PHILADELPHIA -- When Jeffrey Lurie reflects back upon the night of Dec. 31, 2014, the words Happy New Year do not come to mind. The Eagles' cerebral and personable owner had just watched his team complete a second consecutive 10-6 regular season under coach Chip Kelly, this time falling just short of a playoff berth, and to the outside world, the franchise's fortunes were looking up. Internally, however, the Eagles were dealing with more drama than NWA in the late '80s -- or the other Eagles at the start of that decade.
On that not-so-festive New Year's Eve, Lurie knew he had a decision to make. The sudden firing of vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble, an ally of Kelly's, had inflamed a feud between the coach and Howie Roseman, the team's general manager since 2010. Forced to confront a full-blown power struggle, Lurie essentially was faced with a him or me dilemma, and it was one he did not relish. He was fond of Roseman, who had worked his way up through the Eagles' personnel department to become, at 34, the league's youngest GM, spending five seasons in that role. And Lurie had aggressively wooed the innovative Kelly, convincing him to leave the college ranks after a highly successful stint at Oregon, with immediate and tangible returns on his investment.
"Chip brought sort of a boldness and an intelligence that was really refreshing, and we had double-digit wins those first two seasons," Lurie recalled last Friday during an interview in his office at the team's training facility, some of which will air on NFL Network's "GameDay Morning" on Super Sunday. "At the end of the second year, he had come to me and said that to really maximize Chip, he needed power to control the roster and the scouting and all that kind of stuff.
"Of course, to do that, you had to lessen the control that Howie had, and Howie was doing a very good job, so it was sort of a balancing act: How can I retain Howie, who I regarded very highly, and at the same time, how do I maximize Chip? It was sort of an almost unattainable situation."
Lurie, however, found an out-of-the-box solution: Two days into 2015, he announced that Kelly had been given control of personnel and roster decisions, while Roseman, under the new title of executive vice president of football operations, would concentrate on salary-cap and business-related matters.
In Lurie's words, "It was kind of like balancing things and trying to win in the short term, but plan for the long term."
At the time, it didn't seem to be an idyllic solution: Roseman was hardly thrilled, especially after suffering the indignity of having his office moved from the football side (near Kelly's) to the business end of the second floor in the team's training facility. Kelly, meanwhile, collapsed under the weight of his own power grab and was fired less than a year later, with one game remaining in the 2015 season.
Yet Lurie's creativity in the face of adversity -- and the owner's faith in Roseman, even while siding against him -- ultimately led to the unlikely revival that earned 2017 NFL Executive of the Year honors for the reinstalled personnel boss and propelled the Eagles to their first Super Bowl in 13 years, putting Philly on the precipice of its first championship since Lurie purchased the team in 1994.
It has all the hallmarks of a schmaltzy Hollywood ending for Lurie, a former movie producer well-versed in the art of managing egos and navigating power dynamics for the sake of the finished product.
"Jeffrey is thoughtful and mindful about every decision he makes in life, and he comes up with tremendously elegant solutions that a lot of other people wouldn't conjure," said Jack Rapke, a highly successful film producer who has been close friends with Lurie since the 1980s. "That was not an easy decision -- he didn't want to lose Howie, but Chip, who had just revolutionized the college game and was exalted, was making demands, and [Lurie] wanted to try to get to the promised land.
"The analogy I'd draw is that when you have a final-cut director like Steven Spielberg, you have to give him the power to make the film he wants to make. Jeffrey, who is empathic and devoted and respects Howie immensely, is a person who looks at every facet of a problem and makes no decision precipitously. He strategizes and almost has a game-theory approach. Only Jeffrey would figure out how to keep Howie happy in a very difficult situation. And at the end of the day, it was almost a hedge."
To Roseman, it was an unwelcome jolt -- but, to his credit, he made the most of his time in personnel-control exile. He told Lurie he hoped to augment his new role by visiting with successful executives, both in the sports and business communities, and absorbing as many leadership lessons as he could. That led to enlightening and productive interactions with successful executives like San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, former Chelsea FC director of football operations Mike Forde and First Data CEO Frank Bisignano.
"That year was a great learning experience," Roseman said last Friday. "Being able to step away and talk to people inside and outside of sports, to try to learn and evolve and get better, was very beneficial. It was an adjustment, but I tried to make the most of it."
Kelly, meanwhile, made a mess of his situation, as the team backslid on the field (Philly was 6-9 when he was fired) and numerous players began to tune out the coach's teachings. At the press conference announcing Kelly's firing, Lurie said he was seeking a replacement who possessed "emotional intelligence," which was not a very positive reflection on Kelly's people skills.
"Jeffrey deals with people in a highly respectful way, and then you had a coach who was all about himself with a giant ego, a coach who was the antithesis of Jeffrey's personality," Rapke said. "So, even if Chip had been as successful as he believed he'd be, there would have been tremendous conflict for Jeffrey. Other owners might have said, 'Great, he's a genius, and he can do whatever he wants.' Not Jeffrey. He has an extremely active moral compass and he bristles at that kind of behavior."
