Kelly's fast-break approach with Eagles polar opposite of Reid's
PHILADELPHIA -- Dispatches from Kelly World, where the transformation of the Eagles under new head coach Chip Kelly was on full display Tuesday, in the opening workout of a three-day full-squad minicamp ...
• Watching a Chip Kelly-led practice, one endures a bit of an assault on the senses. There's an almost constant stream of music blasting from loudspeakers, a swirl of tightly scheduled and choreographed activity on various pockets of the field, and everywhere you look, motion, movement and the work of an entire franchise learning how to adapt and transition into the hurry-up formation.
If Kelly's rebuilding program in Philadelphia unfolds as quickly as one of his practices, Eagles fans should be prepared for their beloved team to win immediately.
There's a leap of faith underway around here, and it's being taken at a breathtaking pace. To describe Kelly's preferred style of practice as "up-tempo" is a sizable understatement. Frenetic is more like it. But two months into the Eagles' on-field work with Kelly at the helm, the contrast from the club's long and mostly stable Andy Reid coaching era couldn't be more stark.
"Oh, it's a different world,'' veteran Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. "Don't get me wrong. I love Andy to death. But it's two totally different systems, in every way. Everything is up-tempo now. It's go, go, go, go, go. All the time. But it's very efficient. We didn't know what to expect until we had that first practice and saw it, and it was a shock to your system. But I think probably almost everyone already has bought in. From the look at practice, guys are excited. I think it's going to be hard on other teams to keep up from a tempo standpoint. You saw that when you watched Oregon (Kelly's old team) play. When you watched them, you felt bad for the other team.''
The Eagles don't waste much space or effort on the practice field. One drill features all five quarterbacks throwing to five different receivers running different routes off the same snap. Reps are the coin of the realm, and the Eagles run play after play after play, barely stopping long enough to get the play calls hand-signaled in from the sideline. I didn't see a single huddle all day long on offense, and it looked like Eagles quarterbacks will do very little work under center this season.
Everything is geared toward maximizing time, gaining an edge in conditioning and working with a sense of urgency. Kelly believes in a short, compact work day, but it's both condensed and intense. While Reid often sat back and observed his team as it worked its way through a practice, Kelly is much more vocal and hands-on at this point, pushing the pace and keeping things moving at all times, until the air horn sounds, the music stops and an automated voice announces via the loudspeaker that a brief teaching period of practice has begun.
"As opposed to the last two years, where there was a lot of taking your time between plays, this is real efficient,'' said third-year Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews, a veteran of the Kelly system in college at Oregon. "And that's how it should be. With how quick it moves out there, you've got to always keep your head in the game. In some of these drills, it can be you're in for one play and you're done, or it's the whole series until the next guy goes in. You really have to pay attention and get your mental reps in, but with the speed and efficiency of how things are run, you almost look forward to practicing.''
Looking forward to practice. Maybe Kelly will revolutionize football after all.
• You've probably heard about Kelly being a big believer in sports science, with his emphasis on player diets, their amount of sleep, and how they train and condition. And I can vouch for some of it firsthand. Less than a minute into a post-practice interview with outside linebacker-defensive end Trent Cole, I detected the distinct fragrance of the fruit smoothie he had just downed before we talked. Eagles players all have their own personalized smoothies waiting for them after a workout, although Celek told me he had to start cutting back on them because he was starting to gain a little weight.
But while sports science and increased technology are in evidence at Eagles camp -- the music soundtrack and computerized announcement of the practice periods ("Period 9, teach'') are just two examples -- my favorite Kelly practice touch was what I dubbed the "Flyswatter Guys.'' They're the three young men whose job it is to don shoulder pads with what looks to be a giant flyswatter attached in the back, extending over their heads like a makeshift satellite antenna.
They're tasked with standing almost shoulder to shoulder facing the Eagles quarterbacks during passing drills, getting in their line of vision and making the passers throw the ball over and around them, as they would have to with on-rushing defensive linemen who are trying to get their arms up and block the ball (think J.J. Watt, the human flyswatter).
I've seen other teams practice something similar, and I think the Patriots have guys who stand in front of the quarterbacks and hold up sticks with hands or arms attached to the end of them if I'm not mistaken. But the flyswatter apparatus is something novel looking, and I can't help but wonder if the three Eagles staffers told their mothers everything about what their new job in the big-time of the NFL entailed? "You're doing what for the football coach, honey?''
• You're not going to get any thinking player to say anything but positives about a new head coach's program in early June, but it does seem like the Eagles are eagerly buying in to what Kelly is selling.
For starters, rather than tiptoeing past Reid's office as they did in the past, several players told me Kelly's open-door policy is quite refreshing. The new coach wants to hear their questions and concerns about his new methods, because he knows information is his ally in this case. If the players get the why behind his ways, they're more likely to get onboard. At least until the regular season begins and the games start providing a weekly referendum on the Kelly regime. If a coach wins in the NFL, he could be a mass murderer and the players would follow him anywhere.
