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The Philadelphia Eagles’ Secret Coaches: Professors

9.18.14 Eagles

Story provided by The Wall Street Journal – 

The 2-0 Philadelphia Eagles are already rolling toward another NFC East title. They’re doing it with a smart coach in Chip Kelly, a speedy offense and, of course, a secret network of college professors from across the country.

Yes, really.

Kelly, in his second NFL season after an impressive run at the University of Oregon, has made academics as much a part of the team as the long snapper. He leans on them all off-season for new ideas and has them on speed dial when he needs a quick fix, according to those who have interacted with the Eagles coach.

“Chip says, ‘This guy, with his social sciences or psychology or statistical model or his understanding of African-American history, let’s bring him in and see if there’s even one idea or one sentence that is a piece of trying to get done what I’m trying to accomplish,’ ” said Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley and expert on race relations who has advised Kelly. “He is always searching for the missing piece and he realizes it could be a piece you can’t find in the athletic arena.”

Kelly is so devoted to the idea that one of his top lieutenants told professors that Kelly’s goal is to have a sort of academic conference, where Kelly is essentially the only beneficiary. (Imagine, if you’d like to laugh, a TED talk with Kelly as the only audience member.)

Lots of NFL teams bring in outsiders, but mostly to help with things like motivation or to provide a PR boost. These may be ex-players or coaches, or a famous athlete from another sport. They don’t bring in K. Anders Ericsson, a University of Stockholm graduate who is an eminent scholar in Florida State University’s cognitive psychology department. The Eagles did.

Ericsson was called in by the Eagles this summer to discuss one of his specialties—expert performance. He has a fairly typical story for an expert conscripted to advise the Eagles.

He first met personally with coaches. That is where he learned that the trait they prize in players is the ability to verbally articulate game situations, which they feel leads to better conversations about what’s happening and eventually a better team. Ericsson then addressed the entire staff in a 90-minute session in which Kelly tried to get to the heart of the matter. Kelly wanted Ericsson to understand the basic training methods of the Eagles, then ask of the professor, “What could be done differently?”

Ericsson’s answer is tied to another Kelly secret. The Eagles use memory devices to get players to memorize formations. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said that during meetings, coaches will show an opponent’s formation on a screen, and players will attempt to remember it and yell the play call they would use against it. Then, Jenkins said, snapping his fingers, “They start to flash it quicker and quicker. There’s less time to process. And so you build those same cognitive skills where it’s the same as getting a mental rep on the field.”

Ericsson thought this a noble effort, but in his opinion, it wasn’t enough. He recommended that the situations be harder to understand—to go beyond the formations and “get them to respond to video clips of more complex scenarios instead of simple, fast recognitions,” he said. “You want to encourage players to be more analytical and open them up to more feedback on what they aren’t paying attention to.”

What, exactly, Kelly took from these meetings isn’t yet clear. He declined to discuss the matter; a team spokesman and Kelly’s chief of staff, James Harris, who is in charge of the program, declined to comment. While Kelly was at Oregon, it was reported that he worked with one of the school’s statistics professors. When asked if he would expand his network to engineering professors, Kelly said, “I’d love to get with those guys.” Kelly hasn’t spoken about it since.

Harris, Kelly’s right-hand man, is no stranger to Cal’s Edwards. Last year, receiver Riley Cooper was caught on video saying racial slurs at a concert, causing a firestorm in the media and the Eagles locker room. And so, Edwards—who made a name in the sports world advising legendary former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh on race matters—received a call from Harris. Kelly wanted to know what to do.

“I told them: You guys can allow this to fracture and fragment your locker room and never get on track. Or you can give Riley Cooper a few days to clear his head, apologize and get his — out there,” said Edwards, who is black. “You can choose not to be offended.” Cooper stayed with the team and tallied 835 receiving yards last season.

Kelly also was keen on knowing how to juggle locker-room dynamics, such as loud music in the locker room that featured racial slurs. “There are so many issues,” Edwards said. “Social media, demographics. They just want to know, ‘Hey, what are we dealing with here?’ ”

The professors’ close interaction with the Eagles showed them a different side of athletes and gave Ericsson, who had never worked with football players, a new angle on how athletes operate.

“Something that many of the athletes resent is being represented as intuitive naturals,” he said. “When, in fact, they should have a similar respect to a scientist or a medical doctor, who have been able to perfect their talents through performance and learning.”

No one has to tell Kelly that.

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