The right question to ask about Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles

College Football, NFL

As the Philadelphia Eagles make one headline after another during the NFL’s free agent frenzy, the question most often being asked about Eagles coach and de facto organizational boss Chip Kelly is, “Does he know what he’s doing?”

It’s a bad question, but it’s all part of an agenda designed to ridicule, express sarcasm and make preemptive “predictions” as to how the additions and subtractions will fare. It unavoidably degenerated into the ludicrous as football know-nothing Stephen A. Smith of ESPN trolled for ratings and web hits by implying that Kelly is a racist.

The idea in and of itself is nonsensical but, ironically, it coincides with why Kelly’s wheeling and dealing shouldn’t be viewed as a blind loyalty to the University of Oregon at the expense of keeping his job. No football coach can be labeled a racist today because no football coach who wants to keep his job can afford to be a racist; no football coach can be labeled as married to a former college program and reunite it in the pros because no football coach in his right mind believes that even the best college teams can succeed in the pros.

The right question to ask regarding Kelly has nothing to do with racism, his college loyalties or his system. It has to do with whether or not what he’s doing will work. It’s that simple. And the answer to that won’t be known until the team is on the field.

Looking at NFL history, every coach who tried to do something different saw the new schemes universally treated as if there was a personal affront being committed against the history of the league; that it couldn’t possibly work…because…it just couldn’t. There was rarely a logical explanation with a point-by-point refutation of the new strategy. It was the simplistic and stupid, “That’s not the way we do things here.” If that were the case, there would never have been the forward pass, the spread formation, the run-and-shoot (which most teams use a variation of now), the slot receiver, the pass-catching tight end, or the decision to go back to the old-school smashmouth and a vicious, punishing defense. Anything will be viewed negatively for no other reason than it’s deviating from the current norm. When it’s an unwanted interloper like Kelly who purports to be reinventing the game, then the media and NFL lifers will grow even more incoherent, angry and restless.

The names of Eagles that have come, gone and remained – LeSean McCoy, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, Kiko Alonso, Ryan Mathews, Jeremy Maclin, Mark Sanchez – are largely irrelevant. What’s important is whether or not Kelly is doing things his way and is going all-in as he does it.

Much was made of Kelly triangulating himself into being the main voice in running the Eagles after winning the power struggle with former general manager Howie Roseman. Roseman had his role changed to executive vice president of football operations, but his job will be limited to negotiating contracts. Kelly managed this by responding to the firing of his front office ally Tom Gamble by threatening to get out of his Eagles contract to go back to college.

College.

The looming threat is always there for coaches who made their names in the NCAA and are more than willing to go back if the “NFL thing” doesn’t work out. Some coaches like Jimmy Johnson were essentially professional coaches when they were in college. Some, like Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino, were college coaches who were giving the NFL a shot knowing they’d eventually head back to college sooner rather than later. And some are perfectly content with either/or. Jim Harbaugh and Kelly fall into that category.

The concept that Kelly is gutting the Eagles and replacing the erstwhile roster with something akin to what would have been found at a University of Oregon booster meet-and-greet with NCAA football championship contending players of yesteryear is a convenient storyline to make him look as if he’s pining for his college days and transferring what was in the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast and trying to succeed with it to prove his genius. In truth, any boss is going to want to import people with whom he has a rapport; who know how he wants things done; who are so accustomed to his tics and quirks and style that there’s a spoken shorthand streamlining communications. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Johnson was torched when he got to the NFL, took over the Dallas Cowboys and followed Tom Landry’s distinguished reign with a 1-15 embarrassment. But it was that 1-15 embarrassment that planted the seeds for the Cowboys’ three Super Bowls in four years. It was the decision to trade Herschel Walker at mid-season and getting what amounted to the S&P 500 worth of draft picks that let him get the players he wanted.

But Johnson was in the NFL and had zero intention of going back to college. Spurrier on the other hand, took the job as head coach of the Washington Redskins to feed his own ego, make a ton of money and try to prove that he was not only the best college football coach in the land, but the best football coach period. He’d do it his way with University of Florida players – whether they were suited to the NFL or not – and he’d do it while making plenty of time for golf. His offense didn’t work and his attitude was a disaster. He ran back to college as an almost foregone conclusion once he realized he couldn’t dominate the games with his offensive genius, intimidate the players by holding their scholarships over his head, and control the media simply through their lovelorn, glazed-over lust for him. People dared to have the audacity to question the ol’ ball coach Spurrier. He couldn’t have that.

