By Mark Saltveit (guest columnist)
How much has Chip Kelly changed his practice methods since taking over the Eagles?
We know that practice is crucial in Kelly’s comprehensive program, which is why I devoted a whole section of my book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” to the subject. He’s the anti-Iverson, full of quotes like “You don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your preparation” and “It’s amazing how when you don’t have bad practices, you don’t have bad games.”
It’s difficult for a sportswriter to say exactly how the details have changed, because Oregon’s practices were closed to the media under Kelly (and still are under new coach Mark Helfrich). Kelly and Helfrich also have refused to talk about player injuries. The Ducks’ beat reporters ritually stand outside the practice field’s gate and wait for the team to file out. They can hear the blaring music during practice, but are reduced to asking the coach what happened, and watching for players who limp or wear a boot as they leave. Injury reports are mandatory in the NFL, so that part has already changed.
One thing we know is that Chipper believes in continual improvement. He’s always looking for ways to tweak and refine his methods, including the ways he runs his practice, so we can expect changes. But the basics of his approach have stayed the same from his first year as Offensive Coordinator at Oregon, when Dennis Dixon played for him as a senior, to today – the fast pace, loud music, short teaching and drill segments, and maximizing the number of reps.
I interviewed 3 ex-Ducks on this Eagles roster who spanned Kelly’s entire six-year career in Oregon: Dennis Dixon, Casey Matthews – who played during Kelly’s first four years at Oregon – and Isaac Remington, a juco transfer who was in Eugene the last two years. They agreed that the practices in Philadelphia are largely the same in broad terms. Recent acquisition Jeff Maehl, another ex-Duck, mentioned “The new terminology, new signals” as the main differences he noticed.
There are some major structural changes – the roster’s much smaller, of course, while coaches and players can focus on football full time, without worrying about class work and NCAA restrictions. There are different limits on OTAs, and for the first time ever Chip has non-counting preseason games to test his team (though a non-conference game against Nicholls State or Tennessee Tech is pretty close). And all three players were struck by the simple fact that “these are grown men,” not college boys, though to some of us with teenage kids a 22-year-old rookie doesn’t seem that grown up. Or even a “grizzled” 31-year-old veteran, for that matter.
One striking aspect of the Eagles’ practices is relatively new: the robotic voices that announce each new practice segment. Remington knew them from the last two years at Oregon, but not Casey Matthews, who finished his college career with the 2011 National Championship Game, where he stripped Cam Newton for a key fumble in the Ducks’ near-miss comeback. To Matthews, they sound like “a guy version of Siri.”
The Eagles are using hand signals from position coaches to their players this year, a trick Chip picked up from a college team (Missouri), but the famous four-picture sideline banners have recently reemerged. No word on whether this reflects the hand signals not working, or whether it’s the main signal to the quarterback for the overall play.
Obviously the hand signals are communicating something different than the main play call, or they wouldn’t be specific to different player groups. Just as obviously, the Eagles are not going to announce to the world what their signals mean; opponents will just have to send spies the old fashioned Belichick way. A reporter kept asking about the banner pictures Thursday, and Chip just laughed him off.
Question: Can you kind of talk about what’s behind the big signs that you guys use and why you went that route in college and brought it to the NFL?
Coach Kelly: No. (Laughter.) Next question?
Question: Can you elaborate on that?
Coach Kelly: No, we’re not … we could tell you what all our signals are, too, but that’s not going to help us.
I attended two Eagles practices on my last trip back East, including one of the joint practices with the Patriots. In that one, Belichick vetoed Chip’s typical blaring music, and it seemed to mess with the Eagle’s performance. Isaac Remington, who also seemed a bit stunned that someone wanted to interview him (and has since been cut), said “Actually, it’s kind of weird not having music right now.”
Chip Kelly’s offenses rely a lot on rhythm, which is why he works so hard to develop muscle memory and make practices as similar to games as possible. The Ducks’ offense was like a Lamborghini that might sputter and lurch in low gear for a quarter or two before getting in sync and zooming away in overdrive. Getting his players out of rhythm and stuck in their heads is a prime way to fight a Chip Kelly team, and Belichick’s simple change may have been part of what gave the Patriots an advantage that lasted into that first preseason game.
(The chess match between those two frenemies fascinates me; when Chip came out to Foxboro last year to give Belichick tips on the no-huddle, he had to know he would be in the NFL coaching against Belichick soon. How much did each coach reveal, and how much did they hold back? Or do they just connect on a deep love of football and prefer to match wits at the highest level of effectiveness?)
