Chip Kelly Builds His Team with Rebar

Chris Graythen

Kelly is the best kind of leader -- inspiring, positive, focused on fundamentals. He also knows how to build leadership on the field.

It's easy to see bad leadership in football -- coaches who yell and blame, selfish players, ego-driven owner/GMs (no names please).

Good leadership is a bit more vague. Stirring half-time speeches are great in movies, but they're a sign of weakness -- you don't need them unless you're behind and morale is flagging. Chip Kelly gives his pep talks during the week, preferring to let players focus on game day.

Helping players get their fundamentals right, practicing until that technique is muscle memory, devising strong game plans until your players trust you, creating a culture of hard work and positive attitude -- these are a coach's bread and butter, even if they're not very dramatic.

As Kelly says, the coach should just put the players in a position to win, because they're the ones on the field. He doesn't chase glory or attention, and I like that. To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, "A mediocre leader does big splashy projects, and everybody talks about how great he is. A great leader sets things up quietly, in the background. When great things happen, everybody says 'Who needs him? We did this all ourselves'."

One quiet thing Chip does is to encourage leaders on the team. Guys who will step up, cool hotheads and fire up punch-the-clock types. Guys who will teach young players even if they are going to take over their position, as Michael Vick did with Nick Foles. The Eagles have several leaders -- Jason Peters. Jason Kelce. Demeco Ryans. Connor Barwin, Vick, Cary Williams on the emotional side.

You could tell that the coaches hated to let Jason Avant go, despite poor production, because of his locker room stature. The Eagles last year weathered controversies (the Riley Cooper thing), injuries, and flat-out weirdness (the Snow Bowl) in large part because these squad leaders held the team together.

When the coach is always yelling at you to change, it easily becomes an us-against-him thing. Better to have the players shoring each other up (and working with the position coaches). Let the coach patiently build the foundation in the background. When he does need to speak up, his words will carry a lot more weight.

None of this is an accident. Kelly, a college and HS football player, built a formal structure at Oregon, as I describe in chapter 13 of "The Tao of Chip Kelly." (The title -- "We Have 16 Squad Leaders" -- tells you the main point.) The Ducks had each position group elect a leader, but the Eagles seem to favor a more organic process of letting someone step up. It's not always the best player -- Avant was certainly behind DeSean and Riley Cooper as a receiver last year. DeMeco Ryans was not a Sean Lee-type dominating LB, but he was the unit's on-field QB. Ditto Jason Kelce on the line.

That's why Malcolm Jenkins is such a good acquisition for the team. Yes, he's versatile, but he's also a film junkie and two-time captain at New Orleans. Like ST safety Chris Maragos, he knows what it takes to win a Super Bowl. And his versatility means he can talk to cornerbacks with authority. A guy who leads in the locker room, and on the field, as in the 2010 Thanksgiving game where he stripped the Cowboys Roy WIlliams to ignite a comeback. The Saints won, 30-27.

""I’m a natural-born leader," Jenkins told a press conference. "I’ve been a captain on every team I’ve ever played on. I was a captain at Ohio State, just recently finished my second term as a captain with the Saints, and I’ve been around tremendous leaders – Jonathan Vilma, Drew Brees. They’ve affected me and I’ve seen how they’ve had an impact on people, so I try to lead by example first."

These team leaders are a secret weapon on Kelly's teams. They are like rebar in the concrete foundation that Chip is building. Watch how every year, the team will win a game or two because of what seems like "lucky breaks" or "people just being in the right place at the right time." Believe me, it's not lucky or accidental.

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