When Vince Lombardi entered the NFL as an assistant coach for the New York Giants, the players rolled their eyes at him and thought he was some short, loud jerk from college. Eventually, he gained their respect and got the job as the czar of the Green Bay Packers. It was there that he set about resurrecting a moribund franchise by making such unpopular moves as immediately trading away the team’s best player and most prominent personality Billy Howton because Howton was insolent, had a big mouth, was divisive and was exactly the type of player who would sow dissent in the locker room because he wasn’t getting the ball enough. In part it was due to the new coach wanting to send a message; in part it was due to Lombardi realizing he was going to install a power-based running offense that didn’t need a mouthy end demanding the ball.

If Lombardi were around today, set about rebuilding the Packers in the way he did in 1959 with the same players and there was 24/7 sports talk and cable channels, Paul Hornung would be called a Heisman Trophy bust, Bart Starr would be called a non-prospect joke, and Lombardi would be referred to as a would-be drill sergeant who never served in the military and had a Napoleon complex with no clue how the NFL really functioned.

Lombardi is considered the greatest football coach in history.

Even Bill Belichick wasn’t immune to the criticism for making necessary cuts to further his plan for the New England Patriots. It’s easy to forget now, but Belichick was said to have “lost” the locker room after he cut Lawyer Milloy at the end of training camp in 2003. It was a salary cap move made because Milloy refused to take a pay cut. Leaders like Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi were livid. After Milloy (and former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe) and the Buffalo Bills obliterated the Patriots in the opening game of that year 31-0, there were questions as to whether Belichick’s job was on the line. He stayed stoic, explained his position, made clear he was the boss and in command, and that the decision to cut Milloy was best for the organization in the present and future.

Then the Patriots won 17 out of 18 games through the Super Bowl and Milloy wasn’t mentioned as anything but a meaningless, “Oh, yeah. That.” They won the Super Bowl the next year as well and Belichick’s job status has never been in question since.

Someone has to be in charge.

Coaching in the NFL can be a dirty business and if a coach isn’t willing to play dirty and use somewhat underhanded tactics in organizational politics, he’s not going to last very long. If being static were the idea with no room for innovation and change, we’d be trapped in a purgatory of players in leather helmets running into each other with no excitement, no innovation, no intelligence – just brute force and dullness. In a similar sense, in years gone by, coaches had bizarre – often dangerous – training tactics like refusing to allow players water while they were practicing and forcing the players to partake in pads-on scrimmages that were even more brutal than the games themselves. Without positive advancement, the players wouldn’t even be allowed to seek big money in free agency. It wasn’t that long ago that NFL free agency was a wink-and-nod joke with every team knowing they had what amounted to indentured servants at their disposal. Innovation and change is a good thing.

Kelly has a top-to-bottom idea of how he wants the team to function from the dietary habits of the players to the training techniques to the fast break offense he wants to implement. If he’s doing it and doing it his way, then he’d better make sure to throw all his chips into the center of the table and either win big or lose it all. That’s what he’s doing. It’s not racism. It’s not stupidity. It’s not ignorance. There’s only a hint of megalomaniacal arrogance that you find in all NFL head coaches and there’s a method behind the perceived madness. He’s right to do it his way in theory even if it fails in practice. At least then there won’t be the regret of woulda, shoulda, coulda. Like any other change, it’s either going to work or it’s not. Then will be the time to judge. Not now.

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Expressing Anger at Torii Hunter Solves Nothing

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It’s fine to expect all professional athletes to be as accepting and understanding of others as Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is in regards to the sexual orientation of others. Kluwe has expressed as such publicly, multiple times and as a result people who ordinarily haven’t the faintest clue who the punter for the Vikings is, now know due to his outspokenness on a controversial subject. But expecting every athlete to be so open is not reality. There’s still a wall between certain players and the possibility that in the future there will be an openly gay teammate in their clubhouse.

