Analysis  

 

Chip Kelly -- not Andy Reid -- facing major pressure Thursday

PHILADELPHIA -- Last December, two days before the Philadelphia Eagles' most recent appearance on "Thursday Night Football," I stood with Andy Reid on the edge of the team's outdoor practice fields at the NovaCare Complex and wondered aloud if the big man needed a break.

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Reid's impending departure from Philly following the team's miserable 2012 season was a foregone conclusion: After 14 years on the job, the NFL's longest-tenured coach was finally going to be summoned by The Turk. And given what the then-54-year-old Reid and his family had gone through that season -- the haunting loss of his eldest son, Garrett, who in August was found dead at the team's training-camp home at Lehigh University following a heroin overdose -- taking a year off to decompress would have seemed understandable.

Yet as soon as I threw out the word "sabbatical," Reid shut it down like Brian Dawkins breaking up a deep ball back in the day.

"That's not where I'm at," he told me in a matter-of-fact tone. "No. Listen, I'm a coach. I don't hide that from anybody. This is what I do. And I enjoy doing it. I love every day of it. I sure like winning more than losing, but I also am very privileged to be a coach in the National Football League."

Dismissed by owner Jeffrey Lurie the day after Philly's 4-12 season was complete, Reid wasn't out of work long. His break turned out to be for four days, as he agreed to become the Kansas City Chiefs' coach and de facto jefe of all things football.

Now, in what shapes up as a titillating "Thursday Night Football" gift from the football gods (or, more specifically, Roger Goodell), Reid will lead his new team into Lincoln Financial Field to face his old one. The scene will be surreal, but don't expect Reid to be unnerved by the spectacle. Though Big Red is living up to his nickname -- he's large and in charge in Chiefs-issued attire -- he'll carry a lightness of being reflective of his new surroundings.

As one person close to Reid put it, "He is reborn in K.C."

Granted, he has roamed the sidelines as the chief Chief for just two regular-season games. The early returns, however, are highly encouraging. Coming off an impressive, 17-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday, Kansas City (2-0) has already won as many games as it did during the entire 2012 season and seems poised to live up to its trendy-playoff-pick tag.

Right now, Reid is bigger than barbecue in K.C. And, truth be told, he's under very little pressure to win this particular game.

Conversely, Chip Kelly, Reid's high-profile successor in Philly, knows no such luxury. Though Kelly's rapid-fire offense has sent a jolt through the NFL universe, and though the Eagles (1-1) are tied with the Cowboys atop the NFC East, Thursday night's high-profile stage would be a really bad place for a face plant.

Already, Kelly is hearing criticism for his questionable time management down the stretch of Philadelphia's 33-30 defeat to the San Diego Chargers at The Linc last Sunday, complaints he later acknowledged might have some merit. (Reid, lampooned in "Silver Linings Playbook" for his notorious reputation regarding clock-related decisions, had to be chuckling inside.)

Should Kelly's team fall to 1-2 on Thursday, he could well feel the wrath of a Philly fan base not known for its restraint -- or patience. Given that Eagles fans have infamously booed Santa Claus and Donovan McNabb, among others, it's predictable that Kelly's honeymoon would come to an abrupt and vocal halt.

This is not to say that any public flogging of the new coach would be rationally justified. Thus far, Kelly has been well received in The City of Brotherly Love, particularly in the Eagles' locker room, where he is viewed as prescient, approachable and knowledgeable.

In the Eagles' season-opening, 33-27 victory over the Redskins, Washington players were literally begging their Philadelphia counterparts to "slow it down" during extra-point attempts. Kelly's team raced out to a 33-7 lead in that game, and the offense continued to thrive in last Sunday's defeat to the Chargers.

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The Eagles have the league's second-ranked offense (477 yards per game), and Michael Vick -- the veteran quarterback Reid benched last season -- looks closer to his 2010 form, when his transcendent revival was linked to his coach's faith. Running back LeSean McCoy is an early MVP candidate; wideout DeSean Jackson is back to his pre-contract-dispute explosive self; and the offensive line looks much-improved and perfectly suited to Kelly's fast-paced attack.

And yet, the specter of seeing Reid, who became such a public punching bag during the final years of his Eagles tenure, rolling into The Linc with last year's NFL laughingstock and taking down the new guy would not cause fans to feel warm and fuzzy toward Kelly. If nostalgia makes the heart grow fonder, a Chiefs victory might also serve to remind Philly fans that Reid's teams made the playoffs nine times in 14 seasons, played in five NFC Championship Games and went to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.

For all of Kelly's success at Oregon, he will face skepticism at the NFL level until he wins, and wins consistently. While opposing coaches respect and admire his approach, there are also suspicions that his no-huddle attack is more of a fad than a revolution, and one that might prove to be problematic for the Eagles.

Earlier this week, I spoke with one respected offensive coordinator of an NFC team who brought up another potential limitation: "The defense practices against that scheme all the time, which means it isn't lining up to stop a traditional, power-based attack. So what happens when another team tries to run it down their throat, and the (Eagles') defense hasn't confronted that in practice all season? I go back to the run-and-shoot attacks of the '80s. Those teams scored lots of points, but those defenses were never good, because they spent all their time practicing against the run-and-shoot. That could happen with (the Eagles)."

Reid, by contrast, returns to Philly with a defense that has been hellacious and stout thus far in 2013. The deceptively talented Chiefs have the league's third-ranked defense; only the Seattle Seahawks have allowed fewer points. That makes life easier for Reid's handpicked quarterback, veteran Alex Smith, a smart and efficient leader presiding over a balanced offense that revolves around an elite running back in Jamaal Charles.

On Sunday, Charles told ESPN that he and his teammates want to "play for our coach" when they face off against Reid's former team on Thursday. This protective, dutiful vibe is commendable, and I absolutely believe it will permeate through the Chiefs' locker room.

After all, I have seen it before, in person, on similarly charged occasions: In 1994, when Joe Montana and the Chiefs hosted the 49ers, Kansas City defensive stars like Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith unleashed their fury upon Steve Young, the legendary quarterback's successor in San Francisco.

Fifteen years later, when ex-Green Bay Packers great Brett Favre returned to Lambeau Field (talk about surreal) as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, his new teammates performed at a high level, and the pressure proved suffocating to Favre's successor, Aaron Rodgers.

The next year, in Philadelphia, McNabb showed up as a member of the Redskins and walked away a winner, his teammates sufficiently inspired by coach Mike Shanahan's pregame How many of you have ever been fired? rhetoric.

I'm not sure what we'll see Thursday night at The Linc, but I expect both teams to be engaged and energized, if only because of the larger overtones surrounding Big Red's celebrated return to Philly and the captivated national-television audience.

If Reid's players are driven to excel for their new coach, that's a testament to the goodwill he has created in a relatively short time. Kelly, however, is the one who needs his players to have his back in this pressure-packed setting.

The old coach might be the guy soaking up the spotlight, but his successor is the one feeling the heat. If Kelly's team doesn't deliver on Thursday, the next 10 days aren't going to be very enjoyable in the City of Brotherly Love, and the new coach might be the one asking for a break.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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