Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Walk Chip's Way: Eagles' Kelly a stickler for discipline

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

As much as Chip Kelly requires his players to run on the practice fields behind the NovaCare Complex, the Eagles coach demands they keep off the front lawn.

The grass that greets visitors to the team's practice facility - finely manicured every Monday - is lined with walkways. But the shortest path between the Eagles' indoor bubble and the nearest entrance to the locker room is not.

When Andy Reid was coach, the players simply went from A to B, trudging atop the lawn in the interest of time. Kelly may do nearly everything at supersonic speed, but he doesn't believe in cutting corners.

So when the leftovers from the Reid regime did what they had always done - and, frankly, some of the new players took the shortcut as well - Kelly would bark his order to stay off the grass.

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    It took some repeating in his first year, but now the Eagles march in order along the pathways. Kelly's rule might be the most minor of changes he made in Year 1, but sometimes the smallest detail can paint the entire picture.

    "It goes back to, he cares about the whole thing," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "I love it because [you should] show respect, walk on the sidewalks. Don't walk all over the grass.

    "You would never think a head football coach wastes his time spending that moment to discipline. But he does."

    Kelly's schemes may have received the bulk of credit for the Eagles' turnaround in 2013, but greater attention should be focused on an ongoing culture shift that starts with - simplistic as it sounds - finding good people who do the right things.

    And it starts at the top with the complex Kelly, arguably the most fascinating figure to come through Philadelphia in a generation, who kicks off his second training camp with the Eagles on Friday when players officially report.

    Screeds have been written about Kelly's offense, but few have been able to dig into one of the most innovative minds in coaching - just as he prefers. Kelly has yet to give a one-on-one, off-camera interview since becoming Eagles coach.

    There are plenty of clues to gather from his coaching philosophies and relationships within the Eagles. Kelly may come off as sarcastic, evasive, and fidgety in public settings, but his players and aides describe the 50-year-old as businesslike and direct.

    He's been called a "player's coach," but Kelly is very much a disciplinarian and stickler for details, down to the color of socks he wants worn at practice. When he said in June that he wanted "like-minded individuals," it was difficult to not think the March ouster of DeSean Jackson was a by-product of this thinking.

    "He is a demanding coach," center Jason Kelce said. "He's likable from the player's perspective, but at the same time, you know what's expected of you. If you don't do what's expected of you, then you're going to be on your way out. He's made it very clear that he's not going to tolerate certain things."

    That doesn't mean Kelly wants robots. He gives his coaches autonomy and encourages their free thought in the hopes that it will filter down to the players. Kelly, who cribs ideas from successful enterprises outside of football, like the Navy Seals, said that he's always thought outside the box.

    "I was probably a pain in the [butt] as a little kid, I would imagine," he said last month. "I questioned everything. I've always been a 'why' guy. . . . Most of the time, the 'whys' are right. We don't change drastically. I think that's kind of silly if you're just changing for the sake of change.

    "But I think you change when change is necessary. There's a Latin term, mutatis mutandis, which means: 'If there's a reason for [change].' "

    Kelly's keep-off-the-grass rule dates back to Oregon. The "why," according to Eagles rookie and former Ducks receiver Josh Huff, is "don't take any shortcuts in life, and always do the right thing even though the wrong thing might get you to the door quicker."

    "What you try to get across to guys is you have to think about things," said Eagles defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, who also worked with Kelly at Oregon. "Maybe you're not going to think about it as deeply and say somebody mowed that lawn, somebody spent hours preparing that thing, but I think as you're around really good people, good people don't do that.

    "They clean up after themselves. They just try to do the right thing as much as they can. And no one needs to be looking. You just try to do the right thing."

    No doors

    Kelly can't be everywhere, but he has been almost omnipresent in the locker room and weight room - areas some coaches consider sacred to the players. He had the door that separates the lounge from the locker room removed after he arrived last year.

    "I think certain times that's where problems occur . . . because the coaches aren't in the locker room enough," Kelly said. "I think you shouldn't have to worry about, 'Well, the coaches are here, we have to act . . . differently.'

    "They should be able to behave the way we were all taught how to behave - to be a good person, to be a good teammate, to be a good neighbor. That's just part of the deal. If I had my way - there's obviously fire codes - there should be no doors on anything."

    The players certainly have their freedoms. Their work days are shorter than most because the meetings are quick and efficient. The practices may be as physically grueling as any in the NFL, but Kelly allows for plenty of rest and recovery.

    It's up to the player to follow through when he's on his own time. Kelly has said the demands of playing in the NFL will naturally weed out the slackers, but he and general manager Howie Roseman have increasingly focused on finding players they won't have to worry about.

    It's not a novel approach. Talent and scheme-fit will always take precedent, but Kelly has seemingly sought out players or gravitated toward those in his likeness. He has disputed the notion, but the gym rats see it that way.

    "I think he is a gym rat," Barwin said. "He's got no kids. He has a girlfriend. But this is what he does, and this is what we do. So I think those are the kinds of people he wants to be around."

    There was a core group - led by Barwin, Kelce, wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, tight end Brent Celek, and guard Todd Herremans - that spent the offseason in Philly working out at the NovaCare. Their relationship extends beyond the locker room.

    Barwin spoke of how a number of teammates delayed vacations to attend his charity concert at Union Transfer last month. There are also other groups on the Eagles in which friendships exist beyond the NovaCare walls.

    "The more people get along and share the same vision and aspirations, the more you're going to get to where you want to get to," Kelly said. "If you have people who have different agendas in terms of what they're trying to get accomplished, that's not going to help the cause."

