Writer Jeff McClane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a feature story last week about Chip Kelly’s philosophy as coach of the Eagles, and a quote in the story points to something crucial about the team he left behind.
Kelly still practices his legendary attention to detail, even to insisting his players don’t cut across the grass after practice.
He told McClane, “The more people get along and share the same vision and aspirations, the more you’re going to get to where you want to get to. If you have people who have different agendas in terms of what they’re trying to get accomplished, that’s not going to help the cause.”
It helps explain why the team chose to let go of receiver DeSean Jackson in the off season, a gifted player with a tendency to go his own way rather than follow the team script. He’ll play for Washington this season.
Although Kelly wasn’t talking about Oregon, the quote points to a vital strength of this year’s Duck team, something they’ll get from key returning leaders like Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu, Tony Washington and Byron Marshall.
This year’s team is highly likely to have a high degree of unity. They’ll speak with one voice and aren’t likely to go off script or lose focus. Among the coaches also, there will be greater cohesion and improved communication. Mark Helfrich has two of his own guys at coordinator, and in Don Pellum, he chose a guy whose commitment to discipline and organization matches Kelly’s, a company man in the best sense with 25 years in the organization.
More than any recent year this is Mariota’s team, and in terms of their demeanor and deportment, they’ll take cues from their modest, even-keeled leader, with a lot of loyalty to each other and a quiet confidence. Mariota is steeped in both his family’s and the Kelly values, never one to disrespect any opportunity to play or any opponent, always working to get better.
Great athletes, the really great athletes, have a common trait Mariota has: they respect their sport and work harder than anyone. Rob Moseley of goducks.com told a story last year about Mariota working alone during the summer in the Moshofsky Center. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. He was tossing a medicine ball against the wall with a trunk rotation, working on his core strength. Think of Walter Payton running endless summer gassers up the hill outside his home, or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird shooting for hours in an empty gym. The truly great ones work like a journeyman desperate to hang on. They burn to be the best, long after the cameras and notepads have been put away. As fast and poised and elusive as Mariota is, it’s the reverence for the sport that sets Mariota apart.
As a leader, too, he is exceptional. Mariota is inclusive and sincere. Watch him after a Duck extra point, a simple extra point, congratulating the holder and the kicker and the blockers. He seeks out and recognizes other guys. He acknowledges role players, credits the offensive linemen, distributes the football with confidence in his receivers and backs.
His influence will make the 2014 team uncommonly steady, purposeful and unified. Already the most talented group in Duck history, that quiet purposeful confidence is the difference-making factor. This group will be business-like, attentive and efficient, and they’ll have exceptional unity and a great work ethic. They will reflect their internal leaders, all of whom have established tremendous credibility. It will be a team without factions or distractions, and that is powerful in sports.
The challenge for Mariota is to have a little fun. He takes everything to heart so much that sometimes he can become a little careful and stiff. He has to trust himself, not changing his basic personality, but enough that he can be creative and intuitive, play without hesitation, be free and decisive. It’s a game. Sometimes the attention and magnitude gets overwhelming and crowds out the joy of it. He has to maintain that joy. It seemed that happened to the Ducks in 2012 and 2013 when they played Stanford. The Cardinal played a great game and a had a great game plan, but the Ducks played with a certain stiffness, as though the weight of being #2 and atop the BCS was overwhelming them. They were careful and inhibited. They stopped flowing, stopped enjoying the moment.
By now, Mariota and Ifo and the Ducks have been through all that, and they have a wealth of experiences, good and bad, to draw from as they prepare for every phase of the long grind of a college football season. The Ducks play four or five of those “ultimate games” this year, and they know enough to know that they’ll get an ultimate effort from every opponent. Unified and purposeful and led by a gifted player they completely trust, this team will be armed for that challenge.