Chip Kelly May Fail in Philly But He Will Succeed Somewhere Else

“I’m not governed by the fear of what other people say…Events don’t elicit feelings, I think beliefs elicit feelings, and I understand what my beliefs are, and I know who I am.” 

This post is about Chip Kelly’s philosophy. I will preface this post by saying I am an ardent Chip Kelly supporter and have been since his days at Oregon. I am also a die-hard Eagles fan and when the two came together I was beyond ecstatic. Not only is it painful for me to watch the eagles fail, it’s painful for me to watch Chip Kelly fail. I want him to succeed and if/when he leaves Philly I will be rooting for him to succeed no matter where he goes. Chip might fail in Philadelphia, due to a variety of on-field/off-field issues, but if/when he leaves he will be successful somewhere elsewhere because he is grounded in a life philosophy that is bullet proof.

“The only answer I don’t accept is when someone says: because we’ve always done it that way. Give me a reason.” 

After years of following Chip as a person/coach I believe that above all else he is an intellectual. Few football coaches have been accused of being an intellectual and fewer embrace the term. Football is supposed to be a game of emotion and even though game planning and strategy is key, when it comes to Sunday gut feeling and classic football are what seem to prevail. Chip goes against the grain every step of the way. He constantly challenges the status quo. Chip’s seemingly unorthodox strategies can be quantified in his much-maligned “sports science” program.

I find it hilarious when commentators attack the sports science program. I find it even funnier when average to below-average former players attack it. Listening to an out-of shape sports reporter give his views on training and recovery is absurd. Listening to former elite-athletes do the same is even more so. Believing sports science to be a waste of time is akin to being a climate change denier. Entire laboratories exist dedicated solely to researching the body and how it responds to rigorous training and recovery. From nutrition, to sleep, to stretching, to rehab, to supplementation the process of keeping the human body at peak performance is becoming a science. Chip Kelly is not in the laboratory; he is not conducting the studies. He is trusting qualified individuals to relay their findings to him. Chip analyzes their findings and applies them to his profession. To laugh at this is to laugh in the face of empirical data.

Commentators love to attack the sports science program for a number of reasons but the root cause is the difficulties presented in implementing and following a sports science program. Convincing people to change their habits is hard, just ask a personal trainer how difficult it can be to convince someone who is overweight and out of shape to alter his or her lifestyle. Now imagine approaching an NFL player, who has been successful his entire life, and telling him he could be doing better. It’s not easy. It’s also not easy for the player to start sleeping nine hours a night, stop eating junk food and change their training. In an attempt to eliminate cognitive dissonance people will convince themselves that doing what they’ve always done is best way.

Non-athletic sports writers probably criticize the program because they have been too lazy throughout their entire lives to eat healthy and exercise. It’s easy to mock people you’re secretly envious of (basically their entire job). Former and current players denounce it because it changes their beliefs and makes their job harder. It is likely that the early retired former-journeymen NFL players who are now analysts could have been much better if they had better results if they had taken more seriously. If they had slept properly, ate properly, stretched properly, rehabbed properly, and took the right recovery shakes they may have performed better on the field. Team-sports athletes should take their training and recovery as seriously as athletes in individual-sports. Chip has simply taken the prevailing knowledge of human recovery and performance and applied it to his football team. He is not fabricating his methods and he is not doing it to be a rebel, he is doing it because it makes sense.

Chip embraces all disciplines as they pertain to his philosophy. He does not rely on instincts he relies on facts. Animals act on instincts. When a wolf hunts a deer, the wolf relies on its instincts to attack, and the deer relies on its instincts to survive. Both animals probably have life experiences that could have taught them better tactics of attack and evasion nevertheless in the heat of the moment they generally fall back on their instincts. At the most basic level what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is a highly evolved prefrontal cortex/neocortex. The prefrontal cortex/neocortex processes high cognitive function, which is fundamental to human analytical thinking. The prefrontal cortex/neocortex work in conjunction with the brain’s limbic system, which is more ancient and less evolved and primarily controls emotions and instincts. The limbic system works more or less automatic, while the prefrontal cortex/neocortex takes a lot of energy to control. It is easier to rely simply on instincts and gut feelings then to approach a situation analytically, relying not only on an individual’s past experiences but also on external input.