There are ways to deal with any reluctance on the part of players who are open about their feelings regarding this issue as Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter was when in this LA Times article on the subject he said he’d be “uncomfortable.” Savaging them in the media, getting them to backtrack and/or apologize when they don’t mean it isn’t an effective method to solve the underlying beliefs that led to his statement in the first place.

There are methods though. One is through management of the club saying that if you have a problem with it, we’ll accommodate you…by getting rid of you.

Vince Lombardi’s brother Harold was gay and in his time as a coach, Lombardi had gay players. He also made it a point to tell the other players that if they ever questioned said players’ manhood, they’d be gone. Presumably, he would also have used his power to blackball that particular player from other NFL teams. Nothing stops the side effects of prejudice like fearing for one’s livelihood that if you can’t deal with working X person, then you won’t have a job. It won’t eliminate the core beliefs that led to the prejudice, but it will prevent it from festering and infecting the club.

Interestingly, while Vince Lombardi is often held up as a paragon of conservative values, he was an ardent Democrat. It was Harold Lombardi who happened to be a staunch conservative when the Republican party was about business interests and not about telling people how to live their lives; he was a Republican before the Republican party was overrun by religious fundamentalists who excluded rather than included. That hardline attitude is shaking the ground beneath the feet of the ultra right wingers and religious right with the prospect of party marginalization that accompanies continuously losing elections with the untenable candidates they’re presenting such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. This is serving to “educate” them far better than an enlightening discussion that’s not going to enlighten anyone.

The bottom line tells all. Losing jobs, losing elections, losing money—it all results in the sudden epiphany of, “Hey, okay. I can work with others! I can be flexible.”

Hunter’s comments have been the catalyst for indignant blog postings and Tweets expressing shock that someone would dare say such a thing on the eve of 2013 when we, as a society, are supposed to be beyond all that, but maybe a little understanding of where Hunter is coming from would be beneficial. When a person is told from the beginning of his or her life that homosexuality is a sin; when the “proof” of this is presented in biblical texts and hammered into their brains at home from their parents; when they hear from respected members of the community such as pastors, priests, and rabbis, and, in conjunction, they’re functioning in the testosterone-fueled fishbowl of sports, do you think they’re going to express a liberalism when it comes to a person’s sexuality?

Because the public doesn’t want to hear what Hunter said, it’s not eliminated from existence.

These are facts and they’re not politically correct. The ever-present litany of clichés for athletes was created for public consumption and is designed to shun controversy. With that, you have athletes saying flavorless sound bytes of vanilla nothingness. Hunter spoke honestly of his beliefs on the matter. It’s opened the door to talk about it and perhaps convince those who think like Hunter that they need to be a little more accepting of an issue that they can’t control and that their resistance in doing so might eventually cast them out if they’re unwilling or unable to adapt to the prospect of having a gay teammate.

The only way to end that type of ingrained feeling of discomfort is to confront it, not by providing standard, pat responses out of fear of public reprisal, but with actual, honest answers so Hunter can be convinced that not every gay person is going to be staring at him in the shower as if he’s their next date; that the person is not committing a mortal sin and sentencing themselves to an eternity of damnation from a behavior Hunter views as against God’s laws; that it isn’t a choice. If Hunter says, “I’d be fine with it,” when he wouldn’t be fine with it, it does more harm than good. Lying can’t make a player who’s gay feel comfortable living his life publicly with the unsaid knowledge that there are players who are steering clear of him intentionally because of it. Only true education, discussion, or at least agreeing to disagree and working together in spite of it can do that.

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The Pirates Navy SEALs Training: Designed to Kill and Get Executives Fired

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Ordinarily, I’d want to have a deeper understanding of exactly what the Pirates were doing when they decided to implement Navy SEALs training techniques for their minor leaguers. It was possible that the Pirates took aspects of the training—including the mindset—and adapted them to baseball. Many different training techniques that have become of value to baseball players such as plyometrics; parachute training; isometrics; cross-training by throwing a football all would’ve been seen as idiotic as recently as 20 years ago. Football coaches—including Vince Lombardi—used to refuse to give water to their players during summer training camp. Watch the film The Junction Boys about Paul “Bear” Bryant to see how deranged training camps were for college kids, the majority of whom were playing because they wanted to. So if the Pirates took the camaraderie that is instilled by Navy SEAL training and the fitness along with it, why not?

