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Thursday, May 30, 2013
Chip Kelly has much to sell to his players

By Dan Graziano


PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly has no shortage of ideas. Watch the Philadelphia Eagles practice, and talk to Kelly and his players afterward, and you see and hear all about the flood of new ideas and information rushing through the facility. From the robotic voice directing players to the next agenda item ("Period 17. Teach.") to the coaches performing elaborate hand gestures on the sidelines before each play to the staff members wearing tall, flyswatter-shaped backpacks designed to simulate a pass rush in drills that don't use pass-rushers, Kelly has a program whose every detail has been researched and tested thoroughly. Ask Kelly why he's doing something, and he's got a reason. He has done his thinking.

And from the standpoint of a fan or a reporter eager for information about a team and its new coach in the May doldrums, this is great stuff. Everything in Philadelphia is new and worth asking and learning and writing about. If you're the kind of player who thinks deeply about football and imagines himself a coach someday, Kelly is a gold mine of football ideas. If you're team owner Jeffrey Lurie or GM Howie Roseman, this is the stuff that drew you to this man as the choice to lead your franchise into a new era.

But in the end, what's going to decide the extent to which Kelly succeeds in Philadelphia is the extent to which his players buy in. Not just the super-inquisitive ones, but all of them. Right now, there's a ton of stuff to learn, and Kelly is keeping his players busy with classroom work and practices that don't offer any downtime. And right now, in late May, that's working fine, because no one's hitting anyone and no one's yet lost a game.

The key to all of this really will come in September, when we and the Eagles all get to find out how this stuff translates to the field. Once the season starts -- maybe even before the season starts -- Kelly must find a way to sell his systems and his ideas and his thoughtful practice quirks to his players. And although he exudes intelligence and competence, those aren't necessarily always the qualities that help a coach connect with his players. What we don't know about Kelly yet is how he'll connect with his players on the kind of emotional level that helps drive them -- how he'll navigate them through the trying ups and downs of the season, helping them handle the disappointment of a loss or a losing streak and build on wins and successes.

Say what you will about Andy Reid, Kelly's predecessor in Philadelphia, but his players loved playing for him. While he famously refused to show it in news conferences, Reid had warmth and empathy, and his strength as a coach was the way he managed a locker room and each individual inhabitant of it. Things fell apart for Reid when the players stopped responding to him the way they always had, and that's why Kelly is on the scene in the first place.

A lot will depend on the way things go at the start. If the Eagles get out of the gate quickly, reel off a couple of wins and see obvious benefits to all of the unusual things Kelly has spent the offseason asking them to do, then the sell will be an easy one. If he's Jim Harbaugh from the start, his chances of being a success story jump dramatically, and he may never have to change anything about the way he relates to people. (If that's even an issue to begin with.)

But if the Eagles struggle at the start, as they may well do with their questionable quarterback situation and their new defense with new and old players in new and strange roles, Kelly's priorities will have to shift from the chalkboard to the stools in front of the lockers. The NFL can grind down a player or a group of players when things aren't going well, and the extent to which losing and failure builds on itself in a league so physically draining is crippling. The Eagles of 2012, who couldn't buy a win in November or December, are just the latest testament to the way a team can, consciously or otherwise, shut itself down when it begins to feel as though its weekday efforts aren't being rewarded with Sunday success. And when and if that starts to happen, that's when Kelly will get/have to show something about his coaching ability that hasn't been discussed all that much so far. That's when we'll find out how good he is at managing the people involved in this equation, as opposed to the equation itself.

If things go badly with Kelly and the Eagles, they have a chance to go spectacularly badly -- to flame out quickly and completely. New stuff sounds nice in May, but if it's not working in September and October, it becomes the target of scorn and the reason to turn on a coach. It's on Kelly to sell his ideas to his players in a way that will keep them buying in whether they're winning or losing.