I heard a great story on the radio about a guy teaching himself to make really good pizza. He knew a special, extra hot oven is needed to make a good crust, hotter than the 500 degrees or so a conventional oven will give you – but he didn’t have the $5,000 to $20,000 that a real pizza oven will cost you.
What he realized, though, was that a self-cleaning oven jacks up the heat briefly to 900 or even 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit – with a short timer and autolock on the door to prevent you from opening it and seriously burning yourself. So, of course, he hotwired his stove to remove these safety devices and bring it to its full potential. Yeah, he started a small fire and melted a couple of stoves figuring all this out, but he was dealing with very powerful forces, right?
That’s what Chip Kelly’s football program in Philadelphia looks like right now. It’s still pretty rough, but he’s throwing around highly combustible elements that occasionally fall inert and other times explode with a frightening ferocity. Over time, he’ll get better control of all this newly revealed power and smooth it out, but, in the short run, it’s even more exciting to watch than it will be in a couple of years, when he crushes opponents methodically.
Nothing brings out the mad scientist in Chip like dramatically changed circumstances, and Sunday’s Winter Wonderland in Philadelphia was the most dramatic of all. Snow started falling just 40 minutes before the game, and by the time play began it was a full-on blizzard. Eight inches of snow smothered the field, players plowed arc tangents of powder as they slid to the ground, and both teams were smart enough to not even try a point after touchdown kick, much less a field goal.
Actually, Detroit tried one PAT, burning a time out so that the whole team could come out and try to push aside snow piles with their cleats beforehand. Despite the extended preparation, the attempt was tentative, Bennie Logan slapped the attempt back like a chest-high jump shot in the paint and kicker David Akers’ non-kicking foot slid out from under him, causing him to fall on his ass. It was awesome!
When the usual playbook doesn’t work and the situation gets crazy, Chip Kelly is at his best. That’s because he has boiled football down to its essence. Forget tradition, schemes, standard plays, even positions – those are all crutches, cheat sheets, lazy man’s shortcuts that blind you to a lot of gridiron potential. He gets down to first principles and sees the rest as non-essential.
This gives him a much bigger tool chest to work with. Other coaches have 3/8″ and 1/2″ wrenches; Chip has dozens, fixed (both metric and standard) and adjustable, and he knows when to use each.
Chip’s ideas are not new, usually – often they’re quite old, like the Emory and Henry play he ran in the preseason – but he knows from endless experience when they fit the unusual situation that has popped up. More importantly, he pursues only fundamentally sound plays and formations, so these are never gimmicks. They’re more like dilemmas for the opponent.
There are fantastic coaches in the NFL who are likely to out-scheme coach Kelly in the playoffs in a predictable sort of game, and more talented teams that may just crush the Eagles if they meet. But if everything gets crazy, due to weird weather or a power outage or who knows what, I’m putting my money on Chip.
The Lions started strong against Philadelphia, with the Eagles’ passing attack useless, LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown losing yardage in ill-fated attempts to bounce outside on runs, and the Eagles speed in all three phases – especially on defense and special teams – wiped out by eight inches of fresh powder. Detroit’s 14-point lead carried into the third quarter, but they didn’t adapt or build on their advantage.
Chip gradually and methodically shaped his approach to the conditions. He started by accepting the unsolicited advice of his most-maligned cornerback, Cary Williams, who noted that he couldn’t catch up with receivers after they executed fakes, and suggested that his problems with traction might afflict the Lion’s DBs, too.
Chip followed Sconce-Boy’s advice and started calling passes, medium and long. Starting with 5:19 left in the 3rd, Nick Foles threw seven passes in a row. The first four connected for 12 yards, 44, 19 and a TD, and then 25 yards to Riley Cooper on the next drive. After that aerial outburst, the first run was LeSean McCoy’s 40-yard touchdown where he hurdled a defender – in the SNOW (see main photo). The next drive: Shady runs for six, Foles passes to Brad Smith (of “that Brad Smith play” fame) for 13, and Shady runs for 57 and another TD. Despite being scoreless with five minutes left in the third, the Eagles exploded and won, 34-20. Against a team that allowed only 80 yards of rushing per game, second in the NFL, the Eagles picked up 223 yards of rushing – just in the fourth quarter. Boom.
It’s not always easy to find Eagles fans in Oregon, so I was excited when a guy at the post office told me about a Birds bar in Tigard. J. B. O’Brien’s, on Highway 99 at Durham Road, is exactly that. Portland’s official Eagles club — the Eagles Nest – has made it their home for a dozen years, and about 50-60 folks watched the Snow Bowl there. A lot more will be there for the game against Dallas on December 29th.
I myself am going to Philadelphia next week, to promote the publication of a new, expanded version of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” by Diversion Books, a major New York publisher. You can read a free sample here (what a great present that would be for the football fan, Taoist or manager in your life). The Eagles head to Minnesota for a warm, dry game against the Vikings in their domed stadium, come home for the Bears and close the regular season out against the Cowboys in Dallas. They’ll be favored in each game, which doesn’t mean they’ll run the table – but they could.
This team will win 10 or 11 games and, almost certainly, their division. They’ll be the hottest team in the league going into the playoffs, and while they’ll probably also be the least-talented, they will be the squad (besides Seattle) that no one wants to face. Boom.
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