Harmony key for Chip Kelly's coaching staff

Harmony key for Chip Kelly's coaching staff

After bye, Eagles primed for playoff push

November 29, 2013, 8:00 am
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Chip Kelly's 23-man coaching staff has helped lead the Eagles from last year's 4-12 finish to playoff contention in 2013. (AP)

They came from big-time colleges, from around the NFL and even from a high school athletic director’s office. They range in age from 25 to 70. Some have worked for years with Chip Kelly, others had never met him.

There are 23 of them in all, and they comprise Kelly’s first Eagles coaching staff.

We’ve spent a lot of time these past 10 months since Kelly replaced Andy Reid talking about the players and the scheme, the tempo and the innovation.

But none of it would mean a thing if Kelly hadn’t picked the right staff and – just as importantly – if that staff hadn’t quickly learned to work productively together 16 hours a day, every day.

And if you don’t think putting together the right group of assistant coaches is absolutely crucial in the NFL, look what happened to the Eagles once Reid was forced to start replacing people from his brilliant first staff – Jim Johnson, Rod Dowhower, John Harbaugh, Pat Shurmur, Leslie Frazier, Brad Childress, Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott, Steve Spagnuolo.

The Eagles went from a team that made a deep playoff run virtually every year to a league-wide embarrassment.

Rapidly.

Simply, without the right staff and the right chemistry within that staff, you can’t win games in the National Football League. And you sure can’t go from 4-12 to 6-5 like the Eagles have.

Kelly’s first staff, much like Reid’s first staff, is one of the big reasons the franchise has been able to transform overnight from a last-place team into a playoff contender.

“We always talk about how we bring in free agent players and rookie draft picks and the chemistry with our players kind of has to come together,” defensive coordinator Billy Davis said.

“It’s the same way with a staff. It’s so important, and it’s not an easy thing to do. But I think Chip – and [defensive line coach and assistant head coach] Jerry Azzinaro, who really helped him put together the staff – they did a great job first picking just good people and very good communicators and good teachers.

“That was the blueprint they were looking for and they hit it.”

Reid’s coaching staff the last few years was a mess.

He fired Sean McDermott, who now has the NFL’s top-ranked defense in Carolina, and bafflingly replaced him with offensive line coach Juan Castillo. He fired Castillo and replaced him with Todd Bowles, who comes to Philly this weekend with the Cards. He hired and fired defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who it turns out had been mocking Castillo for months in front of players and other coaches.

Guys came and went so quickly the last few years it was hard to keep track of them.

Heck, Reid had five defensive backs coaches in his last three years here. Other positions were similar. That’s an impossible situation.

When a staff is in disarray, a team is going to be in disarray.

That’s what happened here.

And Kelly has put an end to that.

“He brought in guys who are good people, who work hard, who put their egos away, and that’s a distinct problem in a lot of places,” Davis said. “You have guys who think they have all the answers.

“When a staff is bickering and fighting, the players see that and then they start bickering and fighting, then you have positon against position, and everything gets out of whack.”

Sounds like the 2011 and 2012 Eagles.

Things have changed.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who say, ‘I don’t have to be always right,’” Davis said. “They just want what’s best for the team.”

You could see it at minicamps and in training camp. The interactions were healthy, the teaching was hands-on, the chemistry was terrific.

How do you bring in 23 coaches, most of whom had never met, and know the chemistry is going to be right?

Kelly likes to quantify everything and go by the numbers, but putting together a coaching staff, he had to go by feel.

“When you're interviewing guys at this level, everybody has a background, everybody has a resume, everybody has coached at a lot of different places and they're certainly more than qualified,” he said.

“But the biggest thing for me is making sure, and it's not a tangible thing, were they the right fit? I don't know if it goes unnoticed, but it's been a really big plus for us, I think. Because the players learn from the coaching staff. If your coaching staff has a bunch of egos on it and they're all acting in different ways, how can you not expect your players to act the same way? They're going to emulate the people that are teaching them.

