Then-Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti hired Chip Kelly to be his offensive coordinator in 2007 because of his expertise implementing and running the kind of read-option attack that was taking over college football.
Bellotti, and the Ducks, wound up getting much, much more.
|Chip Kelly was courted by a number of NFL teams before settling on the Philadelphia Eagles. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)|
Six years later, and after four seasons and three conference titles as head coach, Kelly has left Oregon and arrived in Philadelphia, set to take on the challenge of shaking up pro football the same way he did the major college game. And plenty of folks are thinking the way Bellotti did back in 2007: focusing just on how Kelly's tornado of an option offense will be adapted to the NFL.
That is, most certainly, a short-sighted way of staring at a few trees (the offense) and ignoring the forest (the program).
"It's high energy and high efficiency in everything you do," said Bellotti, who became Oregon's athletic director in 2009, when Kelly was elevated to succeed him. "In meetings, it's not just looking at the play. It's, 'Here's what happened, here's why,' and it's coming rapid fire. And there's competition in everything you do. He did it on the field, but with everything else, too, it's, 'How can get I better? Did I learn something watching that other guy get coached?' It starts with the players. He empowers the players to be the best."
The three words you hear most: Win the day.
That was the slogan in Eugene. It might encapsulate best the way Kelly ran Oregon, and perhaps forecast most correctly the way he'll lead the Eagles. Where the speed, precision and fury of his offense became the Ducks' most outwardly identifiable characteristic, those same qualities were infused in every aspect of the operation, top to bottom.
It even covers the less desirable side. Early on, Kelly had players living fast. And allegedly relentless talent-procurement tactics led Kelly and Co. into an ongoing investigation by the NCAA, which charges the Ducks with paying runners cloaked as recruiting gurus. Oregon reportedly agrees that its football coaches committed "at least one major violation" related to the NCAA investigation, but the university disagrees with an additional charge. NCAA sanctioning is expected.
That part, obviously, will be less of a problem in the pros. It's the rest of what NFL types saw on the leafy Northwest campus that captivated them, and set off a virtual gold rush for Kelly's services in January.
Most impressive to those who visited, in fact, wasn't the offense, but practices that hummed at that customary breakneck pace. This explains why, while so many on the outside saw Kelly as a schematic mad scientist, pro teams were lining up to poach him from the Ducks for his ability as a program builder.
"In the interview, and one of the big things we learned from being with coach (Andy) Reid, is it's not only about offensive or defensive philosophy, it's also about building a program," Eagles GM Howie Roseman said. "And that's in every part of the building: strength and conditioning, how you practice, how you study tape. He's got a very detailed plan for all of those areas. It's exciting as we get started watching it take shape."
And therein lurks a fundamental question going forward, pertaining to the offense and the overall program Kelly wants to run.
It worked in college. Will it work in the NFL?
The speed with which the work gets done -- in the classroom, on the practice field, on game day -- provides a succinct vehicle with which to neatly summarize Kelly's philosophy. Even more impressive? The way all of it moves, considering the level of detail the coach demands.
At Oregon, all rocks were flipped over. Kelly had players' vision and depth perception tested, and worked to determine the effects. He had core weaknesses and strengths assessed regularly to try and forecast where each particular player might be vulnerable to future injury. He studied sleep patterns. And he took the normal pieces to the puzzle -- nutrition, psychology, general wellness -- as far as he possibly could.
|Kelly's NFL adaptation, particularly in regard to his high-octane offense, is a topic of great intrigue. (Johnny Vy/NFL.com)|
On a smaller scale, the vaunted offense was designed to maximize the talents of each player, whether it was a bruising tailback like LeGarrette Blount or a diminutive Swiss Army Knife like De'Anthony Thomas, and compromise the defense by putting it in uncomfortable situation after uncomfortable situation. Those are two tenets you can expect to carry over to the Philly incarnation of his attack, even if Kelly's being purposefully coy about all things scheme at this point.
Tie it all together, and it can be encapsulated easily: Kelly treats football as science.
