Scenes from an Ongoing Tour of Training Camps
Saints doing some hitting. E.J. Manuel taking shots downfield. RGIII getting his swagger back. The NFL's first week back was full of memorable sights, but the most impressive was a second-year coach making his 10-6 team even better
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — This is what a real training-camp practice sounds like, via the verbal stylings of New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his defensive coach, Bill Johnson.
The scene: First padded Saints practice of camp … Sunday morning, 9:19 a.m. … defensive line group in the southwestern end of the brand-new field at The Greenbrier … grass like an Augusta fairway (and I’m not kidding) … cool morning, about 71 … storm clouds rolling in from the west, white cumulus ones interrupted by the Allegheny Mountains—in fact clouding the view of the homes of Nick Faldo and Jerry West … the nine-man defensive-line group stretching and warming up before hitting someone else for the first time since January.
Ryan, moving from man to man:
“Hit today. Hit. Hit. Be physical. Be physical. Get the ball out! Lotta life. Let’s go. Let’s go, D. C’mon now. First practice in pads. F—in’ pads!! Let’s go!”
The linebacker group joined the defensive linemen. One by one, the players lined up and attacked the individual sled. One after one, all of them plowed into it with their hands and upper bodies, lifted it up and tossed it aside.
“All right!” Ryan said. “Now this is football.”
The group finished. Johnson began hustling to the next drill.
“Come on, Bill!” said Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan. “We always do two!”
“All right, baby!” Johnson said. “Let’s go!”
A second shot for everyone at the sled ensued. A few minutes later players lined up on either side of the ball for an inside-running drill. No tackle, but the defense could stand up the ball-carrier with a hard thud and try to strip the ball. Lots of hype and excitement here, followed by a couple of runners shaking loose and getting outside.
Ryan: “F—in’ lettin’ them run through you like paper! Awful!”
Next play: Running back Khiry Robinson got eaten alive inside. Never made it out of the mugging throng.
And so it ebbed and flowed, the first padded practice of a promising season. It was a fun scene, but the most impressive 20 minutes I spent in Week 1 on the Training Camp Tour goes to…
* * *
Saturday, July 26
Eagles facility, Philadelphia
Chip Kelly, unplugged
I’ve had only two extended conversations with Kelly since he was named coach of the Eagles 19 months ago. To say I know him well would be folly. But I’m starting to get a feel for him. Before his first training camp practice of the season on Saturday, we spent time in his office, and when we parted, I thought how much he reminded me of Jimmy Johnson when Johnson entered the league 25 years ago. Respectful of the other coaches and teams, but they aren’t going to dictate what he’s going to do. Totally confident that his style will work in the NFL. Unlike Johnson, Kelly’s not brash on the outside. Like Johnson, he knows deep down his way will win. Johnson brought a small, fast defense into a league that was going bigger and bigger. It worked. Kelly brings a fast-break offense from Oregon, and in the second half of the season, with different personnel groupings and a quarterback who could keep it all straight, the team went 7-1.
He also is the kind of guy who … I’ll put it this way. Imagine Ford was getting stale making cars (imagine that!), and execs there pursued a Honda VP to rejuvenate the company, and in the interview the Honda guy said five or six things that made the Ford team think, “Why didn’t we think of that?” That’s Kelly.
The five or six things he said Saturday that made me think:
The biggest surprise of his first year and a half on the job. “The hype. [Director of public relations] Derek [Boyko] asked me the question and said I couldn’t say it … What’s the worst thing about the league? I said the draft. I mean, the hype that goes into the draft is insane. Totally insane. The biggest thing for me is that everybody thinks whoever you drafted or whoever you signed is now gonna be a savior. They come in just like me and you come in as freshmen in high school or freshmen in college, or your first year on the job at Sports Illustrated—you’re not telling people what to do, you’re just trying to figure out what room to go to. I think a lot of times the hype turns into really, really hard times for the individual who got picked, because there’s so many expectations of everyone building them up to be Superman because they had three months to write about them and talk about them. Then when they get picked, they’re a very, very good prospect, but there’s a learning curve when you go from any job out of college into a company. If you take a job at Wells Fargo when you get out of college, your first day of the job they don’t say, ‘He’s our first-round draft pick, he’s the savior to the company!’
“I think the byproduct to the hype that bothers me, is that to some guys it’s overwhelming for them. The NFL has their Rookie Premiere and they’re out there getting all these pictures taken and they’re missing practice time to go out to California and they’re treated like gods, and I’m like, I don’t know if he’s going to start. That’s not fair. And the analysis … We drafted [pass-rusher] Marcus Smith in the first round, and Jordan Matthews in the second round. Then you listen to people around here that say, ‘Well, we don’t like their draft. If they had taken Matthews first and Smith second, we would give them an A.’ Who cares who went one and who went two? It’s almost like there’s a lot of scrutiny on Marcus Smith because he went one, but Jordan gets a pass because he fell to the second round. If you ask both those individuals, they have the same goals and aspirations and they’re training exactly the same way. It’s just how people perceive things, and I think a lot of that has to do with the hype.
