clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Chip Kelly Revolutionized the NFL with the OODA Loop

When football people talk about Chip Kelly they often talk about the speed and disruption of his offense. However, if you look at Kelly’s system through the lens of world history it becomes clear he owes as much to U.S. Military Strategist John Boyd as he does to Urban Meyer. A look through history reveals that Kelly’s system is premised on communication, not speed.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports

[Ed. note: The following post is a contribution from a special guest. Eric Gardner, a Chicago Bears fan, is a strategy consultant who regularly writes at You can follow him on Twitter at @edubcb. Thanks again to Mr. Gardner for this excellent contribution.]

Chip Kelly is an interesting man. He was an unassuming former D-1AA defensive back who became a successful offensive coordinator and found himself the most wanted college football coach in America. In his first game as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks, his team managed just 153 yards and scored only 8 points. A season ticket holder wrote him asking for his money back. Kelly mailed him a personal check for $439.

Like I said, Chip Kelly is an interesting man.

In his four years at Oregon, Kelly did what very few football coaches have ever done: turned a good program into an elite powerhouse. During his tenure, Oregon lost just seven games and won 46. They appeared in four consecutive BCS Bowl Games, and in 2011, he came one possession short of winning the national title. It wasn't just his rapid success that made him the most wanted coach in America; it was the way he achieved it. Football is traditionally a methodical game. After each play, players huddle, hear the play call from their coach, and then execute. Rinse and repeat. Kelly's philosophy was different. He simply overwhelmed opponents. A typical college team ran 55-60 plays per game. Kelly wanted 80. The only way to accomplish this was to rethink everything we'd ever known about football.

"Everything about Kelly is about speed," wrote Seth Wickersham in an ESPN the Magazine profile. Watching his team play was like watching the German blitzkrieg, only running backs replaced tanks. The game seemed to be happening in fast-forward-and on acid. The players hardly huddled, but sprinted to the line to hear the call. In an era increasingly defined by passing, his team ran the ball and scored 40 points 40 times in his 53 games. In 2013, he jumped to the NFL and became the 21st coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, an organization that managed to win just 12 games in the previous two years.

If a team fires their coach, it normally means everyone is on notice. When the Chicago Bears replaced Lovie Smith with Marc Trestman, they also replaced four of the five starting offensive lineman. When Lovie Smith replaced Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay, the organization brought in a new QB the minute union rules allowed. Despite fielding the third-worst offense in the league the previous season, the Eagles made no major personnel changes to the offense. Of the 12 veteran free agent signings the club made that offseason, only two were offensive players: TE James Casey and RB Felix Jones (who was later traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers). It was almost as if they figured Kelly could work magic.

He did.

In his first season, Kelly brought his offensive philosophy to the NFL and finished 10-6 with the league's 4th-best offense. They paced the league with 99 plays of 20 yards or more, RB LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing and Pro-Bowl WR DeSean Jackson posted career-best receiving numbers. Despite these accomplishments, Kelly's biggest impact may have been on the Quarterback position. The QB is the NFL equivalent of a car battery. You can have the best engine and sound system in the world, but without a working battery, none of it matters. In 2010, the Indianapolis Colts finished 10-6 behind QB Peyton Manning. The next year, returning essentially the same team, but without Manning, the team squeezed out just two wins.

It is nearly impossible to measure a QB's impact on a game, but a QB rating tries to distill almost everything a quarterback does into a single number. Without Kelly, Nick Foles posted a middling 79 QB rating, good for 23rd in the league. Under Kelly, his rating grew to 119.2, making him the league's most efficient QB. "When the Philadelphia Eagles hired Chip Kelly away from Oregon in January 2013, they thought they were getting a coach who'd field an innovative offense run at a madcap pace," Chris B. Brown wrote in a great article over at Grantland. "What they probably didn't realize, and what the rest of the league surely didn't know, was that they were also getting a coach who intended to rethink much about how NFL Teams operate..."

When you see the highlights and look at the numbers, it is easy to see why many believe the success is due to speed. But once you look behind the glitz and glamour of Kelly's offense, it becomes clear that speed is just a byproduct of a much larger innovation.

On August 31, 1939, seven Nazi operatives dressed as Polish partisans ransacked a German radio tower. The Nazis, seeking land and unable to find a legitimate reason to invade Poland, simply made one up. The agents sprinted past the guards, overpowered the engineers and commandeered the microphone. "Attention," the group's lone Polish speaker said into the microphone, "This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands."

Those eleven words marked the start of World War II.

In the next 12 months, the Nazi offensive captured Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France. A generation before, it took four years and more than thirteen million men to decide the 60 miles that made up the Western Front. Under their new strategy termed "blitzkrieg", Germany captured six countries, delivered 3.5 million causalities and sustained losses of just 200,000. They looked as if they were fighting a war in fast forward.

