Lincoln Financial Field — the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium — is black and modern, with severe angles and a skeletal design. Even the eco-friendly windmills lined up along the roof have a nasty, heavy-metal look; the intertwined blades look more like Death Scythes than renewable energy generators. If there was a stadium designed by a brilliant and semi-sympathetic Hollywood action movie villain, or say, Gru in Despicable Me, it would look like this. It is hoped that opponents will find it to be an evil place of (competitive) death, too, in the Chip Kelly era.
20,000 fans came to “The Linc” on Monday to watch Chip Kelly’s second public practice. Unlike the beat reporters covering the Ducks, who had to wait outside practice gates, this crowd got to see and hear it all: short periods of drills, scrimmage, special teams, and teaching sessions separated by an air horn; a robotic-sounding voice announcing the next workout station; amplifiers blaring music (mostly techno and dance); assistant coaches wearing giant, black bug-wings during 7-on-7 drills, slowly advancing on the quarterback like bored zombies. (Personally, I thought the bug men might sack Nick Foles on a couple of plays, he took so long getting rid of the ball.)
This day, however, was sunny yet neither too hot nor too humid. The Eagles looked sharp. Standouts included three second-year players who have emerged as promising talents: Brandon Boykin (at cornerback), Chris Polk (a running back with major receiving skills), and Damaris Johnson (a tiny wide receiver/returner who makes tremendous cuts and fakes). Excitement and optimism were in the air.
That changed Tuesday and Wednesday during joint practices with the New England Patriots. The good news was that Riley Cooper returned from his short leave of absence and scored at least two touchdowns in practice. I thought I heard people whisper “conspiracy” — that the Eagles set things up for Cooper to do well. But such a conspiracy would need to involve the Patriots’ entire secondary, Michael Vick, Nick Foles, and the Eagles’ other receivers, such as James Casey (who dropped a couple of passes in the end zone).
A more likely scenario is that Chip played this difficult situation wisely, bringing Cooper back on Tuesday, when that surprise news had to compete with other stories including the joint practices and ensuing game with the Patriots and Johnny Manziel’s paid autograph scandal. Players may have been distracted by having to compete against their counterparts on one of the NFL’s dynastic teams, when Cooper returned at the precise moment in training camp that competition shifted from Eagle vs. Eagle to Eagles vs. their collective enemies. That seemed to be a great time to re-ingratiate Coop with teammates given Kelly’s adept choice of making it a team decision rather than him, as coach, imposing his will.
Michael Vick went a long way toward mollifying the racially-charged situation by stepping forward as a leader and – speaking explicitly for the team, as well as for himself – saying that it was time to move on. Not coincidentally, he later won the starting QB job, at least for the first preseason game tonight. Sure, there was no way Nick Foles could have stepped forward as a leader on the Riley Cooper issue unless he wanted to launch a racial war, but that’s part of the story, too.
More importantly, Vick is somewhere between a leader and a hero to many of the younger Eagles’ players, as Tim McManus of Birds 24/7 discussed recently. Back in 2010, LeSean McCoy — one of the leading skeptics in the Riley Cooper affair — told a reporter that his whole high school team had Michael Vick cleats. ”I’m a fan of his. I just can’t show him too much. It’s the same for me, for Maclin, for DeSean.” On Monday, the Riley Cooper story was sounding increasingly venomous on Philadelphia sports talk radio; by Tuesday, thanks to Chip and Vick, it had been defanged.
Aside from Riley Cooper’s return, though, the rest of the joint practices were a bit less encouraging. Oft-injured wide receiver pickup Arrelious Benn tore his ACL, the third such instance of training camp, and is gone for the year. The Eagles did well against Tim Tebow, or perhaps I should say that “The Lord’s Lefty” just looked bad. When he was making that miracle run with Denver, I really started to wonder if Tebow had a direct line to the Divine. Wednesday, however, he was getting no help from above.
Some might argue that God is already playing for the Patriots, wearing number 12, and I saw nothing to disprove that on Wednesday. Tom Brady is everything you’ve read and more. Granted, the Eagles’ secondary is in a complete rebuilding mode and likely the team’s biggest weakness heading into the first game, but poor coverage can’t guide the passes into marginal receivers’ hands the way Brady did with the effortless and near-immediate recognition of seams and gaps.
A lot of what had looked good in practice earlier lost luster when challenged by a motivated opponent. As optimistic as I am about the changes Chip is instilling, he’s engaged in a down-to-the-joists remodel of the House of Eagles, and it was a reminder that there may well be some ugly moments as he races to patch up that leaky roof and insulate the walls. We’ll get our first look tonight at 7:30 pm EST, and I’ll be there to tell you what it looked like.
Camp note: Matt Barkley has had a frustrating training camp and is just not a factor in the Eagles’ quarterback competition. (Nor is Dennis Dixon, unfortunately, though he ran some reps against the Patriots on Wednesday and looked solid.) Remember Barkley’s fumble in the Ducks’ 2010 game against USC, where Lane Kiffin was yelling last minute instructions at him, Barkley looked at the sideline, and the center hiked it off his shin? That exact thing happened in practice Monday. Barkley was having trouble getting his 3rd-team players lined up, looked over at the sideline, and the center simply hiked it past him. This time, I’ll bet Chip Kelly was less amused.
Quote of the Week: “Everything is back to normal. … I’m so proud of my teammates because of their resolve … I respect these guys because they understand the bigger picture.” – Michael Vick, to Albert Breer of NFL.com
Mark Saltveit’s book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has been one of Amazon’s best-selling football books since its release in June. You can find it at the various Oregon Ducks Stores, the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, various stores around Philadelphia, the University of New Hampshire (Manchester) book store, and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/
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Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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