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Chip Kelly and aggressive playcalling

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A new analysis by the Wall Street Journal ranks the Niners as the 12th gutsiest team

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

At Oregon, the Niners coach was known as “Big Balls Kelly” for his gutsy calls on fourth down, onside kicks, fake punts and two-point conversions. It’s been a little different in the NFL, leading to criticism that he’s playing “small ball.” Saturday’s two-point conversion to win with 31 seconds left may have helped answer that a bit, though.

Now, a new study by the Wall Street Journal addresses an old question. Statisticians consistently “prove” that coaches should go for it more on 4th down, and yet few of them do. Why not?

Most coaches would probably say “because we know a lot more about football than some economists, whatever their spreadsheets say.” And even statistically, there’s a real problem with cause and effect.

The WSJ article argues that more aggressive coaches tend to win. But it’s also true that winning coaches have better players, so that all things being equal, they’re more likely to make that fourth down play or two-point conversion.

On the flip side, the best defenses don’t blitz much because they don’t have to in order to pressure the quarterback. That’s not conservative, it’s just awesome.

Until the numbers can adjust for the strength of your offensive and defensive lines and your opponent’s, simply counting how often a two-yard run worked doesn’t mean much.

The Journal analyzed all 32 NFL teams for three types of aggressiveness: 4th downs, special teams (two point conversions and onside kicks), and general play-calling (blitzing and passing on early downs or with the lead).

The 49ers ranked 12th at -4.37 (where positive numbers are more conservative). Chip was right in between Bill Belichick and “Riverboat” Ron Rivera, which is good company for a coach to keep. But his sub-categories were very different than Belichick’s.

The Patriots were very aggressive on fourth down (-13.2), conservative on general play-calling (+10.1), and about neutral on special teams (0.73). San Francisco, however, was conservative on fourth down (+7.8), aggressive on general play-calling (-8.9, due in part to blitzing) and somewhat aggressive on ST (-3.27).

When asked about his choices, Kelly has been pretty consistent about two points. First, he never “gambles.” His choices are based on his estimate of what is likely to happen; he never just “throws it out there” to see what might happen. Second, he goes with his gut. In the moment, his decision is based one one simple question: does he think his team can pull it off?

There’s not a ton of analysis, what-if’s, or holding his finger up to the wind. At that second, he either thinks they’ll get it, or he doesn’t. If there’s a technical question on the likelihood of a field goal working, he defers to Phil Dawson and his gut feeling.

The bottom line is, Chip isn’t going to feel like a bad team will make it as often. He is more than happy to press any advantage he can find, as his experience at Oregon demonstrated, but there’s no point in pressing a disadvantage. If Kelly stays as the Niners coach, I expect to see him get more and more gutsy in his calls as the roster rebuilds.