Can The Philadelphia Eagles Afford Big Stars?
“Don’t think your star has to shine
For me to find out where you’re coming from
Oh honey, girl, what is a beauty queen
If it don’t mean that I’m number one?
I don’t need no superstar
Cause I’ll accept you as you are… “ – Marilyn McCoo from the song You Don’t Have To Be A Star Baby
The Philadelphia Eagles are trying to build success with a basic fundamental approach to the team. Counter to the current NFL culture of stardom and superstars, this team is beginning to show signs of team, of sacrifice, and yes even success. It’s a crucial point in the road though. One point means one point, but two points make a trend. So despite these Eagles showing grit and determination, few will applaud their turnaround in the future if this year finds the team taking a step back.
But the Eagles are more than just a team trying to make football highlights in a town desperate to have positive sports news. They are trying to hold things together at a time when success breeds imitation and dilution. We’ve already seen how quickly it works in the NFL, where one year of success placed Eagles coaches and office staff at the top of the call up lists to teams searching to replicate that success. As the team builds its reputation, stringing wins together in a league that tries desperately to dilute teams from doing just that, players will be tempted away with offers of huge dollars, sunnier locations, “pent house” programs where that player will be featured either on offense or defense. In a league that rewards the here and now, the “what have you done for me lately” mentality will begin to wear down on this team. Players will either go elsewhere, or in order to stay will sign contracts so ridiculously back-loaded that the team will be forced to renegotiate or outright cut the player – not from degradation of their play but simply because they can no longer afford to keep the player in the salary capped world of the NFL.
So here we are, waiting patiently for the 2014 NFL season, wondering as are the fans of 31 other NFL teams whether this will be “THE” year. With the heralded arrival of wunderkind head coach Chip Kelly, the NFL establishment is on alert. His first year was promising, but the second year, if successful, will cause other NFL teams to take stock of what these Eagles are doing right.
Quarterback coach Bill Lazor was the first to fall to temptation, agreeing to end his quarterback coach relationship with the Philadelphia Eagles in accepting the offensive coordinator’s role with the Miami Dolphins. With that move, Lazor has been reportedly trying to install “Kelly-like” aspects into the Dolphin offensive arsenal. Coaches who see it on the film, and on the blackboard, will try to capture the philosophy, but will only be as good as the buy in from their players. Imitation is not the passion of conviction. It is merely rote memorization. It is going through the motions of plays without the fundamental belief in the process. So try as they might, the Eagles will survive defections.
But the process IS the star in Philadelphia now. It’s a commitment, a willingness to do the right things today to enjoy the benefit tomorrow or many weeks from now. Sometimes it’s a player who cannot wait, and sometimes its the fans. Judging a player by the box scores and stats is focusing on the individual. We “count” only a small portion of the key elements to success. For example, we judge tight ends by catches, passing yardage, and touch downs. We don’t track how many key blocks on running plays were made by a player. We don’t, but Chip Kelly does.
We track how many passes a quarterback throws and for how many yards, how many times he is picked off, and how often he throws for a touchdown. But we don’t measure how well he sees the field, or how effective his play action pass is, or even how effective he is at blocking. We don’t but Chip Kelly does.
We track the cornerbacks by how many turnovers they manufacture, how well they defend the pass and keep it from getting into the hands of an open receiver. But we don’t measure how well they shoot in on a blitz and create pressure on the quarterback, how well they take on blockers and turn a play back into the middle of the field, or even how well they can tackle an untouched ball carrier without help. We don’t, but Chip Kelly does.
So what happens when you get a player who does the right things to show up on the stats page but fails to do the unnoticed elements of the game? We have a word for that in Philadelphia. We call it getting “Nnamdi’d”. Yes, the Eagles have fallen into that trap before.
The other aspect of the NFL is the player contract. The hope of management is that contracts are structured that allows the team to pay players as they perform, and eliminate the risk of paying for under-performance. A player’s hopes are equally simple: job security and guaranteed money. The challenge becomes paying a player well enough but keeping it within a team’s budget. There will always be exceptions, but the goal for the personnel managing is to get the best value of players. Nobody will argue that the current rules provide incredibly inexpensive players. The Russell Wilsons and the Nick Foles situations are perfect examples. The belief is that teams will “make up” pay differential in the next contract. That is where contract value gets blurry. If the value remains, it’s a great signing.
But in today’s NFL, a player is susceptible to injuries. And in the context of injuries that lead to complications later in life, long after football is behind them, players are urged to heal and recover. If you have a large percentage of the team’s salary in the hands of a few players, you risk losing that value if that player is injured. You also are skewing your team, because to appear justified to pay a high salary, a team will devise plays to feature that star. So a few players show up on the highlight reels and the box scores, based upon the selfless plays of their teammates. Eventually, that type of reward system erodes team chemistry, goodwill, and cohesiveness.
But even more at risk is the chemistry that a big star brings to a team. In a system such as Chip Kelly’s, players are trained to act automatically, their bodies are trained to act as independently of their minds as possible. It’s that precision and automatic response that give the Eagles players an edge. But with a big star, the presumption is the talent is so athletically freakishly superior that the player will excel in any system, on any team. On a big star team, the prime time player improvises, shoots from the hip, and makes things happen on the field of play.
In college play, that athleticism can be a difference maker in a game. At the college level, improvisation is a double edged sword. A quarterback who “makes things happen with his legs” also is so unpredictable that he generally risks sacks that are unneeded. A receiver who can burn defenses deep oftentimes relies on that speed alone, and fails to practice the fundamental tasks that ensure success in all aspects of a wide receiver’s responsibility – blocking, breaking up the play if the pass ends up in a defender’s hands. In the professional game of football, everything is based upon precision, execution, and timing. Pass routes are thrown to a specific spot and the receiver must get to that spot. Blocks are held for a matter of seconds and those seconds must deliver an open lane for a runner or a safe pocket for a passer. That precision is practiced over and over and over. But “big stars” don’t enjoy repetition, or practice, or the mundane grind of improving their skill sets. And so, they find reasons not to do so. If it were just that player, it would have little impact. However, as we’d mentioned before, practice integrates all of the players of a squad to know how much time is required and how each player of that squad reacts. It’s that trust in one another, that presumption that a teammate will step up, that delivers success in the modern NFL.
Chip Kelly’s offense is misdirection. It forces the defense to commit their resources and then simply attacks where those resources aren’t . If defenses decide that LeSean McCoy is the key to the Eagles offense, they can stack the box with 9 men and make it impossible to run against. But that would leave that defense entirely susceptible to quick slants. Defenses have gotten soft, defending against ten players. But Chip Kelly forces defenses to defend all eleven offensive players, even the quarterback. By keeping the ball in many players hands, no one player accounts for too much offense.
Perhaps defense coaches will solve the riddle posed by Chip Kelly. Perhaps the novelty will wear off, or other teams will implement similar practices. There may even be a shift towards a fast paced offense with stacked plays on all NFL teams.
But for now, only a handful of teams and a few coaches are trying to do what the Eagles do. Success is not about being the biggest name in football, it’s about outworking everyone else.
“ Successful people are not gifted; they just work hard, then succeed on purpose.” – G. K. Nielson