When Chip Kelly entered the NFL, he had his work cut out for him. Sure, he’d been a phenomenally successful college coach, but many top NCAA coaches don’t make it at the professional level. What’s more, he was taking over a team that had gone 4-12 the previous year.
The early results weren’t promising. Unlike many new coaches, Kelly made few personnel changes and perhaps not surprisingly, through the first half of the season the Eagles looked very much like the team they were the year before. Kelly, it seemed would become just one more NFL flameout.
Yet things didn’t turn out that way. By the end of the season, Kelly’s Eagles had won their conference championship and boasted the second best offense in the league. This year, they are off to an impressive 5-1 start and, while the jury is still out on how successful Kelly will be in the NFL, his management style has already had an impact. Here’s how he does it:
1. Build A Culture Of Dignity
The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined dignity as treating people as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end and he considered dignity to be key to successful human relations. That same principle drives how Kelly manages his organization.
One example is how he cuts players. At most NFL teams, when you are let go you hand in your playbook, clean out your locker and that’s it. In Philadelphia, however, every player gets a separate exit interview with Kelly, the Offensive or Defensive Coordinator and their position coach. That’s a big investment in time that most teams are unwilling to make.
But the players appreciate it and that deeply affects team culture. Selfless play is not only held in high regard on the Eagles, but is considered a key performance attribute. Veteran players are expected to mentor younger ones. Skill players are rated on how effectively they block. ”Culture wins football,” Kelly says. “Culture will beat scheme every day.”
And those who ignore Kelly’s culture dictates do so at their own peril. After having the best season of his career in 2013, star Wide Receiver Desean Jackson was released in March. No specific reason was given, but it has been widely speculated that Jackson proved to be a bad cultural fit. He now plays for the last place Washington Redskins.
2. Create Trust Through Radical Transparency
Coach Kelly doesn’t believe in doors, literally. He says, “If I had my way – there’s obviously I think fire codes to it – there should be no doors on anything because you shouldn’t have to worry about what’s going on behind closed doors if you’re doing things the right way.”
There’s an air of transparency in everything Kelly does, from his straightforward press conferences to the way he treats his players—and expects them to treat each other. Coaches are expected to spend time in the locker room, not hide away in their offices watching films or diagramming plays.
All of this emphasis on organizational culture from the start wasn’t for it’s own sake. Chip Kelly had big plans. He intended to revolutionize how professional football is played. And he knew that unless he created an environment that could process information effectively, those plans would be worthless.
3. Explore Adjacent Domains
The Philadelphia Eagles coach is, in many way, the ultimate football guy. He remains a bachelor, but you won’t find him out on the town. During the season, he eats and sleeps football. When its over, he goes on the road, visiting an extensive network of coaches, sharing ideas and picking up tips.
Yet what really makes Kelly different is how far and wide he searches for new ideas. Besides, football people, he also brings in academics, such as Harry Edwards, a sociologist who studies race relations (during the RIley Cooper epithet scandal) and K. Anders Ericsson (whose research formed the basis for Gladwell’s 10,000 rule).
While many coaches are steeped in tradition, Kelly bases his ideas on science. He is obsessed with biomechanics and nutrition. His players are supplied with an impressive array of wearable technology to track their movements and they are required to wear sleep monitors. They each drink smoothies that are engineered to their own specific biochemistry.
Chip Kelly has earned his reputation as the NFL’s most unconventional coach. Yet he doesn’t flout convention for its own sake. Everything he does is grounded in scientific rigor. What makes the Kelly different from other coaches in the league is the lengths he goes to gain any insight or to create even the smallest edge.
4. Focus On Results
Kelly’s attention to culture is nice, uplifting even. His ideas about sport science and high performance are fascinating, the kind of stuff you would expect to find in a PhD Thesis. Yet none of that would make any difference if he didn’t win football games. And everything he does—the sports science, the culture, his extensive offseason travel—is focused on that.
While many coaches become enamored with their own system, when asked about his offensive scheme, Kelly said, “We run the See Coast offense. If we see something and we like it and we think it fits, we’re going to run it. The Philadelphia Eagles run the See Coast offense. Let’s run that today and we’ll go from there.”
It’s that brand of matter of fact, salt of the earth quality, mixed with a level of rigor rarely seen in any field, that makes Kelly probably the most interesting coach in the NFL. While it remains to be seen how successful he will ultimately be, he has already begun to influence how the game is played.
One thing is for sure, Chip Kelly’s football formula has lessons that apply far beyond the gridiron. Managers, take notice.