Coaches have a lot of roles on a team -- play caller, roster juggler, motivator, spokesman, disciplinarian. One of Chip Kelly's under-appreciated strengths is that he is also a great teacher.
This part of the job is often dismissed at major schools, where coaches get the highest skilled players from the best high school programs, and especially in the NFL. Kelly has always had to work with the scraps: undersized speedsters, small school overachievers and general "athletes" moving from one position to another.
Even in the NFL, though, where jaded veterans can be (gasp!) over 30, getting players solid on fundamentals can add a lot to performance. Look at how many of the Eagles are having career years, not just stars with "eSean" in their names, but the likes of Riley Cooper and Cedric Thornton. Over the course of just a few games, we've seen relatively green rookies become effective starters (Bennie Logan, Earl Wolff), marginal players improve to solid (Nate Allen), and good players grow into excellent ones (Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks, whose missed tackles went from high in games 1-4 to minimal).
In practices and during training camp, Kelly does not blow whistles and order people around. You see him working directly with kick returners, running backs, and QBs on very specific points of technique: footwork, field vision, arm motions. Before his very first game at Oregon, he saw some kids tossing a football around campus and said (unsolicited) "Let me show you how to throw a football. You gotta flick it like a booger."
Teaching involves two key skills; knowing the subject, and communicating it. Kelly excels at both. He played football -- quarterback and DB -- in high school and college, and has coached nearly every position on offense over many years: running backs, QBs, the offensive line. He's also a voracious student of the game and focuses intently on fundamental technique.
At the same time, he has a real gift for boiling down complicated concepts into the catchy, memorable phrases that I built my book ("The Tao of Chip Kelly") around, such as "The Faceless Opponent" and "Touchdown, first down, get down." He understands that keeping it simple is an essential part of communicating, so he thins down his playbook and practices each play as many times as possible. The goal is to stop thinking and react, instinctively, the right way. No amount of book learning can get you to execute a play in real time nearly as quickly.
The results are visible at nearly every position on the Eagles, but one example stands out simply because it's documented. During training camp, Jimmy Kempski uncovered the fact that Chip had taught kicker Alex Henery how to stride more quickly on the run-up to his kickoffs. He also got Henery working on directional kicks. T he results? According to TeamRankings.com, the Eagles are getting touchbacks on 54% of kickoffs this year, vs. only 37% last year. That's a lot of potential runbacks snuffed out.
The exciting thing is that Kelly's teaching method is all about repetitions and learning by doing. The techniques have all been taught, and now the players' speed and execution will improve every week. The game will slow down for them, as players say, and the team will get better and better. That's what I've learned from Chip Kelly.