When the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired cornerback Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, the transaction came not without a bit of controversy as the fourth-year veteran headed out the door.
Boykin, a fourth-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2012, the year before head coach Chip Kelly and his regime took over and rebuilt the team—and parts of the organization—in his vision, had had known issues with Kelly over issues of playing time.
Boykin told reporters that he was told by Kelly he would be given a chance to start outside, an opportunity that never developed, which prompted Boykin to question his honesty.
He also told reporters that there was an even deeper issue in comments that he later clarified once he got to Pittsburgh, saying that in his experience, Kelly is “uncomfortable around grown men of our culture”.
I think it is pertinent to make a distinction between race and culture in this and in a broader context, as Boykin himself did as he repeatedly denied that he believes Kelly is a racist.
Racism has, however, been an accusation bandied about on the periphery of discussion in light of some of the head-scratching moves that he has made since taking over the team, which has included excising the roster of some of ostensibly its best players, who happened to be black.
This is not a matter of race, I believe, however, but a matter of culture, as Boykin has said. There is a mounting body of evidence, based simply on the number of former players who have commented on the topic, that Kelly may indeed struggle to relate to some of his players, a group that may be predominantly black.
And there’s certainly a case to be made that it’s hurting his team, not simply in the potential role that this factor may have played in various roster moves, but in the very fundamental leading of his team.
Boykin was clear in his comments when he spoke about Kelly’s relationship with his players. “There were times where he just wouldn’t talk to people”, he said; “if you were walking down the hallway, he wouldn’t say anything to you”.
Perhaps it’s simply not in Kelly’s personality to be that way, and by no means is it a prerequisite to being an excellent football mind. But it certainly plays a role in being a leader of men, which is where Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin outpaces him in spades.
Tomlin has a well-deserved reputation for being a coach that players around the league would like to play for. Some of Boykin’s former Eagles and collegiate teammates have already given him the scoop on what kind of coach he is.
Much of the credit for the dominance of the Steelers teams of the mid-2000s was tied to the belief in a familial camaraderie that existed within the locker room, a togetherness that made players play for each other and for their coaches.
That is an intangible factor that can’t be measured analytically, but it seems to be a skill that Kelly’s Eagles team lacks. But that is a culture that the Rooney family has long fostered in its locker rooms, and one that appears to be on the rise once again.