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Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke: Beef or Nah?

Did the coach throw his GM under the bus last week?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Press Conference Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, 49ers coach Chip Kelly made some comments about his team’s talent level that some took as a veiled attack on GM Trent Baalke. Specifically, he said that:

“...we’re not a team that’s going to throw the ball 60 times a game. That’s just not how we’re built.... [RB] Carlos [Hyde] is the main focus of what we’re doing offensively. We have a running quarterback that complements him and then our play-action pass complements that and when we’re running the ball successfully and play-action pass off of that, we’re very good as an offensive football team. But, to think we’re going to go into a game and throw the ball 60 times and win, then that’s not a game plan for success for us.”

This was taken by some as a criticism of GM Trent Baalke, who gathers the players for this franchise. It’s worth noting that, in Philadelphia, Chip became only the 3rd NFL coach with full roster control, in his third year there, and it proved to be disaster that cost him his job.

With the Niners, it has been clear from day one that he needed to give up any thoughts of taking on that responsibility, and he seems generally comfortable with that, if not relieved.

The conventional wisdom is that, following this 2016 season that has started out with a 1-9 record for San Francisco, either Baalke or Kelly will be fired, or perhaps both. So they have reasons to be defensive and/or slag each other.

Kelly was also asked about one of Baalke’s ACL-injured “bargains.” Except that almost all of them have played poorly after recovering from their injuries, so maybe they weren’t such good bargains after all.

There was a specific question about one of these guys, WR DeAndre Smelter (who Baalke picked in the 4th round of the 2015 draft). He was inactive his rookie season, and waived with an injury settlement this September before being re-signed to the practice squad a month later.

Given that the Niners have had terrible WR play this year, one reporter asked about Smelter. Chip was blunt in his response:

“He’s been OK, but he hasn’t played better than the guys that are on the active roster right now. So, that has not been a discussion about bringing him up.”

The conventional wisdom is that after this season, Trent Baalke will be fired as GM and replaced by Tom Gamble, his assistant who Chip worked with in Philadelphia and is clearly friends with. So, is Chip implicitly criticizing or undermining Baalke, perhaps to help his friend get promoted?

I don’t think so. If anything, Chip was hurt in the Philadelphia media by his refusal to leak to reporters or undercut his players and coaches. He has an old-school “keep problems in-house and settle them there” mentality even concerning major beefs.

In Philadelphia, Chip had serious personality conflicts with two people — WR DeSean Jackson, and GM Howie Roseman. Yet, even when it was obvious to everyone that Chip hated their guts, he spoke positively or at least neutrally about them at press conferences. If anything, Chip could be criticized for not being honest with the press about his dislike for the men.

Aside from his straight line speed and superb hands, DeSean Jackson was everything Chip doesn’t like in a wide receiver: he refuses to block when he’s not targeted, has a questionable work ethic, puts himself ahead of the team, and was even seen yelling at his position coach on national TV during the 2013 season. After he didn’t even try to tackle the cornerback who intercepted his intended reception during a game.

Yet when reporters asked the coach about his mercurial receiver at the 2014 Owner’s Meeting, the coach said:

I like DeSean. DeSean did a really nice job for us.

When a reported pressed Chip about the receiver’s work ethic, he added,

He played 16 games for us, he practiced every day. I had no issues with him.

Two days later, the team released him.

Similarly, coach Kelly had a long and vicious power struggle with Eagles GM Howie Roseman that resulted in Roseman getting sidelined for a year, and — eventually — in Chip getting fired.

On December 29th, 2014, two days before Roseman fired Kelly’s ally Tom Gamble and kicked off their most explosive week of struggle, a reporter asked Chip how their working relationship was. He replied simply, “Good.” The most negative he got was going on at length about how great Roseman was with contracts and the salary cap, without mentioning his player evaluation skills one way or the other.

So when Kelly talked about the weapons on the team, and not being built to pass all of the time, it’s more likely he was simply telling the truth. No one who follows football would call this a team with a lot of talent, especially at wide receiver.

In fact, Kelly himself has been a big advocate for emphasizing the running game in the NFL, and raved about how great having Carlos Hyde at RB was going to be. He also seemed totally on board with the decision to upgrade the offensive line with several draft picks.

Both at Oregon and Philadelphia, his teams ran first. David Neumann and Oscar Aparicio of the Better Rivals podcast call his scheme “spread to run” to distinguish it from the more common pass-oriented spread offenses. So it’s not an insult for Kelly to say that. It’s a compliment.

In San Francisco particularly, neither quarterback would work well with a West Coast Offense-style pass-driven scheme. Those require great precision on short and long passes, and while Gabbert and Kaepernick have great mobility, and Kap has a strong arm for the deep throw, neither is that kind of accurate passer.

Certainly Baalke can be criticized for not trying to re-sign Anquan Boldin, or drafting a wide receiver before the 38th pick of the 6th round. But I don’t think Chip was making that criticism.