“Jerry Rice dropped a lot of balls when he was a rookie. He was a strong kid. He took it. But now, for some of these guys, it crushes them. It’s no different than bringing a pitcher up before you should and he gets racked. He’s a stiff. Send him back to the minors. There’s a maturation process for everybody. There’s no other profession like it. The hype part is just constant.”
On not seeming emotional—ever. “Oh, I get pissed off. Yeah. I have a lot of friends who are Navy SEALs, and I respect what they do. Part of their ethos is ‘I don’t advertise the nature of my work, nor do I seek recognition for my actions.’ We all have jobs to do. We’re not in this to see our names in the paper or have people say good things about you. Or we shouldn’t be. I love practice. I love being out on the field. I love game day. The sound bytes and ESPN and all those other things, that’s not of any interest to me.”
On players buying into Kelly’s advanced nutrition program. (Note from me here. I asked LeSean McCoy about Kelly’s emphasis on nutrition. “I eat better than I ever have,’’ McCoy said. “Chip says things like, ‘Think back to your greatest games. How was your preparation that week? Did you get your rest? Did you eat right? And think of games you weren’t great. How were your habits that week?’ I got lighter last year. I’m maybe 209 now. I was about 10 pounds heavier the year before. And there’s no question I make people miss better now. I just feel better.”)
Kelly: “I believe nutrition ideas have helped. I think that obviously our job is to be educators. So we’re educating them on what’s gonna make them the best football player that they can possibly be. We have to find people that are gonna use that information. That’s the key ingredient. We have a lot of guys here that are thirsty for knowledge. They eat up what we’re teaching. We’re not babysitting them. We don’t go home and watch what they eat. Nor should we. I want a bunch of guys that … We’re gonna provide you with everything we possibly can for you to be successful, but you have to do it. You have to work. You have to be the one that adopts those philosophies yourself. We don’t have you on lockdown. Nor should we. I don’t want guys like that.”
Changing the practice week to a faster pace and heavier work load later in the week. “We’re not walking through. We’re running. Always running.”
Treatment of rookies. “We try to accept everyone when they first come in here. We’ve never had a rookie show… It’s difficult when you’re a rookie. You’re just trying to fit in. Then you have to get them to acclimate to offense, defense, special teams. All the other stuff that’s so different and they now have to worry about. Then to have to do other things on top of it? We try to be very accepting when young guys come in here and welcome them to what we’re doing. I think our older guys by and large have been really good with that.”
Predictions. “No one knows. I don’t know. I don’t know anybody that does know. I was asked after the draft, ‘Give yourself a grade.’ I was like, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ But it’s the truth! No one knows. I’ve said it all along. Everybody says, ‘What a great job by the Patriots getting Tom Brady in the sixth round.’ If you knew he was gonna be that good, you should have taken him in the first. No one knows. We all kind of luck out.”
And so it went.
When we talked about year two, Kelly was very coach-like. No magic pills here. Just progress. Slow and steady progress. “Last year,’’ he said, “we grew as the season went on. We started off at 3-5 in the first eight, then finished 7-1. It was evident to us as coaches that we were growing weekly. It started to show up on the scoreboard. Just guys getting more comfortable in what we’re doing. Guys being able to finish other guys’ sentences, instead of turning to look to somebody that has to tell them what to do, and then having to do the thinking they have to do themselves. In the short time that we have them, it’s hard. We knew there were going to be growing pains, because it was a total new offense, defense, and special teams system than the existing guys had ever had. What excites me is these guys are very invested in what we’re doing and really, really want to be good. They don’t just say it. Their actions back that up.”
A few interesting points about year one of Kelly’s Eagles, from Neil Hornsby and Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus. Nick Foles is so much more a Kelly quarterback than Mike Vick was. Last year, Foles led all NFL quarterbacks with a 131.8 rating when blitzed. Vick’s rating: 78.4. That says Foles can think quickly under pressure, and a Kelly passer also has to think quickly because the offense is moving fast anyway.
Jahnke unearthed a great one here: The Eagles, particularly with 2013 rookie Zack Ertz, got great at multiple tight end packages. In the first half of the season, they used one back and two tight ends 17 percent of the time. In the second half, they used one back and two tights 33.4 percent of the time. Ertz contributed four regular-season touchdowns, all in the second half of the season. Now, Brent Celek, Ertz and James Casey are in their second year in the new offense, and they’ll be better—and more productive, most likely.
Finally: The line learned on the run as the season went on, and was superb in the second half. The five offensive linemen allowed 199 quarterback disruptions (sacks, knockdowns or pressure) in the first eight games, only 57 in the last eight.
On the practice field Saturday, Darren Sproles was running around from three spots—the backfield, the slot, out wide. Big target Matthews worked with the second unit—maybe not for long. DeSean Jackson will be missed, but as The MMQB’s Greg Bedard said watching the workout: “No one person will replace Jackson. Chip’s scheme will.”
It’s going to be a fascinating year two. If the Eagles continue the fast-track of the last two months of last season, Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans are going to have competition for late January football in the NFC.