This is a guest column by Mark Saltveit. He is hack from Oregon, but since he has pictures of me in a hot tub with Andy Reid and Lindsay Lohan, I have to occasionally let him share his thoughts on Chip Kelly and the Eagles.
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by Mark Saltveit
When Chip Kelly was first hired by the Eagles, several sportswriters said he had a heavily pass-focused attack. It was a natural assumption: his Oregon Ducks averaged over 48 points a game. How could you possibly score that much running?
Well, they did, with a tempo offense that kept defenses off guard and emphasized downfield blocking by receivers, turning 5-10 yard gains into 30-60 yard explosion runs. Their run-to-pass ratio was 2 to 1, but average touchdown drives were under two minutes, and often measured in seconds.
So writers who did their homework emphasized Kelly as the running coach. In the opener against Washington, the Eagles ran 2-1 over passing and picked up 263 yards on the ground. At the time Michael Vick got injured, not only was LeSean McCoy the NFL’s leading rusher, but Vick was the league’s 15th best runner himself. That’s right, half the league had top running backs with fewer yards than Chip Kelly’s QB.
But Chip Kelly is not a run-based coach, either. As Offensive Coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, his Wildcats set passing records behind the arm of Ricky Santos (who won the Walter Payton awards as outstanding FCS player of the year) and the hands of David Ball (who briefly passed through the Eagles’ training camp after Jeremy Maclin was injured.)
And even that oversimplifies Kelly’s attack. In his first year as Oregon coach, while LeGarrette Blount was suspended, he relied on Dennis Dixon’s passing until LaMichael James emerged as a dominant runner. And at UNH, before Santos, the Wildcats were a running team led by Jerry Azumah.
The point is, Kelly is not a running coach or a passing coach. He gets the best talent he can, and adapts his play-calling to them. Some coaches take pride in developing name-brand offenses, like the Air Raid, Run and Shoot, or even West Coast Offense, which have a distinct philosophy of attack. These offenses are great for sportswriters — we can talk about their nuances, analyze them at length, and sound like real experts (which probably makes coaches puke). The problem is that these ideological offenses are very vulnerable to game-planning. They are theoretical constructs, and opposing coaches can scheme out theoretical answers, or sometimes find extraordinary individuals who can ruin the scheme.
Kelly’s approach is like a tailored suit, compared to these off-the-rack Men’s Wearhouse jobs. The problem is, you can’t lend a tailored suit to a friend and expect it to fit. And that’s what it looked like in the last three games. Despite spasmodic success, Nick Foles and Matt Barkley were wearing Michael Vick’s custom offense, and it didn’t fit right. That offense was designed to maximize running, with Vick’s breakaway threat and 11 personnel all designed to spring LeSean McCoy for big gains. With Vick it was great, but on Foles the sleeves were too short.
To my eye, the Raiders game was the first time Chip tailored his offense to Foles. We saw a lot of 12 personnel for the first time all year, and six different receivers caught passes on the first drive alone. Bryce Brown may have figured something out, but it’s also possible that this new approach opened things up for him. LeSean only got 44 yards running — plus another 36 by air mail — but in case you didn’t notice, the passing game seemed to improve a little.
So why didn’t Chip make this change in the three previous games? It’s not as simple as that. With Chip’s approach, you can’t just change up on a dime. It’s very important to him that his teams play instinctively, not in their heads. We all know that’s more effective, but Kelly has made a (sports) science of making it happen. And that begins with practice, practice, practice. Reps in practice, reps in games. That’s the only way to execute a play at top effectiveness.
If you merely learn a play and are thinking about it on the playing field, you’re not going to succeed. Kelly and his assistants don’t even coach players on game day, if they can avoid it — that is reserved for weekdays. The coaches do the thinking, and call in their plays. The players job is just to execute them.
So when Chip complained about quarterback instability, he meant that he wasn’t sure how to practice his team, who to plan for and practice with. When he can do that, the results are impressive. Yes, the Eagles had a record-setting pass attack yesterday, but it felt organic — not some manic “Air Raid” blitz, but patient and balanced playcalling (starting with a Nick Foles run) that perfectly exploited the situation.
In my book “The Tao of Chip Kelly,” I quote the ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi, who says “When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten.” You become one with the shoe and move effortlessly together. Today, everyone is talking about Nick Foles and how good he looked yesterday. No one is noticing the tailor who fitted out his suit, and that’s fine with Chip. He has shifted to Foles going forward, and everyone’s looking pretty sharp.
Mark Saltveit’s book, “The Tao of Chip Kelly,” will be republished in a new, expanded version by Diversion Books of New York later this year. You can still get a soon-to-be-rare first edition online at www.chipkelly.tv, and at Doylestown Books, the Joseph Fox Bookstore in Rittenhouse Square, Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, and the Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk.
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Great stuff as usual.
Mark was able to attend the game in Oakland so he’ll be doing a write-up on that and offering some good insights.