Chip Kelly’s reputation as an offensive genius took a hit in Philadelphia over the past three seasons.
In fact, those who still swear by Kelly’s acumen are reading from the talking points, not watching the film. The harsh truth is that Kelly’s offensive philosophy is simplistic and repetitive by traditional NFL standards, a scheme built of the foundation of tempo and little else.
However, that’s not to say that gargantuan “S 8” on his play card can’t work, at least in the short term before the grind of the way Kelly does things wears on the lesser roster afforded to him in the regular season.
Kelly wants to run a play run every 10 seconds or so in order to create controlled chaos, limit substitutions for the opposing defense, and wear them down.
Kelly has even admitted he expects his own players to make mistakes but assumes the number of miscues made by the opposition will greatly outnumber his own team’s failings because his charges are prepared to go at the quicker pace the minute the team hits the field for OTAs.
It worked at times in Philadelphia as evidenced by the fact that Kelly’s offense was in the top five of the NFL in total yards for two consecutive seasons before imploding due to a lack of talent in 2015. But, even when things were clicking with the Eagles, it was more of a gaudy movement between the 20s and didn’t necessarily translate to efficacy on the scoreboard.
Despite Kelly’s assertion that his offense changes with the signal caller, the mechanics of it really don’t. Sure the zone-read looks may result in more runs when Michael Vick is at the controls rather than Nick Foles or Sam Bradford but that’s based purely on the skill set of the signal caller and not some grand shift or even tweak in Kelly’s beliefs or game plans.
The read-option was a non-entity in Kelly’s disastrous third season in Philadelphia because Bradford was incapable of running it. The mechanism of the play remained, however, even though the two-time ACL patient was uncomfortable with it.
Pounding that square peg into the round hole isn’t a problem for Kelly any longer, though. Now that the coach is heading west again to Santa Clara, he will finally get an opportunity to work with a talent capable of running what he wants to run, albeit a reclamation project in Colin Kaepernick.
Those who drink Kelly’s Kool-Aid often claim quick decision-making and accuracy are even more important to the controversial coach than mobility but that’s directly contradicted by the same 10 or 12 plays Kelly runs ever Sunday, simple inside and outside zone runs to set up play action stuff out of an offset-shotgun or -pistol look.
In essence Kelly has made his offensive “quarterback proof” by taking the ability to adapt off the table for the signal caller. The very tempo that is his dogma eliminates the ability to audible because if you have to run a play in under 10 seconds you certainly don’t have time to oversee things at the line of scrimmage, even something as simple as kill from the run to the pass or vice versa. Furthermore, the quarterback is expected to make one-read and go. There is no typical NFL style progression from receiver to receiver.
Kaepernick’s strengths as a player are his athleticism and arm strength. His deficiencies are accuracy and reading defenses.
In a traditional pro-style system Kaepernick was destined to be exposed but in Kelly’s zone-read scheme he will put incredible stress on the edges and help create the spacing on the field Kelly strives for.
Back in November, it looked like Kaepernick was done in San Francisco when he was benched for Blaine Gabbert but his future was always going to be decided by the new coach. And if Hue Jackson or Mike Shanahan ended up with the 49ers, it’s conceivable Kaepernick would have been sent packing.
But with Kelly on his way and a very manageable $11.9 million deal, it would now be surprising to say the least if Kaepernick wasn’t under center Week 1 for this new era of 49ers football with one caveat — the Nevada product has to buy in.
Any questioning of Kelly’s methods will result in a quick ticket toward irrelevancy.
Beyond the quarterback, there are a few other issues with Kelly that will need to be addressed, namely his ability to work well with others and the natural shelf life of his unbending philosophy which will certainly wear on his own defense as it did in Philadelphia.
He will be reunited with personnel man Tom Gamble in San Francisco and it was Gamble’s firing that set off the Howie Roseman-Kelly war with the Eagles. The 49ers’ defenders, though, might as well get used to playing the equivalent of 18 games a season because, statistically, that’s how long they will be on the football field under a coach who simply doesn’t care about time of possession and what it does to that side of the football.
The hiring is certainly compelling, though, especially when you think about the fact that Jed York and Trent Baalke hired the guy who everyone disliked in Philadelphia after firing the guy everyone disliked in Santa Clara after the 2014 season.
Whether Baalke and Kelly ultimately get along could define their futures in this league so both should be on their best behavior, at least early in the relationship.
Kelly must show the “emotional intelligence” his old owner Jeffrey Lurie claimed he lacked and Baalke must learn how to work with a hard-headed personality.
There are no more excuses for Kelly. He now has a quarterback capable of running what he wants, a city known for embracing innovation, and the freedom of a second chance to learn from the mistakes he made back east.
A real genius gets that done.
— John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also catch John this season every day at 4:05 ET on ESPN South Jersey, on ESPN Southwest Florida every Monday at 3 PM ET; on ESPN Lexington every Thursday at 6:05 ET, and live every Tuesday from 2 to 6 PM ET at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City for the Sports Bash on ESPN South Jersey.
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