The way Chip Kelly told it – and who could ever doubt his honesty? – the Eagles never made a serious offer to move up in the 2105 draft and grab Marcus Mariota, the prototypical quarterback for his zone-read offense and the guy Kelly called the most talented player he ever coached at Oregon. Nope, never happened.
"It was just a steep price. It's like driving into a nice neighborhood and looking at a house and saying, 'That's really nice,' and then they tell you the price and you turn around and drive away," Kelly said. "We didn't walk in the front door. We didn't take a look around."
The reporting at the time didn't back up his assertion, but the actual truth of the matter is probably lost to time. There was plenty of indication that Kelly did drive up to the house, and he tried to jimmy every window in the place and hoist himself through. If he learned nothing about coaching in the NFL during his first two seasons with the Eagles, Kelly had learned that without an elite-level quarterback winning consistently is impossible.
That is also the unsurprising conclusion that Howie Roseman reached during his one-year sabbatical from power, and the motivation for his bold moves in the following draft that allowed the team to move up and select Carson Wentz for new coach Doug Pederson.
Taken together, those two drafts – the move the Eagles were unable to make in 2015, and the one that succeeded in 2016 – form a remarkable fulcrum for the franchise. What would be different today if the Tennessee Titans had been willing to listen to Kelly's offer, or if the Cleveland Browns had been unwilling to listen to Roseman's?
The history of those drafts collides Sunday afternoon in Nashville, when the Eagles play the Tennessee Titans and Wentz and Mariota face off for the first time. Wentz will be starting just his second game since a season-ending knee injury in December, and Mariota is still coming back from an elbow injury in the opener that has affected his ability to grip the football. Nevertheless, what-is and what-might-have-been for the two franchises will be on display, and that goes for the players themselves, too.
"I honestly didn't know all those logistics and all those things," Wentz said, "but I can tell you I'm extremely thankful I'm here."
In the 83-year history of the NFL draft, there have been only seven occasions in which quarterbacks were taken with the first and second overall picks in a given draft. Further, only twice in that span has it occurred in back-to-back years.
So, since the very first draft – which took place Feb. 8, 1936, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Philadelphia – teams that desperately needed a quarterback had very few years in which the talent, or projected talent, in consecutive drafts gave them the confidence that a strategy could be devised to land one of them.
The first instance happened in 1998 and 1999, when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf went 1-2 in one draft, and Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb went 1-2 in the next. (With Akili Smith, another quarterback, taken third, the only time in draft history that happened.)
The only other time that happened was in 2015 and 2016. As it played out, Tampa Bay selected Jameis Winston with the first pick in 2015 and Tennessee took Mariota with the second. A year later, the Rams traded up for the first pick (with Tennessee, somewhat ironically) and selected Jared Goff. The Eagles who had leap-frogged from the 13th pick to the eighth in a trade with Miami, and then from the eighth to the second pick in a trade with Cleveland, scooped up Wentz.
It seems in retrospect those moves were meant to be, but many factors had to align for them to happen.
The biggest factor is that both Tampa Bay and Tennessee were adamant about keeping their top 2015 picks, despite the persistent reported entreaties of Kelly. According to several sources, the Eagles offered Tennessee two first-round picks (2015 and 2016), a second-round pick (2015), either Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez (take your pick), and any defensive player of their choosing (goodbye, Fletcher Cox).
It would have been quite a haul for the Titans, just in sheer numbers, but Tennessee had its fill of playing quarterback roulette. In the 2014 season, the quarterbacks had been Zach Mettenberger, Jake Locker, and Charlie Whitehurst, and each had started at least five games. The team hadn't had stability at the position for a decade, since Steve McNair's 11-year term ended, and not coincidentally hadn't won a playoff game in that span. They were keeping the pick and they were taking Mariota. Kelly was not allowed to break into the house.
Interestingly, at the same time the Eagles were making their pitch, Roseman addressed the annual Sloan Sports Conference, one of his few public sightings during exile, and dismissed the wisdom of moving up in the draft at great expense.
"The history of trading up for one player … isn't good for the team trading up and putting a lot of resources into it," Roseman told the conference. "Because the guys who are really good at the draft, if you're hitting on 60 percent of your first-round picks, that's a pretty good track record. … So really, the more chances you get, the more tickets to the lottery you get, the better you should be doing."
It was debated then whether Roseman was taking a shot at Kelly's behind-the-scenes machinations, or alerting the fans that the savior quarterback wouldn't be arriving in that draft, or, simply, expressing his personal belief. More than likely, it was the last of those, and it was a defensible position. Hitting on the draft is hard (see above, Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch) and getting as many swings at it as possible is the smartest play.
Still, just a year later, after Kelly had flamed out in his third season, and Roseman was restored to power, the franchise bucked those odds and pooled its resources to go after that one guy who would make all the difference. Kelly couldn't do it in 2015, but Roseman did in 2016.
The cost for the two-step move from the 13th pick to the second pick was not inconsiderable: two first-round picks, a second-round pick, a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick, Kiko Alonso, and Byron Maxwell. They also got a fourth-round pick back in the moves (Donnell Pumphrey).
It was a fistful of lottery tickets all placed on the proposition that Carson Wentz was worth the risk. So far, based on performance and potential, it was unquestionably the right move. The Titans felt the same way the year before. They were offered additional tickets and turned them down. Mariota had a step-back third season in 2017, but his ability is still obvious and, now playing for his third head coach in Tennessee, Mariota is poised to prove that decision correct.