"Part of it is analyzing, 'OK, this is how we did it, this is how it happened in the game, so let's do it more like this,' " said Mark Helfrich, who was Kelly's offensive coordinator at Oregon and has since succeeded him as head coach. "It's also being around people who are very good, and saying, 'OK, this way might be different, and more game-like, so maybe it's a better way to train.' He was always trying to find the best way to do everything. It sounds simple, but a lot of people practice a certain way because they've just always done it that way.
"He looks at football, people, relationships, workouts, recovery, sleep, everything in that way. He's trying to develop the total package. It's not like he's saying, 'Let's all jump on one leg.' It's more like, 'Here's what we think is the best way. So let's do it.' "
By the end, Bellotti said, "his practices were a choreographed opera," and the rest of the program was humming the same way.
One reason why: accountability.
He established "Friday Night Lights" for those who ran afoul of the standards, turning the rule breakers' time off into an evening of running stadium steps. He kicked key players off the team like quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and defensive back Cliff Harris, and suspended others to drive the point home. It must be reiterated, again, that Kelly and his crew had missteps of their own that led to allegations of recruiting violations, the NCAA investigation and probable sanctions to come. But the staff's overarching message resonated with players.
"He talked about more than football," said San Francisco 49ers tailback LaMichael James, who played for Kelly from 2008 to 2011. "He talked about school, he wanted us racing each other to class. He'd check on us in class. All that stuff was important. You miss study hall, you miss practice. You miss practice, you don't play. Basically, if you don't take care of your business, you wouldn't play, and everyone paid attention to that."
But really selling players on it -- that it's the right thing, that all that work will add up on the game field -- is a challenge. Whether or not he can do it with grown men is a question to be answered.
Roseman sat with Eagles president Don Smolenski at Kelly's first team meeting on April 1. The two watched the new head coach addressing his players and, at one point, turned to each other and smiled.
"It was that the way he interacts with us is the way he interacts with all the players -- very straightforward, very direct," Roseman explained. "He's a very good communicator, and he brings an incredible amount of energy every single day to the building."
That sounds mighty familiar to those who played for him at Oregon.
"The biggest part about how he motivated (that) I remember was his tone, his sincerity about what he wanted from his football team," said Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward, a Duck from 2005 to '09. "It felt sincere, it felt real. Sometimes, it's just a feeling, you know? It was always short and sweet. Nothing dramatic. Just straight up."
The mindset under Kelly was, in Ward's words, "Nothing less than a national championship would be acceptable."
Kelly didn't get there in his four years at the helm, but he came close, playing for a national title in 2010, going to BCS bowls in each of those four campaigns and finishing third, fourth and second in the AP's final poll over his last three seasons as Ducks head coach.
By the end, the buy-in was easy. Kelly's approach was established and the results were indisputable.
But the start, which is the point where the Eagles stand now, was a challenge, to be sure.
"It was hard," James said. "It was mental, it was being in top shape, it was just getting accustomed to doing everything fast. Pretty much everything we did was strange, so it was like starting a foreign language. But it was clear that he was trying to get the best out of every player, have us competing, and that made practice fun. It was hard, it was fast, and he pushed everyone to their limit."
As Helfrich explains it, it was getting players "believing in the process over the outcome. It's hard to get the entitled 18-year-old who's been told he's the greatest to believe in going to class, doing the right things, and tell him it'll pay off six, eight months down the line. But today? If you can get them to believe in the process over the product today, that's huge."
Seems simple, right? As some of the aforementioned attrition would prove, not everyone thought so.
One thing those at Oregon say Kelly learned through some of the rocky moments was that he couldn't change everyone. And so the Ducks had to become more selective.
|Kelly enjoyed great success at Oregon, but not without controversy. (Ben Liebenberg/NFL.com)|
Good thing, then, that the coach knew how to find guys like Marcus Mariota and Kenjon Barner. Both players were ranked as underwhelming three-star recruits by Rivals.com as prep prospects, but both proved to be perfect fits for Kelly's supersonic offense. As James explained it, Kelly would tell his players, "'We don't have the most talent.' And we believed that."
