PHILADELPHIA -- I remember coming home about seven years ago after a long October night at the newspaper, and my roommate arriving back at a similar hour from his similar, dues-paying job as a Northeastern linebackers coach.
He'd been studying tape of that weekend's foe, top-ranked New Hampshire, and he had a story to tell.
"It was either the most organized thing I've ever seen, or the least organized thing I've ever seen," he said at our place in Boston's North End. "And I can't tell which."
That probably best explains how it felt to watch Chip Kelly's first open practice at the NovaCare Complex in South Philly on Monday. Which makes perfect sense, because the offense that my buddy -- now a head coach at a high school in Tampa -- watched that night nearly a decade ago was run by Kelly himself.
Kelly, who rose from the level of Division I-AA assistant to become the hottest commodity on the NFL coaching market in just six years, seems to have that effect no matter where he is.
This mild May morning's work for the Philadelphia Eagles was covered by a massive throng of media acting as if it were anticipating a Bigfoot sighting on the fields out back. The truth is, very few left disappointed. This can be a milquetoast league, with conformity long providing safe harbor for coaches and executives, and Kelly flashed another glimpse at something that's decidedly outside the box.
"Honestly, it's a huge change, especially with what we're used to with (former coach) Andy (Reid) here," Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson said. "Chip's coming in with a different demeanor, a different fire, a different energy. And he's taken a lot on his hands, installing that offense and never really having had an offense in the NFL like it. At the same time, it's a learning process for everybody."
While the surface attractions of Kelly's Oregon teams on fall Saturdays were the uniforms and the breakneck offense, his practices -- run with efficiency and style -- were what made Kelly a red-hot name during the past hiring cycle, serving as proof to the NFL types who went through Eugene of Kelly's acumen as a program builder.
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So let's get to the particulars.
Monday's workout lasted for close to two hours. Wedged in between two practice fields were giant speakers, blasting out a playlist that was reported on through the noon hour as if it contained the contents of the Watergate tapes. After warm-ups and stretching, the session was broken into 20 periods, with the number and type of each period announced by a voice that sounded like Max Headroom from the New Coke commercials of the 1980s.
Seventeen of these were what Kelly calls "tempo periods." They looked like standard individual drills, team exercises, 7-on-7s and special teams work, only with the coaches' thumbs securely jammed on the fast-forward button. During team and skeleton work, coaches dotted the sideline, signaling in formations, personnel groups, alignments and assignments.
During some of the work, the second group would replace the first group the nanosecond the ball was whistled dead. Other times, one group would be called on to run plays consecutively without stopping.
For the other three periods of the 10:30 a.m. practice (running from 11:23 to 11:27 a.m., 11:56 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 12:11 to 12:15 p.m.), the music was shut off and teaching sessions were conducted. And yes, even those moved at a fast pace.
The overarching idea is to condition the guys, both mentally and physically.
"It's both," former All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy said as he got ready to leave for the day. "You're tired, your legs are heavy, you're trying to look at the plays, the formations, and see what's going on. So you're trying to catch your breath and run the plays. But it's a matter of just getting reps. With the repetition, you pick things up a little faster. And it's still early. We got a lot of stuff to learn still. We've made some progress so far; it'll only get better."
And while that's a reminder that the Eagles have a ways to go, they aren't exactly brand new at this, either. Philadelphia opened its offseason program six weeks ago, and the vets already have a three-day minicamp under their belts. It was tougher at first, most of them said.
At least outwardly, Kelly has been impressed with the strides made since.
"We want to be efficient in our time; we don't want to be on the field for a long time, want to maximize the time we're on the field," he said. "And obviously you see us go from tempo periods to teach periods, there's a rhyme or reason to what we're doing, time on task versus time teaching, and I think there's a good balance of that. We want to get them in and get them out. But we also have to get a certain amount of work in."
A large part of that work, because of the way things are set up, is pushed to the classroom.
The speed at practice demands that, at times, mistakes are temporarily dropped by the coaches in the name of keeping the pace up. Corrections come in meetings. Coaching happens on the fly.
Kelly, in fact, could be seen delivering individual points -- one minute, he was drilling a lineman on technique; the next, he was shouting at a receiver while he was in motion without stopping the play; then he was on a special teams gunner -- in the middle of the tempo periods. That's another way of sapping every last bit of productivity out of the time allotted.
"(You fix it) in the classroom, because we gotta keep going," Michael Vick said. "The thing is, we're so used to getting back in the huddle or going back to your coach and getting a coaching point. There's no time for that. We gotta go. We gotta go. That was my biggest thing, looking at (offensive coordinator Pat) Shurmur for a tip, or looking back at Chip to see if I did it the right way. We just gotta keep going, and that's good, because that's what we gotta do in a game. Everything's not gonna be perfect. Gotta keep going. Gotta keep moving."
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It also puts the onus on the player, who knows he'll have to be accountable for himself. As Vick explained, "They don't expect us to get everything right, but they do expect us to learn from our mistakes."
And like the quarterback says, it's certainly not perfect.
Remember that story from 2006? My old roommate -- who was also a fraternity brother of mine and is a groomsman in my wedding -- and the rest of that Northeastern staff found a way to pull off the upset that Saturday. A few months later, the Wildcats' offensive coordinator left his alma mater for Oregon -- and though New Hampshire knocked on the door plenty, it never won a title during Kelly's time there.
Similarly, Kelly accomplished much in Eugene, going to four BCS bowl games and winning three conference titles -- but when it came to capturing the ultimate prize, his Ducks teams never quite got over the top.
Maybe that pattern changes in Philly. Maybe it doesn't.
Monday didn't bring me closer to one conclusion or the other. But it did affirm that, as has been the case everywhere else Kelly has coached, what comes next will be fascinating to watch.