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Versatility is tricky

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Coaches love versatile players. Why are they so rare?

Since OTAs, the 49ers coaches have been talking about the importance of versatility. And this is nothing new for coach Chip Kelly.

Since he took over at Oregon, he has recruited basketball players and “athletes” without clearly defined positions, cross-trained his defensive players, and converted key players. (DE Dion Jordan, a strong lineman at Oregon, started out as a tight end. Already in San Francisco, Chip has converted his college DL Alex Balducci to center.)

He even created a new position at Oregon called TAZR, for speedy backs who can run, receive, catch pitches, run jet sweeps and block — lined up all over the field.

Versatility is a universal good, like speed and intelligence. It’s always good to have more, right? Not necessarily.

At his press conference Thursday, Chip went into some detail on the complexity of acquiring and developing versatility in his players.

First of all, you need to be good at one thing before you can be good at several, and “being good” in the NFL requires an amazingly high level of performance. Only then can you be good at several.

I’m a big supporter of ex-Oregon WR Josh Huff, who is one of the best blockers on the Eagles and even ran a snap as a north-south RB once. But he hasn’t mastered catching the ball yet as a WR, and all his ancillary skills will mean little until he does. As Chip said:

“...the age-old dilemma that every coach deals with is how much is too much? And then, how much is not enough? So, where other teams get tendencies on you and say, ‘Hey, they’re always doing this or they never do this.’ But, you can say, ‘Alright, well, we’re not going to let anybody get any tendencies on us because we’re going to do a million different things.’ But, when you do a million different things, your guys aren’t really good at anything. So, that’s the fine line that I think everybody, whether it’s an offensive coach or defensive coach or a special team coach is, how much is too much and then how much is not enough?”

Furthermore, each of the different skills or positions you teach a player requires a lot of learning and some snaps to build that muscle memory. Move too fast, and you overwhelm a guy, which can backfire. He gets caught thinking too much and executing too little. But if you throw him out at a second position without enough training, he can get dominated and lose confidence.

“You know, when a player makes a mistake, was it a physical mistake or was it a mental mistake? When you start to have a lot more mental mistakes, then maybe we’ve given them too much and that’s on us, we need to cut back. ...Sometimes the physical mistakes then get drilled down to their technique mistakes. So, ... how much time are we spending on technique or are we spending all of our time in practice just on scheme? So, that’s kind of the tightrope that we all walk...”

So versatility is tough. But there’s a reason the SF staff keeps talking about it. Chip’s system works best when the team really does have players on both sides of the ball who can execute the tasks of different positions (strictly defined).

That’s why he prefers mirrored safeties rather than a strict SS/FS split, and the 3-4 where most of your line can cover receivers as well as sack the QB and stop the run. It allows you all sorts of ways to deceive your opponent and remain unpredictable with a simple scheme capable of working at tempo speed.

But when your talent is limited, some of the possibilities disappear and you become predictable (as Chip did last year). In some ways, San Francisco’s roster suits Chip better than the Eagles did, even though by consensus Philadelphia has a more talented roster.

Even after Chip’s three years installing a 3-4 defense with the Eagles, pundits are thrilled about their return to a 4-3 front because players such as Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham couldn’t adjust to coverage. In contrast, Antoine Bethea wrecked the Eagles back in 2014 because, being able to play in the box or drop in coverage, he could linger on the edge of the box and muddle Nick Foles’ ability to count the number of players there.

Monday night, Eric Reid was everywhere and similarly prevented Case Keenum from decoding what the Niners intended to do. Then again, he is Case Keenum. With Jaquiski Tartt, the Niners are now running three-safety looks. Given three truly multiple players at the position, it could be a devastating tool for this team.

Ultimately, this proves the limits of scheme. You can have the cleverest plans in the world, and they won’t get far if you don’t have the talent to make it work. Even in its current threadbare state, the Niners seem to fit Chip Kelly’s approach as well as any team he has head coached so far.