It was pretty clear this would be a tough year for the 49ers. Maybe not THIS tough, with numerous key injuries, quarterback struggles, and a historically bad run defense. But a .500 season was the upper limit of most people’s hopes. And it’s very possible they could lose 15 games, all in a row.
That’s new for Chip Kelly, as a head coach anyway. His University of New Hampshire Wildcats lost plenty, but the offense he coordinated was setting records at the time, so it wasn’t on him.
Chip lost two games in a row at Oregon only once, and then on a technicality. The first was the 2010 college National Championship Game against Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers; the second was the 2011 season opener on the road against those other Tigers, No. 4 LSU.
The NFL is tougher, of course. Kelly’s first season was a big success, but the team still went 10-6, plus another loss in the playoffs. 2015 saw his first ever losing season (and a pink slip); he dropped nine games without even making it to the end of the season. This year, it will be a miracle if he doesn’t lose more than that.
How does a guy used to lots of winning handle losing six in a row? Better than I would have expected, so far, but he’s got a lot more losing to get through.
Back in 2014, tough losses (such as the Niners game in late September) were rough on him. Kelly can be jokey and playful with reporters on a good day, but after those games a dark mood hung over the podium that intimidated the toughest scribes. After the last minute loss to Arizona a month later, Chip appeared to be in physical pain and had no interest in discussing the positive parts of the game (such as the Eagles finally getting their deep pass game untracked).
That’s not always the worst thing. You don’t want a coach to get too comfortable with losing, and it’s fine with me if players are reluctant to anger their coach by losing.
One question is, will Chip be willing to pursue other goals besides grinding out an extra win or two? Perhaps longer term objectives such as developing younger players, trying different formations or plays, and improving draft position?
In the past, Chip’s answer has been absolutely NO. He steadfastly refused to rest veterans, angle for a higher pick or concede a meaningless Week 17 game. His whole approach has been “my job is winning, and that’s what I aim to do.”
At Oregon, what was remarkable was not beating top teams so much as the fact that the Ducks never got upset by underdogs. Every game was just as important, and Chip wanted every one. One of his mottos — chapter 26 of the Tao of Chip -- was “Every game is the Super Bowl.”
Well, right now the Niners motto might as well be “no game is the Super Bowl.” Trent Baalke seems to be playing for the long run, by sticking with lots of young players and refusing to spent his large horde of cash on free agents (or re-signing Anquan Boldin). And at the very least, Chip has given his two quarterbacks a full chance to show whether they might be the team’s long term leader.
Last year, the relentless losing (as well as a hostile press and front office feuding) seemed to take the joy out of Chip’s season. He’s clearly not loving this year’s losses either, but seems more philosophical about them.
Kelly doesn’t have many tools to work with on this depleted roster. Here’s hoping that with this dire situation, he gives himself permission to let go of winning at all costs to experiment with his offense, explore the potential of his bench and young guys, and get his team in good position to improve the roster this off-season. Whoever the GM is.