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Kelly and NFL prove to be a good match

The boats were burned in January. Chip Kelly has been an NFL coach ever since - or, as he joked this past week, a pro coach eight times this season and not the other six games.

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (Matt Rourke/AP)Read more

The boats were burned in January. Chip Kelly has been an NFL coach ever since - or, as he joked this past week, a pro coach eight times this season and not the other six games.

Kelly came from Oregon with a quick wit and a quick tongue, but he has also been a quick study. The Eagles enter Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at 8-6, in first place in the NFC East, and with a home playoff date ready to be scheduled for the first weekend in January depending upon how they close the season.

You won't find Kelly or anyone within the NovaCare Complex publicly expressing surprise about this scenario, but it's a welcome position for an organization that wasn't looking for a quick fix. Yet Kelly's jump to the NFL, where he had never spent a day before agreeing to come to Philadelphia, has not required a long or painful transition.

"If you didn't know his background as a college coach, you would think he's been in the NFL for a long time," general manager Howie Roseman said this past week. "It hasn't seemed like he's had a roadblock on any of those things in a transition from college to the NFL."

Time allocated to recruiting is now devoted to football. Kelly said December was more hectic in college than in the NFL. From Sunday night to Friday afternoon, he was "planes, trains, and automobiles" on the recruiting trail, and would fit practices in on weekends.

The biggest difference in the NFL has been the parity, as Kelly realized in a 48-30 loss to the lowly Minnesota Vikings last week.

"I had a good understanding of what the league was all about, was prepared for it," Kelly said. "I think the difference between the college and the pros is that every single week is a challenge."

Kelly said that he "didn't write the narrative" created about him, and all he wants to do is score points. He has won with a quarterback drafted to play in a conventional NFL offense. Past Pro Bowlers are having career seasons.

Kelly took an NFL roster and figured out how to make it work. Those who know him say it's the same approach he took as offensive coordinator at New Hampshire and in leading Oregon. But the difference in the NFL is he's trying to do it against Peyton Manning and Calvin Johnson and Patrick Peterson.

"You've got to come to play every week," Kelly said. "But in terms of a surprise, nothing that's really come out [has] been like, well, I didn't think that was ever going to be that way."

'Approach' at 3-5

The NovaCare Complex was not always as rosy as it has been this month. The Eagles were 3-5 entering a two-game road swing that started Nov. 3 against the Oakland Raiders. They had not scored an offensive touchdown in two weeks. And then they played their best game of the season - a 49-20 win that jump-started a five-game winning streak.

Kelly mentioned the team's approach at 3-5 after last Sunday's loss. He referred to it again Monday and repeated it Wednesday. Something about that week resonated with him.

"Just their consistency in terms of how they approached it," Kelly said Thursday. "They don't really pay attention to outside noise or whatever. Just they came to work every day, and the same way they came to work when we first got here, and the same way they came to work this week."

Kelly maintains strict adherence to the "one-week season" cliche. After wins, he recites, "one down, one to go." Kelly started thinking about the Vikings game as he left the field after a Dec. 8 win over the Detroit Lions. His joy is in the process.

Approaching the Raiders game, he emphasized that everything the team wanted to accomplish this season was still within its grasp.

"When you get to 3-5 and you're going on the road, you understand if you don't pick up, you're going to be on the outside looking in come January," center Jason Kelce said. "But it wasn't like there was a letdown of energy. If anything, we picked it up more knowing the window of opportunity was getting shorter and shorter."

Quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said the Raiders game was the best example of the team's applying to the game what it worked on in practice. Players still remember how spirited practice was that week.

"You would have thought we won our last three games by the way we practiced," guard Todd Herremans said.

The front office never had any concern about Kelly. The personnel department knew it needed time to replenish the roster. But at 3-5 and with the offense struggling, Roseman said, the brass was as confident in Kelly as it was the January day the team first met with him.

"That didn't change from week to week. That didn't change from month to month," Roseman said. "That didn't change when we had adversity. That didn't change when we had success."

'I'm riding with him'

A question was put to players: If a free agent is mulling an offer from the Eagles and calls to find out what it's like to play for Kelly, what would they answer?

"You'll love it," Brent Celek said.

That was the consensus in the locker room. Kelly's Oregon players gushed about him - Bears guard Kyle Long played for Kelly one year at Oregon and said this past week he considers the coach like a member of his family - but they chose to play for Kelly. Most of the players on the Eagles didn't have a choice, and yet have since bought in.

"There isn't another coach out there I'd rather play for," Kelce said, "or another culture out there that I'd rather be in."

One common refrain from veterans was how well they feel at this point in the season, which is directly related to Kelly's emphasis on sports science. Linebacker Connor Barwin said his pitch to a free agent would be about how Kelly is at "the forefront" of taking care of players. Tight end James Casey teased that so much is kept secret for competitive reasons, but that players would gravitate toward the team's system.

The other point players made had to do with Kelly's personality. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans praised Kelly for treating the players "like men." Cornerback Roc Carmichael said, "It's how football is supposed to be."

Kelly's propensity for explaining "why" came up often. Miscommunication and mistrust can infiltrate locker rooms, but they have not been an issue in this season.

"He's made me a believer," cornerback Cary Williams said. "Sometimes you get guys from college and they just want to put their ways on you, it's their way or the highway. But he listens. . . . One thing he's been able to do is bring everybody together and believe. I'm riding with him."

Kelly has dealt with a few situations that could have split the team. Riley Cooper's racial slur was one. The quarterback decision was another. Winning helps improve the mood - there might not be as much harmony if the team was 6-8 - but the players appreciate Kelly's consistency in the same way he considered theirs.

"In terms of dispelling the college-coach myth, from Day One, you can tell he had a different attitude about him," center Julian Vandervelde said. "What he says, you can trust. And that goes a long way - especially at this level."

Speculation has surfaced twice this season about whether Kelly will stay in the NFL. Both Southern Cal and Texas were reportedly interested in him, but he has made clear that he's not talking to anyone and wants to coach the Eagles "for a while."

Year No. 1 is still incomplete. Kelly has already doubled the win total from 2012, but the bar has been raised and the playoffs are within sight. Relevant December football is not enough for Kelly - even in his first season when patience was granted.

"I think if you ask every coach in this league, we're not wired that way," Kelly said. "When this thing's all done, there's only going to be one guy that is happy and there's going to be 31 other guys that are disappointed."

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