PHILADELPHIA – Even if Chip Kelly never wins a game and the Philadelphia Eagles dump his visor and multipage practice plans into the Delaware River, he will have been good for the NFL. For in two months the Eagles' new coach has done something hundreds of his predecessors in professional football have failed to do.
He has made practice interesting.
He has done this without turning the time-held routine of grunting and helmet clacking into some spasmodic new-age movement. His football players are still football players. They still run football plays. But what the Eagles are doing in their OTAs and minicamps is like nothing you will find on any other NFL practice field.
It starts with a TV camera clutched in the hands of a coaching assistant who stands on the field during warm-ups filming the running backs as they take handoffs and catch passes. Mind you he is not filming them as they run full speed in a team drill, but rather he does this in a session with only the quarterback and the running backs as they move at a pace barely quicker than a walk.
Then there are the men with the nets on their backs. They stand in a row just behind the defensive linemen in certain scrimmages wearing a contraption of shoulder pads and mesh that give them the look of giant flyswatters or fairy wings. The wings sit high above the men's head in what Kelly says is a simulation of a pass-rusher's upraised hands.
The coaching assistants who wear the fairy wings stand with strained expressions that seem to say they don't like wearing such a device and certainly don't like doing so without helmets as they stand about 10 yards from Michael Vick as he winds up to throw.
But an Eagles practice is a living thing, and the men lined up before Vick in their fairy wings are never standing in the fire for long. Music pumps through huge speakers which boom at levels that might trigger small seismic events. Players juggle soccer balls on one corner of the field while all five of the team's quarterbacks line up in another and fling passes all at once to a group of receivers who somehow decipher the chaos.
At times, a siren wails over the speakers for seemingly no reason. But in a Chip Kelly practice everything has a reason. The players run, bounding from drill to drill and station to station as a man's computer-generated voice soothingly calls out each practice segment and its purpose.
"Period 16. Teach."
Kelly is a New England man who talks fast in a crabapple staccato and moves as quickly through his day, both welcomes and repels inquiries about his practices. He will explain in detail the idea behind the fly swatters on the shoulder pads in great detail ("it's the exact height of a 6-foot-4 defensive lineman with his hands up") but bristles at suggestions he is reinventing the game.
"I've never thought about me being a trendsetter," he said after Thursday's practice.
He talks a lot about science and research and taking care of his players' health.
"They're the product," he says with an expression that screams: Why would you break your product? How foolish is that?
By now, the Eagles have become accustomed to their frenetic practice routine and a cafeteria devoid of the great football staples of bovine products, instead replaced with healthier offerings that include fruit smoothies or "shakes" as some players call them. Kelly has done such a good job of selling the benefits of his shakes that many players request more than one.
"Even if it doesn't do anything for you, you believe it will," defensive tackle Cedric Thornton says.
And this might be the point of a Chip Kelly practice. Who knows if men wearing fairy wings and assistants filming running backs while they jog will help win football games. Just because the speakers play fast-paced techno and dance tunes during scrimmage sessions in a seeming attempt to create a quick, smooth tempo doesn't mean the flow will carry into games. But the Eagles players act as if they think it will.
"I think if you buy in, you will be all right," Thornton says.
What choice do they have?
And so the most interesting practice in the NFL goes on. The beat grinds over the NovaCare Field speakers. Players scramble. Coaches wear earpieces and microphones attached to radios on their belt like stage hands on a high-end production. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur calls plays through a walkie-talkie into the quarterback's helmets. There are no huddles, just lines of coaches on both sides of the field waving hand and arm signals that almost match the music blasting around them.
It is chaos. It is complicated. It is still just a minicamp in June.
Don't worry, Kelly said Thursday, his training camp practices will be much the same – only this time his players will be allowed to wear shoulder pads and hit each other. That's when things will really get mad.
"Obviously we know we can't practice full speed for the entire time we're out there, so it's got to be short bursts, but the game of football is short bursts," Kelly said after a recent practice. "It's really an anaerobic sport when you look at it, because you're going hard for five to six seconds and then you're taking a break, and that's what we're trying to get accomplished with these guys."
And it's like nothing you will see anywhere else in the NFL.
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