    Cary Williams was a lightning rod last offseason. A few months after the Eagles signed him, the free-agent cornerback made headlines after giving his reasons (a new home, dental work, a daughter's dance recital) for not attending voluntary workouts.

    In August, after the first preseason game, he publicly questioned the defense's tenacity. And before the season opener he got into a practice scrum with Cooper in which he repeated the same racial slur the receiver had been caught using on video several weeks prior.

    Williams admitted that his relationship with Kelly is limited because he plays on defense. But after a few one-on-one meetings following last year's controversies, he said he felt his coach had his best interests at heart.

    "He's a listener. He's a guy that's going to allow you to talk and give your point of view of things," Williams said. "You got to respect it. Some coaches - they're not necessarily power hungry - but they could care less about where a player is coming from."

    It should be noted that Williams attended every workout this offseason, and the Eagles public relations staff no longer finds it necessary to monitor his every interview.

    The why

    With a 53-man roster and a 25-man coaching staff, it would be impossible for Kelly to homogenize the Eagles, even if that were his aspiration. But everyone should have the same objective and team goals should supersede individual ones.

    Uniforms should be worn uniformly to reflect a team-as-one mentality. So when a player wears black socks rather than the white ones the rest of the team wears, it suggests to Kelly that player wishes to stand apart.

    "I just think it has to do with the entire culture," Kelce said. "Everyone is expected to buy in and follow the team's culture and expectations. I really don't think he cares at all about what color socks guys are wearing. He probably just wants us to be in uniform and look like a team."

    It would be hyperbolic to suggest that Jackson is no longer an Eagle because of how he wore his socks or because he was one of the few to wear green rather than black cleats. But for Kelly, as Kelce suggested when explaining his coach's grass policy, "all the little details add up to big deals."

    Asked about Jackson before the Eagles ended minicamp, Kelly offered little further explanation. He said in April that it was a football-only decision. Last month, he explained: "Everybody weighed in on it and made a decision to move forward."

    Kelly, of course, made the final decision. He is at the top of the pyramid, and while Roseman has some clout, the team is being built on parameters Kelly set. Every choice made is met with a "why?" or new idea with "why not?" - from Kelly to his assistants down to the team leaders.

    "And the players, when they know that and they understand that," offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said, "it's like you can instantaneously see them buying in, as opposed to just being force-fed information."

    Kelly often receives credit for some of the Eagles' practice innovations, but it is often his assistants who come up with the contraptions. Running backs coach Duce Staley, for instance, has introduced a variety of drills that use unconventional tools.

    But it's Kelly the iconoclast who promotes unorthodoxy. He's always exploring other models for any additional edge.

    In June, he spoke about "self-governance" (trust, shared vision, and a commitment to a purpose-inspired mission) - the most successful business model, according to The HOW Report written by consulting firm LRN - and how the Eagles were moving in that direction.

    "I make it a habit of trying to study high-performance organizations, and it doesn't have to be football," Kelly said. "It can be the military. It could be a business. It could be sports teams from other sports."

    Kelly said that he has studied the Navy Seals up close, having observed them in training missions. He said that he has incorporated some of their methods, such as their meticulous planning and post-mission debriefing, into his coaching.

    He has expressed his admiration for the U.S. military before. In June, Kelly divulged that one of his three brothers had served. He has been on USO-type trips to Iraq and Kuwait.

    But the Seals are most intriguing when it comes to coaching, Azzinaro said, because of their success rate.

    "A lot of mental toughness you learn from them, and how they foster that," Kelly said. "A lot of leadership qualities that they look for. A lot of cooperation within the group. How does the group react in certain situations? Are they always looking for one guy to lead them, or are there multiple guys at certain times?"

    What happens when the leader is off somewhere else? What happens when Kelly isn't around? Do the players walk on the grass?

    "Every once in a while when he's not around," Barwin said. "But then one of the assistant coaches will say, 'Get off the grass,' or I will or somebody else will. We all know that it's something that bothers him."

    And the players know why.


    Second That Emotion

    Chip Kelly joined an exclusive club when the Eagles reached the playoffs in his first season as an NFL coach. Since 1990, only 24 coaches have done it. Kelly is attempting to become the 13th to make the playoffs in his second year. Of the last 10 to reach the postseason in Year 1, three - John Harbaugh, Sean Payton, and Mike Tomlin - eventually won a Super Bowl. There are some lesser talents, though, on that list:

    Coach, team Year Record Playoff result
    Chuck Pagano, Colts 2012 11-5 Lost wild card
      2013 11-5 Lost divisional
    Jim Harbaugh, 49ers 2011 13-3 Lost NFC championship
      2012 11-4-1 Lost Super Bowl
    Jim Caldwell, Colts 2009 14-2 Lost Super Bowl
      2010 10-6 Lost wild card
    Rex Ryan, Jets 2009 9-7 Lost AFC championship
      2010 11-5 Lost AFC championship
    John Harbaugh, Ravens 2008 11-5 Lost AFC championship
      2009 9-7 Lost divisional
    Mike Smith, Falcons 2008 11-5 Lost wild card
      2009 9-7 -
    Tony Sparano, Dolphins 2008 11-5 Lost wild card
      2009 7-9 -
    Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2007 10-6 Lost wild card
      2008 12-4 Won Super Bowl
    Eric Mangini, Jets 2006 10-6 Lost wild card
      2007 4-12 -
    Sean Payton, Saints 2006 10-6 Lost NFC championship
      2007 7-9 -

    *–missed 12 games for cancer treatments


    jmclane@phillynews.com

    @Jeff_McLane

    Jeff McLane Inquirer Staff Writer
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