Chip rejects gut-feelings and instincts. He understands that you can predict future outcomes based on past outcomes. Chip Kelly chooses his players, his coaches, his training methods, and his plays based on data. He equips himself with the necessary tools and information to avoid relying on gut instincts. When it comes down to a game deciding play call he is relying on data science to make the decision. This may sound impersonal and academic but it is far and beyond the soundest way to make a decision. The funny thing is Chip is by no means the only football coach to apply this method; he’s just the one that takes the most heat for it. Chip relies on an army of social scientists, psychologists, statisticians, civil rights activists, economists, biologists, chemists and any other imaginable discipline because he recognizes he can’t know everything and he trusts the opinions of others.

This is how successful people live their lives. They devour information and they challenge their beliefs.

“Deuce just rolls them”

Chip is a true leader. People will only follow you if you’re successful. And the harsh reality is that everyone fails at some point in his or her life. I don’t buy into the whole “players coach” nonsense because any coach can be a players coach if the team is winning. Every great leader at some point in history has failed. Chip, like everything else in his life, has leadership down to a science. Chip may have lost the locker room in Philly but that is due to on-field failures not due to his leadership style. True leaders understand it is all about the individual. The individual members of the teams must take pride in their work or the whole system will fall apart. Leadership dictates decisions being made at the lowest level. It is about having an overall philosophy that everyone must truly buy into and it is about taking the opinions of subordinates and weighing them against your own. To be a leader you have to pick the right people under you. A leader wants minimal exposure and allows his lowest managers to work directly with their subordinates.

“Habits reflect the mission.” – Chip Kelly

Leadership is not about cursing, yelling and throwing tantrums. A true leader understands that if you have to resort to this level you’ve already failed. At that point you have to just keep fighting until you can regroup. Chip Kelly exudes a professional atmosphere, where personal accountability is emphasized. If a player has a problem he takes it up with his position coach, if the position coach can’t handle it he goes to the coordinator, if he can’t handle it he goes to the head coach. While Chip has an open door policy it is the same open door policy that many CEOs have. You are expected to address the issue at the lowest level first and if you don’t believe your problem is being handled seriously or appropriately you can then directly approach the top. This is leadership. Leadership is not about being friends with your subordinates and sometimes it is not even about being liked. It is about letting your subordinates know you care about them and have their best interest at heart and that you would never ask them to do something you wouldn’t do.

Now this system can fail. If the talent isn’t there, or too many wrong decisions have been made it can fall apart. But if you stick to this leadership style you will be successful more times than not, and this is exactly what Chip does.

Finally Chip is a stoic. Everything I have mentioned above can be summed up in just a few quotes from the more famous stoic practitioners:

“No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.” – Marcus   Aurelius

“Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” – Seneca

“Make the best of use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. – Epictetus

When jarred, unavoidable, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help.” – Marcus Aurelius

The media and the fans want Chip to show emotion. However, showing too much emotion, positive or negative, is dangerous. The rational thinker does his best to stay grounded at all times. Staying grounded becomes doubly important during turmoil. Chip understands that the absolute worst time to abandon your values is when you’re struggling. Staying calm may not create a sound-byte for the media and it doesn’t placate to enraged fans but it is the best way to improve. Chip maintains confidence in himself and his system and does not deviate. The time to re-group is after the season. Super Bowl winning teams don’t fire coordinators and cut key players mid-season; if you’re resorting to these tactics you have already lost.

Chip will be successful. The idea that Chip treats his players like college kids is laughable. He treats his players like independent thinkers and he provides them with the necessary information to be the best possible athletes they can be. He is also not a dictator. He may have final say in personnel decisions but he is not running the GM shop. I believe a lot of outside observations of Chip’s management and leadership style are mischaracterizations. Some players don’t want to put in the hard work but many will. Chip understands what it takes to be successful and the idea that a coach should be fired after only three years in the NFL ludicrous. He may want to leave Philly because he realizes he may never get a franchise QB. He may want to leave Philly because he may think that he is in a no-win situation and it might be best for both sides to depart. But this won’t be the last we see of Chip Kelly and I fully expect to see him hoist the Lombardi Trophy at some point in the future.