Nowhere was this clearer than France. The country had one of the best-trained and well-funded armies in the world. The country built "the most massive defense installation since the Great Wall of China" to protect their Eastern boarder against German Advances. On June 5, 1940 Nazi Panzer tanks, protected by support from the Air Force, simply avoided the defense and sprinted into the heart of France. The French army retreated backwards from their Great Wall only to find the Germans waiting for them. "They moved so fast," author Robert Coram wrote in 2002, "the enemy simply could not understand what was happening and became unglued." On June 22, the remaining French government surrendered in the same rail car that ended World War 1. When it happened, the story of the German offensive was speed. At the time, The New York Times described the strategy "concerned primarily with the destruction of the enemy armed forces as rapidly as possible."

By the late 1970s, many considered it to be a story about orientation. To understand why that is, you need to understand John Boyd.

John Boyd was born on January 23, 1927 in Erie, Pennsylvania. Blessed with an athletic build, steel jaw and close-cropped hair, Boyd looked like a fighter pilot-which is exactly what he became. He never saw much combat and flew just 22 missions in the Korean War, but had more impact than perhaps any person on the art and science of aerial combat. At the age of 33, Boyd published "An Aerial Attack Study", a brief that upended the conventional wisdom of air combat. According to the commendation he received after winning the Legion of Merit for the work, it was the "first instance in the history of fighter aviation in which tactics have been reduced to an objective state."

"An Aerial Attack Study" became the fighter pilot manual for nearly every air force in NATO. Boyd's biggest breakthrough was that if you knew the enemy's position and velocity, you could calculate every possible move and every possible counter for an opposing fighter pilot. This meant a skilled fighter could "outmaneuver" a missile (something thought impossible) if they could orientate themselves to the situation.

For most people, this would be a defining achievement, For Boyd, it turned out to be a footnote in his career. He spent the next decade fixated on the possibility he was revolutionizing warfare. It became clear to him that throughout history, it wasn't the best equipment or the number of soldiers that defined a Great General, but rather their ability to quickly adapt and out-maneuver an enemy. The German blitzkrieg wasn't about speed; it was about cohesiveness. Nearly every spare moment was spent pondering and articulating his ideas. According to Air Force legend, he once devoured two eggs, two pieces of toast, ham, and a cup of coffee in twenty-two seconds-just so he could get back to work.

For Boyd, his work wasn't just research, it was a form of battle. Classical texts like The Art of War and On War weren't just books, they were chances to intellectually spar with the best thinkers in history. He filled each page with highlights and margin notes, questioning the logic behind every sentence. He purchased seven separate translations of The Art of War and spent months analyzing the logic behind On War.

Over time, Boyd's ideas advanced past fighter pilots and into the decision-making process behind any conflict.

The New York Times explained:

Conflict, Boyd argues, is a matter of "observation-orientation-decision-action cycles," (commonly called OODA Loop) which each contending commander consistently repeats. First, the commander observes - not only with his eyes and ears but with his radar, reconnaissance, etc. He orients - that is, he forms a mental picture of his relationship to his opponent. On the basis of this picture, he determines a course of action - he decides. He acts. Then he begins observing again, to see the effect of his action.

In Boyd's view, conflict was just a series of decision loops. In warfare, these decisions are made instantaneously, and multiple loops happen at a time (a commander must keep track of all levels of the conflict: infantry, air, artillery, etc.). Football provides the perfect antidote for the madness of warfare. The game is broken up into plays, and each play is an opportunity for coaches and players to apply the OODA Loop. When Peyton Manning comes under center and sends a man in motion, he is observing the defense's play call. If no one follows the WR, he knows the defense is playing zone. Given this observation, Manning orientates himself to the situation, and may choose to call one of 10,000 audibles to get his team in a better position. Every player on the field and coach on the sideline is going through the same thought process.

In his Grantland piece, Brown describes the impact of Chip Kelly's use of unbalanced offensive lines on NFL defenses. A typical offensive line is balanced with a Center in the middle and a guard and tackle on each side; a common unbalanced line will move a tackle to one side. This makes one side of the offense perfect for running and one side perfect for passing. Teams typically do not make a habit of running unbalanced sets, because they can be exploited by flooding the weaker side with defenders. Brown explains the impact of combining an unbalanced line with a rapid pace. "The 11 defenders on the field need to be able to identify the unbalanced set and call the right adjustments, on the fly, at a super-fast tempo, while worrying about 50 other things."

In short, by rapidly unleashing an unbalanced line, Kelly's offense wreaks havoc on the defenders' ability to Observe, Orientate, Decide and take Action.

"I am a huge clinic football coach. I love clinics. I have gone to them all my life," Kelly said at a coaching clinic soon after being promoted to Head Coach of Oregon. He wasn't lying. As a young assistant, he spent most of his free time talking to anyone and everyone who knew a thing or two about football offenses. "Some guys were going on spring break, and he was going to Wake Forest and Clemson," a former player told SBNation. An Oregon staff member took it a step further. "What people think Bill Belichick is like - thinks about football nonstop, all day, every day - is how Chip actually is."

