Chip Kelly Update: Playing Through Injuries

In his first three months as general manager of the Eagles, Chip Kelly machine-gunned a stunning series of roster changes that left many observers saying he was over his head in player personnel decisions.

He traded RB LeSean McCoy for LB Kiko Alonso, refused to match Kansas City’s $11 million offer for WR Jeremy Maclin, signed two CBs (Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond) and two RBs (DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews), and traded his starting QB Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, the Rams’ underachieving No. 1 overall draft pick.

All of those players (except Maxwell) have extensive injury histories, and Kelly has been very cautious exposing them in the preseason. In two games, Bradford and Ryan Mathews have played only 14 snaps, Thurmond 19, Murray 10, and Alonso none at all, as he recovers from a concussion suffered in training camp.

But it’s clear that coach Kelly is willing to gamble on his ability to keep these players — and the rest of the team — healthy. We often talk with admiration about players who play through injuries. It appears that Kelly is trying to figure out how to get his entire team to play through injuries.

It’s very early to evaluate this gamble, but so far the results are impressive. ESPN Stats & Info posted an interesting statistic Wednesday. Its tweet was talking about the Cowboys, who just lost their best CB Orlando Scandrick to an ACL tear, but the graphic tells the deeper story. Since Chip Kelly took over in Philadelphia, three of the five teams with the most players on injured reserve are in the hard-hitting NFC East. The only team in the division that isn’t is the sports science-y Eagles.

Kelly is clearly re-conceptualizing the team’s entire approach to injuries, as evidenced by some intriguing comments he’s made. Instead of seeing injuries as bad luck, Kelly thinks they’re inevitable and should be planned for. At his June roundtable with beat reporters, he said:

I think everybody in the NFL is 100 percent injury prone. Jeremy Maclin, two ACLs. Jason Kelce had an ACL and sports hernia surgery. Our left tackle [Jason Peters] had two Achilles. Our middle linebacker [DeMeco Ryans did also]. … You can go on and on and on. I don’t know if there’s anybody in this league who isn’t injured. That’s just part of the deal.

So how do you plan for injuries? In my new book Controlled Chaos, I discuss the Eagles’ new “reconditioning” approach, and include an exclusive interview with Bill Knowles of HP Sports, a high performance rehabilitation center. Knowles was free to speak openly because he didn’t work for the Eagles at that time, but not long afterwards he was hired to rehabilitate Sam Bradford, using badminton games, among other unusual strategies.

Knowles’ philosophy can be seen in two elements of Bradford’s rehabilitation. One is the absence of a full knee brace, a tool Knowles disfavors. As Bradford told reporters recently, he reinjured his ACL last year while wearing a brace, so what’s the point? The other is the cautious pace of recovery. Knowles told me that the reconditioning approach often takes longer than traditional rehab, and the Eagles held Bradford out of the first preseason game entirely, a full year after he re-tore his ACL.

Other aspects of coach Kelly’s program also help manage the risk of injury. Team depth is obviously a big help. As sportswriter Jimmy Kempski noted,

In Chip Kelly’s first year with the Eagles, I remember putting together my 53-man roster projections and finding 48-49 players I liked. I had to make a case for the last 4-5 guys and shoehorn them in. This year, there are around 55-56 players I like, and it’s really hard choosing which guys to leave off. That’s what happens when you become a deep team. While OL, safety, and OLB depth are a concern, the Eagles have at least good depth at QB, RB, WR, TE, DL, and ILB. In some of those cases, their depth is outstanding.

Sportswriters snickered when Kelly signed DeMarco Murray after already picking up Ryan Mathews, another starting RB. And when he extended ILB DeMeco Ryans’ contract after trading for Kiko Alonso, they confidently predicted that younger ILB Mychal Kendricks would be traded or even released. But on Tuesday, Kelly extended Kendricks for four years.

The Birds can use all three, just as they are happy to have three QBs, scads of defensive backs, and three strong RBs (not counting ex-Duck Kenjon Barner, who is a lock to make the roster after scoring on a punt return for the second time in two preseason games). The team also emphasizes versatility and is happy to rotate in depth players. Rotation keeps the team fresh despite the high number of snaps in this no-huddle tempo offense, develops depth more quickly and prepares the team for adjustments when those injuries inevitably occur.

Meanwhile, the Eagles’ competition continues to suffer terrible injuries. The Cowboys have lost Scandrick, Washington has lost Junior Gallette and several tight ends, and Saturday’s opponent — Green Bay — just lost Jordy Nelson for the year.

The Eagles will undoubtedly suffer some distressing injuries, maybe even to Sam Bradford. But the team has prepared to prevent as well as handle those injuries, and over the next three to five years that will give them a huge advantage.

Feature photo by Mark Saltveit

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