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49ers head coach search: Myth-busting top concerns about Chip Kelly

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With the possible exception of Sean Payton, who now appears to be off the table, each candidate connected to the 49ers head coach vacancy has his fair share of supporters and detractors. Perhaps the most polarizing name in the early stages of San Francisco’s search, however, is former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.

That’s not exactly a new thing for Kelly, who has been one of the most scrutinized head coaches in the NFL since he left the University of Oregon (and then didn’t, and then did again).

But as Kelly looks for his next head coaching gig, there are a number of misconceptions floating around about him and his famed up-tempo offense. Let’s take a look at the most common concerns about hiring Kelly and attempt to set the record straight.

1. Chip can’t manage and connect with professional players

From what I’ve seen, the most common complaint about Kelly and the end of his tenure with the Eagles is that he cannot connect on a human level with his players, leading to comments suggesting his players "quit" on him and that Kelly had "lost the locker room." And there’s no question many of the public comments we’ve seen from current and former Eagles, both anonymously and on the record, haven’t been glowing.

The problem with these sort of narratives is that they’re often lazy, hindsight-driven excuses for poor play on the field. I’m not denying that some players may not like Kelly or the way he does things. But in nearly any work environment it’s naive to assume that everyone has the warm and fuzzies for their boss, let alone all 53 players on an NFL roster. Locker rooms are diverse places with people of myriad different backgrounds and life experiences; everyone is not going to get along at all times and it’s hardly a prerequisite for success.

Yet year after year, conveniently following blowouts or at the tail end of rough seasons, quotes from a few disgruntled players (or inferences made by a few reporters) are used as evidence that a team or unit has quit en masse on its head coach. Before the Eagles could quit on Chip Kelly, they quit on Andy Reid, too. Tom Coughlin’s resignation this week will finally put an end to the annual tradition of Giants players quitting on him that dates back to his first season in New York. And back in October, after losing to the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts and dropping to 1–4, the Texans had reportedly quit on Bill O’Brien; Houston went on to win eight of their final 11 contests and will be playing on the opening weekend of the playoffs.

It doesn’t take an exceeding amount of effort to find additional examples of coaches who have gone through rough patches and had their team supposedly quit on them, only to rebound with zero discussion on how the team un-quit. Or in the case of someone like Reid, examples of coaches who moved on without those same sort of locker room concerns following them to their new team.

There will always be a subset of football observers, fans and media alike, who will grasp at the "lost the locker room" narratives when things go south, particularly when big-name players give the kind of quotes we’ve heard about Chip Kelly recently. But it’s more likely this narrative is driven by those too lazy to analyze what’s happening on the field, where you’re certain to find more logical explanations for why a team might be struggling that have nothing to do with how players feel about their head coach.

2. Chip’s offense is gimmicky and NFL defenses have caught on

Observers have been waiting to tell Chip Kelly to take his gimmicky offense back to college since the moment he arrived on the NFL scene. With the Eagles falling to 26th in offensive DVOA and taking a step back in the win column this year, those people finally got their chance.

However, to call Kelly’s offense gimmicky is to fundamentally misunderstand the foundations of his scheme and can likely be attributed to his willingness to be different in a league that values doing things because "that’s the way they’ve always been done." Much of what gets these "NFL purists," or whatever you want to call them, in a ruckus is nothing more than fresh window dressing on the same plays every team in the NFL uses. Even before Kelly left Oregon and began to adapt his scheme to the professional game, his offense was rooted in old-school, inside-running principles. Where Kelly’s relative uniqueness comes in is his ability to meld those old-school principles with new-age tactics like the up-tempo, no-huddle approach his teams are known for.

To say Kelly should be credited for introducing to professional football many of the concepts he’s criticized for would also be incorrect. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been carving up defenses with the no-huddle outside of the two-minute drill for years — which also happens to be a strategy the NFL can trace back to the Bengals of the 1980s — and the Patriots began to implement Kelly’s famed tempo back in 2012. Washington integrated spread tactics into their offense during Robert Griffin III’s rookie season with great success, and the Patriots (hmm, I’m sure it’s a coincidence they keep popping up) heavily utilized a shotgun spread approach during their record-breaking season in 2007.

More recently, a number of teams — Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Seattle, Tennessee, and more — have implemented run-pass options into their offensive attack that first gained popularity at the college level and were deployed by Kelly’s Eagles. Tactics attributed to Chip’s gimmicky offense have already spread throughout the league, and they’re tactics that are here to stay.

There’s also the notion that NFL defensive coordinators have caught on to Kelly’s tricks, but it’s more likely that is an overreaction to one poor season. Philadelphia had the third-best offense in football during Kelly’s first season with the Eagles. Kelly’s sophomore effort saw a step back to 13th in offensive DVOA, but that can be largely attributed to significant injuries at quarterback and along the offensive line after finishing 2013 as the league’s healthiest team.

It’s been a different story in 2015 with Philadelphia’s fall from 13th to 26th in DVOA, which is the fourth-largest drop in the NFL this season. But as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell detailed back in November, Philadelphia’s struggles on offense can be more easily connected to the failings of Chip Kelly the GM rather than Chip Kelly the coach. And as Barnwell also points out, we’ve yet to see what Kelly can do with a competent quarterback. Kelly’s offense produced back-to-back above-average seasons with Mike Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, and Matt Barkley, yet we’re ready to say his offense won’t work after one bad season with Sam Bradford under center? It all seems a bit premature.