The organization is now in a much happier place. During his stint on the other side of the building, Roseman worked to smooth many of the rough edges he'd displayed early in his tenure as general manager, with a renewed emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Asked Monday what insight he gained during that year away, he replied, "The No. 1 lesson learned was, it's about the people you hire, on and off the field. The people you surround yourself with ... this job is too big for one person. You've gotta be around people you trust."
Upon being reinstalled by Lurie as the chief football decision-maker, Roseman got right down to business. First, he and Lurie decided to try to re-sign a set of core players -- tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, tackle Lane Johnson, safety Malcolm Jenkins, defensive end Vinny Curry and, most lucratively, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox -- before they hit free agency, ultimately committing $168.5 million in guaranteed money to those six players. It was an approach long favored by Lurie, with a few notable exceptions -- one being the infamous "Dream Team" experiment of 2011, after which Roseman began to shy away from big-ticket free-agent signings.
"For our players, the message was, 'If you're an Eagle and you do the right things, you have a chance to get paid and stay here,' " Roseman said. "We said to Jeffrey, 'We want to extend a group of our players (early in 2016), and this will form our core,' and Jeffrey spent an incredible amount of money on retaining those players. It meant we might not go out and get some other players in free agency to immediately improve the team, but we felt that was the right approach to keep the core together."
Roseman also undid many of Kelly's high-priced personnel decisions, dumping running back DeMarco Murray, linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell. The latter two players were packaged in a trade with the Miami Dolphins that allowed Philly to move from 13th to eighth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft -- all in the hope of securing a franchise quarterback. Ultimately, the Eagles used that pick as part of a blockbuster trade with the Cleveland Browns that landed them the second overall pick, which they used to select Carson Wentz, who would emerge as an MVP candidate in Year 2 before suffering a torn ACL in a December game against the Rams.
"Howie deserves great credit for maneuvering the trade with the Dolphins," Lurie said. "We didn't have a top-10 pick, and how do you get up there? There are so many quarterback-needy teams. How can we be so aggressive that we can beat out the other teams that need quarterbacks? We valued Carson Wentz -- I guess I have to go back to Andrew Luck ... I mean, top-notch in every single category. So, we were going to do everything we could to get up there, and Howie pulled that off, and the rest is history."
A few months later, after Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewatersuffered a severe knee injury shortly before the start of the 2016 season, Roseman deftly dealt veteran quarterback Sam Bradford to Minnesota for a first-round pick, speeding up Wentz's ascent to a starting role. He has been wheeling and dealing ever since, with highly effective results, trading for players such as cornerback Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and, midway through this season, running back Jay Ajayi. He has also had success in the draft (left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a fifth-round choice in 2016, has been an able replacement for injured star Jason Peters, while defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Rasul Douglas have been rookie contributors in 2017, in addition to undrafted rookie running back Corey Clement) and in free agency (quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeGarrette Blount, receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, defensive end Chris Long, cornerback Patrick Robinson and safety Corey Graham all made big contributions after signing this past offseason).
Undeniably, Roseman has proven his point. But he has zero interest in gloating, or otherwise drawing attention to his unlikely career revival.
"I'm incredibly happy for our players and coaches and everyone in our organization -- and certainly for Jeffrey," Roseman said. "He deserves this success. He's very smart and has great insight. He's got incredible trust in all of us and in our decisions -- but you have to explain to him why those decisions are good for the organization."
Looking back, Lurie's decision not to fire Roseman -- and Roseman's subsequent decision to stay on in an altered role -- set up the Eagles for the potential happy ending Kelly once believed he could deliver. Hired by the San Francisco 49ers following his dismissal in Philly, Kelly was fired by the Niners after a single 2-14 season. After a year out of football, Kelly returned to the college ranks, accepting a lucrative deal to become UCLA's head coach last November.
And Roseman, after some choppy years in Philly, is feeling the brotherly love from fans, media members and -- most importantly -- his boss.
"You know one of the things that has impressed me so much about Howie is, he handled that period incredibly well," Lurie said, reflecting back upon the 2015 season. "He saw it as a chance for growth for him, studied other franchises ... what he could do to become better. In today's football world, football operations is so much more than simply scouting."
Since resuming his role as the head of football operations, Roseman has adopted a collaborative approach, joining forces with vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, second-year head coach Doug Pederson and others in the organization to produce a plot twist that few saw coming three years ago.
"That had to be tremendously painful for Howie, having to endure the public scrutiny that came with [his altered role]," Rapke said. "But he soldiered on in an amazing way, and ultimately his patience and his ability to keep his own desires and ego in check paid enormous rewards for Howie, and it's now paying dividends for the organization. And look at what they've accomplished this season, even with all the injuries. If someone wrote it up and pitched that script to me, I say, 'Oh, come on -- this is a Hollywood ending, and no one will buy it.' "
Having endured plenty of drama three years earlier, Lurie and Roseman are embracing the schmaltz as Super Sunday approaches -- and are already looking forward to the sequel.