In 2009, coming off a season where his Ducks were the second-best running team in the country, Kelly admitted to a group of coaches that his team ran just four running plays the entire year. He then spent the next few hours outlining one of the four plays, getting down to not just the X-Os, but the mindset offensive lineman must have when running the play. He was basically opening his playbook to the competition. For all of this tactical openness, one thing Kelly won't talk about is how he communicates to his players. It's his secret sauce, the key to his offense. To this day, the specifics are unknown, but when you put it in the context of the OODA Loop, the philosophy becomes obvious.

On a superficial level, the OODA Loop is about speed; those who process the loop the quickest win the battle. The dogfighting pilot with the quickest decisions will gain an advantage over time and outwit his opponent. Kelly's rapid pace will unglue defenses. But what if the decisions are based off of false perceptions? What if they fail to observe and orient themselves? If that's the case, they run the risk of rapidly executing the wrong direction.

Boyd found the answer, and it explains Kelly's approach. The more he researched the German blitzkrieg, the more Boyd realized it was the army's ability to orientate itself. He stumbled upon the German concepts of Schwerpunkt and Fingerspitzengefuhl.

Author Robert Coram explains:

Neither translates well. Schwerpunkt means the main focus of effort. On a deeper reading it is the underlying goal, the glue that holds together various units. Fingerspitzengefuhl means a fingertip feel. Again, the fuller meaning applies to a leader's instinctive and intuitive sense of what is going on or what is needed in a battle or, for that matter, in any conflict.

Boyd learned that when Nazi tanks entered France, they did not have specific hills or cities to control. Rather, they knew their leader's intent and were free to improvise a solution. If you aren't constantly rechecking and orientating with a central commander, you are free to operate at a rapid pace. Kelly's communication system is essentially the same idea. "Instead of trying to outscheme your opponent," he told the coaching clinic in 2009, "put your players in an environment where they can be successful because they understand exactly what they have to do.

If this hasn't convinced you yet, take a look at a few stories I've found from various Kelly profiles. (Italics are my commentary. All are previously linked in the post)

  • For all of the hype surrounding Oregon games, Oregon practices might be even better. Oregon practices are filled with blaring music and players sprinting from drill to drill. Coaches interact with players primarily through whistles, air horns, and semi-communicative grunts.  If you remove verbal communication, players are forced to internalize the coaches' intent.
  • "The things they're doing now, they're even faster," Dickson said. "They have things where they can call one thing and it's going to tell them formation, plays, everything, and all you have to see is coverage." Constant repetition allows players to quickly react to different looks instead of recalibrating.
  • But Kelly was the first to explicitly make the volume of plays as important as their execution. It meant deploying every advantage - motion and misdirection and making simple plays appear complicated - and sometimes spending as little as five seconds between when the ball was set and when it was snapped. Increased volume allows increased observation and orientation. Over time, this creates an advantage.
  • Kelly's chief commitment isn't to running a no-huddle offense; his goal is for the Eagles to be a no-huddle organization.
  • He seems happiest when the team moves so fast that backups run with starters vice versa, hierarchies dissolving and a team forming in its place

In 2012, the United States Military Academy updated their Professional Reading Guide. The guide, whose goal was to create "a concise list that would provide officers with the best one or two books on a given subject," named On War and The Art of War as the two best military books ever written. On War was written after the Napoleonic Wars left the Prussian army in tatters. The 10-volume work describes how the Prussians institutionalized one of the greatest military forces ever assembled and reunified Germany. The central ideas are two-fold: 1) Great battles decide wars. 2) The goal of a General is to minimize internal "friction" (make things more efficient). On War represents conventional football. Each play is a great battle. A coach's job is to make their team run each play efficiently. This military efficiency defined the smash-mouthed football of Vince Lombardi and Woody Hayes.

The Art of War represents Chip Kelly and how football will be played in the future. Written around 400 B.C. by Chinese general Sun Tzu, the work stresses speed, deception and unpredictability as the deciding factors of war. Sun Tzu's goal was to win the battle before the war is even fought. Secret attacks and misdirection were just as important as winning the big battles. In fact, if you confused the opponent enough, big battles weren't even necessary. "Early in a game, we want to show things we saw on film and watch the defensive adjustments." Kelly's protégée Mark Helfrich told a coaching clinic in 2013.

That is Kelly's philosophy in a nutshell. He isn't interested in his teams fighting battles. He's interested in creating an organization that orientates itself to a situation so seamlessly that the war has been fought before it even started. Speed is just an afterthought.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bleeding Green Nation Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your Philadelphia Eagles news from Bleeding Green Nation