What I Saw: Inside a Chip Kelly Practice With the Eagles
Monday was the first time the media were allowed to watch Chip Kelly’s Eagles practice at the NovaCare Complex.
Below is a first-person account of what I saw. Times are estimates, based on how long it took me to look at my phone.
10:30 a.m.: Well, we’ve waited about four months for this. The last time I watched a full NFL practice was August. I’d say one or two things have changed with this franchise since then.
The players are split up by positions to start things off. Wide receivers catch passes from the Jugs machine. Who knows how much one of those things costs? I’m pretty sure 11-year-old Sheil would have spent hours by himself in the backyard if he owned one. Who am I kidding? 30-year-old Sheil would probably do the same thing.
10:33 a.m.: The horn sounds, and the music blares. Wide receivers run over to the quarterbacks. Matt Barkley, Dennis Dixon and G.J Kinne stand together at about the 40-yard line. Receivers run short routes to their right side. Meanwhile, facing the first group of quarterbacks, about 30 yards away, are Michael Vick and Nick Foles. They also have a line of receivers to their right and are throwing fades down the sideline, going in the opposite direction.
After each receiver takes a rep, he continues running behind the other group of quarterbacks and gets in line. There is very little waiting around, as the players move constantly in a loop.
10:36 a.m.: The offense and defense compete against each other for the first time. This is where we start to get some depth chart clues. We’ll throw out the disclaimer that it’s only May 13, but Trent Cole and Connor Barwin line up as the first-team outside linebackers. DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks are the inside LBs.
In the secondary, a bit of a surprise. Curtis Marsh is lined up as a first-team corner opposite Bradley Fletcher. There is, however, a caveat. Cary Williams just got married and is on his honeymoon. Let the record show that football writers (present company included) schedule their weddings and honeymoons around team-related activities. My wife can vouch for this.
Then again, I had to miss Eagles-Giants last year for my daughter’s birth, so I probably don’t have a lot of room to talk.
The starting safeties are Patrick Chung and Nate Allen. I’m guessing this is the first of about 329 combinations we’ll see back there between now and Week 1.
Isaac Sopoaga is the first-team nose tackle. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton line up on either side of him. A lot of three-down linemen all practice long.
Again, no time between reps. Handoff, whistle, next rep. Handoff, whistle, next rep.
10:40 a.m.: No actual football needed for the next five minutes. The entire team moves to the end zone and lines up for a bit of stretching work. The exercise is simple: 10 yards of a specific movement (knee lifts, lunges, etc.) and then a 10-yard run. Tony Horton of P-90X fame would feel right at home during this portion of practice.
10:45 a.m.: The players break up by position. Wide receivers don’t practice with a ball. It’s just route-running and getting off jams at the line of scrimmage. Those are simulated by orange punching bags, not defensive backs.
10:51 a.m.: Another “individual” portion with players split up by position. Cameras now have to be turned off, and reporters are instructed to sit on the bleachers, something that was not allowed during the Andy Reid era.
I’m not too happy about the change. The possibility of getting run over by a 240-pound linebacker while standing on the sidelines always kept me on my toes.
Crazy Train, the one song that seemingly every sportswriter is able to recognize, blares from the speakers
10:55 a.m.: OK, I lied. Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf comes on. Sportswriters seem to like this one also.
Now is a good time to mention that the practice is split into 21 different portions, ranging from four to 10 minutes. When it’s time to begin a new session, a GPS-like voice makes the announcement on the speakers, and the players run to where they are supposed to be.
This would be a lot more fun if the voice had a specific accent. Maybe Aussie punter Brad Wing can do the honors? I’ll mention it to Chippah next time I see him.
10:59 a.m.: 50 Cent’s New Day comes on as all five quarterbacks line up at the 40-yard-line. There’s no need for any of them to wait to get a rep. They take the snaps in unison and fire to five different receivers. The outside receivers go deep, and the other three work the short/middle portion of the field.
11:03 a.m.: A variation: two-man routes. Two quarterbacks line up next to each other. One takes the snap, fires, and then it’s time for the other one to go. The field is essentially split in half as the five QBs rotate. Kanye West’s Stronger is the song of choice. I’ll admit to subtle head-bobbing and toe-tapping during this one.
11:08 a.m.: A 10-minute special-teams block. But not all the players are on the field together. The punters (Wing and Donnie Jones) boom kicks to DeSean Jackson, Damaris Johnson, Jeremy Maclin and one other guy. At first, my brain tells me the other guy is Chad Hall. But wait, that’s not right. He’s long gone.
It’s Nick Miller, an undrafted free agent from Southern Utah.
The gunners work off to the side. Those who have no special-teams roles don’t get a break. The quarterbacks, for example, head over to a separate field and throw to Harold Carmichael, who is still a fixture at Eagles practices.
