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Chip Kelly's innovative practice methods

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Some NFL pundits think Chip Kelly's practices are even more innovative than his offense. The Niners are starting to see why.

Before the draft Thursday, reporters got their first look at one of new coach Chip Kelly's practices. They're unique, and many highly experienced NFL hands were amazed at what they saw in Philadelphia. I've called Chip the "anti-Iverson" because of the crucial role practice plays in his system. Two of his key mantras are "You don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your preparation" and "It’s amazing how when you don’t have bad practices, you don’t have bad games." And so, here is what his practices have looked like in the past.

Players check in by taking a urine test (for hydration, not -- Chip insists -- to ferret out any party substances that might be lingering). They fill out a questionnaire (on an iPad) about how they slept -- Chip likes players to get 10 hours based on scientific research -- and any soreness or injuries. Then they're tested with various sports science monitors such as the high-tech OmegaWave monitoring system (which recommends how hard a given player can safely push themself).

orange dummies

Practice days are shorter than for many NFL teams, in part because meetings are kept short and efficient, but the fast tempo seen during games is even faster in practices. Sessions are split into scripted practice periods (26 with the Eagles) signaled by a siren followed by a robotic voice announcing the period's subject ("Period 7. Red Zone"). The loudspeakers then blare a fairly random selection of high-energy music during the actual drills, aiming to replicate the excitement, noise and chaos of game day.

Practice time is strictly limited under the collective bargaining agreement, so the goal is to have every second on the field count and to maximize reps. In passing drills, five QBs throw simultaneously to five receivers. Verbal instructions are minimized, or saved for film sessions later; why have 89 guys stand around so you can talk to one? There are a couple of short "teach" sessions, organized by position group, which double as water breaks. But if a player needs individual correction, he will be subbed out of a drill, or his position coach may jog alongside him to explain something.

Everything is videotaped, which generates lots of information for adjustments and player evaluation.

The goal is always to develop good habits and avoid bad ones; everything is designed to simulate game time conditions. At Oregon, Chip noticed that in 7 on 7 drills, quarterbacks could get away with throwing low passes that would be batted down in games. To replace the linemen missing from these drills, Chip invented the BugMen.

Bug men

The BugMen are coaching interns and assistants rigged up with backpacks topped by what look like giant fly wings stretching up to the level of a 6'4" lineman's raised arms. They slowly advance on the QB during the play like extremely ripped zombies, forcing him to adjust. As goofy as these look, they have been very effective in reducing batted passes by Chip's teams.

Practice periods focus on topics such as red-zone drills, down-and-distance situations or special teams. One drill has a running back dash through a gauntlet of players who try to slap the ball out of his hands. Another sets up a dummy QB holding a football; pass rushers bend in and slap for a forced fumble instead of a tackle.

There are goofy gadgets that Chip has copied from other programs, or that his assistants have invented. Philly had one literally made of three garbage cans stacks and tilted a bit; quarterbacks try to throw in the the top can's hole. Footballs are rigged with thick bungie-like cords; a running back hangs on while someone else tries to yank it out.

Chip Kelly does not claim to have created any of this. He's an avid scavenger willing to try anything and unafraid of keeping it, no matter how odd. He finds some ideas in other football programs, while others come from completely different groups, such as the US Navy Seals (He hired a former Navy Seal trainer to run the Eagles Sports Science program).

Some players complained about the relentless pace, and new Eagles coach Doug Pederson has promised to take it easier. But generally the Eagles' conditioning held despite the extra plays that the tempo offense brought, and several players said they felt healthier and fresher at the end of the season than they had before Kelly arrived. The Eagles had one of the league's lowest rates of player-games lost due to injury during Chip's years.

It will be interesting to see how much, if any, of this Chip changes with the Niners. At his introductory press conference, I asked if he planned to continue the urine tests for hydration (he said yes, and the Niners already do stuff like that) and whether he'd consider making them voluntary to earn the trust of players (he didn't really answer.)

Describing the practice held today, USA Today's Chris Biderman noted the team's upgraded sound system ("with heavy bass flowing") that delivered the robotic announcer and music. Matt Maiocco observed another Chip Kelly efficiency technique: in passing drills, 5 quarterbacks throw simultaneously to five receivers. Since there aren't five QBs on the roster, Chip -- who played quarterback in high school -- filled one of the slots.

No word yet if the much-mocked "smoothies" are still delivered after practice. [Note to amateur comedians -- smoothie jokes were played out in 2013, and protein shakes are pretty standard among athletes these days. Let it go.] But Biderman noted that several Niners appeared to be in better shape, either slimmed down (Tank Carradine, Trent Brown) or bulked up (Eli Harold).

We'll know more as reporters are able to view more practices, but so far it appears that the unique style of Chip Kelly's practices is continuing in Santa Clara. It will be very interesting to see what new twists are added.