But according to the linked pieces I found here on Larry Brown Sports, the Pirates are reinventing the wheel and doing it in a way designed to get the executives who decided it was a good idea fired and drummed out of baseball entirely.

You can read the Dejan Kovasevic piece; the Pirates’ assistant GM Kyle Stark’s email here; and Jeff Passan’s column about it in which he discusses hand-to-hand combat and baseball’s reaction to this decision.

They want them to take the attitude of the Hells Angels? I certainly would prefer not to have my baseball players taking the personae of a sleazy, borderline satirical group with absurd militaristic designations such as “Sergeant-at-Arms” or other stranger-than-fiction silliness. But this is what the Pirates have chosen to do for reasons known only to them. There’s nothing wrong with fostering brotherhood, bonding, or a “take no crap” attitude. But to force teenagers who have substantial money invested in them into this type of training when it’s never been done before is a combination of arrogance and stupidity.

There’s thinking outside the box and tweaking innings pitched and pitch counts; there are theories of teaching hitting advocating patience or aggressiveness; there are varying theories of defensive shifts and positioning. There are many things in baseball that could and should be changed. I’d be an advocate of shortening spring training, among other things. But this? This is something that is so antithetic to baseball—the same sport for which John Kruk said something to the tune of, “I’m ain’t an athlete, I’m a baseball player,”—that people who decided to try it are going to get fired and deserve it.

This isn’t debating on the merits of running sprints vs weight training; it’s training more directed at slitting Stephen Strasburg’s throat rather than getting a hit off of him.

The Pirates were on the way to a very positive place earlier this season and still might be. There’s plenty of talent on the big league roster and in the organization. I see them as similar to the Minnesota Twins of 2001, a team that got off to a great start after years and years of futility and essentially collapsed in August and September, but used the experience as a life-lesson and became the dominant team in the AL Central for a decade with the only thing missing from their list of accomplishments being a World Series. Clint Hurdle has altered the culture and the Pirates are a good bet to take the next step of their innocent climb in 2013 and if I were to start a club with any player, Andrew McCutchen would be at the very top of that list. The future is still bright for the Pirates, but they’re going to be doing it with a new braintrust in the front office.

Stark can live out his tough guy fantasy in some other industry. GM Neal Huntington can go because he was the one who apparently okayed this. Frank Coonelly can be dispatched because he’s been clueless from the time he was appointed as the team president. There are better baseball people and human beings in front offices everywhere for the Pirates to hire.

Hells Angels?

Maybe Stark and Huntington can join them. They’ll be out of work soon enough.

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Joke Or Not, If Alderson’s Unhappy, He Should Leave

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To the best of my knowledge the Mets aren’t paying Sandy Alderson with IOUs from one ply peeled from two-ply pieces of toilet paper.

Nor are the checks written in the penmanship of someone right-handed trying to write left-handed and signed, “Jeff’s Dad” as if Jeff Wilpon were trying to pay Alderson with whatever’s left of his dad’s teetering financial empire.

Alderson’s being paid in real money and he’s being paid a lot of it.

Alderson has decided, as he’s making his way to spring training, to start a Twitter account. The first tweet was either a badly worded or misunderstood joke or a shot at the Mets’ paucity of funds.

Under the handle MetsGM, Alderson said:

Getting ready for Spring Training-Driving to FL but haven’t left yet. Big fundraiser tonight for gas money. Also exploring PAC contribution.

Whether it was an attempt at comedy or a legitimate kick at the fact that he doesn’t have any money to spend, he’s oblivious if he didn’t realize that saying that would be construed as a negative toward his employer.

Can you imagine one of George Steinbrenner’s GMs saying something like this and still being the GM the following day?

Or Vince Lombardi so openly disparaging a team that he tried to craft into the epitome of professionalism and year-round proper representation of the Green Bay Packers?

It wouldn’t happen because there was a baseline, known code of conduct of what would and wouldn’t be acceptable from any and all employees of their teams.

Alderson was a Marine and should understand that even if the Secretary of the Navy is from a different party as the President or disagrees with policy, he’s not going to publicly say something so negative—even in a joking context—about his bosses or his branch.

Alderson was a lawyer and a respected GM for the first decade of his career with the Athletics. Then, when he moved to the forefront, his own personality came to light.

