If you wonder where in the world the entertaining Eagles offense came from as you watch the Bears try in vain to stop it Sunday night, think New Hampshire.
If you need someone to blame for Eagles coach Chip Kelly coming up with a scheme that breaks as much ground as it gains, start with former Bears defensive back Jerry Azumah.
It really is all Azumah's fault.
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"It's a nice compliment,'' Azumah said, chuckling.
It goes back to when Azumah was more than a complement to his college team's game plan.
Before he was known as one of the game's most creative offensive minds changing the NFL one frenetic snap at a time, Kelly believed in conventional football — and it was Azumah most responsible for developing that appreciation.
Kelly was the running backs coach at the University of New Hampshire who, in 1995, recruited Azumah out of St. Peter Marian High School in Worcester, Mass. He sat in Azumah's living room, impressed his parents and established a solid rapport that developed into a strong bond over four record-breaking seasons at the Division I-AA program.
Azumah surpassed 1,000 yards rushing four straight seasons, gained 6,193 yards over his career and averaged 31 carries a game his senior year. The New Hampshire playbook essentially had three plays: Zoom Right, Zoom Left and Zoom Up The Middle. It was Kelly who devised the zone-blocking scheme New Hampshire relied on heavily to run stretch plays that took advantage of Azumah's 4.4 speed. One game, Azumah carried 53 times.
"We loved being known for the ground and pound,'' Azumah said.
Then Azumah graduated after the 1998 season, Kelly got promoted to New Hampshire's offensive coordinator and new head coach Sean McDonnell faced a dilemma: Life after Jerry? McDonnell enlisted Kelly to reinvent a run-oriented offense spoiled by Azumah, the Walter Payton Award winner.
"As soon as I left, they opened up the whole offense,'' Azumah said. "They said, 'We have to get everybody involved because we don't have Jerry anymore.' That's how it all started.''
That offseason, Kelly visited places such as Georgia Tech and Auburn to research ways to move the football. He spent vacation time touring campuses and watching film with Division I coaches in search of new ideas on formations, spacing and tempo.
By the time preseason practice opened in 1999, according to archives, McDonnell promised reporters, "The thing that has to change this season is we better be able to pass the ball.''
In Kelly's first meeting as a college offensive coordinator 14 years ago, he told players, "If we don't run 80 plays, we've failed.''
Just like that, New Hampshire had replaced one offensive star with another, a running back with a relentless play-caller. Its identity couldn't have changed more dramatically without switching school colors.
"Chip always was a mastermind at how to get athletes in space to create mismatches with crazy formations,'' said Azumah, who played for the Bears from 1999-2005 after becoming a cornerback. "Even when I was there we did stuff that looked like 'The Pistol,' and he always preached tempo: Get up, get to the line, get set to make the defense react. He just did it more after I left. He was ahead of everybody.''
Objective souls around the NFL will say Kelly still is, long after he left New Hampshire in 2006 for Oregon. Every so often, old-school coaches such as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians still take veiled shots by calling Kelly's scheme a "college offense'' because of the read-option. But gradually over Kelly's first NFL season, respect has built. It was easy to find inside Halas Hall among Bears defensive players braced for Sunday night's unique challenge — even from wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who summed up growing sentiments about the steadily improving Eagles.
"At first it was like they were running with their heads cut off, (and) I saw a lot of chaos," Marshall said. "I thought, 'Man, I wouldn't want to play in that offense.' I needed to see more.''
Eventually, the Eagles delivered more than anybody bargained. Now they find themselves in first place in the NFC East thanks to Kelly's offense, which has gained more yards (414 per game) than any NFC team. They horizontally stretch the field like spandex and occasionally line up offensive tackles as wide as the numbers. They hate huddles and punts but love quarterback Nick Foles and running back LeSean McCoy. They prefer avoiding tacklers and labels, with Kelly coining the "See Coast Offense'' because of its ability to take what the defense gives.
And seeing is believing.
"It's legit,'' Marshall said. "They have special guys and a special system.''
You can find its blueprints in New Hampshire, nestled in a trophy case housing all Azumah's awards.