3. Chip’s up-tempo philosophy puts his defense at an inherent disadvantage

Another favorite complaint of Kelly’s offense from the old-school NFL types is that the blistering pace his offense operates at puts his defenses behind the eight ball. The problem, as with most of these claims, is there is very little evidence to support that notion.

There are a couple of parts to this. First is the misconception that Kelly’s offense only has one speed: fast as hell. If that were the case, his offense would actually be far easier to defend. Instead, Kelly varies the speed depending on how the defense is reacting. If the defense is set and ready to go, the offense can take their time at the line of scrimmage to get into the proper play. But if the defense is out of position or trying to substitute, Kelly will turn on the burners and rip off a few plays in rapid succession to take advantage.

The other part of this argument revolves around one of the most overrated statistics in all of football: time of possession. Controlling the ball, and therefore the clock, is a cliché as old as football itself. It’s right up there, and very much related to, the idea of establishing the run early in games, even though we’ve known for over a decade good teams tend to pile up rushing yards and eat time off the clock late in games when they have the lead, not the other way around.

"I’ve heard the question about time of possession, but we’ve talked about all the time — time of possession is how much time can the other team waste," Kelly told CSN Philadelphia during his first preseason with the Eagles. "Most games, we lose the time of possession, but it’s how many snaps do you face?"

Kelly’s Eagles did consistently see a high number of snaps on defense — Philadelphia finished in the top two in defensive snaps during each of Kelly’s three seasons, a feat they matched on offense — but there’s not some extreme difference between the Eagles and the rest of the league. The difference in snaps between the Eagles and an average NFL defense over the past three seasons works out to about 5–7 snaps per game, hardly enough to get up in arms about.

It would be difficult to argue those extra snaps had a negative impact on Philadelphia’s defensive production. The Eagles finished with an average or better defensive DVOA rank in each of the past two seasons (10th in 2014, 17th in 2015), and were better in the second half than the first half in every season Kelly was in town, per Football Outsiders.

Year 1st Half DVOA Rank 2nd Half DVOA Rank
2013 5.2% 23 4.6% 20
2014 –0.8% 14 –6.3% 6
2015 6.9% 23 –1.3% 14

Rather than wilting away at the end of games the way those pounding the time-of-possession drum would have you believe, Kelly’s defenses consistently grew stronger as the game went on, and you could argue superb conditioning due to Kelly’s fast-paced practices and dedication to sports science played a role in the Eagles’ second-half improvement.

And we’ve barely touched on the numerous benefits the up-tempo no-huddle approach can have for the offense. Ramping up the pace on offense limits what a defense can do in terms of substitutions and disguise, providing simplified looks for the quarterback. It simplifies communication and forces the offense to shed bloated play calls that have become overly grotesque in some playbooks. And since Chip’s up-tempo affinity extends to the practice field, players benefit from increased reps, particularly for non-starters.

The change to more no-huddle has been a long time coming, but like most things, the NFL has been slow to adapt. In his seminal book Finding the Winning Edge, Bill Walsh recognized the advantages provided by going no-huddle and predicted NFL teams would increase their usage of the tactic. In a section titled, "Determining the Future Dynamics of Offense in the NFL," three of Walsh’s first four bullet points were as follows:

  • Teams will huddle only when the clock is stopped.
  • Teams will use single-word offensive audibles.
  • The quarterback will receive direction from the coach at the line of scrimmage. Because the ball can be put into play at any moment, the defense must commit itself with its front and coverage.

Kelly learned this long ago and other coaches around the league are finally beginning to recognize the benefits of going without a huddle. No-huddle usage is at an all-time high, and there’s no reason to think those numbers will trend any direction but up going forward.

♦♦♦

Chip Kelly has always been someone who challenges the status quo, and in an NFL culture that embraces change at a glacial pace, he will never rid himself of detractors. He’s not without flaws, of course, and there are other concerns that appear more valid. Chief among them would be the possibility (probability?) that Kelly’s strong personality would clash with Trent Baalke, but given the history of this front office I would argue that’s more of a problem with Baalke & Co. than with Chip.

If the 49ers haven’t learned that a GM and head coach don’t exactly need to be Han and Chewie to be successful after the past two seasons — and considering they actually fired their beloved yes man after one season, it seems like they might have — then this situation is going to end in disaster anyway.

But considering how awful we are at identifying successful head coaches, writing Kelly off because of a strong personality, which a number of great head coaches possess, and one poor season seems silly. Take a look at the top of the current NFL head coach hierarchy — Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians, Pete Carroll, Ron Rivera, Mike Zimmer — and you’ll find that nearly every one of them were cast aside at some point in their career.

There’s no guarantee Kelly will join that group, but if he doesn’t it’s unlikely it will be because of the reasons listed above. Nearly everything about Kelly’s past points to a coach who will adapt and be able to make the adjustments necessary to find success at his next stop.

"I’ve always been a ‘why’ guy," Kelly told the MMQB’s Peter King during his first training camp. "The only thing I won’t accept is because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I think the one thing we’re very conscious of is, we don’t have an ego in our program. So it’s not: We are gonna do it our way no matter what and I don’t care what anyone else thinks. If it makes sense, and the science is behind it, we’ll do it."

All indications point to Kelly wanting to stay in the NFL and some team will be willing to give him that chance. If San Francisco is smart, they will give serious consideration to making the 49ers that team.