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Thursday, March 12, 2015

One More Thought on Chip Kelly

In his book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen observed that there were occasions where businesses atop their industries made decisions when they were on top that rendered them obsolete.  Much has been written about how decisions are made, how people innovate, who the early adaptors are, so I won't digress here or cite any links.  At the same time, many businesses go bust because they fail to adapt or heed warning signs.  And then their problems mount, and it's too late.

In the Eagles' case, Coach Chip Kelly, a respected innovator, took Andy Reid's team to the playoffs two years ago and followed that run with a 10-6 season and a near miss of the playoffs despite losing his starting quarterback and playing a patchwork offensive line for most of the year (along with an exhausted defense that was on the field more than any other defense in the league and that was undermanned in the secondary).  Conventional wisdom would have suggested that were Kelly to make minor tweaks, he could turn 10-6 into 11-5 or 12-4 and at least win a playoff game.  Or, at least, that's what I am inferring from the multitude of comments that are questioning Kelly's wisdom right now because of all the moves that he has made. 

But innovators do not act conventionally, and they do not follow trends that others set.  Chip Kelly didn't tweak his roster because that's not what Chip Kelly does.  Chip Kelly didn't tweak his roster because (with the exception of his curious Oregon bias which he has yet to explain), he's pretty blunt with himself about what works and what doesn't work.  He also has a vision -- which he hasn't totally shared -- about what he is building toward.  And he's not there yet.  Moreover, he didn't think that the roster, as constructed about a month ago, had enough talent to make his vision into an institution and make his team into a champion. 

So he's demolishing, tearing down, reconstructing, rebuilding -- all at once.  The renowned American chef Thomas Kelly, owner of perhaps the country's finest restaurant, The French Laundry in Napa, California, has been described as someone who is seeking perfection and wants his institution to stand for something beyond the selfishness and egos of those involved.  Anthony Bourdain described Keller this way and marveled at how wonderful the meal that he and three other chefs had in Keller's restaurant.  The reason:  it wasn't just food, it was about the messages within the ingredients and the presentation, the pairings with the wines, and the entire experience.  Keller had created something transcendant (it isn't cheap, but it was worth it).  And Bourdain writes in a blunt, direct style that doesn't pull punches.  He just loved the place, the meal, the experience. 

Perhaps that's what Chip Kelly is looking for -- a system, a process, and an experience that goes beyond having a 53-man roster populated with players mostly from the large football factories who show up, eat what they please, say what they say and look out for the one big contract they might get.  He's looking for players who buy in, and he probably has figured out to the penny what he should spend on what position, what his demographic breakdown should be, the size of his linemen, the hip rotation of his defensive backs, in the same way Keller grows his own produce on plots outside his restaurant and Alice Waters instructs farmers about the size of the lambs she wants.

Foodies get Keller and Waters easily.  Football fans want to get Kelly, but they don't see the nuances of building a winner in a collision sport where careers are short-lived the way a foodie might understand the art of pairing a good cassoullet with a certain wine from the Southern Rhone region.  But if the fans are patient and delve more deeply, perhaps they can try to understand that what Kelly is trying to do is to take football to a different level. 

Time will tell, of course, but before we all jump to conclusions that he doesn't know what he is doing as a player personnel guy, remember that he did good things in the role in college (even if it was college) and that he is an innovator.  Sometimes innovators come up with things that customers wouldn't have been able to ask for -- and yet they love those things (iPods, iPads) and stand in line to get the latest.  Chip Kelly clearly is challenging conventional wisdom, and while he might not be able to take an iffy-legged quarterback, heal him and turn him into a Hall of Famer, he probably has a better shot of doing so than almost anyone not named Belichick in the NFL.  He's won a lot more games than he has lost so far, and has that going for him.

Innovators might not be the greatest PR people of all time.  But they end up creating systems, processes, products that everyone wants and wants to emulate. 

Eagles' fans should be patient with Chip Kelly.  He might know more about what he is doing than the rest of us do.


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