If you want one overreaction to one practice from an untrained special-teams eye, it’s this: Wing was absolutely crushing his punts.
11:18 a.m.: There aren’t many places where you go from Rock You Like A Hurricane to California Love. But this is one of them. It’s 7-on-7 time. Vick lines up with the first-team offense. Barwin and Cole are the outside linebackers with the first-team defense. Brandon Graham and Phillip Hunt get reps with the second team.
Behind Ryans and Kendricks are Jamar Chaney and newcomer Jason Phillips running with the second team. Kurt Coleman and Kenny Phillips are the second-team safeties. Brandon Boykin and Brandon Hughes are the second-team corners.
We begin to see the new play-call structure. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur stands on the sideline with a walkie-talkie and calls the play into the quarterback’s helmet. But before each snap, every offensive player looks over to the sideline. An offensive assistant plays the role of third-base coach and runs through a variety of hand signals that relay personnel grouping and formation.
One second, he looks like he’s hula dancing. The next second, he’s a bear that’s clawing at his target. This is the system that Brent Celek said is going to change the league?
11:23 a.m.: For the first time all day, the music stops. This is period nine, also known as a “teach” period. Up until now, everything has been fast-paced. There were times when coaches would say a thing or two quickly to players, but then they had to get back in line. There was no stopping for instruction.
A lot of that is done in the classroom, but this session helps. The defensive players are grouped together, and the offensive players split up. It’s finally a chance to slow things down.
“You can go a little faster than that,” says wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell. “But I’m not trying to make you run.”
The wide receivers practice again without a ball. In the past, Kelly has stressed the importance of wide receivers blocking, and that’s what they’re working on here. Bicknell instructs them to explode off the line of scrimmage as if they’re running a route. Then, when they’re about halfway between the line of scrimmage and the defender (in this case, an assistant holding a blocking pad), they set up for the block.
Meanwhile, the QBs and running backs work separately on the read option.
11:27 a.m.: The music is back on, and the semi-break is over. It’s now an 11-on-11 team portion of practice with the focus on the run game and play-action. Vick once again leads the first team. The offensive line from right to left is Dennis Kelly, Todd Herremans, Dallas Reynolds, Danny Watkins and Jason Peters. If this is the offensive line that opens up the season, it really doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback.
But chances are, it won’t be. Jason Kelce participated in much, but not all, of practice. And Evan Mathis is sidelined with an ankle injury, but expected back this summer.
Foles steps in with the second team. Lane Johnson is at right tackle with Matt Kopa at right guard. Matt Tennant takes over at center, Allen Barbre at left guard and Ed Wang at left tackle. Raise your hand if you could identify more than one of those guys if he was standing next to you. Anyone?
With Nicki Minaj lyrics booming over the speakers, Foles keeps the ball on a read-option, something no one who watched him last year ever thought they’d see.
The play-calling is even more complex than before. Foles gets the call in his helmet from Shurmur. But now there are four others on the sideline using hand signals. Perhaps a different person for each positional group? I’ll have more on this later in the week.
Cox is lining up in various spots on the defensive line. Vinny Curry plays 3-4 defensive end with the second team.
11:37 a.m.: Another 10-minute special-teams portion, split up just like the first time. McCoy is the only running back not expected to play a role on special teams, so he joins the QBs on the other field and works on his pass-catching.
11:47 a.m.: Back to 7-on-7s. A bit of a change-up this time though. Foles starts with the first team. Marsh breaks up a pass intended for Maclin. The cornerback starts to celebrate, but then realizes there’s no time. He’s got to line up for the next rep.
Foles hits Jackson on a comeback route. By the time the whistle blows to signify the end of the play, the new signals are already being relayed from the sideline.
11:57 a.m.: Another teach period. Once again, the music shuts off as the players slow things down.
12 p.m.: Offense vs. defense, 11-on-11s, with the focus on first and second down.
New wide receiver Arrelious Benn mixes in with the first team. Known as a strong blocker, he shoves Fletcher out of bounds on a screen to Maclin.
The Eagles don’t have a fullback on the roster, but Brent Celek lines up in the backfield on one play. A lot of zone runs and wide receiver screens.
12:10 p.m.: One final teach period. It’s almost lunch time. Someone grab me a smoothie!
12:15 p.m.: The final 10 minutes of practice focus on third down. I wasn’t next to McManus, but pretty sure he was fist-pumping as Party Rock Anthem came on.
Barwin, the only outside linebacker on the roster with experience in a 3-4, shows some versatility, staying with Bryce Brown down the sideline on an incompletion from Vick.
12:25 p.m.: The music stops, and the players gather near the middle of the field. All in all, about an hour, 55 minutes. The players will do it again Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll be able to watch again on Monday.
Until next time…