No. 3: Chip Kelly Is Not Afraid to Fail
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
Since arriving in Philadelphia, Chip Kelly has toyed with convention, from calling plays with sideline flash cards to dictating the coconut content in post-practice smoothies. Those tweaks paled in comparison to what occurred over the last six months, as Kelly acquired personnel responsibilities and then treated the NFL offseason like a game of Risk.
The coach staked his future on an injured quarterback in Sam Bradford, traded 2013 rushing champion LeSean McCoy and cut one of the league’s best guards, Evan Mathis. Fans in Philadelphia simmered, hypothesizing how (and when) Kelly’s gutsiness would implode. “The city is obsessed with Chip Kelly, because he drives us crazy,” says Howard Eskin, the longtime Philly sports talk radio host. “But Chip doesn’t care. The reason he’s influential is because he doesn’t get influenced by what people think.”
Fans and media have spent a disproportionate amount of time dissecting Kelly’s psyche. There are few in the NFL as audacious. For perspective, we turned to a man who has been there before. In 1989, Jimmy Johnson was Chip Kelly: a successful college coach who stamped his imprint on an NFL franchise with a series of counterintuitive moves. Johnson shipped the Cowboy’s lone star, running back Herschel Walker, to Minnesota. He built a small, fast defense when everyone else was thinking big. He was called, among many descriptions unfit for print, crazy.
And then Dallas won three Super Bowls, two with Johnson as coach and the third with Barry Switzer coaching Johnson’s roster. Despite claims to the contrary, there can be a method to the madness. Here is Johnson’s explanation of Kelly’s potential power:
“When you have one guy making the decisions—like I was in Dallas or Miami, like Bill Belichick is in New England, and now like Chip is—you don’t have a lot of devil’s advocates. You don’t have a lot of people who work for you second-guessing you. If you have a committee involved in the decision-making, 95% of the time, you’re going to be conservative. There’s always going to be one person saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this,’ or, ‘Wait, let’s think about that.’ When one guy makes the decision, you take chances. That’s what Chip has done this year.
“I’m a fan of Chip Kelly. I like what he’s doing. The biggest concern I have is that even though they’ve been the healthiest team in the league the last couple years, because of his holistic approach with sports science and nutrition, he’s taking some big risks trading and obtaining players with major injuries. That’s the only concern I have.
“You don’t let media or pundits affect you, but of course you are aware of what they’re saying. It was both comical and hurtful. Even though you found it comical because you knew they had no idea what you were trying to do, nobody wants to be criticized. At times it would almost feel personal. It had nothing to do with your decision-making, it had to do with the fact that they just didn’t like you—because you rubbed somebody wrong. Maybe you didn’t do right by one of their favorite players, which Chip has done, which I did, which Belichick has done. With Belichick, he has the credibility so people accept it. Late in my career they began to accept it. With Chip right now, people are not accepting it. Some people are not accepting trading LeSean McCoy. Some people are not accepting cutting Evan Mathis. Until you win big, people are going to criticize you.
“Chip and I have talked a couple of times, and he’s a very private guy; so much of what we discuss should not be shared. But I did give him one piece of advice this year. He wanted to know what it’s like to be the decision maker as well as the coach. I told him this: You have an advantage in the draft because you know these players. You’ve been in a lot of their homes, you’ve watched them play closely. So the draft is when guys like you and I have the advantage. The problem I ran into in Miami (I didn’t have it in Dallas because free agency had just begun) was that during the season, I was so busy that I couldn’t stay on top of all of the things I wanted to: picking up players from the street, making some moves, especially on the bottom end of your roster. You’re so busy prepping with your current team for that week’s game that you can’t do it all by yourself. The job is overwhelming to do it 12 months of the year all by yourself. I found that out. My advice would be to have somebody—and not a group of people, just one person that you trust, that you like, that’s loyal, that’s like-minded—do those type of things. That will help, because during the season itself the job can be a little overwhelming. But in the offseason? The draft and free agency? Take advantage of your talents. You’re good at evaluating players because you did it in college just like I did in college, so that’s where you can shine. But during the season is when you’re going to need a little bit of help.
“Here’s the big question: Do you want to play it safe and be good, or do you want to take a chance and be great? If you’re not afraid to fail, you can do some great things in this league. But most people are afraid to fail, so they play it safe. I always liked to take risks because I was always confident in my abilities. I think—no, I know—Chip is confident in his abilities, too.”