Philadelphia Eagles: Culture Coming into Focus



It’s a word we hear bandied about a lot in the sporting world these days.

People are trying to ‘create a winning culture’ here. Trying to ‘change the culture’ there. Looking for players that ‘fit the culture’ everywhere.

We hear the word frequently; we rarely hear it defined.

So when Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly says, “Culture wins football,” it stands to reason that we’re not exactly sure what he means.

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But, in Philly, Chip Kelly’s particular brand of culture is beginning to take shape.

And if culture wins football? The Eagles might just have a leg up on their competition in the years to come.

We can, of course, look at the obvious indicators of what it means to have quality people operating in a quality organization: And we should. The NFL, in recent years, has suffered massive hits in the public arena as players have been accused of, arrested for, and convicted of crimes that range from traffic incidents to murder.

132: The number of NFL player arrests (not including simple traffic incidents) since Chip Kelly has been with the Eagles. These numbers are according to USA Today’s in depth case study.

Of those, one player currently resides on Chip Kelly’s roster. And Jason Peters‘ 2013 arrest was for drag racing. As crimes go… it’s not one about which to get terribly up in arms.

414: The number of games lost to suspension by NFL players since Chip Kelly arrived in the NFL. This according to Spotrac.

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Of those, only 8 games belong to current Eagles. Lane Johnson missed four games in 2014. And new Eagle, Walter Thurmond, a Seahawk at the time, lost four games in 2013.

Another statistic: Since Kelly has come on board, the Eagles have drafted a higher percentage of college graduates than any team in the NFL. Six of the seven players drafted in 2014 hold diplomas. So do five of the six drafted this year.

Using figures like this to determine who’s a ‘good guy’ and who isn’t is an inexact science to say the least. But it means something.

In a league plagued by the Ray Rices and Ray McDonalds and Greg Hardys of the world… there’s something to be said for a team that has clearly taken the stance: We don’t want guys like that here.

Chip Kelly has clearly taken that stance.

But it isn’t just about avoiding players who stay out of court and out of Roger Goodell’s doghouse: There’s more to culture than legality and playing by the rules. And there’s more to intelligence than holding a college degree, to be sure.

So much of what makes up a team’s culture are the set of unwritten rules that team writes for itself. The standards to which players hold each other and to which coaches hold those players. Standards that apply in practice. In the film room. In the offseason. And, of course, on the field.

Jul 23, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Blocking sleds are lined up against a wall after practice during Philadelphia Eagles training camp at the Eagles NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Every team has its leaders. And every team has guys who, when asked, will speak highly of the atmosphere around the locker room. But it would be difficult (I would argue, impossible) to find a team where more players speak more frequently about that aspect of the organization than they do on Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles. Let’s look at just a small sampling:

Malcolm Jenkins on the 94 WIP Afternoon Show in October, 2014:

"“There’s other teams that have more talent than we do, but we know how to maximize our potential. We know how to—we have a great locker room and he’s [Kelly] all about the camaraderie in the locker room, make sure that molds well and about the culture, and making sure the culture goes above any one person. And I think that’s what wins us games.”"

Jason Kelce on the release of DeSean Jackson after the 2013 season:

"“Obviously DeSean has tremendous playmaking ability and I don’t know that we have any receivers on the roster now who are quite as athletic or dynamic as he is, but I think this whole thing is about a culture that we’re trying to build here. And the organization felt it was time to move in a different direction. Probably a lot of that had to do with a multiplicity of factors. I don’t think you can narrow it down to one thing.”"

Jul 23, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce (62) is interviewed after practice during training camp at the Eagles NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Sproles discussing players fighting to get back on the practice field after injuries with The Daily News last year:

"“I’ve seen [dogs] before. We don’t have those types of guys in here.”"

Former Eagle Todd Herremans in that same article:

"“The reason they bring these guys in is not just because they’re good athletes.  It’s because of the mindset they have, the way they do things; their work ethic.”"

And it isn’t just the savvy veterans that are buying in. The Eagles are going out of their way to bring in young players that fit the mold. Jordan Matthews, last year’s second-round pick, plays wide receiver. It’s a position that’s earned a reputation around the NFL for being played by divas. Guys who want the ball more than they want the win. Guys who… well… you remember DeSean Jackson, yes?

Here’s Jordan Matthews discussing the position with The Philadelphia Inquirer:

"“People ask me about being the No. 1 wide receiver; Forget it. I want us to be a receiving corps. That’s what I want it to be. I don’t think one ‘No. 1 wide receiver’ was in the Super Bowl this year, but they’re two Super Bowl-winning teams that have receiving corps that work their butts off, that block in the run game, that catch the ball when they have to. Whatever public perception about what they think we should look like or what they think we need, if we go out there and put a product on the field that wins games, then we can change all perceptions.”"

Matthews’ work ethic has already become famous in Philly. He turned heads last year with his habit of sprinting out the end of every rep in practice. He never jogs the end of a route. And, when asked about newest Eagle’s receiver Nelson Agholor, Matthews had this to say to CBS Philly:

"“You hear a lot of great things, but then when you actually get him on the field and see what type of guy he is, you’re like OK this kid gets it. Instead of taking the regular rookie shuttle, he takes a taxi to get here early to the facility. That’s a kid that gets it.”"

Jun 17, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews (81) walks off the field at the conclusion of practice during mini camp at the Philadelphia Eagles NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s, of course, meaningful that the Eagles are committed to bringing in players who have reputations for working harder than everyone else. But it’s just as meaningful that discussing it has become so popular among Eagles’ players. There is an environment brewing in which the ‘cool’ thing to do is to be the first one in the building. To be the last one off the practice field. To spend the most time in the film room. To be the guy that has the best grasp of the playbook.

Around the NFL, in recent years, it has become something a taboo for players to discuss other players’ work-ethic. But in Philadelphia, under Chip Kelly, it’s becoming all the rage. Players seem eager to prove that they can work as hard or harder than anyone else… and they seem to understand that going to great lengths to impress behind the scenes will earn them respect in the locker room and might even lead to some public praise.

Players are buying in.

Equally true is that Chip Kelly is bringing in players that are predisposed to buy in. And jettisoning the players that have shown a resistance to it.

Is it the smoothies?

The sports science?

The fact-paced practices?

The emphasis on personal responsibility?

Eagles’ rookie defensive back Eric Rowe wasn’t sure in his press conference last week:

"“I can’t explain a certain detail, but it’s just a feeling I had when I left here. I was like, man this program’s different. The culture’s different; the way they do things. When I left, I just wanted to be a part of it so bad.”"

Like Rowe, I don’t know that I can put my finger on exactly what’s happening in Philadelphia.

But I’m willing to bet that the quality of person coming into the Eagles’ locker room is going to have a tremendous effect on the quality of football the Philadelphia Eagles put onto the field in 2015 and beyond.

Like Chip Kelly said when he was mic’d up for NFL Network last year: “Culture wins football… Culture will beat scheme every day.”

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