The 2019 NFL season has come and gone, the offseason is reaching its conclusion and the next chapter in the book of Chad “Swag” Kelly is beginning to form. With training camp on the horizon, Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich has high praise for the former Ole Miss duel-threat playmaker who will have to compete for a roster spot this summer.
“I cannot tell you how happy we are with Chad,” Reich said on The Rich Eisen Show. “He’s progressed a lot as a quarterback. He really works hard at it.”
After a tumultuous first three years in the league, Kelly cleared waivers in late September of last season and the Colts signed him to the practice squad. In a year with incredible turmoil among the quarterback position in the NFL, there was hope for the former Mr. Irrelevant to get his shot at a 53-man roster when he hit waivers last season. However, the teams with question marks behind center went in different directions, and the practice squad in Indy is where Kelly ended up. He did not reach the active roster.
Never able to keep his off-field antics in check, he has trended toward joining a long list of electric college quarterbacks who can’t quite take the next step in the pros thus far. That notion could start to change in 2020 as Reich has taken note of Kelly’s talent and behavior.
“Chad off the field has been as good as anybody I’ve been around,” Reich said. “He’s been a 10 out of 10, off the field as well as on the field. I’m excited for him.”
The thing is, the Colts signed 38-year-old Philip Rivers this offseason, drafted Jacob Eason out of Washington in April and still have 2019 starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett on the roster, presumably as a backup for Rivers. On first look, this doesn’t bode well for Kelly as training camp quickly approaches.
However, it is unlikely that Indianapolis will carry four quarterbacks throughout the season and might look to trade Brissett, or quite possibly, Kelly. Should a deal not get done to ship out one of the four guys in the busy position room, there is a lot of uncertainty beyond 2020. Rivers is expected to retire and Brissett’s contract will expire, leaving Kelly and Eason.
Kelly is an unbelievable talent who could make a legitimate case to take the keys and drive.
The organization has shown their allegiance to Kelly over the last 12 months and the Colts have a clear understanding of the value he could bring, if his off-field issues are no more.
“He knows how to fight,” Reich said. “He’s a good teammate. He has worked with Phil Simms. He’s really worked hard at his craft and continuing to improve. We’ll have four (quarterbacks) in camp. It’s going to be really competitive. We like that.”
Chad Kelly, who his 11-year NFL quarterback uncle Jim Kelly once described as having “a freaking rocket for an arm,” clearly had a gift from a young age. He competed in Punt, Pass, and Kick competitions as a youth, and was a four-time national champion.
In 2008, his family moved from New York to Pennsylvania, where Kelly was to begin his freshman year of high school. Due to unexplained disciplinary reasons, he was suspended from the football team for seven games during his first season, and was dismissed before his sophomore campaign.
Kelly moved back to Western New York and took his school to a Monsignor Martin Association AA title. He was named MVP of the title game, committed to Clemson, made the finals of the Elite 11 competition, and led his team to another title game the next year.
He redshirted with the Tigers in 2012, and threatened the job security of his quarterback counterparts.
And while spending the year on the sideline, Kelly released a rap song...about himself.
Thus, the legend of “Swag” was born, and it only continued to grow.
Entering the spring, he was the clear-cut favorite to replace Orange Bowl champion Tajh Boyd as the starter for Dabo Swinney’s Tigers. In January of that year, Kelly referred to himself as “like a Mike Vick, only white.”
His immaturity got in the way of his career once again and Kelly was dismissed from the program in April, after a few emotional outbursts. First, he yelled at a former Miss South Carolina after an auto accident in a parking lot.
Just days later, Kelly sealed his fate at Clemson. After a poor on-field outing in the 2014 spring game, he blew up at his coaches for choosing to punt on 4th-and-3 around midfield. He was benched for the remainder of the game in response to his ridiculous sideline tantrum, and subsequently dismissed from the program.
Remember, this was in a intrasquad scrimmage.
At the same time, following a similar narrative, Johnny Manziel was beginning his professional career. Arguably the most polarizing player in SEC history, the 2013 Heisman winner was called “undraftable” and “an arrogant little prick.” As talented as Manziel was, his NFL career flamed out after two troublesome seasons with the Browns and after spending time with the CFL and AAF, he is currently unemployed.
Kelly should have heeded the warning from Manziel’s example.
He committed to Ole Miss in December of 2014, but only after getting his feet back under him and leading East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) to an undefeated Junior College National Championship title. Not 12 days later, he was arrested after late-night incident in Buffalo where he allegedly told bouncers, “I’m going to go to my car and get my AK-47 and spray this place.” Head coach Hugh Freeze leaned into his faith (LOL) and gave the talented gunslinger a chance anyway.
For sake of the program, thank goodness he did.
