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The mystery of 49ers WR coach Bob Bicknell

Chip Kelly brought Bicknell in as his WR coach, and the Niners considered him as OC last year. Yet his record is mixed at best. What's the attraction?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Chip Kelly brought some excellent assistant coaches in to Philadelphia -- special teams coordinator Dave Fipp (previously an assistant ST coach with the Dolphins and 49ers), OL coach Jeff Stoutland (from Alabama) and DB coach Cory Undlin (from Denver). When Chip signed on with the Niners, the Eagles refused to let these coaches follow him.

They had no reservations about allowing wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell to go. (Philadelphia also released first year QB coach Ryan Day and highly regarded DL coach Jerry Azzinaro, who worked with Chip at Oregon and served as his asssistant head coach in Philly.)

Coach Azz was so closely linked to Chip that it would have been awkward to keep him around. But Bicknell had a mixed record at best in three years with the Eagles. After he left, Reuben Frank of CSN Philly wrote that new WR coach Greg Lewis was a

"huge upgrade over over Bob Bicknell, who was never the right guy for the position. ... No young wideouts ever got better under Bicknell. "

The Good

On the positive side, the Eagles' two best wide receivers during the Chip years had their career years under Bicknell and Kelly. DeSean Jackson piled up 1,332 yards and 60 first downs in 2013. During his first five years, he had never topped 1,156 yards or 43 first downs.

When Maclin returned from an ACL tear in 2014, after DeSean had been cut, he pulled nearly identical numbers -- 1,318 yards and 56 FDs -- after falling short of 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons.

For that matter, journeyman Riley Cooper vaulted from career "highs" of just 315 yards and three TDs to 835 and 8 in Bick and Chip's first year (2013). However, his productivity collapsed in 2014 (with 577 yards) and 2015 (327 yards), and he was cut on February 8th.

The Bad

As Reuben Frank noted, Bicknell was not nearly so successful with young WRs.  The Eagles drafted receivers in the first, second and third rounds during his time in Philadelphia, and had very little to show for it. Jordan Matthews, a second round pick in 2014, has been a strong receiver in the slot, where his height (6'3") presents match-up problems. He has 1,869 yards and 16 TDs in two years.

But Matthews -- whose mother is Jerry Rice's cousin -- was an overachiever at Vanderbilt, too, setting the SEC's all-time receiving records for receptions and yardage. He didn't need much coaching, and has taken a lot of punishment due to "hospital passes" thrown his way. The Eagles new coach has indicated he'll try moving Matthews outside.

The other two draft picks -- Nelson Agholor in the first round last year, and Josh Huff in 2014's third -- have accomplished very little despite flashes of talent. (Huff, a very physical 5'11", has a 107-yard kick return and took a shallow crosser in for a 39-yard TD last year by breaking five tackles.)

Veteran Miles Austin, brought in last season to add experience, was even worse. He played 35% of Philly's offensive snaps -- 408 plays from scrimmage -- and managed only 13 receptions on 31 targets.

The Eagles led the NFL in drops last year, both total (37) and as a percentage (6.0%), and it wasn't even close. This is obviously not a good reflection on Bicknell's ability to teach technique. Individual drop rates included Austin (6.5%), Cooper (7.3%), Huff (7.5%) and Agholor (9.1%). The running backs were even worse on Chip's many screens and swing passes, averaging over 10%.

More strategic aspects of the passing game suffered as well. Chip gives his assistants a lot of control and has specifically said that his RB coach Duce Staley set the running back rotation. It's a reasonable assumption that Bicknell did the same with wide receivers, though Chip hasn't directly addressed the question.

The Eagles pass routes were often criticized as predictable and uninspired in 2015, and the WR rotation was especially dubious. Huff struggled to get reps last year though he's an outstanding blocker when he's not targeted, and was the most productive outside receiver by far when he was. Cooper and Austin were terrible but never lost reps as a result, and the offense sputtered.

Finally, Bicknell got into a famous shouting match with DeSean Jackson on national TV during the Minnesota game in 2013. (Three teammates and a coaching intern had to restrain DJax.) A pass targeting him was intercepted, and Jackson complained that it was thrown too late, while Bicknell felt he could have done more to break up the interception or tackle CB Shaun Prater afterwards. The  incident was generally considered "a tantrum" by Jackson and undoubtedly contributed to his release the following spring, but Bicknell was clearly angry as well.

And the Reasons

Given all of this, why is Bicknell in San Francisco? And why for heaven's sake were the Niners considering promoting him to offensive coordinator last year?

That latter interview was related to the Niners' disarray following Harbaugh's firing, as well as the team's reputation for low assistant coach wages. Philadelphia was reportedly unwilling to allow Bicknell to interview as a WR coach but a promotion to OC would have removed the need to get their permission. Tomsula knew Bicknell from NFL Europe, where they coached against each other as defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively, in the 1990s. In the end, Bicknell reportedly turned down the offer to stay in Philly -- only to end up out west a year later anyway.

Chip Kelly's connection to Bicknell is another matter entirely. Both are part of the tight-knit New England coaching community, where Bob's father Jack Bicknell was royalty as the decade-long coach of vaunted Boston College (BC), and then a head coach in NFL Europe for 13 years. Philly insider Joe Santiliquito wrote in 2014 that

Kelly has a deep almost brotherly relationship with Bicknell, whose father, Jack, was the long-time legendary Boston College coach. Kelly is an extended branch of the Jack Bicknell New England coaching tree.

There's a feeling that Jack Bicknell helped Chip Kelly get his coaching career started, and that Chip in return has a strong bond of loyalty with his son. This despite the fact that Bob Bicknell was only a wide receivers coach for one year (with the Buffalo Bills) before Kelly hired him in Philadelphia. Before that, he coached tight ends -- the position he played himself in college at BC -- and was mostly an offensive line coach, or (in NFL Europe) an offensive coordinator.

Two football professionals contacted for the article -- who asked that their names be withheld-- had mixed feelings about Bicknell. One said he had a reputation as "a great teacher of offensive football." The other source, who is more directly familiar with Bicknell's work, was a bit less positive.

"He's terrible. The [Eagles] WRs last year were awful. [There is] no way anyone should get hired/retained after a season like that."

Strong words. But football is an intense collaboration between a small number of very strong personalities, and different groupings can yield very different results. The Niners had better hope so, anyway.