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Engineering the Eagles: Product Design and the Eagles Roster

I have returned from my brief writing hiatus with my own 'engineering' take on why Chip Kelly has gone nuclear on the Eagles' roster.

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

How's it going, BGN? It's been a while! I haven't had time to write recently between schoolwork and job interviews, but a lot of that has calmed down (I'll be moving to Connecticut in the summer... anyone know an Eagles bar up there?). Since my last post, Chip Kelly has single-handedly destroyed and rebuilt the roster, dumping/trading/losing Todd Herremans, Trent Cole, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Nick Foles, Bradley Fletcher, Nate Allen, and Carey Williams and replacing them with Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, Walter Thurmond III, Sam Bradford, Ryan Mathews, DeMarco Murray, and now most recently Miles Austin.

These moves have been met with a mix of confusion, excitement, frustration, anger, and skepticism from the Eagles' fan base and beat writers. No one seems to know what Chip is doing, or if he even knows what he is doing. Sure, it's clear he has a plan, but are these moves the way to accomplish that? I was left scratching my head like everyone else, until one particular press conference quote caught my attention:

"If you accept that you're going to take a 5-7 corner and the ball gets thrown over his head, you can't say, 'Boy, he should have made that play.' He isn't going to make the play, the receiver is 6-4. There's a give and take.

"It's a tough deal, but if you take the overachievers who aren't the right size at every position eventually you're going to have a 5-10 nose guard, with a 5-9 inside linebacker, with a 5-8 safety and they're going to run the ball right down your throat and you have no one to kick in the pants but yourself because you decided to make those selections."

Chip took an angle on this that, by now, should be considered consistent with his character: he broke it down to numbers. He's applying specific values to what he expects out of his players, which makes personnel decisions much more concrete. This falls in line with the accepted model of product development that engineers in research and development implement on a regular basis. That model is to answer the "What will the product do?" questions before the "How will the product do that?" questions.

For example, let's say a design company is creating a new type of power drill. Instead of getting caught up with anything about what components the drill will have, what materials it will be made of, or what it will look like, they start by defining values called 'engineering specifications,' which often look like this:

  • The drill will generate 'X' inch-pounds of torque.
  • The drill will weigh fewer than 'X' pounds.
  • The drill will be able to work 'X' hours on a single battery charge.

Notice that statements like these don't even bother addressing how the drill will accomplish these things; that's a job later down the road. It simply lays out a guide to assess whether the finish product could be considered successful or not. Does the product, in fact, satisfy all of those statements? By approaching design this way, there isn't any ambiguity for success or failure.

Okay, big deal. What does this have to with Chip Kelly, or even football? A lot, actually. Creating numerical goals before going to the drawing board has been a tactic employed before by coaching greats. Bill Walsh, before he even wrote a play for his revolutionary West Coast Offense, started with a simple statement: "The offense will make 25 first downs per game." And he went from there.

In the same vein, Chip Kelly has already given us some numbers that he uses as benchmarks: cornerbacks should be at least six feet tall. Running backs should make one cut. Athletes need at least ten hours of sleep per night.. You get the idea - but the thing is, I think Kelly has numbers for everything, tucked away in a little black book somewhere, with statements like:


  • The quarterback will throw the ball in under 'X' seconds.
  • The offense will have 'X' possessions per game.
  • There will be 'X' seconds on the play clock when the ball is snapped.
  • There will be fewer than 'X' locker room arguments/fights over the course of a season.
  • A player will have fewer than 'X' behavioral incidents outside of football.
Now, some of those statements might raise some eyebrows, but I wouldn't put it past Chip to quantify as many things as possible. It's a quick and easy way to assess the true status of a team. I would say he has been assembling these numbers since his earliest coaching days, tweaking and refining them as he climbed the ladder and gained experience.

This methodology would help explain Kelly's meteoric rise through the coaching ranks. With a black-and-white, no-nonsense list of numerical goals that he wanted to accomplish, the only question he had to address was, "How am I going to do this?" Granted, it is certainly a big question, but having those numbers gave him an easy launchpad to start designing his offense. Eventually, he was able to check all the boxes on his statements in college with the massive success of his Oregon Ducks football program.

This brings us to the NFL. Professional football has brought with it a new set of challenges for Kelly, which would probably mean he has had to tweak those numbers slightly. For the past two seasons, haven't you gotten the feeling that the team is almost there? That something was just slightly off? Like they are one small adjustment from flat-out steamrolling their competition? That there is just one small but significant shortcoming that is preventing them from getting over the hump? I believe that this is because Kelly was in the process of adjusting his 'engineering specs' from a college football team to a professional football team.

And now, after two seasons, he believes these adjustments are complete.

It not only explains why Chip wanted control of personnel (especially if Howie Roseman wasn't on board with his specs), but it also explains the absolute deconstruction and reconstruction of the Eagles roster in a span of two months. From an entirely objective standpoint, Kelly has no choice but to do everything within his power to make sure his roster satisfies every last one of those statements (or at least a certain amount, which could be another specification from his hypothetical book). And until those specifications are rectified, he will continue to remake the roster "with great vengeance and furious anger," to steal a line from what may be the greatest scene in film history.

Obviously, the caveat with all of this is that it is pure speculation. I'm a college student; I have no idea whatsoever if Kelly has a black book or if he even approaches football in this way. What I do know is that, when viewed through this lens, what Chip Kelly is doing this offseason makes sense (to me, anyway). So I think that has some value in itself.

Of course, supposing that everything I've said is miraculously true, there is still one question that will remain unanswered until the season begins: are those numbers right? Because if they aren't we might be in for a long season.

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