CENTER OF THE FOOTBALL UNIVERSE — Well, or PHILADELPHIA. Either one. On Sunday afternoon, new coach Chip Kelly ran his 89 players (90 minus the mentally rehabbing Riley Cooper) through another practice. And I mean “ran.” It’s different here, with a fast pace and a soothing robot voice telling players what to do next, and music. Lots of loud music. Cooper was away, apparently trying to figure out why he would scream the worst racial epithet a white person can scream. Michael Vick battled for his starting life, and to keep his locker room from splintering. Just another day in the shaken-not-stirred new world of the Philadelphia Eagles. There’d have been enough news without the Cooper Affair, but that just added to the news swirl.
“This is the first training camp I’ve ever been to,’’ said a bemused Atlanta Braves pitcher, Brandon Beachy, as the session wound down. Beachy and four mates, in town to play the Phillies Sunday night, stopped by to see Camp Chip across Broad Street from the Eagles’ complex.
“It’s pretty different than I imagined. Do they all play music like this?’’
Nope, though a few (Seattle, most notably) do. I don’t know of any camps that run nearly all of their offensive plays without huddling, or during seven-on-seven drills use three ballboys with three-foot-high “fly-swatters’’ on shoulder pads to imitate very tall pass rushers with their arms up, or have each player wear GPS units and heart-rate monitors that track every step they take and every heartbeat they experience.
Watching practice Sunday showed Kelly’s emphasis on special teams; he counted down the seconds on a hurry-up field-goal attempt and seemed to have his team in more special-teams instruction than I see at most camps. The music, an eclectic mix ranging from rap to military music compiled by a staff aid (“anything’s fine, as long as there’s no cursing,’’ Kelly said), stopped only during “teaching periods’’ when assistants taught technique work. Players quick-jogged back to the line after plays during team drills; no shuffling allowed. It’s not your father’s training camp, in other words.
My simplest question to Kelly, back inside the NovaCare Complex after practice: “Why run it this way?’’
The Eagles imported Kelly from Oregon in January, and he quickly began to change things all over the facility, and in the locker room. His reign, I believe, will be the most interesting college-to-pro transition since Jimmy Johnson went from the University of Miami to Dallas in 1989. Lots of new thoughts from Johnson then, and from Kelly now.
“I’ve always been a ‘why’ guy,’’ Kelly said. “Like, I want to know why. And a lot of times the why is crazy. I understand it. I just always have been inquisitive. The only thing I won’t accept is because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I ask you: Why did you change from your old Monday Morning Quarterback format to a new one? Well, it wasn’t just for the sake of change. It was because you figured out why it was a better idea, and you thought it made sense.
“That’s the point. The inquisitive part is why do people do this or that? I think the one thing we’re very conscious of is we don’t have an ego in our program. So it’s not: We are gonna do it our way no matter what and I don’t care what anyone else thinks. If it makes sense, and the science is behind it, we’ll do it.’’
I said: “So science is more important than tradition to you.’’
“I love tradition,’’ he said. “And I love the history of this game. There’s so much to learn from it. But I joked to our guys once, ‘What if we came out and everybody sat on the bench like they did in the old days and we had a water bucket and drank out of a ladle?’ I mean, the game has evolved. They used to give you salt pills in the old days. They used to tell you that if you took water during practice you were soft. The science aspect of things can help, and I think the biggest thing is when you look at the other sports out there’s so many people out there that are more advanced than us from a science standpoint in sports that if you don’t listen to them then …
“We study other sports, but I don’t think there’s one really close to ours. Because our sport is so unique. It’s a stop-start game; four- to six-second bursts of action. Basketball’s a free-flow game. Hockey’s a free-flow game. Soccer is a free-flow game. There are some things that you can learn from those sports, but I don’t know if there’s one thing that’s particularly just like us so let’s just study that one.’’
Kelly said in his press conference Sunday he practices fast because it’s easier to slow down once you’re in mental and physical shape to play fast than it is to practice slow and then turn it up in games.
“I just think it make practice efficient,’’ he said. “That’s all it is. That doesn’t mean we’re gonna be a no-huddle team for the entire game. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to slow down than it is to speed up. So if we always practice fast, and then when you get into the game it seems to slow down for you, it’s easier for you.’’
One more piece of misinformation out there: The Chip Kelly offense is going to be great for the quarterbacks, not so great for the runners. In the last two seasons at Oregon, the Ducks ran on 64.7% of the offensive snaps (2012) and 62% (2011). “First off, when he came, I was actually worried whether we’d throw it at all,’’ said Michael Vick. “But we just play the numbers. We know why he’s doing what he does. He explains it. We know the ‘why.’ “
Late in practice, the robot voice droned over the loudspeakers: “Period 15. Seven on seven. Seven on seven.”
Now came a loud “Sweet Emotion’’ remix by some Aerosmith knockoff band. The ballboys with the fences built on small shoulder pads stood, one over where the right end would be, one over the left end, and one over center. Vick threw one up the seam, complete, then three straight outs to the right, to DeSean Jackson. Then three more completions in a row, two to Jason Avant. Vick looked good running the offense, better than Nick Foles on this day. Word around camp is Vick’s ahead, but that’s not Kelly’s word. He’ll let it play out through the month.
Pass, pass, pass. But what about those numbers—the 63% run ratio over the last two years at Oregon? Some of that, surely, comes from the fact that Oregon was beating up on some tomato cans and just wanted to run the clock out. But some, GM Howie Roseman said, was certainly by design. “I think what’s surprised me the most,’’ said Roseman, watching from the sidelines Sunday, “is how much he wants to be a physical offensive team in the image of this city.’’
Another surprise, in a summer full of them. It’s only Aug. 5. I don’t know what’s coming next, but I can’t wait to see what it is.