PHILADELPHIA - Being patient paid off in a big way for Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie on Saturday night.
Upon firing Andy Reid after last season, he resisted the urge to replace him right away. Lurie, president Don Smolenski and general manager Howie Roseman waited 16 days and sifted through stacks of resumes before hiring Chip Kelly as the 21st head coach in franchise history on Jan. 16.
It appears as if Lurie and company made the right move. The Eagles (10-6) entered Saturday's wild-card game against New Orleans (11-5) as one of the surprise teams in the NFL. Most of the success was due to Kelly, whose creative offense and innovative approach helped the team go 10-6 and win the NFC East for the first time since the 2010 season.
"I imagined big things, but I didn't really know what would happen this season," Lurie said this past week. "My main concern was, could we shift the leadership from an excellent coach in Andy Reid to an excellent coach in Chip Kelly? And could we accomplish it all in one season where the entire locker room and the entire organization bought into a whole new way of doing things?"
The Eagles and Kelly alleviated those concerns with a terrific regular season. Kelly joined Rich Kotite (1992) and Ray Rhodes (1995) as the only coaches in franchise history to reach the playoffs in their first season. Both Kotite and Rhodes also won their first playoff games, something Kelly hoped to accomplish Saturday night against a dangerous and talented Saints team.
He brought them to the playoffs with an innovative approach that blended an intense work ethic with the ability to communicate with his players.
Kelly works as hard as anyone, but also knows how to have fun. He can frequently be spotted during the early portions of practices joking around with running back LeSean McCoy and other players.
"He's definitely a players' coach," cornerback Cary Williams this past week. "He can be tough at times, but he brings a great attitude out here each and every day. Anyone would want to play for him."
Setting a tone
Kelly wasted no time in letting the players know he had lofty expectations for them. During the first full-team meeting on April 1, he laid out detailed plan that included drastic changes both on and off the field.
The former University of Oregon coach installed a new offense and defense but also switched the way players train, eat and rest.
"It was evident to me that when I got here with these guys that they were of the mindset that they were willing to do whatever it took," Kelly said in the days leading up to the Saints game. "And I think that's a credit to them. They are why we are where we are, because they are the ones that play the game. They are the ones that go out there every single day (for practice). They are the ones that train. They are the ones that have done everything as a staff that we have asked them to do, and the results are everything that they have put into this.
"That's the great thing about this game. You can't fake football. You get out of it exactly what you put into it and these guys put in an unbelievable effort and it's paying off for them on the field."
Kelly has also had a hand in the success, however.
The Eagles entered the playoffs as one of the healthiest team. Backup center Julian Vandervelde (back spasms) was the only player ruled out during the week because of an injury. Rookie safety Earl Wolff (sprained knee) was questionable.
Ten offensive players have started every game. The lone exception was at quarterback, where both Michael Vick (strained hamstring) and Nick Foles (concussion) missed time. On the defense, only linebacker Mychal Kendricks (sprained knee), cornerback Bradley Fletcher (strained hamstring) and Wolff were sidelined.
More importantly, the players entered Saturday's playoff game without the aches, pains and fatigue that usually wear them down toward the end of the season.
They credited Kelly's training system. The team cafeteria was renovated to scrap junk food and replaced sodas with protein shakes, though linebacker Trent Cole was spotted carrying a can of Mountain Dew to a meeting last week. Every player underwent a sleep study to determine the proper amount of rest they required between practices. Besides a playbook, each player also has an iPad that's equipped with a daily wellness questionnaire. Practice uniforms feature sensors that allow the athletic training staff to monitor levels of energy and exertion.
"The truth is, I feel the best I've felt in my seven years in this league," tight end Brent Celek said last week. "Chip does a great job of explaining the reasoning behind things he does, and it made a lot of sense to me. I went all in with everything and it's paying off now. I feel good and I feel fresh."
Not everyone bought in at the outset.
Cole was among those who were skeptical about the training methods, but he tried them and wound up coming on strong in the second half of the season. Cole, who made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker this season, finished the regular season with a team-high eight sacks.
Williams still isn't convinced that the new training regimen has had a dramatic effect on him.
"I'm a 'science guy' to a degree," Williams said. "I feel a little better than I did last year at this point (when he helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl). But I still think football comes down to heart, determination and a will to win.
"But that's also a credit to Chip. He has a tremendous way of making people believe. We're winning and we're in the playoffs."
Kelly, as always, gave the credit to the players.
When he looked at his team earlier this week, he saw players who were just as focused and excited about playing football as they were in the beginning of the season.
"I think it's the players," Kelly said. "It's always the players. From the day I got here, they were motivated to be successful and have worked extremely hard. I think that everything we've done this year is a direct reflection of the players. They are the reason we're still playing in January."
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