Trent Baalke and Jed York finally landed on a candidate after an 11-day search, announcing on Thursday afternoon that San Francisco has hired former University of Oregon and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. He will become the 19th head coach in 49ers’ history (20th if we count Jim Tomsula's interim status in 2010).
Given the attention Kelly, and especially his offense, has received going back to his days with the Ducks, there’s an overwhelming amount of information available on his previous coaching stops that should help us get a solid idea of the changes we can expect in the 2016 season and beyond, and we will be digging into all of that over the next several months.
In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to discuss a general framework we can use to help us evaluate the 49ers’ on-field performance going forward now that we know who will be leading the charge.
Evaluating NFL head coaches is a tricky task, largely because only a tiny portion of the job description is visible to those of us outside the organization. But while that fact means we will often fall short in many of our assessments, we do have a good idea of what it takes to put a winning product on the field, which can help guide and inform our efforts to evaluate the team.
This framework is something I picked up from Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown, who outlined what he believes makes football teams successful on the Three-Cone Drill podcast last summer (discussion starts at the 10:08 mark), and have been able to supplement with other sources, such as the immensely influential Bill Walsh book, Finding the Winning Edge.
Nothing here is exactly groundbreaking and revolutionary, but it gives us a chance to take a quick look at 49ers’ standing as it relates to the core tasks an organization must excel at to put a strong product on the field and lays a solid foundation for us to build on with more in-depth articles in the days and weeks to come.
1. Acquire talent
Without question, one of the primary factors affecting success in the National Football League is having talented players. — Bill Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge
Those at the top of the organizational hierarchy will always receive the largest share of the credit or blame for how the team performs on the field, but the overwhelming driver of success at every level of football is the talent level of the roster. Simply, more talented teams are going to win more often than less talented teams regardless of the other factors surrounding those players.
Now, in the NFL we don’t see the massive gulfs in talent level from team to team that we find at the college, and especially high school, level, but filling the roster with talented players is still priority No. 1 for NFL teams, particularly at the quarterback position.
Each team’s structure and philosophy for acquiring players will vary, but in San Francisco it’s pretty clear: This is Trent Baalke’s show. Considering the way Kelly’s time in Philadelphia went, this dynamic is going to be among the more interesting facets of the Kelly era in San Francisco. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the Kelly-Baalke relationship will end in spectacularly disastrous fashion — an outcome that is very much in play — but there are some intriguing elements that could allow this to work.
That starts with senior personnel executive Tom Gamble. Reports indicate that Gamble’s positive relationship with Kelly was influential in getting Kelly in the building. If Gamble is able to keep the Kelly-Baalke relationship productive by serving as a liaison, it becomes a much more interesting pairing of head coach and general manager. Kelly’s specialty obviously comes on offense, while Baalke has been far better finding talent on the defensive side of the ball.
When it comes to roster construction, I don’t think Baalke has been quite as bad as many seem to think, though he has certainly had some blind spots when it comes to skill position players on offense. If Kelly can help to fill in some of those gaps, that will go a long way toward improving the 49ers’ overall talent level.
2. Develop talent
A team’s players are obviously the core building blocks (i.e., human capital) for a successful organization. One of the best investments a team can make in those "building blocks" is to establish a systematic plan to train and develop its players to their fullest potential. — Bill Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge
As evidenced by the numerous first-round draft picks who fail to pan out year after year, talent alone isn’t always enough to succeed at the NFL level. Development of that talent is crucial and is the most important role of the coaching staff. Much of the day-to-day coaching and development will fall to the assistant coaches, which is why it’s so important for the head coach to hire a quality staff. It’s also on the head coach to establish a clear vision for the team and set standards of performance in each aspect of the team, an area that should be a strength for Kelly.
The focus in the coming weeks for Kelly will be to hire a strong staff capable of developing San Francisco’s young roster, particularly on defense, as well as figuring out what to do with the quarterback situation. Many are immediately jumping to the conclusion that Colin Kaepernick will be an excellent fit in Kelly’s offense. I’ll have plenty more on this topic in the near future, but I’m not so sure it’s that simple.
Regardless of whether Kaepernick ends up being the answer or not, Kelly’s ability to develop a quarterback is going to largely determine how we end up viewing his tenure in San Francisco.
Against equal competition, great coaches are distinguished by their ability to fully utilize the talents of their individual players. — Bill Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge
You’ve acquired talented players. You’ve put the infrastructure in place for those players to develop and become masters of their craft. Now, you must put those players in position to succeed. That’s where the scheme comes in.
While there’s no question that NFL head coaches must have some CEO qualities in them, as there many duties in the job description that are carried out off the field, having a strong Xs-and-Os foundation at the top allows for some consistency and continuity as assistant coaches inevitably come and go.
"Schematics," as Jim Tomsula would so eloquently put it, were a big problem for the 49ers in 2015, and this is obviously an area where San Francisco hopes Kelly will provide a significant upgrade. Kelly has built his reputation on his offensive scheme, for better or worse depending on your perspective, and there’s no question that he will be a strong influence in this area.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Kelly’s offense, some of them I touched on last week, and I will be covering what we can expect from an Xs-and-Os standpoint in-depth in the coming weeks and months, as well as how current players on the roster might fit into that scheme. For now, know that at the very least, things just got a lot more interesting in this department.
4. In-game decision making
The well-prepared head coach establishes a situational checklist of procedures to follow when undertaking particular game-day tasks. An effective head coach does not fly by the seat of his pants. Rather, he is more like a commercial airline pilot upon whose meticulous attention to detail depends the welfare of hundreds of passengers. — Bill Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge
The most visible and accessible aspect of winning football also happens to be the least important on a macro level: in-game decision making. Clock management, challenge usage, and situational decision making (fourth downs, two-point conversions, etc.) can all play a pivotal role in winning individual games — particularly in an NFL environment that can often be largely homogeneous when it comes to talent level and scheme — but their importance falls well short of the first three items on our list.
For a couple of reasons, many NFL coaches tend to struggle in this area. First, they rarely get a lot of practice before they’re thrust in the spotlight. Most coaches spend the bulk of their career as a position coach or coordinator before reaching the top rung of the coaching ladder, and their focus is more on player development and scheme rather than whether the team should go for it on fourth down.
Once coaches are finally put in position to make these calls, there’s little incentive for them to break from the established norm, which is unfortunately overly conservative in most cases.
As we know, Chip is not as concerned with how things have always been done, and he’s far more willing to challenge the status quo than the majority of head coaches in this league. How well Kelly did in this regard during his time in Philadelphia is something that warrants further research, but his willingness to be aggressive will be a significant departure from the Tomsula-led 49ers, who often appeared more concerned with avoiding blowouts than winning games.