Chip Kelly brings a whole new approach to the NFL

Chip Kelly directed Oregon to four straight Bowl Championship Series games.
Chip Kelly directed Oregon to four straight Bowl Championship Series games. (RICK BOWMER /AP)
Posted: September 09, 2013

On Tuesday afternoons this season, when the rest of the NFL has off days, the Eagles will practice at a breakneck tempo with a mix of pop, rap, and country music blaring from the NovaCare Complex speakers and a Siri-like voice signaling when one period ends and the next begins.

At the end of practice, personalized smoothies will await each player, and a specific training regimen will be tailored for the players' recovery. Data will be collected from their movements on the field. They will attend brief, focused meetings, scheduled on smart screens around the team's facility.

The Eagles workplace has become the NFL's version of a Silicon Valley start-up, a transformative football experiment directed by new coach Chip Kelly. After an aggressive two-week courtship in January, the Eagles landed Kelly for a reported $6.5 million per year - one of the highest salaries for an NFL coach - even though Kelly had never spent a day in the NFL. Immediately, he started building a program different from any the NFL has ever seen.

"If the answer is, 'That's how we've always done it.' I just want to know the 'why?' " Kelly said. "But just explain why you're doing it. A lot of times . . . people . . . can't explain why they're doing it in a certain manner. If they don't understand how to do it in a certain manner, then they don't know how to fix it when it breaks. I think you've got to have an understanding of what it is."

The "it" is a philosophy Kelly has developed through more than two decades of coaching, although most of that has been spent in Durham, N.H., and Eugene, Ore. It's never been in the NFL, where nearly a century of tradition and the finest football minds have operated. The great experiment will show whether he'll change the league or the league will spit him back.

"He's not afraid to try different things and he's not afraid to do things that other people haven't done, or that other people don't do, and I think that's what makes him good," said Tony Dungy, the Super Bowl-winning coach and NBC commentator, whose son played for Kelly at Oregon.

Dungy has kept in contact with Kelly from the time Kelly needed to discipline Oregon's LeGarrette Blount for punching an opposing player after his first game in 2009, to this summer, when Kelly elected not to discipline wide receiver Riley Cooper for using a racial slur. Kelly was honest and direct in discussing Cooper, but he always stood by his player, and he didn't become consumed by public perception.

"He doesn't worry about other people," Dungy said. "To me, that's what makes him unique."

Faster and longer

The biggest change on the field is the pace the Eagles play. The Eagles offered hints during the preseason, but expect them to go faster - and longer - starting Monday against the Washington Redskins.

That fast-paced style means that time of possession might not favor the Eagles. This is another area in which Kelly challenges football norms. Conventional thinking suggests that time of possession is a valuable statistic. Kelly scoffs at that idea.

"Time of possession is how much time can the other team waste," Kelly said.

Kelly cited a 2010 Oregon game against UCLA. The Bruins had possession for 38 minutes, 31 seconds - nearly two thirds of the game. Yet Oregon ran three more plays, accumulated nearly 300 more yards, and won, 60-13.

"So all I gathered was that they stand around a lot more than we do," Kelly said. "I think when people look at the time of possession, and that's what people look at automatically - it's not time of possession, it's plays run is what I look at because you're not exerting any energy if you're just standing in the huddle."

It comes off as sound logic. And that's what has most resonated with the players. Some of what Kelly is doing is different, but he offers a reason.

Sports science is another area in which the Eagles have made a significant investment, although the team is coy on details. One phrase heard often is "science over tradition." The team employs a sports science coordinator who previously worked with Navy SEAL teams.

Players' movement and heart rate on the practice field are monitored. There is a method for what and when the players eat. A greater emphasis is placed on nutrition, as well as sleep and recovery.

"I like the aspect of the sports science applications, and how it relates to recovery," guard Evan Mathis said. "Training camp doesn't become a mauling session where we're killing each other. . . .. We do have those days, and he knows that, and he lets you recover enough from that."

Mathis said there was a noticeable difference in the way he felt throughout training camp. Michael Vick gushes about how well he feels at age 33, and DeSean Jackson noted that Vick is even eating salads. Players sheepishly admit that they look better. They're eating better, sleeping better, and working out with more intelligence.

Players who have been elsewhere notice that Kelly doesn't run his team like others. The schedule is one of the major differences. The Eagles will practice on Tuesdays, which is normally the players' day off in the NFL. A traditional NFL schedule calls for the players to come into the facility Monday to review film and meet, practice Wednesday to Friday, and then do a walk-through on Saturday. The Eagles have off on Mondays and practice the other days - including Saturdays.

"There's so many things that are different than what I did the last couple years, but everybody is different, all 32 teams are different," said tight end James Casey, who signed with the Eagles after four years with the Houston Texans. "I think the big thing is just how fast everything is: the way we run our offense, the way we meet, the way he talks. And that's how football is. When you're out there, you've got to think fast."

Owner Jeffrey Lurie said that the emphasis on the ancillary aspects has helped the team buy into a "common, ultimate preparedness plan." Whether the results are evident immediately or in a year, Lurie is encouraged by what he has seen.

Yet ask Kelly about what's happening in the NovaCare Complex, and he'll downplay it. He's vague about some of the scientific and data analysis for propriety purposes, but it's clear it's different in Philadelphia.

"We're not revolutionizing anything," Kelly said. All we're trying to do is make sure we're kind of crystal clear on our plan of what we're doing, and we understand what we're doing. . . . It's not change for the sake of change, it's change when we believe change is necessary."

How will Kelly fare?

Despite the changes, there's no telling whether it's going to work. College coaches have jumped to the NFL with varying degrees of success. Jimmy Johnson arrived without NFL experience and won two Super Bowls. Steve Spurrier had no NFL experience and was out of the league after two seasons.

Jim Harbaugh successfully made the jump. Nick Saban quickly returned to college.

Dungy said the adjustment is with the schedule and the limitations of the collective bargaining agreement. But he emphasized that coaching players and relating to players are the same wherever one coaches.

That doesn't curb curiosity. Lurie hears from owners. Dungy hears from coaches. People around the NFL are intrigued about how Kelly will fare.

"Everybody thinks it's not going to work because they look at it as a system, and it really is more than that," Dungy said. "It's not that it's going to be read-option, or the quarterback running the ball, or fast-paced. It's the way you do things, and that's what he'll get across. He'll change the culture, and it'll be successful. But I do think there's a lot of people looking at it and saying, 'Well, this is a college system, it's not going to work.' "

Dungy's confidence in Kelly comes from observing him since Kelly's first game as head coach in 2009. They spoke after that game, and Dungy has been impressed with Kelly ever since. He sent his son to play for Kelly, and he has followed Kelly's track to the NFL.

Whatever happens, the league has not seen anyone quite like Kelly. There have been up-tempo offenses and unconventional thinking, but Kelly brings original thinking.

"He sees football not through other people's eyes, but through his own eyes," Dungy said. "Pretty soon, the players are going to develop confidence, and they're going to feel good about themselves, and they're going to win."

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