NOT THAT long ago, Chip Kelly was a coach with more ideas running through his head than dollars lining his wallet. He was an assistant back then, at Division I-A New Hampshire, with a reputation for long car drives, unpaid internships, sleeping on people's couches - all in the name of learning something more about football.
Among those visits late in this quest was to the Patriots' practice facility, where he soon discovered that Bill Belichick, already with three Super Bowl rings, was as interested in learning from Kelly as Kelly was in learning from him.
"Some of the things they've done in their program, we've been able to adapt to ours," the Patriots' coach said the other day. "I'm not saying ours is theirs, but you take an idea or you take a concept that they're using and if it's something that you like, maybe you figure out a way to integrate it into yours."
Among the concepts Belichick plucked was the hurry-up, which can be lethal when one of the smartest quarterbacks ever to play the game is running the offense.
What did Kelly get from Belichick?
"In talking to Bill, it was more philosophical," the Eagles' coach said Thursday. "It's not - I don't come out of there and say, 'I had a conversation with Bill seven years ago and I know that this blitz's name is "this" and that they run it on third down.' Because you know, when you look at the tape, he changes."
Mull that last word for a bit. He changes. With five games left of a season that has gone terribly wrong, Kelly faces a crossroads this offseason. Stick to the guns that made him so coveted - and so rich - almost three years ago and hope that improved performance and personnel decisions return him to the path he was on that first season. Or change, adjusting his philosophy to the talent - or lack of it - he has assembled.
The way Belichick has.
"He's been on such a successful run, especially in this day of the salary cap," Kelly said. "I think to be able to continue to manage and stay at the high level, he's done it as good as anybody."
Oh, we all know the alternate narrative. That Belichick's genius will disappear the day Tom Brady retires. It's a narrative that overlooks a few things, like the season New England won 11 games with Matt Cassel filling in for the future Hall of Famer, or the impressive annual team building he does, rolling in replacements for departed free agents such as Darrelle Revis, taking discarded players such as Patrick Chung and putting them in positions to succeed.
And change. "They were a little bit more of a 3-4 team a couple of years ago," Kelly said. "Even when we trained with them they were more of a 3-4 team when they had (former Patriots and current Texans defensive tackle Vince) Wilfork as their big nose."
They now play more four-down, with two defensive tackles. Belichick built his early reputation as a defensive guru with the 3-4, back in the days when people wondered out loud whether the New York Giants' success was more about him than it was about Bill Parcells.
A little irony given the current alternate narrative, eh?
Belichick had Lawrence Taylor in his prime back then. If you want to reach Canton, coaching two of the greatest players - if not the two greatest - is a nice recipe.
So, too, is winning with different types of teams. The early Patriots Super Bowl teams featured stifling defenses. The current run is more about a suffocating offense that quickly forces opponents to chase the score and taper their playbook. Yes, Brady is at the helm, but Bill Walsh had Joe Montana and Vince Lombardi had Bart Starr and Weeb Ewbanks had Johnny Unitas and Parcells had, well, Taylor and Harry Carson and Carl Banks.
As Parcells said during his own induction into the Hall of Fame in 2013, Belichick will go into Canton someday, "on roller skates."
He will do so not only because he coached Brady (and Taylor before him), but because, when forced with changing realities, he adapted. He replaced escalating salaries with cost-effective ones. When he didn't have the personnel for a 3-4, he didn't try to jam what he knew best into a defense capable of doing it in the least.
He was flexible. He changed. And he succeeded.
If Kelly's as smart as I still think he is, he will, too. Maybe not over these final five games, but soon after. When he's sitting by the fire in that New Hampshire mansion he built with Jeffrey Lurie's money, watching Belichick - and Brady - chase another Super Bowl.
On Twitter: @samdonnellon