Kelly, Hinkie bringing much-needed innovation to their teams

CHIP KELLY
CHIP KELLY
Posted: July 28, 2014

There are no two more intriguing sports figures in Philadelphia these days than Chip Kelly and Sam Hinkie. No one else comes close, and the two of them are fascinating for the same reasons.

No one else wields as much influence over any of the city's four major franchises as these men do, and no one else has shown the same willingness to flout the conventional wisdom of his respective sport.

The Eagles held their first training-camp practice Saturday - exactly one month after the NBA held its annual player draft - so it seemed an appropriate time to point out the philosophical line that separates two of the town's teams from the other two. It's a stark divide, and Kelly and Hinkie are the cause of it.

On one side are the Phillies and the Flyers, who have long believed their reluctance to change, their adherence to tradition, is a strength. For a while now, they have been caught up in the habit of "going for it every year" with too little regard for the trends, the innovations, or the economic realities of their respective leagues.

No matter the failing, whether an out-of-hand dismissal of sabermetrics and analytics or an inability to recognize how the NHL's evolution would place a premium on elite defensemen, each franchise has seen every problem as fixable as long as it throws enough money at it. Only now are both organizations coming to understand the limitations of their approaches, and only now are they beginning to course-correct. (The Flyers, under new general manager Ron Hextall, are further along in that process, in part because of Hextall's fondness for hoarding young defensemen, in part because their scalps are already pressed against the salary cap's ceiling.)

On the other side are the Eagles, with Kelly as their head coach, and the 76ers, with Hinkie as their general manager. It's an understatement to suggest that they are going about things a bit differently.

Consider Kelly, hired after the Eagles tried to buy themselves a Super Bowl and instead plummeted to the bottom of the NFC East. He has changed how the Eagles play, how they eat, how they train, how they practice, when they practice, what kinds of players the front office ought to be acquiring and why, what kinds of criteria ought to be used to evaluate players and why - all of it captured in that single stunning decision in March, when the team released its best wide receiver, DeSean Jackson.

These were not tweaks, not minor modifications. These changes have been part, instead, of a rethinking of how a franchise should operate to maximize its opportunities to excel not just for one season but over the long term.

Hinkie shares that goal, though the road he has chosen for the Sixers requires more patience to tread. When he drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric - the former injured and unlikely to play this season, the latter locked into a pro contract in Turkey for at least another two years - he reaffirmed that everyone should take him at his word when he says that he and the Sixers' owners will take their time in trying to construct a roster that can sustain success. This is not a man who believes in a quick fix.

"You can see it in Europe a lot" in soccer, Hinkie said in an interview last fall. "A team loses to a bad opponent, and they threaten to fire the coach. And the newspapers rise up and say, 'Enough. We need a change in leadership because we're 4-1.' And they literally fire people like that. Now everything's going to be great, and they win the next three. Then they lose two in a row, and they fire that guy, and they go through it time and time again. You can operate that way, but you can't build anything with any staying power - anything, anything at all.

"Being tired of losing doesn't change the fact that if you start a war against an army you can't beat, you'll lose, tragically. I love that we're all passionate about what we want and how bad we want it now. I am, too. It just doesn't change the realities of what is required."

There are, of course, no guarantees attached to Hinkie's plan, which distinguishes him from his predecessors, whose refusal to bottom out and begin again made certain that the Sixers had absolutely no hope of competing for a championship.

But that's the fun in watching what he and Kelly are doing - that they're daring to be innovative, that no one knows what they'll do next or how this all will turn out.

Someone said to me the other day that no one's tried to win an NBA title in the manner Sam Hinkie is trying to win one. The same can be said of Chip Kelly and the Super Bowl. To that assertion, there's only one appropriate response: Cool.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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