This has been a humbling year for Chip Kelly. He entered the season with a lifetime 72-28 record as a head coach (in college and the NFL), then suffered through 13 consecutive losses.
As he has wrestled with a talent-thin roster and a ton of injuries, Kelly has adjusted on many of his firmly held beliefs about how to run an offense. Pistol formations have replaced a lot of the shotgun snaps Chip used almost exclusively in Philadelphia. Zone blocking run plays have been mixed with man/gap runs such as power, counter trey, read sweep and toss sweep plays.
And most strikingly, Kelly has let go of his almost fanatical insistence on running tempo, after an off-season full of criticism that the sprint pace wore down his defenses.
Many writers (including me) urged Chip to at least mix up the tempos to be less predictable, though I think the effect on defenses is overstated. The real problem is offensive three-and-outs; sustained drives are what gives the defenders on the bench time to catch their breaths, not 15 second chats by their teammates. If you don’t get a first down, the difference in rest times between tempo and a normal huddled offense is at most 90 seconds per drive. That’s not going to affect NFL athletes.
The real problem with constant tempo is simply predictability. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, maybe the shrewdest player on the Eagles, put it will in a conversation with Adam Lefkoe last February:
Tempo is not what beats you. Because when you run tempo, you run fast, that means everything’s simple. And guys like me, I watch film for a living. I’ll figure it out. You can’t go fast enough to confuse me.
But if you go fast - fast - fast, we’re going to be simple on defense. And so all of a sudden you come into the next drive and you slow it down and you double count, we’re showing you everything we’re doing. And then you change the play to best fit it. And once you start disguising, I’ll speed it back up. ... If Chip will ever learn how to balance between tempo and double count where he can go to [audibles] with the offense, he will have people on [their] heels.
It hasn’t worked out as beautifully as all that for the Niners, due to a combination of erratic quarterbacking, drops, OL injuries and thin receiving talent. But Kelly has been more flexible on his tempo than anyone imagined.
Most analysts just wanted Chip to mix the fast tempo with slower paces, especially on the crucial first series of each drive. Instead, he has pretty much abandoned it altogether late in the season.
17 players on the injured reserve list is certainly a factor; the Niners have fewer quality reserves than most every opponent, so a battle of stamina is not one they are likely to win. There’s no point leading a cavalry charge if you don’t have the horses.
At his press conference last Monday, the coach made an interesting discussion. The lack of tempo has gone unnoticed by many because the team remains committed to the no huddle offense. Why? Because it forces the defense to show its formation in case you snap right away, just as Malcolm Jenkins described.
I don’t think we’ve used tempo in a while. I think most of the time we’re just trying to get a look at what the defense is in and then snap the ball accordingly or put ourselves in the right play. [QB Colin Kaepernick] Kap has some checks he’s got to go back through when trying to make sure we’re in the right protection. So, I would say we’re not playing with tempo right now. We’re just kind of huddling on the ball.
The huddle, in theory, is about having a secret conversation that the other team can’t hear, to plan your play. If you have a system to signal it in from the sideline, as the Niners do, there’s no point. And you eliminate concerns about cheers making it hard to hear your quarterback.
And since you’re not using tempo, why don’t you huddle? What is the advantage of not huddling?
“Because we get to see what the defense is going to be in. So, we’re just getting a look and we save our linemen seven yards from running back-and-forth from the huddle. They just huddle on the ball. A lot of teams are doing it. The Falcons did it to us a lot the other day. So, I think a lot more teams are just, you’re just trying to see what the look is. I think the only disadvantage is you don’t get to go back seven yards and hold hands together and say, ‘Ready, break,’ and then run back to the line of scrimmage.”
It’s true that the left guard won’t be able to suggest a nifty razzle-dazzle play he thought up in the shower that morning, but I don’t think that really happens outside of the movies.
Kelly also went on to explain the rationale behind having the quarterback under shortun or pistol, vs. under center. There are two key advantages: it allows him to read a defender, as opposed to a center snap where he would turn his back to the defense in the course of a handoff. Also, it makes the quarterback a threat in the run game, by spreading defenders out and giving him room to run by them.
The move to pistol addresses another criticism of Chip’s offense, that the alignment of the running back tips off the defense because the RB is lined up on one side of the QB and invariably runs to the opposite side.
...sometimes when [the running back is] offset [in shotgun formation] people can say, ‘Hey, the balls going one way or going the other way.’ We’ve moved more to the back and the neutral spot behind the quarterback [aka the pistol formation] so they don’t know if the back is going to the right or to the left.
Now, Kelly never worried about tipping off defenses with his RB alignment in college. It’s not that college defenses couldn’t figure out the pattern of RBs running to the opposite side of their alignment on every single down. It’s more that they were slower and tended to over-react.
At Oregon, running backs such as LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner became expert at cutting back when all of the defense flowed to the obvious and predictable play side.
In the pros, players are smarter about hanging back to prevent a cut back, and fast enough that they can overcome poor positioning by simply running to the ball carrier. Gaps are closed very quickly.