the others never saw a fourth season in Philadelphia.

However, the seven coaches with winning records in their third season are among the most illustrious, notable, and beloved in franchise history.

Eagles Coaches with Third Season Record > .500

Third Year

Coach

Season 3 rec

Seasons 1, 2 win %

Season 4+ Win %

Notes

2001

Andy Reid

11 - 5

0.500

0.583

1 SB , 5 Conf App

1988

Buddy Ryan

10 - 6

0.387

0.544

1978

Dick Vermeil

9 - 7

0.321

0.535

1 SB App

1966

Joe Kuharich

9 - 5

0.393

0.286

1960

Buck Shaw

10 - 2

0.375

--

1 NFLC

1954

Jim Trimble

7 - 4 - 1

0.583

0.333

1943

Greasy Neale*

5 - 4 - 1

0.182

0.568

2 NFLCs, 3 App

Discounting Trimble, who coached many players left over from Greasy Neale’s regime, most coaches on this list did not have successful first and second seasons.  Reid is notable for posting a .500 record, going 5-11 and 11-5 in his first two seasons.  But the others (aside from Trimble) went a combined 45-85-3 during their first two seasons.  And these are our best coaches?  Yep.

Consider the list of accomplishments from coaches with successful third seasons:

  • Combined 61-33-2 record
  • Two Super Bowl Appearances
  • Six Conference Championship Appearances
  • Three NFL Championships (in four appearances)

Contrast that with the list of similar accomplishments from coaches with unsuccessful third seasons:

  • [crickets]

Clearly, coaching success during the first two seasons is not indicative of any success during subsequent seasons.  However, the third season has definitely served as a litmus test for those Eagles coaches who made it that far.  It’s when coaches are either exposed as frauds or cemented as icons.

Strictly, in terms of wins and losses, Chip Kelly’s first two seasons may more closely resemble the first two seasons of Rhodes and Kotite.  Admittedly, it doesn’t feel that way.  This level of excitement and intrigue and hope did not exist with Rhodes, whose fiery motivational style had grown stale and cartoonish, and Kotite, who had just grown stale.  [Where would the New York Jets be had they not replaced Pete Carroll with him?]

Chip Kelly has offered Philadelphia and its fans so much more in two seasons than any other coach in Eagles history


It’s possible that this season will determine whether Chip Kelly ends up an afterthought like Rhodes and Kotite, or a Philadelphia legend like Dick Vermeil and Andy Reid, the only Philadelphia coaches to reach the Super Bowl.

It’s also possible that this season will determine whether Kelly ends up like Buck Shaw.   Like Kelly, Shaw was tasked with rebuilding a losing team.  Like Kelly, Shaw engineered a major trade with the Rams (then in Los Angeles) for a quarterback (Norm Van Brocklin).  And in his third season as head coach, Shaw, with Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik, led the Eagles to the franchise’s third NFL Championship, defeating Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.  It was the only time Lombardi’s Packers lost a championship game.  Ever.  Could Kelly achieve something similar in his third season?

Chip Kelly has offered Philadelphia and its fans so much more in two seasons than any other coach in Eagles history: sports science, big balls, fast play, culture beats scheme, bigger people beat up little people, we’re from Philly and we fight, etc.  So here we stand on the precipice of the most important third season in franchise history, just G.J. Kinne days away from training camp, staring down upon Kelly’s hammer, waiting.

And for the Blind Melon fans out there...