feature photo by Jimmy Kempski
Training camp finally opened for the entire Eagles team, and Chip Kelly faced adversity almost immediately. First, injuries: not one but TWO ACL tears in the first three days, by #2 receiver Jeremy Maclin and newly acquired linebacker Jason Phillips. Maclin is a big deal for the Eagles, despite criticism for softness (some call him “self-tackling”); his loss will certainly accelerate Chip’s movement away from Andy Reid’s wide-receiver-based offense toward the tight ends and running backs that Kelly favors. The coach unveiled a three-TE look this week, with veteran Brent Celek in the typical tight end spot, free agent James Casey in the H-back slot and second-round draft pick Zach Ertz — whose touchdown catch last year haunts the fevered sleep of Duck fans — split wide.
Jason Phillips is not a big name, but he’s a special teams ace whose loss undercuts a major push by Kelly to improve the Eagles’ pathetic special teams play of the last couple of years. Both are lost for the year. Some worry that Kelly’s accelerated pace leads to more injuries, which is a reasonable concern (Ask the 2012 Ducks’ defensive line.) but doesn’t really fit the facts here. On the other hand, it’s just as likely that Kelly’s advanced sports science may help players recover more quickly from injuries. Jason Kelce — who tore both his ACL and MCL last year — definitely thinks so.
On Wednesday, a video emerged from early June that showed WR Riley Cooper – an Oklaboma native, and Maclin’s replacement — in a confrontation with an African American bouncer at a Kenny Chesney concert in June. What’s the big deal? The videotape shows Cooper saying to the guard, “I will jump that fence and fight every (N-word) here, bro.” This would be a disaster anywhere, but in a city as racially charged as Philadelphia, it is unbelievably explosive, and reporters were immediately wondering if the team would cut Cooper.
Coach Kelly seems to have handled it well. Cooper told reporters that the coach said, “Go out and face this, and tell them exactly what you just told me, how sorry you are, the way you said it.” The team fined him an undisclosed amount, and Kelly held a private five-minute open discussion among the players to begin clearing the air. Cooper apologized with apparent sincerity, and teammates were publicly forgiving, led by Mike Vick. Vick, who’s locked in a neck-and-neck quarterback competition with Nick Foles, did not miss the opportunity to demonstrate his leadership on this team. ”Riley came to us as a man and apologized for what he did. As a team, we understood because we all make mistakes in life and we all do and say things that maybe we do mean or we don’t mean. But as a teammate, I forgave him. As a team, we forgave him.” Cooper’s supporters included Jason Avant, Demeco Ryans, Fletcher Cox and several other African-American players.
Another worry was an article in the Wall Street Journal, which implied that referees would make an effort to slow down the Eagles’ (and other teams’) no-huddle offenses. Kelly was not concerned. ”We understand the rules of engagement. I have absolutely no issue with them. We embrace the way they’re doing it.”
If you look closely at the Journal article, Kelly’s words take on additional meaning. The WSJ argued that whenever the offense substitutes, the NFL gives defenses as much time as they need to substitute their own players. Also, the NFL requires that officials replace the ball when the play ends out of bounds or there is an incomplete pass. None of which matters, since Kelly avoids substituting when playing at full speed, and runs the ball to avoid stopping the clock.
Putting aside all of that drama, training camp is going well. 30,000 fans came out to watch the first of five public practices on Monday. As Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson said in a different context, “We’re talking about practice man, we’re not even talking about the game.” That’s impressive.
Players have adjusted to Kelly’s practices and are enjoying competing against each other. Players have clearly bought in to Kelly’s program, including DeSean Jackson whose early resistance has turned into enthusiastic effort. Kelly described him as a “super ball.” What? ”We want our guys to be like super balls, not tomatoes. The super ball bounces all the time. [DeSean]’s the ultimate super ball.”
Second year cornerback Brandon Boykin is getting raves for his play, sticking tight with all of the team’s widely-varied receivers and notching a lot of pass breakups — “173 (estimated)” — in the first four days, according to ace reporter Jimmy Kempski’s excellent training camp diary. Boykin’s making a serious case for promotion from slot back in the nickel to starting outside corner on a team that is desperate to upgrade its pathetic secondary. Kempski managed to smuggle out a high-res picture of the Eagle’s 2012 cornerbacks — better known as “Mile Marker 23″ and “Mile Marker 24″ — in action:
Another second year player, Damaris Johnson, is a tiny (5’8″) speedster performing well at WR and kickoff returns, plus the occasion wide run– not unlike De’Anthony Thomas. He played only three years of college at Tulsa but finished as the NCAA’s all-time record holder for kickoff returns (3,417 yards) and all purpose yardage (7,796).
Veteran receiver Jason Avant is sometimes overlooked due to his lack of explosive speed, but has been making tremendous catches and separating himself well in camp. He reminds me of Jeff Maehl, Kelly’s most successful pure receiver with the Ducks. And speaking of ex-Ducks, Patrick Chung has been impressive in camp. His hard-hitting would be a nice change from last year’s defensive backs, who seemed to prefer cooperative athletics to unpleasant tackling.
Put it all together, and Kelly has gotten rid of the team’s worst attitudes and under-performing players, won over the rest of the team, added a lot of varied talent, and brought a completely new and innovative practice regimen into shape quickly. A good start. The Eagles may not get to the playoffs this year, but the odds are good that they’ll double last year’s total of four wins and lay the foundation for future success.
Next week will be the biggest test so far, joint practices with New England building up to Kelly’s first NFL (preseason) game against the Patriots next Friday. I’m flying to Philadelphia to cover all of it; come back for next week’s column to hear what I saw. Or read what I heard. Or something like that.
Final note: I subtitled my book about Chip Kelly, “Lessons from America’s Most Successful Coach,” knowing full well that Alabama fans would get quite irate. My argument is that, relative to his resources, Chip Kelly accomplished more than Nick Saban, much less Urban Meyer. Put another way, if you had handed him the Alabama team four years ago, Kelly would have won four national championships. Well, a study at Emory University used advanced statistics to gauge which college coach over the past ten years added the most to his team in wins and BCS bowl games. The winner? Chip Kelly, of course.
Quote of the Week: “We want our guys to be like super balls, not tomatoes. The super ball bounces all the time. [DeSean]’s the ultimate super ball.” — Chip Kelly
Mark Saltveit’s book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has been one of Amazon’s best-selling football books since its release last month. You can find it at the Ducks Store in Eugene, the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, various stores around Philadelphia, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/
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