Along the Eagles' sideline Sunday night, an NFL Films camera and microphone caught Chip Kelly at a moment of candor and insight. The Eagles were about to commence their 27-0 thrashing of the Giants, and Kelly tossed two sentences to a practice-squad player that were anything but throwaway lines. They cut to the core of his approach as a head coach.
"Culture wins football," he said. "Culture will beat scheme every day."
If Kelly's still-brief time in the NFL has done nothing else, it has shown how closely he follows that precept and how important the distinction between culture and scheme is. Kelly put it in football-specific terms, but what he said could as easily apply to the head of a corporation, or the principal of a school, or an editor overseeing a newsroom.
What he's getting at goes beyond the West Coast offense or a 3-4 defense or the question of whether to pass or run on third and 2. It's about how an organization functions, how a leader motivates the individuals within the organization to perform at their best, how he maximizes their collective talent.
That's why, since the Eagles hired Kelly early in 2013, there's been so much attention paid to the changes and innovations he's implemented: the smoothies and the practice schedule and the sleep- and hydration-tracking and the like. That's why Kelly can confound those who insisted he had to have a mobile quarterback to run his offense by contouring the system to help pocket passer Nick Foles flourish. He's at his most flexible when it's time to call plays and adjust to the flow and circumstances of a particular game. He's at his most rigid when it comes to the rest of the week, to all the tiny measures of self-discipline and team building that prepare his players for Sundays.
"When he talks about culture, he's talking about a 360-degree approach," David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "A scheme might be limited to perfection on the field. Look at him as a CEO. Take that perspective. He's not a team president in a player-personnel sense, but he's president of the team itself. He has to understand every facet of the business. He has to communicate what his goals are to every player all the time, like a businessman has to with every employee.
"They have a common goal, and they have to get there together."
The quick, easy, and largely accurate conclusion to draw from Kelly's comments on culture is this: Well, now we know why DeSean Jackson isn't around anymore. If Jackson wasn't the most diligent practice player, if his heart wasn't quite into carrying out his blocking responsibilities, in Kelly's mind it wasn't worth keeping him around for the sake of his speed on the outside. That speed was a scheme trait. Those intangibles are culture traits, and Kelly values the latter more.
Contrast that method with that of an NFL coach who is having a rough go of it this season: the New York Jets' Rex Ryan. In each of Ryan's first two seasons, the Jets reached the AFC championship game, and he was respected around the league in much the same way Kelly is today, with the Eagles at 5-1 and coming off an NFC East title.
Ryan and the Jets' approach, though, contradicted Kelly's. Ryan talked a lot in public. So did his players. They were brash and outspoken, and because of Ryan's brilliant defensive schemes (note the use of that word) and the talent the Jets had assembled on that side of the ball, they could get away with puffing out their chests for a while. But they lacked the culture, the human infrastructure, to maintain that success. They grasped for an identity. They courted attention, it seemed, for attention's sake. They let the noise in.
They haven't had a winning season since 2010, and they were 1-5 entering their game Thursday night in New England.
"If you let outside noise affect you, then that means you value their opinion more than you value your own opinion," Kelly told reporters Monday. "If that's the case, then your life is going to be just like this every single day. 'Someone said something good about me; I feel good about myself. Someone said something bad about me; I feel crappy about myself.' If that's the way you want to live your life, then hang around with really good people because if not, you're going to have a tough day.
"It's not easy. It's easier said than done, and everybody understands that. But you really, truly have to do that."
It's all part of the Eagles' culture, as Kelly will be happy to tell you, if you catch him at the right time.