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Engineering the Eagles: Chip Kelly at the Helm

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I hope to be starting a new series of posts here relating Kelly's methods to engineering. For the kickoff post: Chip Kelly recently became one of the most powerful coaches in the NFL. Could the way he thinks prevent him from suffering the fate of many of his predecessors?

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Before I get into the actual content of this post, I'd like to make my acknowledgments to Mark Saltveit, our resident authority on Chip Kelly. He has literally written the book on Chip and this article is not intended to become a battle of "who knows Chip better" because if it was I would surely lose. In fact, the majority of the information I provide on Chip (and my inspiration for this) comes from Mark's online profile of the coach; it's a great read that I highly recommend - all eleven chapters of it.

Chip's recent power grab has made us all a little uneasy. Can we trust him to evaluate talent well? Who will he surround himself with? Is this going to be Andy Reid 2.0 - or worse, Jim Harbaugh 2.0? My gut tells me to give him the benefit of the doubt, for one sole reason: he thinks like an engineer.

The Rejection of the Status Quo

Many of you might see engineers as the guys who build bridges and tunnels and who spent their free time in high school disassembling electronics to see how they worked. And for the most part, you'd be right - but there is another side to the profession that is often overlooked. Engineers are primarily responsible for the vast majority of leaps in technology in everything from cell phones to scotch tape, and to make improvements on a product you need to believe that there is an improvement to be made. In short, engineers have a natural rejection for the way things are and hold a firm belief that things could be better.

Sound familiar? It should, because this is exactly how Chip Kelly views football. He has often been described as a "why guy" - someone who explains the purpose to his players because he always asked the purpose to his coaches. In his own words, doing something because "that's the way it's always been done" was the worst way to run things because you are preemptively shooting down different (and possibly better) ideas.

Armed with Information and Ideas

In fact, this is how Chip Kelly's journey through the ranks of coaching began. He found himself frustrated at coaches who were so stuck in their own rut that they refused to consider any alternatives. But he didn't begin by just blindly drawing up plays and designing offenses - he knew he wasn't ready for that. So he started by gathering information. Again, this is very much how engineers begin when they are on a product development team. When ABC Nightline requested that the design firm IDEO design a brand-new shopping cart in a matter of days, the first thing the company did was gather information in any way they could - research, playing with current shopping carts, talking to consumers, and talking to grocery store owners. Likewise, Chip spent almost all of his free time talking to anybody who would be willing to discuss football with him (via Chip Kelly profile):

"Many, if not most, of his close friends are also football or basketball coaches. ...And while at UNH, he was known for traveling during the offseason to pick the brains of spread offenses all over the country, even at the high school level."

Kelly's thirst for more information was important because he, like engineers, recognized that information could lead an innovator to their most valuable resource: an idea. Ideas are what engineers live and die by, and ideas are what Kelly has been using to fuel his coaching career since his days at New Hampshire.

Interestingly enough, Kelly also shares the same approach to ideas that engineers take in that he does not discriminate where they come from. Many focus groups combine interdisciplinary teammates with a policy that encourages any idea, no matter how insane or impossible they might seem. The thought is that an insane idea proposed by a person with one mode of thinking might inspire a better and more attainable idea from someone else in the group with a different perspective. Similarly, Kelly has often encouraged players to approach him with play ideas, knowing that even if their idea wasn't quite there it might give him an idea that was.

Chip also has the "interdisciplinary" side covered too. He has viewed the dynamics of a football team from every perspective and reached out to anyone who might give him a better idea to approach it. He has to design the team's nutrition regimen? Contact a "sports science" expert from the Navy SEALs. He has to mediate an interpersonal issue in the locker room? Create a network of college professors so he can take an informed approach to the situation. He's just gotten a job as an NFL head coach? Hire assistants with extensive NFL experience. Everywhere Kelly has gone, he has realized that he isn't the smartest person in the room and that he doesn't have all the answers. He has made sure to assemble groups of varying disciplines that can properly advise him on any situation, which should give us some solace as he moves to hire a general manager that will report to him.

Okay... Who Cares?

So, Chip Kelly has demonstrated that he has engineering tendencies. So what? Why do we care? Engineers are people too - they aren't superheroes. They aren't any more valuable to society than doctors or lawyers (and you might even be able to make the argument that he also thinks like a doctor or lawyer - I wouldn't know). Does it really make a difference that Kelly thinks like an engineer at all?

Yes, it does, for one reason. A degree in engineering is essentially a formal education in problem-solving disguised with science. On top of all the technical jargon, engineers are shown how to view a problem from every angle, no matter how abstract that angle may be. Chip Kelly has shown that he will look at the problems of a football team from these outside-the-box perspectives, which gives him a distinct advantage over the NFL "purists" in the coaching ranks out there.

With all that said (and one semester left until I have an engineering degree to my name), I will attempt to also look at some of the problems that the Eagles face in an unorthodox fashion to try and discern the best course of action. Of course, I am not inside Chip's head and I'll never claim to know what the Eagles are going to do. But I will state what they might (or should) do, or at the very least provide some reasoning behind a peculiar course of action from an engineering viewpoint.

I hope you all enjoy my "Engineering the Eagles" posts in the future (I'll try to keep them shorter than this) and look for my next installment in this series, which will take another look at the Eagles' quarterback situation moving forward.