It's taken just over a month for Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly to learn an important lesson about the NFL. Winning in this league isn't about how smart a coach can look. It's about how resourceful a coach actually can be over the course of a season.
As the Eagles limp along, trying to find something resembling momentum, the real question about Kelly's potential will be whether he can make that transition. It's easy to ponder the Eagles' possibilities when merely surveying their impressive offensive stats (they average 27 points and 454.8 yards per game).
It's also important to look beyond those gaudy statistics when taking a true measure of this squad. For all its big-play highlights, Philadelphia is still an inconsistent 2-3 team searching for some rhythm. In other words, the Eagles are about as mediocre as 20 other teams in the NFL at this stage.
This was supposed to be a problem Kelly could fix when Philadelphia hired him last January. He had a ground-breaking, record-setting system at Oregon that devastated defenses, and he fit the recent trend of pro teams searching for progressive, offensive-minded coaches. The days when the Eagles needed a more proven commodity like former Eagles head coach Andy Reid -- who has now led the Kansas City Chiefs to a 5-0 record -- had passed. Philly was going new-age, and Kelly was the coolest hire they could make.
But optimists tended to forget that Philadelphia's problems weren't solely Reid's fault. They had a lousy defense that -- surprise, surprise -- remains lousy (Philadelphia is 31st in average yards allowed and 30th in points surrendered). They had special-teams units that didn't create many game-changing plays. They also had an aging, fragile quarterback, Michael Vick, who is now sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Such issues ultimately undermine teams in the NFL, and Kelly is learning how difficult it can be to overcome them. Unlike in his days at Oregon, he doesn't have a roster loaded with 85 scholarship players to offset issues like depth. He also doesn't have a conference filled with subpar defenses that could rarely keep up with his high-powered attack. Sure, the NFL is becoming more biased toward offenses. But there also are plenty of teams who still know how to play lockdown defense when it matters most.
Kelly should have realized as much when Reid's Chiefs dominated his Eagles in a Week 3 meeting in Philadelphia. When that game started, there were plenty of people still gushing over Kelly's offense and wondering how fast-paced it could eventually be. By the end of that 26-16 loss, a different conversation had begun. It revolved around how many other teams would be able to shut down the Eagles as effectively as Kansas City had.
It wasn't merely that the Chiefs produced six sacks and five turnovers in that contest. Kelly had no other way to counteract what was happening. Once the offense fell apart, the Eagles had no chance to win a contest that ultimately was decided by 10 points. The Chiefs defused their Eagles' only real weapon, leaving them completely incapable of doing anything that could be deemed dangerous.
The best coaches in the NFL don't succumb to such problems. Reid has won in Kansas City with a vicious, ball-hawking defense, opportunistic special teams and a quarterback (Alex Smith) who knows how to manage a game. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh has guided his team through injuries and the alcohol problems of star linebacker Aldon Smith, while New England's Bill Belichick has led the Patriots to a 4-1 start with a patchwork receiving corps. They've done what great coaches do in the league. They've adjusted to the means at their disposal.
It remains to be seen whether Kelly can make that transition over the next three months. The biggest problem he has is talent. The Eagles don't have enough difference-makers on defense, and this offense isn't going to elevate itself with Nick Foles replacing Vick. The loss of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL in training camp also denies Kelly an important weapon in an offense built for big plays. And let's not forget this reality: Nobody fears the Eagles any more. They may have jumped out of the gate with a sexy start but the shine has worn off quickly.
That holds true for Kelly's coaching as well. He tried an unsuccessful two-point conversion after his first score in that Chiefs loss, a trick play that made him look more desperate than creative. He has mismanaged the clock (at the end of a 33-30 loss to San Diego), admitted not knowing at least one rule (he could have used a timeout during that game to allow Vick to return to the game) and carried himself in a brusque, standoffish manner that already has turned off many locals. It's safe to say he'll need to re-evaluate his own approach once this season ends.
Until that day arrives, we'll wait to see how much he can accomplish now that he's facing the realities of life in the NFL. He won his first game by beating an abysmal defense (Washington) and his second by feasting on a winless team (New York Giants). There are enough problems within the NFC East to think the Eagles can produce a few more victories. Beyond that, the only certainty about this team is that the honeymoon has ended quickly for Chip Kelly. If he's going to be a successful NFL head coach, he'll have to do it the same way everyone else does: by proving he can make the most of what he's been given.