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How will Chip Kelly decide the QB competition?

The coach gave a long and insightful answer at his press conference Friday.

Chip Kelly is a very interesting guy to interview. Depending on several factors — the team’s situation, his mood, the intelligence of the question and the competitive risks of honesty — he can be straight-forward and direct, humorously blunt, tight-lipped, teasy, dismissive, jokingly evasive or downright mocking of the interviewer.

But when you ask the right question at the right time, he’ll give you a ton of very insightful information. That’s what happened Friday at Kelly’s press conference.

Q: I know you said the [preseason games] are going to be the big thing for the quarterback job. What do you get from them in a practice? What do you look for in either one of those two guys specifically in a practice?

Chip replied:

“You look at precision. How well are they operating? What’s their decision-making process? Are they hanging too long on a read? Are they quick to move on if in their progression, one or two are covered, how quickly do they get to three? Do they get stuck? Do they get caught in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 holding the ball too long?

“You know, part of it is getting the ball out on time. It’s a timing-based offense in terms of getting the ball out. So, those are things that you can observe. How they’ve picked things up from a mental standpoint? Are they dialed in in terms of what we’re doing?”

It’s also interesting what the coach didn’t mention — the ability to run. Every hack analyst declares that a running quarterback is critical for a quarterback in Chip Kelly’s system, but that didn’t stop him from starting three non-runners in Philadelphia: Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford.

To be fair, Kelly’s answer seems to assume that the quarterback can run the zone read play (“Are they hanging too long on a read?”). In his new job, though, speed is not the issue. With the Niners, for the first time in his career, Chip has three quarterbacks who are fast runners. Kaepernick, Gabbert and Driskel ran the 40-yard dash at speeds of 4.53, 4.61, and 4.56 respectively. That’s a great luxury, because he can design an offense that doesn’t need any adjustment, regardless of who is behind the shotgun.

But ability to execute a zone read play is not the same thing as speed. In Philadelphia, Nick Foles was his slowest quarterback with a Combine time of 5.14 in the 40-yard dash — slower than four of his five offensive linemen. But Foles was willing to pull the ball and run when the offense didn’t respect that threat.

Kelly said that Foles “was not fleet of foot, but fleet of mind.” Granted, he got five or seven yards where Michael Vick or Marcus Mariota would have picked up 50 or 60 yards, but that was probably even more humiliating to the defenders.

The point of the read option is to keep the defense guessing, not necessarily to gain a ton of yards. Properly executed, one or two quarterback keepers per game should be enough to make a front seven hesitate. And that’s the primary goal of the zone read. Carlos Hyde is already a great runner. With a little more hesitation from his tacklers, he could be incredible.

Mark Sanchez (4.88 40) and Sam Bradford (4.78 40, before his two ACL tears) are both faster than Foles, but neither was willing to pull the ball. And defenses quickly figured that out. So they were actually less effective running than the guy who scored this widely mocked touchdown before Chip even showed up.

So the quarterback competition seems to boil down to two unrelated skills:

  1. the ability to execute Kelly’s bread and butter play — the zone read — and
  2. the ability to quickly read the defense’s formation and execute the best of the two or three options that Kelly’s offense gives him, in response.

After dropping all of that knowledge, Chip circled back to the reporter’s original question.

“The only difference between a training session and a game is that they’re not going to get hit. We’re not going to allow them to get hit in practice. At times you’ve seen guys that were great when it comes to a training session, but then all of a sudden they get into a game and they’re a different guy because they got hit a couple times. So, what are they like when there’s the physical contact, so that’s where you have to be able to have both to make an accurate decision in terms of where they are.”

Kelly doesn’t allow tackling to the ground in training camp, and his Philadelphia team had very few injuries. But it’s true that you can’t fully judge players without hard hits, so those games will drive his final decision.