Since you guys have been so good this week, I’ve got a special treat for you. Instead of me rambling on about the Eagles, PBR and Lone Wolf McQuade, we get a guest column from a Chip Kelly expert, Oregon fan/sportswriter/author Mark Saltveit.
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Is Chip Kelly A Good Loser?
By Mark Saltveit
We know that Chip Kelly is a great winner, a coach with an unparalleled level of success – 46-7 in his four years of head coaching at previously unheralded Oregon, a BCS Bowl game each season, and many successful years as an offensive coordinator before that.
This raises a scary question – how good of a loser will he be? Because, let’s face it, he will lose a lot of games this year, and he hasn’t had much practice. Let’s say the Eagles go 9-7 and make the playoffs, a result at the high end of the optimistic range and a fantastic turnaround from last year’s 4-12 quagmire.
Even if all those good things happen, Kelly will lose as many games this year as he has in his entire head coaching career. What if the Eagles lose several games in a row, which could easily happen? Kelly’s Ducks never lost two in a row, unless you count the combination of the 2010 National Championship Game and the first game of 2011 against #4 Louisiana State University.
If the Eagles lose a string of games, will Kelly waver in his rock-solid confidence? Lose the confidence of his players? Too-hastily abandon his innovative offensive concepts? Bring back Taco Tuesdays and tell players to stay up late?
Some coaches – often disciplinarians — are great at turning around teams in a tailspin, but can’t manage the egos of a top-level franchise. Other coaches only succeed with top-level teams. Pat Riley won a championship in his first season with the L.A. Lakers and adapted well to the Knicks and Heat, but he always started with a playoff team. Is Kelly one of these glass-jawed winners?
His experience at Oregon does not offer much evidence either way. There really were only two moments of adversity in 4 years, and these setbacks were ridiculously mild compared to a team that lost 11 of 12 games, such as the 2012 Eagles. Still, I think those moments revealed things about Kelly’s character that give us a hint of how he’ll handle hard times in Philadelphia. More on that in a minute.
Before he went to Oregon, though, it was a different story. Kelly played college ball as a QB and DB at the University of New Hampshire, and started coaching there in 1992, but they were not consistent winners until 2004. In his 11 seasons coaching there before that breakout year, they were 61-61. Obviously, this did not set back Kelly’s career, though he was never the head coach so he didn’t face the same pressures. Furthermore, the Wildcats’ offense thrived after Kelly became offensive coordinator in 1999, while the defense was often poor, so Chip did not face personal criticism. Still, he learned how to absorb losses and continue to motivate his squad nonetheless.
Oregon was a different story. Kelly inherited an above-average, underperforming team – sound familiar? — that was already implementing a spread offense under Mike Bellotti. The 2006 Ducks were ranked #21 before the season began, but ended 7-6 with a loss to the BYU Cougars in the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl. It was the first time the Ducks had ended the season unranked since 2004. Kelly started as offensive coordinator the following year and Kelly transformed the Ducks’ offense into a steamroller of yards and points, making him the obvious choice to replace Bellotti.
Expectations were sky-high for his first game as head coach – in his lifetime! – against Boise State on September 3, 2009. The #16 Ducks were on the road against the #14 Broncos (yes, Boise State was a bit of a power when Kellen Moore was their quarterback, though it’s hard to believe that now. They ended that season 14-0, ranked #4 in the nation.)
The results of Kelly’s first game could not have been more disastrous, especially for such a reputed offensive genius. The Ducks did not get a first down in the first half, ending up with only 152 yards – their fewest in 15 years. Star running back LeGarrette Blount, who has verified his talent in the NFL since this debacle, ended the night with minus-five yards rushing. Actually, that’s not true – he ended the night by punching Boise State’s Byron Hout in the face and charging the taunting Bronco fans in the stands. Police had to restrain him from further mayhem.
So here was the clear low point of Chip Kelly’s head coaching career. Not only did he lose, with his offensive prowess specifically shut down, but the one true star of his team had attacked another player on national television. Everything seemed to be falling apart. How did Chip respond?
Despite what must have been tremendous pressure to keep Blount on the field, and very real doubts about whether his FCS football techniques could work at the top levels of FBS football, he stayed tough and stuck to his guns – both in his football strategy and in his emphasis on character. Kelly suspended Blount for the season, which allowed him to develop a couple of younger running backs named LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. (Blount was later reinstated for the last two games of the year, though he was not a dominant force even then.) He also stayed with his innovative coaching concepts, and by the end of the season the Ducks were in the Rose Bowl, ranked #11 in the nation.
The other revealing moment was his big losing streak – two games starting with the Ducks’ narrow loss in the 2010 championship game, and sliding into the much-hyped 2011 season opener against #4 LSU, which featured a quietly tough defensive tackle named Bennie Logan. The game was tight until the third quarter, when true freshman De’Anthony Thomas (known to Duck fans as DAT) fumbled on consecutive Oregon plays. LSU scored after both turnovers and won by 13.
After the game, reporters pushed Kelly hard to blame DAT for the loss, but the coach refused. He said “Our players play from a desire to excel — not a fear of failure. I’m not yanking a kid when he puts the ball on the ground. As I learned from Paul Westhead a long time ago, you may stop the bleeding, but you may kill the patient and that’s not going to happen here.”
Again, the coach stuck to his guns, and did not blame or over-react to adversity. Also of note — given Michael Vick’s comments about Chip teaching him how to not fumble – is that DAT has not had ball-handling issues since then.
The important point is that, in the rare moments when Chip Kelly faced a little bit of failure at Oregon, he stayed firm and grounded, stuck to his guns and bounced back to succeed. And the striking thing is not any bit of gridiron strategy, but simply his emotional maturity. Chip Kelly is a confident and natural leader, a relatively egoless coach who is open to suggestion, is good at communicating with his team members, and readily takes responsibility for failure as the man in charge, even as he genuinely deflects praise onto the players who actually execute his plans.
That maturity, couple with his long experience with both winning and losing teams, is what makes me very confident that he will handle losing gracefully – even as he works hard and intelligently to make the losing stop.
Mark Saltveit writes a weekly column on the Eagles and Chip Kelly for FishDuck.com, a leading Oregon Ducks strategy blog. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons from America’s Most Successful Coach,” available at www.chipkelly.tv and at leading bookstores around Pennsylvania.