The Tao of Chip Kelly

A book review. Yes, a book review. Looks like we got ourselves a reader!

The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit, a Fishduck.com contributor, is an impressive collection of quotes by Kelly and a few other coaches from articles and interviews (Kelly was not directly interviewed for the book) and tying them together with real life examples of how Kelly’s actions match his words. This is a must read for Eagles fans. If you already like Chip Kelly you will love him even more after reading this, if you are on the fence about him this will sway you more than anything else that can be done off the field. It’s a quick read, only about 90 pages of actual material, so Peter Jackson would only be able to make two meandering three hour movies out of it. It’s perfect for reading while relaxing by the pool while you close out the summer.

The book is not without it’s faults, though they are largely cosmetic. It really needs an editor. Chapter 32 should be at the very beginning of the book as it best lays out how everything in the book fits into a Tao, and is in written like it should start the book, not nearly end it. To quote the opening of the chapter:

When I say “The Tao of Chip Kelly,” I’m not speaking in the generic sense, meaning just a way of doing something.

I am specifically talking about Tao as in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism.” Kelly has never spoken publicly about the Tao (also known was “the Way”), and he may never have read about or even heard of it. His tastes seem to run more to the motivational business books such as “Grow the Bamboo” by ex-Duck Greg Bell and “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. But his football program is a near-perfect implementation of secular Taoist principles.

That should be how the book starts, Instead it’s the penultimate chapter. Some of the chapters are not even two pages long. The book would read better if each section, “The Program,” “Personnel,” “Practice,” “Strategy,” “Motivation” and “Chip” were instead the chapters and the current chapters within those segments were merged as one. There are times when quotes are in smaller font than Saltveit’s words, and then there are times when then opposite is true, which gives the reader pause. And this may be a nitpick, but the grammar is inconsistent. The quote above uses both “I’m” and “I am,” either is fine but only one should be used. In another section Saltveit says “ten” “10” “thirty” and “40” in consecutive sentences, those should all be written as digits. Like I said, largely cosmetic.

The OCD in me doesn’t normally highlight or write in the margins, but I couldn’t stop highlighting passages in this. The Tao of Chip Kelly isn’t so much a book as it is an instruction manual on understanding Kelly. For those of us that are new to Kelly, it is highly educational. The book started out slow for me, but the meat of it was delicious, starting with the fourth chapter “Feed the Tuna Mayonnaise” which highlights the quirkiness of Kelly.

[Kelly’s] motto, he told Schroeder, is “feed the tuna mayonnaise.”

What the hell does that mean? With typically goofy humor, Kelly used a scene from the 1982 movie “Night Shift” to make fun of his own obsession with productivity. In that dark comedy, Michael Keaton plays a character who finds a way to make his underutilized workplace – a funeral home – more efficient by scheduling a different (if disreputable) business there at night. In a key scene, he has a sudden revelation about how to be more efficient, using the the example of tuna fish. To make a tuna sandwich, you always have to mix it with mayonnaise.

Keaton, talking to himself and into a tape recorder, says “what if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, WITH the tuna fish? Or… I got it! Take LIVE tuna fish, and feed ’em mayonnaise! Oh, this is great.”

Citing a Michael Keaton comedy (that isn’t Beetlejuice) to explain how he’s always trying to be more efficient. Only Chip Kelly. Some of the things that I learned or re-enforced what I thought about Kelly:

Chad Hall and Reno Mahe would never make Chip Kelly’s team:

If you sign an entire class of overachievers, I guarantee your team is going to be really small… The overachieving nose guard is 6’0″ and the overachieving wideout is 5’7″ and next thing you know, you’re not gonna matchup physically.

Some say Chip Kelly is an “innovator” I would argue that he is an excellent aggregator of ideas and innovations. Two passages highlight that argument:

You know the hand signals his teams use to call plays?

In Philadelphia, Kelly’s not even reserving the play calls to himself — the assistant coaches are signaling the calls directly to their position players (a technique Kelly picked up from the University of Missouri).

Most of the stuff he does isn’t new, it just feels new. For example:

The Sucker Play is a trap, a misdirection running play where you “pull” a guard or tackle in one direction and run the other way….

