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Invasion of the robot dummies

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Chip Kelly’s latest practice gadget was pretty much inevitable. Still awesome though.

San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly has a history of innovations, including practice gadgets, and some strongly held beliefs on avoiding injuries in training camp.

Put it all together, and the team’s new robot tackling dummies were inevitable. It’s surprising Chip took this long to get them, and the only reason for that was that he failed in his own attempt to invent them, at Oregon.

Kelly does not believe in tackling to the ground during training camp. It just leads to too many injuries, mostly to the person being tackled, or when players trip over other fallen players and twist or break something.

He also loves to bring in new devices that help his team, from signaling systems (such as the famous placards he used at Oregon) to the bug men and the stacked, tilted garbage cans that quarterbacks attempted to throw into (in Philadelphia).

Chip previously used two devices that combined, Voltron-like, to form this new device. One was the giant orange foam tackling dummies he had in Philadelphia. These are quarterbacks, with an arm you can put a ball in — for practicing pass rushers to knock out, before actually sacking them.

Mark Saltveit

In 2012, the year before Chip arrived, the Eagles recovered only 5 fumbles, tied for 28th in the NFL. During Chip’s three seasons, they recovered 12, 16 and 11 fumbles respectively. Last year the Niners recovered only 3, so there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Still, a foam dummy is more static than even Jordan Devey. So Chip also explored supra-human mobility. In other words, drones. Robots.

Specifically, it was radio-controlled cars, which Chip used in practice to direct players. In an interview with sportswriter Tim McManus, then-rookie nose tackle Beau Allen casually mention that his introduction to his new coach was a radio-controlled car crashing into his leg.

Coach Kelly was driving around a little remote control car – they use it out on the field because they can’t do motions — and he drove it right into me and was like, ‘Oh, hey Beau, how are you doing?’ And I was like, "Hey, Coach."

I wrote a column about this, which got picked up by a lot of news outlets as a potential scandal. “Chip is using SCIENCE! to break the rules!” Hotheads on Reddit were calling it “Dronegate” and everybody got a little crazy. NFL.com, USA Today, Yahoo, Bleacher Report and even the Dallas Cowboys website picked up the story.

That was a misinterpretation — the Eagles were already in phase 2 of OTAs, so coaches were allowed to be involved — but clearly Chip was enamored of (or at least amused by) remote controlled practice devices.

So, put your orange foam dummies together with remote control, and these new tackling dummies are as obvious as global warming.

In fact, Chip told reporters Wednesday that he had tried to create the devices himself.

“We actually tried to build one when I was at Oregon. It broke after the first tackle. It went really fast, but, we had a great guy that was a local guy in town at Oregon that did a great job with it. But, to put it together where it’s also safe, because you also don’t want to get an injury from it.”

The engineering for these new devices seems solid, though. The results are awesome and more than a little creepy.

The successful inventors worked for Dartmouth coach Buddy Tevens, who Chip knew from the New England coaching mafia when he was at the University of New Hampshire.

“They are the ones who designed them and came with up with the original idea.... I talked to Buddy and he helped us out and got us in touch with who we needed to get in touch with. I think we’ve got three right now.”

Kelly sees a lot of advantages from the new technology, particularly in training offensive linemen on cut blocks.

“I think it’s advantageous that you can do some live tackling. We used it with the offensive line yesterday in our screen drills and some of them were cut blocking it when obviously you’re not going to cut block a player in practice. But, you can cut block a bag. So, I think it’s a huge step for everybody.

You want to get accomplished a lot of things in training sessions, but you also want to do it in a safe environment. A lot of times, it’s not the guy doing the tackling, it’s the guy getting tackled. So, the fact that the guy getting tackled is an inanimate object, lends itself to, I think we’ll continue to do more with that.”

In fact, Kelly says, the staff has just begun to figure out all the uses of the new device.

Q: What other usage besides the offensive line can use them?

A:Everybody on defense can tackle them. So, you get the whole defense who can use them to work on pass rush, trying to come up and under. I think, the longer our coaches put their heads together, there’s a lot of different things you can use them for. It’s, basically, we do a lot of work with sleds and dummies, but now you have a sled/dummy that can move. So, kind of, I don’t think there’s a limitation in terms of where we are from that standpoint.

His experience is still admittedly limited, though.

Q: Have you had a chance to tackle, use them?

A: I personally have not tackled them, no.

This innovation is good example of another Chip Kelly characteristic. He never claims to be the guy who thinks up new ideas. But when he sees a good one that someone else comes up with, no one is faster to steal it (with full credit, of course) or more thorough in implementing it.

That’s a great sign for the Niners going forward. A lot of coaches have one big new idea, which works great for a couple of years until other teams figure out how to respond. But a coach who’s good at adopting everybody else’s great ideas? He can last a while in the big leagues.

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Author update 8/25 1:30pm: Matt Barrows has a funny quote from Navorro Bowman in his story on the robots:


“One guy tried to do something on it and it didn’t turn out well for him,” he said. “So I’m going to leave the dummies alone.”

Did that unnamed player whiff on a tackle attempt?

“He tried to tackle a robot – the robot tackled him,” Bowman said.