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Chip Kelly, Colin Kaepernick, and protecting the ball

Avoiding turnovers has not been Colin Kaepernick’s strongest suit, but it’s everything to Chip Kelly. Kap seems to be listening.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick finally got a start for coach Chip Kelly this past Sunday, and the results were mixed after a strong start. Kap was the 49ers’ leading rusher and hit Torrey Smith for a 53-yard touchdown, but missed four other deep shots to open receivers.

In one category, though, he was perfect: interceptions (none). He was strip-sacked from the blind side on one pass, but Josh Garnett recovered the fumble.

This is a big deal for Chip Kelly. Obviously, every coach wants to win the turnover battle, but Kelly spends a lot of practice time doing everything possible to minimize turnovers (and produce takeaways). In Philadelphia, his Eagles ran numerous drills to focus on the QB’s passing arm, strip the ball from RBs (or learn to protect it), and practice a spontaneous runback play (everyone block down the team bench sideline).

As with special teams, Kelly judges that these high variance plays have a disproportionate impact on the final score and emphasizes them accordingly.

In Chip’s best NFL year, 2013, Nick Foles’ TD/INT ratio was 27-2. 27 touchdowns is not that unusual, even though Foles missed 3 games; Blake Bortles had 35 last year in a full season. But only giving up two interceptions is astonishing. Bortles had 18 last season.

In 2014, Foles threw away ten drives in just eight games before getting injured, and Kelly was quick to trade him in the off season. Similarly, Blaine Gabbert kept helming the Niners early this season despite a lack of accuracy or deep shots, but after he threw two INTs to only one TD against Arizona, he was benched.

Colin Kaepernick has not been tremendous on turnovers in his last couple of years. His TD/INT ratio was 19/10 in 2014, and 6/5 in eight starts games last year, plus five and four fumbles, respectively.

Coach Kelly implied that Kaepernick didn’t start earlier because he was not fully healed from this injuries and three surgeries last year. But Kelly may also have been working him hard to minimize turnovers.

On his long shots, Kaepernick threw away from the defensive backs on the play. The touchdown pass to a wide-open Smith was short and near the sideline, forcing him to come back to it and allowing him to curl around the safety racing back over to him.

Of his other deep shots, two were high and on the sideline, shielded from the corner. And his attempted post to Smith in the end zone with 28 seconds left in the 3rd fell short, but this time the defender was behind Torrey, so again he erred on the side of caution. (The fourth incompletion was just bad, underthrown.)

Obviously Chip would have preferred completions to these misses, but shading toward safety is unlikely to piss him off. When reporters asked him how Kap did, after the game, there was one thing Kelly focused on after a brief mention of the quarterback’s mobility.

“Did a good job keeping the ball out of harm’s way. Didn’t throw any interceptions. It didn’t seem like, there were no balls where you were like, ‘Oh jeez, that was a close one.’ Sometimes you can have a game where you didn’t throw any interceptions, but you should have, the defense just dropped them. I thought he did a good job protecting the football for us on the offensive side of the ball.”

Can’t get any more clear than that. It’s not simply that giving the ball away ends your drive; your opponent usually ends up with a short field, if not a pick six. And right now, this defense needs all the help it can get.

Kaepernick need to start completing some of these misses, but he would be wise to keep erring on the side of safety.