In Kelly’s 2015 season with the Rebels, he led the team to its second win over Alabama in two years, broke many of Eli Manning’s single season numbers, led the SEC with 2042 passing yards and 31 passing touchdowns, and won a Sugar Bowl MVP. He also ran for over 500 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Some might say he was the best quarterback that Ole Miss has ever seen. (He was.)
At the very least, his physicality and raw talent he displayed is undeniable. He was electric.
You guys ever see the ESPN Sport Science when Chad Kelly put up the highest score of any QB they've ever tested? pic.twitter.com/OayGTux3Hl— Ryan Koenigsberg (@RyanKoenigsberg) August 23, 2018
But he couldn’t keep his head straight.
During a bye week in his senior season at Ole Miss, Kelly went home to watch his brother Casey play at his high school alma mater. As the story goes, Casey took a late hit, and a brawl broke out. Chad, who was in the stands, hopped a fence and got involved with the scuffle.
Freeze again came to his side, and gave Kelly another chance.
Jump back 10 years prior to Kelly’s field storm, when Ryan Leaf, who is known as one of the biggest ‘busts’ in NFL Draft history, was in the conversation for being the number one overall pick — to be taken over Peyton Manning.
Leaf, who was described as “self-confident to the point where some people view him as being arrogant and almost obnoxious,” had an attitude that might resemble that of Kelly. The “Swag” nickname doesn’t come without arrogance, and he knows full well that he can ball. Because he can.
Leaf, who finished second in overall passing in 1997, was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after his junior year. While the current era of college football is radically different than when Leaf played, the principle of the game remains the same. With that in mind, Kelly put up better numbers, and likely should have been in the Heisman conversation, if not for his troubled history.
Where the two differ, is their national prominence and immediate recognition after college. Kelly, who tore his ACL late in his senior year, was drafted with the last pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Leaf was taken second overall.
Where the two draw similarities, perhaps, is the inability to stay on the straight and narrow.
After a sub par rookie year, Leaf was often hurt and couldn’t find a way to win. After his first (and only) playoff game, he was asked a simple question and blew up at the reporter.
A second season with the Chargers ended in disappointment, and they released Leaf. He played with a wrist injury on two different teams before his pro career came to a close after four years in the league.
Leaf, now working as an analyst for ESPN, tells a tragic story of a young man who couldn’t handle the moment. After retirement, his personal life spiraled out of control and his addiction to painkillers led him to spend 32 months in prison after an arrest in 2012.
Though not to the extend of Leaf’s tragic past, Kelly, who is now in his third season, similarly cannot get out of his own way.
He sat out his rookie season with the Denver Broncos to rehab from his knee injury and required surgery on his throwing wrist. In his second year, Kelly dazzled in the preseason.
He did not make the final 2018 roster with the Broncos, but the team held his rights until October, when Kelly’s most recent blunder took place.
Kelly, who had just left Von Miller’s halloween party, broke into the house of a neighbor and sat on the couch aside the two homeowners, “mumbling incoherently.” He was forcibly chased out with an aluminum vacuum tube, arrested shortly thereafter, and released by the Broncos in the days following.
The male resident claimed the doors were securely locked, the police stated that there was no sign of forcible entrance, and the female resident kept fairly quiet during the investigation. A conspirator might say that Kelly had been there before, if you catch the drift.
Whether guilty or not (he is absolutely is, and plead, guilty), Kelly can’t seem to shake his off-field troubles.
His case was closed in March, and the Indianapolis Colts signed the 25-year-old quarterback two months later. In Kelly’s four preseason starts, he turned heads around the league, and completed 74 percent of his passes for an average of 145.8 yards per game.
Despite his early successes in 2019, Kelly was forced to sit out and serve a league-mandated suspension in the first two weeks of the regular season. As a result, the Colts signed veteran Brian Hoyer to back up starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and waived Kelly when his suspension was complete.
Unlike Graham Harrell, Kellen Moore, Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, and Jason White, who never saw their captivating college quarterback play explode on the next level, Kelly just hasn’t given himself a chance. Maybe 2020 will be the year.
While the next chapter in the ‘Book of Swag’ has yet to be written, it is rather humorous to imagine an NFL organization starting someone like Luke Falk, Ryan Finley, Brandon Allen or Mason Rudolph over Kelly, the guy who dominated the Rudolph in the 2016 Sugar Bowl. If nothing more, Kelly only got better with consistent repetitions against a first-team NFL defense, and perhaps that was the Colts’ plan.
Now, in what may be Kelly’s last opportunity to make an active NFL roster, he has to stay the course and show Reich and the Indianapolis organization how good he really is.
Whatever is to happen, it will surely be entertaining. Keep reading.