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Chip the Existentialist

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For coach Kelly, the time is now.

One of Chip Kelly’s interesting philosophies is that he lives in the moment, as a coach.

What does that even mean, you might be wondering? It shows up in a number of ways. His “Win the Day” slogan (now forgotten since the University of Oregon trademarked it) really meant “Focus on what you are doing, right now, and forget everything else, future and past. Don’t think about the game Sunday, or the big game in 3 weeks; kick this drill’s ass.”

He has a reputation for breaking with tradition; Chip really doesn’t care if “it’s always been done that way.”

He doesn’t want his players to be in their head on game day, to the point where he tries not to critique them on game day, and gives his pep talk on the day before they play.

Traditional coaching — where the head coaches try to predict each other’s moves a la Tecmo Bowl — is suspect. Even pre-snap audibles are a future prediction, susceptible to deceptive fronts and bluffs. As much as possible, Kelly tries to shift decisions to his players, post-snap.

Don’t guess what defenses will do. Have your QB simply observe what they ARE doing. Right now. The key skill for his quarterback is staying calm enough to see that clearly, and reacting quickly and decisively to take advantage of those choices. Chip’s role, then, is give his QB enough choices on each play to beat whatever the opponent does.

Both in Eugene and Philadelphia, he ignored how highly touted (or drafted, or paid) a player was. Chip’s teams are a great place for UDFAs, for comeback players, for misfits and for athletes who don’t fit a traditional position.

DeForest Buckner, the San Francisco 49ers seventh overall pick, started training camp as a third stringer. By Monday night, he started and played the most snaps on the team’s defense. But it wasn’t because he was a top pick, or because Chip recruited and coached him at Oregon. It was because he earned it, now. (Pro Football Focus graded him as the 7th best rookie in week one.)

At Tuesday’s press conference, Kelly was asked about Blaine Gabbert’s development given that Gab was a top ten pick in the first round who hasn’t shown much after 6 years in the league.

“Yeah, I guess for the first part, we don’t put any [stock in] where he came from, where they were. We started with him in April, so I can get to the second part of the question is, I’ve seen him grow and develop since we got him in April. And, that’s really what we’re concerned with, not what where they were in the past or what their past history was.”

The same thing is true with Colin Kaepernick. No doubt Chip is very familiar with Kap’s history in the NFL, but when he said he didn’t want to decide on the starting QB before game four because he hadn’t seen much of the thrice-injured former star in pre-season games, I believe him.

Past performance does not guarantee future results, for good or bad. Peyton Manning is an NFL legend, but last year he was a bad quarterback, worse than even his brother. Old tape can tell you what a player’s athletic abilities might be, but not where his current training, health or confidence sits. Or how well he might do in a completely different scheme such as Chip’s.

Part of this is what a coach doesn’t know about an old game’s situation. What was the play call, the scheme, the protection on a given snap? Was the quarterback told to be aggressive, or to avoid turnovers at all cost? There’s no way to know.

Another part is the cockiness of any good coach, who naturally thinks he can develop a player better than the last guy. Chip went on, Tuesday:

... it’s really inconsequential for all of us to say, ‘Three years ago in Jacksonville, this happened to him.’ Three years ago we weren’t around him, so I don’t really know what went on nor do we even talk about that. We just talk about his growth and development in what we’re doing and I see him getting better.

Even in one game, there are some encouraging signs for Gabbert’s development in this new system. In David Neumann’s preliminary film review, he noted two crucial pluses: Gabbert got the ball out quickly, and made good decisions in his run/pass option plays (RPOs).

Tempo

One thing people sometimes miss about the tempo offense is that it’s even more prominent in practice than in games. And that’s not just about conditioning or preparing the offense. Tempo is a way to create more NOW despite the strict practice limits of the CBA.

Fast practice tempo creates more snaps that the staff can evaluate. More data. So that when you decide who’s going to make the team, or start, or get a lot of snaps, you’re basing that on facts on the ground.

Right now, on this team running this scheme with these teammates, who “gets it”? Who makes plays? Who is consistent? Who sees the game in real time at NFL speed and reacts instinctively?

But, you might ask, what about money? Don’t you have to factor in a player’s salary cap number? Not Chip. Not any more. When he assumed GM duties in Philadelphia, it messed with his perceptions, making DeMarco Murray look like a good idea and LeSean McCoy too expensive, because he was juggling money and talent simultaneously.

Now he can focus on talent again. Is Kapernick expensive for a backup QB? That’s Trent Baalke’s problem. The GM could have cut Kap or traded him for a pittance. But since he didn’t, that money is spent and it’s not Chip’s concern.

There’s no perfect QB on this team, obviously, but the coach is thrilled to have a second flawed but mobile QB with (probably) untapped potential. Chip’s job is to maximize the chance of winning, not save Jed York money.

At the same time, I could easily see Christian Ponder start a game if either Kap or Gab get injured and the other one struggles. The fact that he makes so much less and was painting his house a month ago wouldn’t make Kelly hesitate for a second if he thought Ponder was his best option at QB.

Throw out all of your preconceptions, all the conventional wisdom, and all that has happened in the past. What gives this team the best chance of winning right now, even if it looks stupid or gimmicky or boring? That’s Chip the existentialist.