Along with the resume of being Vietnam veteran and well-spoken military man and adaptive, intuitive corporate lawyer, there’s another side to Alderson—a snarky, credit-seeking and obnoxious side that has reared its head repeatedly.

As GM of the Athletics, Alderson’s success was tied to two things: money and Tony LaRussa. When the A’s spent money under Alderson and were managed by the Hall of Famer LaRussa, they won. When the money dried up, they slowly declined; then LaRussa left and the team came apart.

Alderson went to the Padres, behaved like a capricious tyrant and created factions that were beholden to him to craft an aura of dysfunction where everyone was looking over their shoulders for someone holding a knife.

It’s been this way in every job he’s undertaken since and is now happening again with the Mets.

Whether he wanted the Mets job (and it certainly appeared he did when he was interviewing for it) or took it as a favor to Bud Selig is irrelevant. He took the job and is being compensated heavily for it. He’s gotten everything he wanted including the high-priced hirings of his lieutenants Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi. He hired the manager he wanted in Terry Collins. If he had a load of money at his disposal, there’s no guarantee he would’ve wanted to spend it on Jose Reyes because it’s never been his modus operandi to invest so much money in a player who relies on speed and doesn’t get on base.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The circumstances with the team are what they are, financially and practically.

Financially, ownership is under siege from a lawsuit that they claim is doling out blame and holding them accountable for transgressions that they are not guilty of committing.

That will be settled in time and the Wilpons will either find a way to maintain control of the team or sell it.

Alderson may or may not be the GM of the new owner; he may or may not remain as the GM if the Wilpons retain control.

Practically, even if there was a ton of money available, the free agent market was such that the Mets were unlikely to dive deeply into it to bring in enough talent to compete in a loaded division. The farm system needed to be rebuilt and the big league club overhauled. In actuality, the Madoff trial is giving them the built-in excuse to refurbish the club correctly—something I would think Alderson would embrace to put a club together devoid of the $200 million superstar since those contracts almost inevitably become onerous by year four or five.

That too is secondary to the perception of the team.

On the one hand, okay, it’s a joke; on the other, he’s the GM and shouldn’t be openly attacking his club even in jest. If you’re the GM of the team and there’s even a split-second hesitation as to how a joke is going to be interpreted, then it shouldn’t be said. Once it has to be explained, it was a bad joke.

If it was a subtle attempt to say publicly what he says in starker terms privately; if Alderson is unhappy with the money at his disposal; if he doesn’t like working for the Wilpons; if he took the Mets job only as a favor to Selig; if he wants out and is being passive aggressive to get that information into the public sphere, then he should resign and stop taking the Wilpons’ money to be the GM of the club.

This type of stuff is why they’re the “Mets”. I don’t mean the Mets organization. I mean an adjective for a punchline of whatever can go wrong, will go wrong and that the employees—even in the upper reaches of the hierarchy—are willing to make negative and embarrassing comments to highlight that fact.

Done with appropriately hideous timing befitting the “Mets”, while the team across town is enduring their own humiliating scandals involving their GM Brian Cashman and his bevy of girlfriends and divorce, one of whom was apparently stalking him, Alderson decided—as seems to be the Mets wont—to make the Mets the butt of evening gossip and laughter. For the titular head of the baseball operations, someone whose conduct and skills in dealing with the media and manipulating the language to prevent such a thing from happening, it was a stupid and inappropriate comment to make. Former GM Omar Minaya’s biggest fault was crisis control and a lack of skill with the language, but I have no recollection of him saying something like this about his employers.

The Mets are not going to stop being a joke until they cease treating themselves as a joke. It comes from a clear set of rules that are adhered to from the simplicity of wearing a coat and tie when traveling on the road to not criticizing the organization.

From the time of Alderson’s hiring, I said that the Mets have to cease the practice of acting as if any star player who joins the organization is doing them a favor; that any and every player they currently have is here out of desperate necessity rather than out of a business agreement between parties. Until the Mets make the conscious decision to stop laughing at themselves, why should anyone else hesitate to laugh at them?

If there are people within the current organizational structure who don’t want to be part of the Mets, then they should leave. When I said it 15 months ago, I was referring to the players. But it also applies to the GM.

If Sandy Alderson doesn’t want to be part of the Mets, then he should go. They’ll get someone else.

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