Taking that into account, the success that followed only steeled belief in the process.
"We were gonna recruit our kind of guy, not sway from that," Helfrich said. "And if a guy that runs a 4.0 40 is not our type, we had to be able to say no, because we're asking these kids to do different things. We wanted the guy that contributes to the development of the team, rather than the constant project. We're not a reform school. They're expected to add to our chemistry and character, supply that, solidify it, rather than have us worrying up guys being late or having academic issues."
This plays back into the idea of the total athlete -- Kelly's desire to develop it, and the player's capacity to become it.
The Ducks' ability to replace players over the last four years is the best illustration of the depth Kelly was able to find in searching for his kinds of players, even though his four recruiting classes ranked 32nd, 13th, ninth and 16th, respectively, in Rivals.com's annual rankings.
A mold for what an Oregon player was emerged, the same way one for future Eagles is being formed now. As Ward to describes it, to play for Kelly, players "have to be, first, mentally strong. Mentally strong, physically strong, determined."
There'll be an adjustment for Kelly in working with Roseman and the personnel staff to find his kinds of guys for a pro team, rather than a college roster. Yet, the principles Ward outlined likely will carry over, particularly with the fourth overall pick in next week's 2013 NFL Draft -- a selection that could go any of a number of different ways, but will without question be a pivotal one as Kelly looks for the kinds of hard-to-deal-with athletes he had in Eugene. The good news is that he already has proven to have an eye for that.
"His recruiting ability and his ability to evaluate personnel was continually something where you'd say, 'Wow,' " Bellotti said. "Guys like Marcus Mariota, they can play anywhere in the nation and can be standout athletes, regardless of the offense. The defense is always better than advertised, and part of that is because of the pace, and how they're defending a lot of plays. There was a learning curve for him, too. With discipline, Chip stumbled early. But he righted it, and got the athletes to police the program."
That's the idea, right there. It becomes easier to sell as it starts to work, and if it really works, the players themselves become the salesmen.
James doesn't mince words when asked if Kelly will win in Philly.
"Definitely," he responds quickly. "100 percent."
The dynamics, though, are decidedly different in the NFL. Practicing at a 100 MPH is easier when there are over 100 players on the roster and all of them are in their late teens or early 20s. The guys hitting Kelly's quarterbacks will be bigger, stronger and faster. And if the "entitled" athlete was a problem in college, try giving him a paycheck.
Yet, the reason why James thinks it'll work mirrors what others around Kelly believe, which is simply that the 49-year-old single man is too much of a football junky and too damn smart and open-minded to fall flat on his face.
"You have to stay true to who you are, and I think Chip will do that, but he'll have to tailor it to the pro athlete," Bellotti said. "The second thing is the numbers, and the biggest piece of it is on the offensive and defensive line. If you're going at speed, it'll be a challenge, and that's why you pick and choose your spots. And then, also, how many quarterbacks do you keep? Who do you use? Do you have the depth and talent to keep the quarterback position healthy? If you run him, how do you protect him?"
If you think that's a hint to what Kelly will do offensively, Roseman quickly tries to extinguish the thought by saying, "He's a personnel-driven head coach. He's gonna adjust based on the players he has. He's not gonna try to fit a square peg into a round hole. That's one of the impressive things about him. He'll say, 'OK, let's figure out our players, let's figure our good players, let's figure out what they do well, and then let's let them go do it.' "
But again, zeroing in on those particulars -- especially now, at the outset of the offseason program -- is side-stepping the larger point of what Kelly's trying to build.
Asked what the players in Philly should expect, Ward responds that, "You can expect to work hard, and he's gonna expect the best from you. It's not gonna be easy, but it's gonna be worth it in the end." Like seemingly everyone else connected to Kelly, he added, "I'm expecting him to be successful."
And with that, Ward provides a good opportunity for this reminder: He plays defense.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.