- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly sometimes sounds as though he's speaking in fortune cookies. The Philadelphia Eagles' new coach has an array of easily digestible sayings he employs to illustrate his points, whether he's speaking to the media in a news conference, addressing his players in a meeting or just passing them in the hallways. Last week, he trotted out "touchdown, first down, get down" as the progression of possibilities he wants his quarterbacks to go through in their minds on each play and then said "durability is the most important ability" when discussing players' health. He's got a million of them, and they're all designed with a teaching purpose in mind.
"We spend a lot of time as a staff talking about that: 'What's the best way to teach our guys?'" Kelly said after the Eagles' practice Monday. "Because the bottom line is, it means absolutely nothing what we know, because we're not the ones playing. So our job, very simply, is that we need to create an environment where our players have a chance to be successful and then get out of the way and let them go play. And if we can arm them with information so that they can not have to think on the field but react, then we're doing what we're supposed to do."
I asked some Eagles players for their favorite Kelly-isms.
"He always says, 'Take 15,'" left tackle Jason Peters said. "And that means take 15 minutes out of your day to do something positive, whether it's studying your plays, go call a loved one, just take 15 minutes out of your day to do something positive. Whatever you do in that 15 minutes is going to help the teammate across from you or beside you."
"He'll just say, 'The little things,'" guard Evan Mathis said. "It just means doing everything like a professional. Just carry yourself on the field, off the field the same way. Clean up after yourself after you eat. Parking in the right place. Being here on time. The little things. It helps you focus things the right way. How you carry yourself off the field translates to the way you carry yourself on the field. Just get used to forming good habits."
"'Let the world see what you want them to see,'" running back LeSean McCoy said. "Good plays, bad plays, you let the world see that. Same thing off the field. Whatever you may tweet, however you may act in public, that's what the world will see. So always be thinking about what you want the world to see."
The fact that everybody seems to have his favorite speaks to the number of these mini-mantras Kelly employs, but also to one of the central teaching tenets he learned from former NFL coach Tony Dungy when he approached him, before taking this job, about the challenges of coaching professional players as opposed to collegiate ones.
"The one thing Tony told me is that if you can make individual players better, then they're going to listen," Kelly said. "So I think when you're dealing with anybody, no matter what business it is, if people understand that you care about them and you want to help them, then I think they're going to take to it. And these guys understand us and I think we've got a pretty good understanding of them as a staff."
If Kelly's first mission was to get his players to buy in, then he's done well. He's connected with them on a personal level, impressed them with his preparedness and his ideas and installed an atmosphere that appears conducive to the teaching he wants and needs to do.
"I just like his attitude, man," McCoy said. "He's always positive. Good days, bad days, always positive."
Long way to go, obviously, and many more good and bad days ahead once the Eagles get into the grind of the NFL season and try to improve on last year's 4-12 record. But this is training camp, a time of excitement, hope and teaching. And Kelly's got all of that humming so far.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Who will be the starting quarterback? It appears to be a two-way race between veteran Michael Vick and second-year man Nick Foles with rookie Matt Barkley a long-shot possibility to start at some point if not right away. But it's very wide open, and Kelly isn't planning to make any final evaluations until he sees his candidates play in some preseason games. "A quarterback is like a teabag," he has said more than once, the meaning being that you don't know what's in a teabag until you steep it in water. Since the quarterbacks haven't yet been in an environment that lends itself to reliable conclusions about the way they'll function in game situations, there's no way to know yet who's the best choice.
Vick is the obvious front-runner, based both on experience and 2013 upside. But the fact that he has foot speed and Foles doesn't won't win him the job. He's got to show he can handle the quick decision-making Kelly wants from his quarterback, and that he's willing to give up on a play for the sake of protecting the ball and making it to the next play. Throughout his career, Vick has been a guy who's preferred to extend plays in the hopes of making big ones. If he doesn't show a willingness or ability to change that, he could lose the job to Foles or even Barkley. Don't be surprised if each of those guys starts games for the Eagles this year. They don't appear to have a great solution on the current roster.
