On one hand, he might have guessed he’d have no problem connecting with the younger players. After all, they were similar in age to the athletes he coached at Oregon. They hadn’t been around the NFL game long enough to be too set in their ways. And they would likely be hungry to make names for themselves in whatever way possible.
But what about the veterans? Guys like DeMeco Ryans, who’s on his third head coach in three years. And Trent Cole, a two-time Pro Bowler who had played 124 games for Andy Reid. How would they respond to a college coach coming in and making wholesale changes?
“That’s a great thing about this is our older guys have really set the tone,” Kelly said. “If you watch how [Jason] Kelce, [Brent] Celek, DeMeco Ryans and guys like that have approached things, you can’t help but say, ‘Oh.’ They do such a great job of showing the young guys how to be professional. That’s what, to me, [has] made the transition really easy because that core group of older guys here – there’s not a ton of them. Trent [Cole] is like that. Trent’s always working hard. There’s not a lot of older guys on this team, but the group of older guys that are on this team – Michael [Vick] – those guys work.”
The Eagles have plenty of roster spots up for grabs this summer. But don’t expect Kelly to simply give younger players an edge because they have more years left to grow and develop. Age is obviously a factor, but Year 1 is also about building a culture and establishing a new way of doing things.
For that foundation to be built on solid ground, Kelly needs to maintain the right mix of veterans and younger players.
“I think our older players have been the best to be honest with you,” he said.
“I think when you’re 21, 22 years old you think you’re invincible, so you don’t totally have to buy into everything and you don’t have to sleep as much, and you can get away with maybe not going to bed like someone else goes to bed. But when you start to get up to 28, 30, 31, 32, you better look at every advantage you can get from that standpoint. I think that’s what these guys have. The older guys have been fantastic. It was interesting because outside you would think they’re the ones. But I think they’re the ones that gain the most from it. They’re fresher, they’re more prepared and ready to go. And I think also for those guys when you look at it, if they’ve played 8-10 years in this league, they already know how to be professional. They were already getting the right amount of sleep. They’re not out running around going crazy because if that happened, you’d get spit out of this league pretty quick.”
Most of the feedback from players during the spring was positive. Veterans stayed loyal to Reid to the end, but after 12 wins in two seasons, they understood changes needed to be made.
Kelly and his staff have emphasized the “whys” throughout the process all offseason. It’s the same approach he had at Oregon, but so far, Kelly is finding it easier to get his message across to professional athletes.
“I think the guys are more serious,” he said. “It’s awesome. These guys want to win. This is their chosen profession, and all they want to do is be successful. They’re a lot more mature, they’re a lot more focused on what they have to do. They come to work every day. That part’s been fantastic.”
Of course, it’s mid-July and there’s a sense of hope and optimism around most teams. In the coming months, Kelly will face new challenges. He’ll have to decide on a starting quarterback. He’ll have to deal with players who don’t understand why he’s doing things a certain way (see: DeSean Jackson situation). And he’ll have to be prepared for what the reaction might be should the Eagles get off to a slow start.
But Kelly seems to be aware of all those factors. And in terms of where he is in the process, the new head coach is pleased.
“When these guys are here, they want to win and prepare and that’s the fun part of this job,” he said. “I didn’t know what it would be like, but that part has just blown me away in terms of how receptive these players have been. The bottom line is that’s how they get judged. We’re all going to be judged the same way: Did you win or did you lose? So it’s a lot easier when we’re all going in the same direction as opposed to fighting it.”