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Dallas: The Faceless Opponent

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This is the big rivalry week against Dallas. And Chip Kelly doesn't care. He wants to win -- a lot. He just doesn't believe in rivalries. At all. It's a philosophical thing.


This is the big rivalry week against Dallas.  And Chip Kelly doesn't care.  He's not concerned with hatred of the Cowboys, or his long (and dominating) duel with Cowboys' defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. (Kiffin had the same job at USC, one of Oregon's biggest foes.)

Don't get me wrong.  Chip really, really wants to win this game and is busting his butt to do so.  It's the biggest game of the year for Philadelphia, except for maybe the second game against Dallas later this year, and one that may well decide if the Eagles make the playoffs.  If they do, he will be considered a major success as a rookie coach, no matter what else happens.  So Chip <em>cares</em>.

He just doesn't believe in rivalries.  At all. It's a philosophical thing. Chip isn't discussing his philosophy much in public since his arrival in Philadelphia, but he said plenty in Oregon.  (If you want to read more about it, check out the excellent Christmas gift book <a href="">"The Tao of Chip Kelly,"</a> written by the esteemed sportswriter ME.)

Chip wants his teams to focus on their game plan and execution, to play against what he calls "The Faceless Opponent."  At Oregon, he said "We have a vision for what this football program is supposed to be about, and we go out and compete against that vision every Saturday." He likes his teams to focus on what they can control, which is themselves and how they play, not the other team. 

Yes, this goes against pretty much every tradition in football, but it works.  Look at the other side of the coin:  if you raise your game for the Cowboys, what are you doing against every other team?  Giving less, apparently.  Coach Kelly wants players' best every week, not just 2 or 3 games a year.  As he says, every game is a rivalry game.  Every game is the Super Bowl.  And it pays off.  Every year, top ten college teams lose to unranked opponents, often because they are looking ahead to a big rivalry game.  Stanford lost to Utah last week, in part because they were thinking about the big showdown with UCLA this week. But in four years, Kelly's Oregon Ducks never lost like that in 53 games.

With the NFL's parity, it's even more important to bring your best every week.  It's the same reason that worries about cornerbacks gunning for Riley Cooper this year made no sense.  They can only hit him especially hard if they're not trying their hardest against every other receiver in the league.  But if they were playing like that, they probably wouldn't have made an NFL roster in the first place.

Rivalries are great for fans.  We're the ones who cheer and yell, whose emotions <em>should</em> should rise and fall, because that's more than half the fun.  And even when normal people play sports, like rec league basketball, emotional hype can give us a huge boost. It can bring out an extra layer of effort we didn't realize we had. We don't know our upper limits, what our bodies are capable of.

Athletes at the highest level are different. Not because they're amazingly talented, even though they are. It's because they are already entirely focused.  This is their full time job.  They have a large team of specialized trainers, coaches and doctors to help them squeeze out every tiny bit of performance at game time, which is why a relatively small change like Thursday night games can be incredibly disruptive.  They don't have an unused gear lying around for a coach to unlock by giving some emotional speech.  THAT is college boy stuff, and using sports science to unlock ability is more reliable and more effective.

Don't forget, also, that players are very young. Younger than you, even. 30 is old in this league. You probably have a lot more invested in these historical rivalries than they do.  Heck, they may have grown up in Texas rooting for the Cowboys.  Last year, Chip was asked about his Ducks players' feelings about Washington, which dominated Oregon through the early 1990s, when the Huskies shared a national championship.  Wisely, he noted that "they don’t know who was here ten years ago.  ... We’ve got kids that are 17, 18, 19 years old and you talk ten years ago, they were 7 and 8. They [were watching] Spongebob Squarepants, they didn’t know who Joey Harrington was."

The extra emotion of rivalries doesn't do much to help NFL players, but it can hurt them, adding pressure and distraction which only takes away from performance. Competitors from boxers to chess players know that getting your opponent mad, emotional, is a great way to throw them off their game. That's what trash talk is all about.

Ideally, players don't even need to think about their opponents. They have plays, with choices built in based on what their opponents do, but it's up to the coaches to design a game plan, to make the play calls and play chess against their opposing coach. If players compete against themselves to execute those plays as well as possible, the rest will take care of itself.

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