2. Replacing Jeremy Maclin. The Eagles' leading receiver in 2012, Maclin went down with a torn ACL in practice Saturday and is almost certain to miss the entire season. The fact that this happened so early in camp gives Kelly time to adjust his offense around Maclin's absence. And although speedy wideout DeSean Jackson should be heavily featured and guys like Jason Avant, Arrelious Benn and Riley Cooper have a chance to contribute more, it's probably better to look to the tight end group and the running back group for solutions here. The Eagles have depth at both of those positions, with players who can contribute as receivers and make the kinds of short-range and medium-range plays that will help speed Kelly's offense along. None of them offers the playmaking versatility or the speed of Maclin, but there are plenty of options here for Kelly, and if Plan B doesn't work out there are lots of potential Plans C, D, E, etc.
3. What will the defense look like? "We're going from a wide nine 4-3 defense to a 3-4," Kelly said. "When do we get to a 3-4? I don't know."
What Kelly means is that, while the ultimate goal is to play a base 3-4, two-gap system on defense, he's not going to force square pegs into round holes right away just because that's what he wants. If the players he has on defense aren't ready to swing all the way to that 3-4, two-gap system, then he's going to stop the transition at some yet-undetermined midpoint and fashion his 2013 defense around their capabilities. And if it doesn't work, then they go out next offseason and find personnel who can better handle what he wants to do.
The question is whether a defense can succeed in the short term while it endures such a transition. Change is worth making for the Eagles on defense, but how quickly the players master the changes required of them will go a long way toward determining whether they're a 2013 contender.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The energy and the enthusiasm in camp are very high, and the players do seem to be buying what Kelly and his staff are selling. That's always going to be a question mark with a new coach, and it could continue to be one if the team starts losing and the attitudes turn sour, but for now everybody seems to be enjoying the novelty.
"Every single thing has been very well thought out, very well researched, and there's a rhyme and reason to everything," Mathis said. "And it definitely matters. It helps you understand and just give it your all. When you can trust the game plan, the road map that you've been given, you can just focus on applying yourself and doing it."
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
On the flip side, there are plenty of these. This is a team that won four games last season, doesn't have a great option at quarterback and is having to learn a dramatically different defense that's asking some players to play new positions. The secondary is different, but there's no way to say for sure that it's better until we see what guys such as Cary Williams, Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips bring to the party. There's a lot of change, and probably more is still necessary before this team is where it wants to be.
"The way we're looking at it is that we're trying to develop into a team like we've had in the past, that can consistently compete," GM Howie Roseman said. "We want to win now, obviously, because in this league you can never say you're going to have a redshirt year. But at the same time we want to build it the right way. We don't want to take shortcuts. In the past we were in a situation where we felt like we were close, so we did some things that you do when you're a team that you think is right on the verge. For us, if we build it the right way, good things will happen."
As is the case with any team that bottoms out at 4-12 and changes coaches, the Eagles have a great deal of work to do. Kelly and his staff are wisely operating according to a long-term plan, and it's entirely possible that this season is a transition or rebuilding year just out of necessity.
Andy Reid's Eagles training camps were well known as some of the hardest-hitting camps in the league. Although the Eagles practiced in pads Sunday and Monday, there was no tackling to the ground and there won't be. Kelly said, "We have four preseason games for that." He doesn't like the risk of his own players injuring their teammates, and he thinks keeping everyone on their feet encourages proper tackling technique. It's new in Philly, but not unheard of. Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, never do any hitting at all in training camp.
One of the defensive keys will be the ability of pass-rushers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, who had been 4-3 defensive ends, to transition to standup 3-4 outside linebacker roles. Cole says he enjoys the extra room he has to rush the passer, and Graham says that pass coverage is "a weakness of mine" and that he has to improve in that area.
For a few moments Monday, it appeared Kelly had his running backs on leashes. Turns out, this was a new drill in which one back carries a ball with a string attached to it while another runs behind him holding the other end of the string and trying to pull the ball loose. Obviously, it's a drill designed to improve ball security.
The standout player in the secondary, to me, was second-year cornerback Brandon Boykin, who works mainly as the nickel corner but could get more work on the outside if he continues to show well.
As much as the Eagles would like former Giants safety Phillips to help, he looks to me like a guy whose knee isn't fully healthy, and of course it may never be.
The loss of reserve linebacker Jason Phillips, who tore his ACL during Monday's practice and was placed on injured reserve, could show up more than you'd think. The Eagles signed Phillips because he was a special teams star in Carolina, and his loss is a blow to their coverage units.