“So the biggest thing for us was to get a bunch of guys that really didn't have egos, that were very intelligent, that were great communicators and say, ‘Hey, as a group collectively, let's figure out a way to get this thing done.’

“So far, it's been great. We’ve got a bunch of guys that I think have all made the person next to them better. You don't always have to be the smartest guy in the room because there are a lot of smart guys in that room.

“But to be able to say, ‘That's a good idea. I'm going to listen to it.’ And at the end of the day, who cares whose idea it is? It's our idea when we walk out of this room. We have a bunch of guys that do that. That's what makes working here a lot of fun every single day.”

Kelly brought seven guys with him from Oregon, including Azzinaro. He hired four coaches from the NFL, including both coordinators, plus one who had just retired from playing in the NFL. He kept Duce Staley and Ted Williams. He hired six coaches from big-time Division 1 programs. He even brought in a high school athletic director and a Navy Seals conditioning coach.

“I thought it was really important to get a diverse group,” Kelly said. “You get too many people from the same pool, you all think alike and act alike and that may not be the right way.

“I think it’s important to hear from different voices and different people and how people did it differently. But then you also have to have a bunch of guys that can put their egos aside and say, ‘Now that we have all these ideas on the table, we all have to come to the conclusion of what’s the best one and how are we going to do it,’ and that's hard.”

Ultimately, coaches are teachers, and when you have capable teachers, young players improve, and we’re seeing a lot of that this year where we didn’t see it the last few years.

That helps explain why so many young players, such as Riley Cooper, Nate Allen, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry – and you can even put Nick Foles in this category – are blossoming now after failing to make an impact while playing under Reid.

“I think the young guys are benefitting more than anybody, because they’re getting great fundamental teaching,” Davis said. “That’s just so important.”

It’s too early to say that Kelly’s first staff is the equal of Reid’s first staff, which produced six future head coaches so far, including one Super Bowl winner in John Harbaugh.

But the Eagles’ turnaround has been remarkable, and it wouldn’t have happened without a tremendous young teaching staff.

“We all came to this staff with a certain amount of experience, some of us more than others, some in the NFL, some not so much, but I think there’s a general respect for one another that we all have something to add,” Shurmur said.

“That’s where it starts. So when somebody’s talking about something, the most experienced guy in the room isn’t rolling his eyes and saying, ‘That’s not going to work.’ So there’s a respect for that and I think we all trust each other that when we make a decision, this is the way we’re going to do it, we all walk out of the room and sell it.

“I support Chip, Chip supports me, Jeff Stoutland or Ted or Duce or anybody. I support them and they support me, because there’s a general respect for everybody … and you have to have that basic respect for one another so that the ideas can come out.”

It’s like anything else.

When you’re working in an environment where everybody works together for a common goal without regard to who gets the credit, when the lowest quality control coach is encouraged to share ideas and the guys on top will listen, when everybody feels like they play a critical role in the operation, it’s a healthy situation.

It’s been a while since we had that here.

“The way Chip treats people – with respect – and the way he values opinions probably goes further than any manual of coaching rules that you could ever put down on paper,” quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said.

“He just treats people the right way. He wants to hear what you have to say, and he shows you respect, and I think the guys on the staff are very professional and appreciate that.

“We spend so much time together, not only as coaches but also with the players, it’s hard to fake it. Because they see it. They see facial expression and body languages and all those things. They see guys who enjoy being around each other, and I think Chip’s created an atmosphere where the coaching staff enjoys each other. It’s a good place to come to work every day.

“It’s a lot of work so when you feel like you’re intellectually challenged and also have some camraderie, it just makes it better to put in the hours.”

The one recurring theme when you talk to Kelly’s assistants is how willing he is to listen.

To anybody.

“Chip’s not intimidated by that,” Shurmur said. “We all know that if we win, it’s good for everybody. But you can’t win if there’s not that underlying concept of respect.”

After years of upheaval on the coaching staff, the Eagles finally have stability.

“I had an unbelievable staff at Oregon that was special,” Kelly said. “I've been fortunate here that it’s the same exact way.”