In the Sucker Play, the lineman pulls and runs, say, to the left. With any luck, defenders follow. But the pulling lineman has also created a hole in the line just by running away from his position, if he can get his opponents to follow him, and quick enough running back can slash through that hole, or sweep in the other direction. The lineman has “blocked” his opposing player without even touching him, in the same way that the quarterback “blocks” a linebacker or defensive end in a zone read play by looking at him — and redirecting the action.

The Chiefs infamous “65 Toss Power Trap” in Super Bowl IV was the Sucker Play. Though Kelly did create a few things, such as his own term for a multi-use position:

Kelly went so far as to invent a new one, dubbed the Tazer (or TAZR). Tazers can line up in the slot, in the backfield, or at any of the wide receiver positions. They were designed to make full use of Oregon’s abundance of speedy runners who could catch passes, including Ed Dickson, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barmer and De’Anthony Thomas.

“Dickson explained another advantage of Tazers to ESPN’s Ted Miller,

“We can freeze a guy in motion when we run our routes — that’s why they call it a tazer. You taze somebody and they’re stuck. That’s what we do to somebody when we run our routes.””

More coaches should do this, making the name of a player’s role descriptive of both the tactical and mental side of the role. “Predator” and “Money” are two other good examples. It’s a shame Jeremy Maclin is hurt, he’d probably be used like this a few times, as he was in college, where he averaged 24 rushing yards a game. Speaking of Maclin, with him done for the year, a number of players will of course have an opportunity to take advantage of that. But it also highlights why the versatility of Zach Ertz was so valuable to Kelly in the draft. Instead of just having a tight end to replace Brent Celek down the road, Kelly has what he hopes is a chess piece for 2013 and beyond. Or maybe instead of “chess piece” we should call them “guitar notes”?

More generally, focusing on players rather than positions opens you up to a wider range of possibilities. Think of a piano. There are an infinite number of tones in any octave, but a piano forces you to use just 12 of them, 7 white and 5 black keys. It’s much easier to write music for a piano or teach someone to play one, but you lose the ability to play all those other notes.

Chip Kelly has invented the football equivalent of an electric guitar, where he can play fixed notes, but also bend the strings and get all those tones in between the piano keys. And when everyone is used to pianos, they forget about all of those other tones. There isn’t a way to even write them down on your sheet music, but they haven’t disappeared; everyone has just forgotten about them. Chip not only bends those strings, he cranks up the amplifier and plays with feedback like Jimi Hendrix.

That excerpt is from the chapter “Players, not Positions,” which really highlights how Kelly’s system that is mysterious to people who don’t understand why they drafted Matt Barkley or might start Nick Foles is about doing what you do because your players can do it, not shoehorning players into an offense. The best example is probably when Kelly named redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who only started 1 year in high school, as the starter for the team that was coming off a BCS title game. Mariota showed himself to be the better QB in part because he allowed the team to do more and do it better with him as the QB. When Kelly says the best players will play, he means it.

Write this down: Lane Johnson will be thrown a pass in the end zone.

Both Brandon Blair (a 6’7″ DT) and Dion Jordan (a 6’6″ TE converted into a DE) caught passes for 2-point conversions during the Chip years at Oregon, out of the unusual “swinging gate” formation. They both have the skills to play both offense and defense like some high school players do, though obviously no one can do that the top level of college ball (especially at Chip Kelly’s pace). But defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti could certainly spare them for one play a game, especially if it gained Oregon an extra point.

Lane Johnson wasn’t drafted because he used to be a tight end (beyond the reasons of him having the natural athleticism that comes from a player who makes that conversion), but since he was one Kelly is going to get everything he can out of that, especially now that he has only a 46 man roster on game days. You can probably bet on Isaac Sopoaga lining up at FB, something he did a few times in San Francisco, including once at midfield and catching a pass. Of course none of that is new, we all remember the Fridge and Mike Vrabel scoring TDs in the Super Bowl.

There’s plenty more, this is a treasure trove of Chip Kelly nuggets or, if you will, “Chipisms.” In the halcyon days of the Andy Reid era, Reid won four straight division titles because he was the superior coach in the NFC East. Only time will tell if Kelly will be successful in the NFL. As The Tao of Chip Kelly shows, if he is, it’s because he’s smarter than the guy on the other sideline.

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