"There's a reason why Chip has gotten some automatic credibility with us,'' receiver Jason Avant said. "The guys in our locker room, and in our NFL culture, we understand that you can't go out there and try to do a bunch of new things if you're not engaged mentally. You'll do it, but you won't understand why. Once everyone understands why we're doing something and how we do it, it's much for the better.
"One thing I like about Chip is you can go in and ask him why am I doing this, why am I running this route instead of this route, and he'll tell you, boom, boom, boom. That makes you respect him more and it gives you a place where you can voice your opinion. Not to be disagreeable, but just to let him know you're trying to learn. He doesn't take it as a threat. It's like that with the sports science stuff, too. They're working us smarter than most people do. There's nothing in terms of wasted effort. Everything has a purpose. If it's not proven, we won't do it.''
• With so much of what Kelly is bringing to the Eagles being new, both on offense and on a defense that is transforming into a hybrid formation that has elements of both a 3-4 and a 4-3, it does feel a bit like the entire franchise is trying to execute a 180 in record speed. Stability was pretty much a Philadelphia trademark for the past 14 years, but it finally ran its course.
Can this much institutional change be undertaken so rapidly? That's the question that will make the Eagles perhaps the most fascinating story in the NFL to follow this season. It's transition on such a wide scale that you have to question how long it will take for Kelly to reverse the way things have been done for so long in Philly and prove himself successful?
I don't think it's likely, because Kelly has a proven track in major college football, but I suppose it's possible that in 10 years we look back and strain to remember the name of that coach who came in and replaced Reid with the Eagles, albeit briefly. Who was that guy with all the music at practice and the no-huddle, up-tempo attacking offense?
Perhaps the one comparison from NFL history that comes to mind is the painfully short Les Steckel era in Minnesota. Steckel was Bud Grant's hand-picked successor, but he flamed out after one 3-13 season in 1984, trying a bunch of not-well-received team-bonding exercises with his veteran club, as a means of putting his own stamp on the franchise.
Again, I don't foresee such a fate for Kelly. But there is a lot of new to the 2013 Eagles, and it could prove very important for Kelly to win enough early this season to have his vision for the organization validated. But so far, Kelly's players have found all the change revitalizing.
"Last year was pretty rough,'' Cole said of the team's 4-12, last-place finish in NFC East. "But now it's 2013, and it's a new Eagles team, a new franchise, a new style of play, with a new coaching leading us, doing some different things. It's all new and fresh, but you need that coming off a season like we had. You need to have some type of change. Everybody knows that. Andy was great here for a long time, and it was sad to see him leave, but we're here now with Chip Kelly and it's Chip Kelly's team.''
• The big "if'' factor in Philadelphia this season remains obvious: Do the Eagles have the quarterback who can accurately execute Kelly's step-on-the-throat offense? Will Michael Vick take care of the football well enough and make good decisions in the passing game, all the while staying healthy? Can second-year man Nick Foles move well enough and show sufficient athleticism to run Kelly's attack? Will rookie Matt Barkley be in the starting mix by the second half of the season, if for no other reason than Philadelphia needs at some point this year to find out if he's the guy going forward into 2014 and beyond?
Vick and Foles continue to basically split first-team reps, and I can't see Kelly making any sort of call at starting quarterback until he sees both in a preseason game or two. I suppose I'd put my money on Vick opening the season at No. 1, but I don't see him playing well enough to keep the job all year. From what I gathered just listening to them on Tuesday, several Eagles offensive starters don't know who will win the QB job either.
"You can see what this offense could become,'' Avant said. "Our defense is doing pretty good, but we're always a man or a half a man ahead of them most of the time. Toward the end of practice we start completing more passes against them, and that's just a sign of us being to the ball, being in shape and playing at just a different level of tempo and conditioning. I think this offense will work in the NFL, if the quarterback can do it. I think we're in the position to win, and I like it. As long as the quarterback puts us in the right position, I think we'll be fine.''
• It's not as if fast-break football hasn't been seeping into the NFL more every year, with the passing game success of offensive juggernauts like New Orleans, New England and Green Bay in recent seasons. But if Kelly can produce a reasonable NFL facsimile to what he fielded at Oregon, the Eagles might be must-see TV by October.
"I think us practicing this way, what it does is by the time game days come, everything will be real slow,'' Cole said. "We'll probably be out there like, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go.' It'll feel like the game is being delayed, but it's really just us and our style of play, because we'll be ready to go at all times. I think [Kelly] is preparing us to have more endurance than our opponents. That's the plan behind this kind of practice speed. It just feels like this may be where the league is headed, getting faster in the pace of how you play. This is a whole other speed, and I feel like you can overwhelm an opponent this way.''
Be it the tempo of practice, or the furious pace of the turnaround project that has begun under Kelly, speed is suddenly of the essence in Philadelphia.