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Did race play a role in firing of Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly?

The fact that Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has been fired isn't necessarily surprising, but the timing is.
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly walks the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sept. 14, 2015, in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by Brynn Anderson/AP)
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly walks the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sept. 14, 2015, in Atlanta, Ga.

The fact that Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has been fired isn't necessarily surprising — but the timing is.

The decision to cut ties with the polarizing NFL coach one game before the end of the regular season has been described as "shocking" and "stunning" by sportswriters and commentators. When Kelly took over general manager duties this season, he made a series of controversial personnel decisions, jettisoning popular Eagles stars while betting big on massive contracts for new acquisitions. Besides lackluster results on the playing field, Kelly's leadership was called into question for something far more insidious — alleged racial bias.

When Kelly traded away Eagles star running back LeSean McCoy in May, the four-time Pro Bowler infamously said "You see how fast he got rid of all the good players. Especially all the good black players. He got rid of them the fastest. That’s the truth. There’s a reason." His allegations appeared to be supported by Brandon Boykin, a former Eagle, who claimed  in August the coach had problems relating to black players and was "uncomfortable" around them. McCoy's trade followed the dismissal of DeSean Jackson in 2014 and coincided with the release of Jeremy Maclin, the two most respected wide receivers on the Eagles' roster, both of whom are African-American. Meanwhile, Kelly took heat for retaining the services of Riley Cooper, a middle-of-the-road white receiver who was caught on camera in an altercation with bouncers backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert in 2013, where he brazenly used the N-word. Cooper was later reprimanded by the team and offered a public apology.

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ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith, who has frequently reported behind the scenes tension between Kelly and his black players, called his dismissal "predictable" and "long overdue" during a call-in appearance on "Mike and Mike" on Wednesday. He recounted being approached by several African-American members of the Eagles on the street in Philadelphia earlier this year and claimed he was told with regards to Kelly, "He's a different kind of cat, he doesn't seem to be somebody who is comfortable with us." Meanwhile, CSN Philly's Derrick Gunn has reported that several current Eagles players have told him privately they felt it was "about time" Kelly was let go.

Still, some of Kelly's players have come forward in the past and suggested it was his dictatorial style that rubbed players the wrong way, not any perceived racial bias. “Chip is not a racist. The notion he is isn’t fair. The thing with Chip is he just doesn’t see you as a person. He sees you as a commodity. The more players get that, the better off they’ll be,” one player told Bleacher Report anonymously in August. “He sets the agenda. You don’t follow it, you’re dead to him. That’s not racial. Some guys handle it well, some guys don’t,” added another unnamed player.

For his part, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a press conference Wednesday that he made the call to move on from Kelly in part because he wanted to a get jump start on the search for a new coach and he dismissed the notion that the departing coach had lost the locker room. He promised going forward that the team would have a more "collaborative" atmosphere. In September, he described accusations of racism against Kelly as "beyond ridiculous."

“I’ve got great respect for LeSean, however in that situation, I think he’s wrong,” Kelly told reporters this Spring. “I’ve talked to his agent and told him I’d to talk to him at some point in time.

Kelly always maintained race had nothing to do with his decision-making, and he did indeed sign several high-profile black and Latino players this season, including running back DeMarco Murray and cornerback Byron Maxwell. He also cut high profile white players from the Eagles, too, like offensive lineman Evan Mathis.”

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Ironically, Murray is rumored to have told Lurie that he and his teammates had no confidence in Kelly's leadership, which may have been the last straw in a season that failed to live up to expectations. Kelly made the playoffs in his first season as head coach with a 10-6 record and although the Eagles missed the cut the following year, they matched their 10-6 showing. But this year, with Kelly in complete control of the team's make-up and strategy, was a disaster. 

His previously high-octane offense, which succeeded without a superstar quarterback in his first two seasons, sputtered with Kelly's choice of QB, the oft-injured Sam Bradford, under center. Murray, who had been the NFL's leading rusher in 2014, under-performed in a multi-back system that didn't suit his skill set. And the team lost several winnable games against lesser opponents in a year where their division remained up for grabs even into the closing weeks of the season.

Ultimately, it was Kelly's lack of wins that probably derailed his coaching tenure in Philadelphia. He will be the first Eagles coach in nearly 25 years to leave the team without a single playoff victory. As Bleeding Green blog writer Brandon Lee Gowton put it: "Winning is a deodorant. It whitewashes everything. Kelly's personality and methods wouldn't have been drawn into question if the team was successful."

Editor's note: The original version of the piece included a quote erroneously attributed to Chip Kelly, which came from a satire piece. This text has since been corrected to reflect his actual statements on the McCoy allegations.