Innovator Chip Kelly set for pro debut with Eagles
PHILADELPHIA -- It didn't take long for Eagles center Jason Kelce to realize he wasn't playing for Andy Reid anymore.
Soon after arriving for the team's first training camp in late July under new coach Chip Kelly, Kelce found himself in a room listening to former Navy SEAL officer Coleman Ruiz talk about his experiences leading 85 combat missions during six deployments to the Middle East.
Afterward, Kelce and the rest of the Eagles practiced while Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and other music blared from giant loudspeakers. After practice, he gulped down a protein smoothie, then went back to the team hotel for a mandated rest-and-recovery period.
"From the very first day I walked in here, Coach Kelly told me that he was never going to do anything just for the sake of 'That's the way it's done in the NFL,'" Kelce said. "Players are creatures of habit, and he wanted to break our habits."
Reid and Kelly couldn't be more different, both on and off the field.
Reid drew constant criticism for his clock management and stubborn reliance on a pass-happy, West Coast offense. He was unbelievably boring at news conferences, starting them with the infamous phrase "time is yours" and seldom offering any pertinent information.
But his personal life was an open book. Reid's wife, Tammy, attended every regular-season and playoff game over 14 seasons, even when their older sons, Garrett and Britt, were embroiled in drug-related legal trouble. Reid was also married to football. He took only a few days off following Garrett's death from a heroin overdose at training camp in 2012.
Kelly is extremely guarded about his past. The third of Paul and Jean Kelly's four sons grew up in Manchester, N.H., and maintains a tight circle of friends there. He played for and graduated from Manchester High School Central and the University of New Hampshire, and was a longtime assistant coach at UNH before leaving for the University of Oregon. The 49-year-old is not married. He was engaged a few years ago, but is no longer.
He often spars with the media during his press conferences, though he provides a little more insight than Reid. But he will be the first Eagles coach in decades who will not be conducting a coach's radio show during the season with longtime Eagles radio announcer Merrill Reese.
Kelly makes his NFL regular-season debut tonight, when the Eagles open at Washington.
Departure from Reid
Veteran Eagles players were used to doing things a certain way under Reid.
Training camp was held at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa. Players were given Mondays and Tuesdays off during the regular season. The locker room at the NovaCare Complex was arranged according to position, with quarterbacks, running backs, linebackers, etc., dressing together.
Everything has changed since Kelly was hired Jan. 16.
Training camp was moved to the team's NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, just down the road from Lincoln Financial Field. Players will only have Mondays off. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is no longer dressing next to his fellow linebackers. He's now between tackle Jason Peters and wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
"I think the changing of the lockers was a good idea," Ryans said. "It's allowed us to bond with each other. Jason, DeSean and I just have fun and enjoy each other's company. When you're with your position group all the time, you usually wind up talking about nothing but football. With Jason and DeSean, we just relax and talk about life."
Kelly, who had never coached in the NFL before the Eagles hired him, initially had some qualms over whether his unorthodox methods would be accepted by older, more established veterans the same way they were by impressionable teenagers at Oregon.
He was worried for nothing.
"That part, I think, was the biggest unknown going into this," Kelly said. "If you're a guy from the outside and haven't been part (of the NFL), you hear about how it's tough to coach professional athletes because they've got their own mind set and want to do things their own way.
"I've never encountered that with one player on this team. They've embraced everything, and that's a real credit to them. Since day one, there was not a whole lot of salesmanship in terms of why we do all of these things. Their thought process was, 'If you can help me become a better football player, I'm in,' and everyone has been that way. That part, as a coach, has been refreshing. It makes you excited to come to work every day."
Change was needed
The Eagles definitely needed to shake things up.
They had enjoyed tremendous success earlier in Reid's tenure. Between 2000 and 2008, the Eagles made seven playoff appearances, won five division titles, earned five berths in the NFC championship game and reached the Super Bowl in the 2004 season.
But the team has been fading the past few years.
It was one-game-and-done in the playoffs in 2009 and 2010. There was no postseason in 2011 and 2012. Last season's 4-12 record — its worst since going 3-13 in 1998 under former coach Ray Rhodes — seemed to confirm the suspicion that Reid's messages and methods had grown stale.
Reid was fired and subsequently hired by Kansas City. Kelly has instituted a steady diet of changes that includes the players' diets.
One of his first moves was hiring sports science coordinator Shaun Huls, who previously served as head strength and conditioning coach and combatives coordinator for Navy Special Warfare. In April, Kelly had the players participate in a sleep study to determine the proper amount of rest they needed between workouts. They wore GPS tracking systems on their shoulder pads during minicamps to measure speed and agility.
Huls also overhauled the menu in the cafeteria to include more nutritious choices. No more Taco Tuesdays or Fast-Food Fridays.
"All the stuff he does is designed to make us physically and mentally ready for game days," Kelce said. "Players go through peaks and valleys during the day, and he wants to make sure we're able to rest and recuperate during the valleys so that our peaks will be higher than ever."
Practices are conducted with music to make players concentrate. At first, it was a novelty and welcome distraction. Players could be seen dancing to the "Cha-Cha Slide" on the sideline. But they no longer seem to notice.
Various tools are used during practices as well. Assistant coaches tug on ropes attached to footballs while running backs try to avoid fumbles. Other assistants don shoulder pads with screens resembling giant flyswatters attached to simulate pass rushers in quarterback passing drills.
"It's the exact height of a 6-foot-4 defensive end with his arms in the air," Kelly said.
Players look forward to the after-practice offerings that include smoothies. The dining hall staff prepares one for each player depending on his tastes. Tight end Brent Celek has pineapple and coconut in his drink. Linebacker Trent Cole likes chocolate and banana.
"I have to have chocolate and peanut butter," defensive end Cedric Thornton said. "I love them."
Kelly's creativity is making waves in the NFL. The Eagles, who open at Washington tonight, are viewed as one of the most intriguing teams in the NFL this season.
The various changes, combined with his fast-paced offense, have also created a level of excitement among fans and players. About 110,000 fans showed up for the Eagles' five open workouts at Lincoln Financial Field.
The players can't wait for the season.
"It's definitely different," Celek said. "We were so used to coach Reid for so long. But things change, and I love what coach Kelly has brought here so far. It's awesome. Between the smoothies, the food and everything else, he's giving us everything we need to be successful."
David Weinberg reports for The Press of Atlantic City, N.J.