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Chip Kelly and control over the 49ers 53-man roster

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The coach is letting go of personnel control. And maybe even liking it.

In his press conference on Tuesday, San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly was asked about the risk of injured players participating in preseason games, when they might be less mobile and less able to protect themselves. His reply was significant, yet little noticed:

“It’s not up to me. ... I do not have control of the 53-man roster.”

You might be thinking “Duh. Chip had personnel control last year, it was a disaster and everyone knows that. Trent Baalke is in charge here.”

But that was different. Kelly got full personnel control two years into his time as Philadelphia coach, after a power struggle that began with GM Howie Roseman firing personnel exec Tom Gamble (who was Chip’s eyes and ears on Roseman’s staff).

But Chip had control of the 53-man roster from his first day as an NFL coach. This wasn’t widely known until late in training camp (August 27th) when a reporter asked him straight out. (Earlier, Roseman had given an evasive answer to the same question.)

Q. Do you get a final say on the 53-man roster?

COACH KELLY: Yeah.

That was very unusual. Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Zach Berman noted at the time that:

The head coach has final say on the 53-man roster on just five NFL teams, and two of those coaches have additional titles that gives them full control of football operations.

(The two with additional titles would be Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, who have the full personnel powers that Chip acquired last year.) None of the other new hires in 2013 got control over the 53.

And this was no accident. You may recall that Chip walked away from negotiations with Philadelphia, and only agreed to a deal ten days later. No one has said publicly what made him reconsider, but we can make a pretty good educated guess.

Kelly is not a money-driven coach — he was happy making $60K a year as the University of New Hampshire’s offensive coordinator as late as 2006 — and there is strong reason to think that he was holding out for roster control (as well as for adding Gamble to the front office staff).

When Kelly first walked away, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports wrote a column explicitly blaming “shaky GM” Roseman and his power-mongering.

It's clear Chip Kelly wasn't leaving Oregon for anywhere unless he had a large measure of control over the organization, and owner Jeffrey Lurie has already entrusted that to Roseman.

And there were better offers on the table. The Cleveland Browns were the main competitor for Kelly’s services, and the Toledo Blade newspaper reported that:

[Owner Jimmy] Haslam and [CEO Joe] Banner made it clear that their next coach will have final say of the team's 53-man roster, a perk that could entice Kelly to leave Oregon.

Of course, you hope that it never comes down to a full-on disagreement between the coach and GM over who makes the roster. The goal is to work together as a team, with the GM finding the perfect players for the coach’s scheme. Both in 2013 and today, Chip and his GM said the right things about collaboration. Obviously, things weren’t that chummy in Philly.

But hopefully the situation is different now. Tuesday, for example, Chip said:

“... it’s a group thing. There’s always input. The final say is Trent’s and that’s the way it should be, but it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, I like these eight guys,’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t care about those eight guys. We’re going this way.’ We’ve got a really cooperative relationship as we’re handling the team and moving forward and I think the one thing about it is we see things the same way in terms of how to build a football team.”

A GM can draft a player against a coach’s wishes, but he can’t make him play the guy. Roseman found this out the hard way with his first round pick in 2014, OLB Marcus Smith II. (He’s the guy who was supposed to plaster himself to Frank Gore on Gore’s TD play in the 2014 Eagles-Niners game).

Chip didn’t want Smith, and he has been a major bust. Kelly wasn’t upset enough to cut his first round draft pick, but the rookie finished the year with just 105 snaps — and 37 of those were on special teams.

Thankfully, Baalke and Kelly actually seem to agree on most talent evaluation issues. Baalke drafted two players (Arik Armstead and LaMichael James) directly out of Chip’s Oregon program, and they have similar taste in measurables (favoring bigger CBs and tall, long-armed DEs). Both men favor the 3-4 defense and have a fondness for post-ACL-tear reclamation projects. Chip even hired Dr. Harry Edwards, who has 5 Super Bowl rings from his work for the Niners, to help resolve player controversies with the Ducks and Eagles.

Chip may also be discovering the advantages of letting go of control. Besides the reduction in his workload, he may learn some perspective from being forced to accept Baalke’s choices.

Kelly has been very strict about character issues, including the smoking of weed, and many in Philadelphia felt he was discarding talented players unnecessarily. This is one major way that Baalke and Kelly differ; Chip would never have drafted Rashard Robinson, for example.

More generally, there is real value in a coach being able to distance himself from roster decisions. Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles’ shrewd and thoughtful safety, thought that Chip unnerved many players by trading LeSean McCoy, who was very popular in the locker room (as well as being the Eagles’ all-time rushing leader).

Kelly the coach clashed with Shady over some minor issues (including, no joke, the color of his socks). When Kelly the GM traded McCoy without warning, some players saw it as punishment or retaliation and it created a gulf between the coach and the team.

Now Chip can always say “Jeez, I don’t know why Trent traded that guy. Weird...” whether it’s true or not. That might seem phony to him, like a cheesy good cop/bad cop routine, but there are reasons most teams do it that way. And those reasons might be better than just the power-mongering of GMs.