Mandatory mini-camp is in session for three days of open-to-the-press practices, and there’s a sudden flood of information in the blogs and newspapers. It’s not really any different than the last three weeks of OTAs (organized team activities), though.
“Mandatory” doesn’t mean much, for one thing, since the Eagles had 100% turnout at the voluntary OTAs. Safety Ed Reynolds was stuck at Stanford finishing up his classes, just like Zach Ertz was last year. It seemed to set Ertz back a bit, so the team tried to keep him up to speed with Skype-coaching and video podcasts of his position meetings.
When the team released star WR DeSean Jackson, at least in part for not buying into Coach Kelly’s methods, Chip got rid of one of the last remaining dissenters and sent a clear message to the rest of the squad, as even-bigger-star RB LeSean McCoy spelled out for reporters Wednesday.
“No matter how good a player is, it’s a team. If you can’t buy in, anything is possible,” McCoy said.
“Anything” here means “a kick to the curb.”
This is now a team with an offensive lineman’s mentality, not star attitude. The players show up early and leave late, compete to work the hardest and show leadership, and go out of their way to educate newer players on the unusual aspects of Chip Kelly’s system.
McCoy is the NFL’s leading rusher (1,600 yards) and clearly the biggest star on the team; as teammate NT Bennie Logan says, “He’s got a lot of moves in his shoes.” But Wednesday Shady was humble, said the team was better without DeSean (who he had earlier defended), and even wore sweat pants on a humid, 90+ degree day — just to go the extra mile.
The Eagles have a lot of players coming back from major injuries, especially at the wide receiver position where Jackson’s Pro Bowl shoes need to be filled. The team hopes the Eagles’ extensive Sports Science program — much of which was developed at the University of Oregon, with Phil Knight contributing Nike’s extensive research — can help the recovery of three players who had preseason ACL tears last year: special teams ace LB Jason Phillips and wideouts Jeremy Maclin — the main replacement for DeSean — and Arrelious Benn, a 6’3 speedster who has yet to live up to his potential in four NFL seasons with Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
Both look good so far, but it’s hard to shake a nagging feeling about the future. Maclin has hovered just under 1,000 yards per year over the same period, essentially matching DeSean until his season-ending injury last season, despite a tendency to miss 2-3 games a year with injuries. But Benn has been all potential and no production. This is almost certainly his last year in the NFL if that doesn’t change.
So why would a playoff team such as Philadelphia keep him around? It’s becoming clear that this is Chip Kelly’s style as an NFL coach. He’s freed from the endless recruiting of high school prospects, a task he clearly disliked, and no longer has to scheme around a team full of undersized players — a curse Oregon is unlikely to shake any time soon. Everyone likes to quote Chip’s mantra, “Bigger people beat up little people,” but it’s not as simple as that. Coach Kelly also wants fast, smart and versatile players.
Everyone wants big, fast, smart, versatile players. So how does a coach come out ahead? Kelly consistently gambles on talented players coming off major injuries. Some work out great (young stud center Jason Kelce, old but great tackle Jason Peters) and others not so much (safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung).
Kelce and Peters anchored an offensive line where nearly every player was coming back from a major injury; now many consider them the NFL’s best front line. Check out these videos of “Kelce porn” (safe for work), courtesy of the excellent ChipWagon blog. It’s always fun to see your lineman pancake a linebacker, but it’s really fun when he runs 20 yards downfield first.
Where the gamble didn’t work out — at safety — the Eagles paid a big price. Patrick Chung was a deep zone liability for the Birds last year, including the playoff loss, and Kenny Phillips never made it out of training camp. As a result the safeties frequently let the team down. Opponents made countless 3rd-and-long conversions that should have been easy to stop. Chung even tackled his own teammate twice, resulting in big gains (one a touchdown).
For better or worse, Coach Kelly has a clear and consistent strategy at play. Where Andy Reid gambled on smaller, undersized overachievers, Kelly has consistently gone for good-sized yet fast players whose promise was interrupted by a major injury, usually an ACL tear. With excellent rehab and good old science, it’s a smart gamble — but a gamble nonetheless. Out of three or four such prospects — who all come cheap or free — one unexpected success could have a huge upside.
Consider 6’7 WR Ifeanyi Momah. He showed no skill last year but is back and much improved this spring. He’s still probably a practice squad candidate at best, but with another year of development, at this rate, he could be an amazing weapon in 2015. As a bonus, Arrelious Benn and Ifeanyi Momah are two of the coolest names in professional sports.
The Eagles were desperately thin last year, given the switch to new offensive and defensive schemes and a couple of disastrous drafts, and Chip’s strategy was dangerous. This offseason, the team didn’t add any flashy star players — they passed on Johnny Manziel — but the Eagles did a great job of building depth across the board, from Oregon DE Taylor Hart to free agent CB Nolan Carroll, who many think has a chance to win a starting job this year. Now that the team has weathered the riskiest year and built a cushion, the gambles on fixer-uppers could prove very shrewd.
While Chip rehabilitates long-shots, a surprising number of his rivals’ key players keep dropping to sudden injuries. Last year the victims ranged from Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware to Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson — and RGIII was hobbled at best.
This year, several key players on the Eagles’ scheduled opponents are already out, including Sean Lee, Robert Mathis and Daryl Washington. Aldon Smith is facing legal troubles that could keep him out of the the 49ers game, and Jason Hatcher (now a Redskin) is facing knee surgery that will make him miss a minimum of 4-6 weeks.
All of which makes you wonder if Chip Kelly’s power is not so much scientific as something more ancient, primal and mysterious — something involving pins and dolls.
He was unavailable for comment.
Feature photo: May 1941 Weird Tales on Voodoo (public domain)