As frustrating as it can be for Eagles fans to try to figure out what Chip Kelly is thinking, it's reassuring to know that they have a leg up on football followers everywhere else, including sportswriters. In the off-season Kelly can go weeks or even months without making a public statement. Then he'll suddenly flood writers with a hour of rapid talk at the NFL owners meetings or multiple draft-day press conferences, overwhelming them with detail.
You sense that there's a master plan there, but it's multifaceted and not something you can reduce to a phrase or two (like "West Coast Offense"). Meanwhile, dramatic roster moves are flying around which appear impulsive, even crazy. It takes a thousand little bits of random information to put together the big picture, and unless you're a a diehard fan or write about the Eagles, you can't just parachute in and get the whole picture.
Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated is an excellent writer with years of NFL experience. Before joining SI, he worked for the Boston Globe covering the Patriots, a team that's at least as tight-lipped as the Eagles are these days. And yet he managed to quote both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on the record in a 2012 story that revealed the secret to the Patriots hyper-speed no-huddle offense. Apparently they were using one-word play calls, a technique they borrowed from a young college coach out in Oregon named Chip Kelly.
It's fascinating to see what a top-level sports writer can do with all of this, and Bedard gives us a perfect opportunity to do exactly that: his five page article about coach Kelly in the new Sports Illustrated, which is called "An Open Mind." (EDIT: the article is now available online; it was print only earlier in the week.)
There are a couple of unfortunate production notes. Josh Huff is shorter than Jordan Matthews, but he's not 5'1 ¼" (obviously a typo, but who proofreads these things?) The full-page illustration of the coach's head looks more like a mix of Belichick and Ernest Borgnine to my eye than it does Kelly. And the magazine's cover tease reads "Chip Kelly's Beautiful Mind," probably intended as an echo of the coach's playful swipe at LeSean McCoy during last June's minicamp:
"How LeSean McCoy interprets things, LeSean has a beautiful mind, so sometimes trying to analyze that mind, I don't wrap myself around that too much or bother myself too much with that."
More likely readers will remember the Hollywood movie about a genius mathematician who struggled with mental illness; are they implying something about Chip? No doubt this was written before John Nash, the subject of the movie "A Beautiful Mind," died in a car crash on the Jersey Turnpike Friday, but the timing is unfortunate.
The article itself is very interesting, a must-read for Eagles fans. The big picture overview feels right, and makes an interesting parallel between Kelly and Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and Belichick, all of whom were also thought crazy after trading key players before they were thought brilliant.
Bedard fills in interesting details about Kelly's early contacts with the University of Oregon and adds some fascinating detail about Kelly's father, a lawyer and former Jesuit, who echoes Kelly's own comments about questioning everything. The article quotes an essay Paul Kelly submitted to the "New Hampshire Bar News" in 2005:
"Law school taught me to question. The practice of law honed that teaching into a lifelong habit."
That said, there are plenty of statements about the Eagles under Chip that will raise eyebrows in Philadelphia, especially since Bedard did not interview Kelly. (H/T to @astonia67 for flagging flaws.) Most are in the section where Bedard describes what he says are the exacting standards Kelly has for players in his scheme.
According to Bedard, Kelly wants his defensive ends to be at least 6'6", Kenjon Barner is a key part of the Eagles' running back corps, Josh Huff will be "relegated to the slot" this year and Sam Bradford was obtained because he's "an athletic quarterback who can threaten a defense with his running ability."
Bedard confidently states (without identifying a source) that "the most important characteristic" for Eagles' nose tackles is "Knees with a circumference of at least 18 inches" because that indicates that they are "less susceptible to injuries." I haven't heard that one before, though the Eagles are known for measuring prospects wrists, ankles and knees to see if their frame will allow them to carry more weight successfully. Before the Eagles drafted him, Lane Johnson told the Inquirer's Jeff McLane that
"When I went to the Eagles they had my body fat down to around 15, 16 percent. They want to see how lean you are. They'll measure your wrists, around your knees and ankles to see what your body can hold and they told me [it was] around 315, 320."
Perhaps the oddest comment in the article is this:
"The Eagles have no use for shutdown corners in their scheme."
Say what? Clearly Chip stuck with Bradley Fletcher too long in 2014, but I still think the touchdowns he gave up were a bug, not a feature. Kelly was plenty happy at Oregon with shutdown corner Cliff Harris, who startled everyone by introducing himself at his first team meeting this way:
"My name is Cliff Harris and I'm here to lock shit down."
Harris lived up to his boast and was a key part of the team that went to the National Championship Game. Kelly only kicked him off the team after multiple arrests for drugs and, in one case, driving 118 miles an hour. The latter case was the famous incident where the trooper asked "Who's got the marijuana in the car?" and Harris replied "We smoked it all." But it certainly wasn't scheme-inappropriate locking down that got him in trouble.
For a typically "passionate" Eagles fan -- Bedard's description -- this article is a win-win-win. It's positive, full of interesting new nuggets, and has enough flaws for cranky BGN commenters and sports radio hosts to rip it up for days.