Finally back from his injury, with Sproles out and Riley Cooper disappearing, Josh Huff played a big role in the NFC showdown against Arizona today.
Unfortunately, it didn't go well. His best play was also his worst. On first and 10 at the Arizona 19, he caught a short pass, put his shoulder down to break through a tackle and headed for the end zone. Unfortunately, he didn't tuck it away properly and was stripped of the ball from behind at the 7. Arizona recovered the fumble at the 2, killing a crucial scoring drive.
A lot of coaches would have benched Huff for the rest of the game. Chip went right back to him on the next drive, in the end zone. Huff had his man beat, with a lot of open end zone behind him, but Foles' pass was short, floaty and intercepted.
He went to Huff deep again on the next drive, incomplete. On the last drive of the first half, Huff made another rookie mistake, getting called for offensive pass interference on a pass aimed at Jordan Matthews. And still he got more chances. Even on the game's final drive, Huff was targeted deep left, though Foles had to throw it away under pressure.
I don't think this is some kind of stubbornness or Oregon BiasTM. It has more to do with Kelly's approach toward developing young players.
Go back to Oregon, in the first game of the 2011 season. This was a huge non-conference game, #3 Oregon against #4 LSU (featuring Odell Beckham and a rookie named Bennie Logan, who had four tackles and a pass breakup in his first start).
Oregon had just landed its biggest recruiting coup of the Chip Kelly years, a flashy "athlete" named De'Anthony Thomas. Kelly even invented a new position, the TAZR, for this speedy, short back who ran and received equally well.
The game was tight until the third quarter, when DAT fumbled on two consecutive Oregon plays. He coughed it up at the Oregon 21 on a run, leading to an easy LSU scoring drive, and then fumbled the ensuing kickoff return at the Ducks' 41 -- leading to a second quick touchdown.
Oregon lost by 13, but Kelly refused to blame or bench the true freshman. After the game, he told reporters:
Our players play from a desire to excel — not a fear of failure. I’m not yanking a kid when he puts the ball on the ground. As I learned from Paul Westhead a long time ago, you may stop the bleeding, but you may kill the patient and that’s not going to happen here.
The point is not to tolerate bad play or be a pushover. It's about developing players, especially newer ones. If you're learning and have room to grow, individual mistakes are less important than that bigger picture.
After Sunday's game, I asked a downcast Huff -- who played for Kelly at Oregon -- to explain his coach's approach.
He trusts his players. He knows that it’s football and stuff happens. He trusts his players to go out and make the same play they would make in practice. [He doesn't] put his players in the tank where if they mess up he’s not coming back to you, or anything like that. He wants to give his players confidence and keep their confidence high.
The point is one of those cliches that happens to be true. Successful people learn from their errors.
This is a learning curve for me ... I want to be the best that I can be for this team. Unfortunately things didn’t go my way this game, especially inside the red zone, but other than that, I’m just looking forward to getting back to it on Tuesday and fixing my mistakes.
Intel Corporation, the big computer chip manufacturer, has a personnel policy they call "up or out." Employees need to steadily move up the ladder every year or two, or go look for a new job at a different company. Kelly's approach is similar. Good NFL players are always learning and growing, whether from experience, video study, weight training or learning new skills. Any players who aren't -- whether due to laziness, attitude or age -- won't last long.
Chip isn't interested in finding out who has so much talent that they can skate by for a while. He'd rather try to find more highly talented players who are also improving every day.
That doesn't mean that bad play has no consequences, but Kelly tends to stick with players until he gives up on them entirely. The team released Jason Avant this year, despite his tremendous team leadership and positive attitude, because he wasn't getting the job done on the field -- but they waited until season's end.
You also need to have an alternative, which is tough to find mid-season. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was traded after 8 games last year, but only because his backup, rookie Bennie Logan, had blossomed into a legitimate NFL starter.
Again, the key was building confidence. Clearly Logan would have had a rough time starting immediately as a rookie; it was shrewd to have him learn at the feet of a successful veteran, and shrewder yet to trade that vet away once the student was ready to take over.
All of this means that Nick Foles probably has until year's end to makes his case as the franchise quarterback, unless he crumbles completely in a Geno-esque way. Nate Allen, who is older and has little upside at this point, probably has until the second the team finds a better safety. It seems pretty clear that the team hoped his replacement would be Earl Wolff, but that isn't working out. If Howie Roseman can't find someone by Tuesday's trading deadline, Allen's job is probably safe until the off season.
Huff looks solid for now, too. He works hard and studies hard, blocks very well and has a big upside. An Arizona Cardinals writer told me today that Huff was on their draft board in the 3rd round, and is a classic Bruce Arians type receiver. But he will need to show the progress he promises if he wants to last past the summer.