You might think I’m drastically overthinking this music business, and maybe I am, but the Eagles have announced since that first game that they will play their music during offensive possessions at Lincoln Financial Field. League rules don’t allow them to play the music when visitors have the ball, but that’s just fine – Kelly wants the rhythm rolling when the Eagles are in control, and is happy to break it when his opponents have the pigskin. The very absence of music – and relatively louder crowd noise – will itself be a challenge for visitors.
A few years ago, a study demonstrated that college students who study for tests while high on marijuana score higher if they were stoned for the tests themselves. Perhaps music works the same way, which could cut both ways. Will the Eagles be vulnerable to a broken iPod or NFL rule change on game-time music? What about road games – will they use the quarterback’s helmet earphone just to pump in tunes? (OK, now I really AM over-thinking it.)
On the flip side, Kelly switched it up in the other direction too – huddling a lot during the joint practices with New England, for example, which struck ex-Duck LeGarrette Blount as new and different.
In the bigger picture, Kelly has redefined what practice means, as I discuss in detail in my book. The goal is to keep actual playingfield practices as physical and similar to game conditions as possible. Discussion, teaching, new plays and analysis are saved for the video theater, position meetings and other off-field study.
Ideally, the entire practice consists of fast repetitions, running plays that players already know over and over again until they are instinctual. There are short teach periods, if for no other reason than the fact that players can’t keep running that fast for two hours and need a breather, but Kelly hates to stop the action to correct a player’s mistake. That results in 21 guys standing around watching, not to mention embarrassing the player. No one likes to get in trouble in front of an audience. In scrimmage situations, Kelly and his assistant coaches will actually substitute a player out for a rep or two to correct a mistake, just like a real game.
Kelly’s practices are meticulously planned, weeks if not months in advance: the sequence and length of drills, the progression from one day to the next. With this all locked down beforehand, Kelly walks around from group to group, not leading the practice in an obvious way, just popping in on areas he is particularly interested in – such as special teams returners and quarterbacks, a position he not only assistant-coached at the University of New Hampshire but played in both HS and college (at UNH). As for the rest, well, there’s plenty of videotape.
Rarely has any coach videotaped practices so methodically (his own, anyway), from tall camera-topped poles and a special tower like an anorexic beach-lifeguard-stand. Kelly relies on videotape the way a modern TV detective would, finger hovering over the mythical “enhance” button, confident that if they stare at that objective record long enough, someone on the staff will yell – “There! Back up! Right there — just behind the tackle’s left ham hock.” It’s the crucial detail that everyone who was actually there missed.
There is a rhythm to the team’s development over a season, especially this year as Kelly radically remakes the team. A practice mid-season should be full of repetitions, polishing the team’s execution, but right now the focus is on installing the new system and evaluating talent.
Kelly is well known for boiling down complex philosophical and motivation concepts down into easily remembered, catchy mantras such as “Win the Day!” and “Every game is the Super Bowl” but we haven’t reached that part of the season yet, according to Dennis Dixon. “Not right now, but it will come,” he told me. Caey Matthews agreed: “We’re still getting defenses down, offenses, cadence, timing, stuff like that.” You have to get the basic concepts and choose your final 53 first; the catch phrases are combination mnemonics and philosophical nuggets that help players remember why the team does certain things and see the connections between them.
The transformation out of the preseason has already begun. Michael Vick is the starting quarterback, and the rest of the first team should be pretty well settled after the Jacksonville game. Reporters have had tremendous access to the Eagles’ practices, but this was a temporary window that has closed. In a Chip Kelly program, it has to. He loves to confuse opponents, but it’s also crucially important that his teams practice plays over and over, physically, on the field to maximize execution. As writers we’ve enjoyed spotting unusual formations and twists in practices, but we tend to blab about them in public places like newspapers and blogs.
Chip just wants to save the surprise for game time, for fans and for opponents. He wants to force them to react very quickly to an unusual gambit or an opaque formation like the doublestack which could involve tight ends leading wide receivers, WRs leading RBs, four WRs or four TEs, some blocking, some setting up screens, or all four going long. The goal is always to apply maximum pressure on opponents, forcing them to think and scramble while Chip’s team executes instinctively. And practice makes perfect.
— Mark Saltveit
Mark Saltveit writes the “Chip Kelly Update” column for FishDuck.com every Friday, and tweets about the Eagles at @taoish. He is the editor of Taoish.org.
His best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at Joseph Fox Books and the Spiral Bookcase in Philadelphia; MainPoint Books in Bryn Mawr; the Doylestown Bookshop, on Amazon.com and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/