There are times - as the music is blaring at practice, and the robot voice is announcing the next drill, and the flyswatter boys are standing in front of the quarterback, and the running backs are being handed the bright orange anti-fumbling footballs, and the secret staff of sports science analysts are checking their laptops - when you wonder if the whole thing isn't really some elaborate put-on that amuses Chip Kelly.
He's capable of that. He would absolutely create this environment to see if he could pull it off and then deadpan his way through his explanation of the logic of it all. He got the team to spend $1 million to update its weight room (including equipment that videotapes the players as they lift) and got them to hire a whole bunch of people with titles unlike any others in the NFL and then set about practicing and preparing the players in a wildly unorthodox manner.
All of that for a game that usually comes down to which set of men can push around another set of men. "Big people beat up little people," Kelly says, and there is no asterisk followed by "unless the little people practice with flyswatter boys and anti-fumbling footballs."
Layering a lot of extraneous nonsense that others take very seriously onto that unalterable fundamental of the game - the team with the better players will win - is something that Kelly would definitely find funny in an absurdist sort of way.
When he encounters a dumb question (not that uncommon) or one he finds obvious (ditto), Kelly often gives a ridiculous answer with a flat, believable delivery that leaves the questioner unsure if he is being messed with or not. This is a new experience. Reporters did not gather to dissect the nuance of Andy Reid's answers, or to decide if he was intentionally making them look foolish. Kelly makes a parlor game out of it.
So, yeah, he could have dreamed it all up as a distraction. If the players think they are being coached by a new-age wizard, then they are. If opponents believe they are at a conditioning disadvantage against the Eagles, then they are. (In the same vein, the Denver Nuggets used to place two oxygen bottles and masks prominently next to the visitors' bench, just as a reminder.) If all the sports science applications being employed add up to exactly nothing, where is the harm in trying them? Plus, it's kind of neat.
The fact, however, is that Chip Kelly is not kidding about this stuff, even if he takes it to ridiculous levels. When he shuffled around the lockers at the NovaCare Complex, for instance, as some sort of team-bonding, team-building psychobabble, that was just silly. It makes no sense for Todd Herremans to line up hip-to-hip with Jason Kelce every day and then, quite literally, for them to have lockers that are the farthest apart in the room. Offensive linemen are tribal animals and should be allowed to graze together.
But he isn't kidding about the protein shakes and the sleep monitors and the little computers that attach to the shoulder pads during practice and keep track of how fast a guy is running and when he gets tired and how well he accelerates. Someone is paid to study all those readouts and make sense of them and translate the findings into who-knows-what that will help the team win a football game.
That might be the job of Shaun Huls, who was hired as sports science coordinator, a new position, and he does a lot of interesting things, none of which I can tell you about because the Eagles do not make Huls available for interviews. Just more mystery for opponents to consider. In his previous job, Huls trained Navy SEALs, the guys who can swim many nautical miles wearing backpacks full of underwater explosives, and who also do interesting things that aren't fodder for interviews. Huls' title was "combatives coordinator," for the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group 2. My guess is that Kelly gets a kick out of having him around.
All of it comes together because Kelly wants his football team, at least on offense, to operate very quickly and run more plays than anyone else. He wants as little pause as possible and knows that his methods can succeed, but only if his players don't get tired and don't get hurt. Everything - the shakes, the monitors, the videotaped weightlifting - is related to that. The only unknown is whether it will work, or whether a professional football team, consisting of 53 very valuable commodities, is too highly strung for that sort of use.
Kelly doesn't know, either. We will all find out at roughly the same time, and the results won't be displayed on a spreadsheet or a computer printout. They will be on the weekly injury report and on the scoreboard. If the findings aren't very good, and don't improve over time, then the music and the shakes and the anti-fumbling footballs won't seem quite as innovative. It might even reflect badly on the flyswatter boys (who only seem to hinder Michael Vick, by the way, which is a little unsettling).
It takes a guy with some courage to do things differently from everyone else. The nail that sticks up must get hammered down, and all that. It also takes a guy who isn't afraid to be laughed at, and Kelly definitely has the sense of humor for this kind of high-wire act.
In fact, he might already be laughing at all of us. I wouldn't put it past him.
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