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Is Chip Kelly’s offense “fundamentally broken?”

Chris Brown of SmartFootball wrote a brutal takedown today. Is it time to panic?

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Chris Brown (@smartfootball) is probably America’s top pundit on football Xs and Os. Today he published an article for that slams Chip Kelly’s offense as predictable, stagnant and figured out.

Most damningly, he reveals a devastating "tell" that allows defenses to know what is coming.

the alignment of the tight end and running back gives away the play: If the tight end and running back lined up on opposite sides of the line, Kelly’s team ran a sweep toward the tight end; if they lined up on the same side, it was an inside zone away from the tight end.

So, is San Francisco doomed to another year of offensive failure? Not necessarily, and here are a few reasons why.

I don’t claim to be an Xs and Os expert; Chris Brown forgets more about football every day than I’ll ever know. But there are some solid reasons not to panic about his article.

  1. The article itself is not as gloomy as Brown’s tweets about it.

Brown tweeted this today:

But his article doesn’t say "fundamentally broken" or anything like it. Quite the opposite; he talks about Joe Gibbs’ Washington teams that, "were, like Kelly’s, built around one-back formations and an elegantly simple running game."

Brown quotes Bill Belichick as saying that Gibbs disguised the plays with an ever-changing array of variations in formation, motion, personnel groups, etc, and says flat out that Chip could do the same.

...he doesn’t need to change his core philosophy and suddenly start using a 700-page playbook. Rather than add a bunch of new schemes, Kelly could better protect the plays he currently runs, by mixing in additional formations, motions, and shifts with his tempo to keep defenses off balance.

2. Unique problems in Philadelphia

A big part of the Eagles’ struggles last year was the result of the offensive line falling apart. Chip deserves a lot of the blame for that since he was the GM; cutting Evan Mathis was a clear mistake, and Chip did nothing to rebuild the line in the off season. It cost him his job.

But that doesn’t prove his play calling was bad or can’t work. No offensive schemes work with a terrible offensive line, and clearly the Niners have focused on fixing their woeful front five.

Quarterbacks are another problem that deserves it own point (next). The Eagles’ wide receivers were also terrible, though San Francisco’s may not be much better this year. At a minimum, the last minute acquisition of Rod Streater and Jeremy Kerley shows that the team recognizes the need for an upgrade.

3. Chip finally has mobile quarterbacks.

Sam Bradford was terrible at passing for the first seven games of 2015. But even when he improved after the bye, he could not or would not run.

That is not surprising since he was recovering from two consecutive ACL tears, but it defeats the whole point of the zone read as Brown notes. If there’s no chance of the QB keeping, it just becomes an awkwardly designed handoff out of shotgun.

Mark Sanchez had the legs but just refused to keep the ball for whatever reason.

Surprisingly, Nick Foles was the best of the three at pulling and running. True, he’d only get 5 yards where Mike Vick got 30-60 on the same play, but that was enough to make defenses hesitate. And it must have been that much more humiliating for defenders to get burned by him.

Kelly now has 3 mobile quarterbacks. Even Christian Ponder ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, compared to Foles’ 5.14 (slower than three of his five starting offensive lineman in 2013). And in the preseason, they’ve been running a full fledged zone read, a true option. 49ers quarterbacks ran 8 times against Houston, 4 vs. Denver, 9 against Green Bay and fully 12 times at San Diego.

4. Chip already has plays to break that tendency that Brown details.

I was surprised that Chris Brown did not mention two plays that Kelly ran in 2014 and 2015 to confound that "tell." The first involves the running back simply jumping to the other side of the quarterback right before the snap, after the defense has aligned.

The other goes by a couple of different names, the "H-Reverse" or the "Inside Zone Cutback." Fran Duffy, the Eagles’ excellent in-house analyst, described it among a number of new wrinkles that Chip introduced last November in week 9. They helped the Eagles rebound from the tough loss to Dallas that Chris Brown describes in his article, to beating the Cowboys just seven weeks later (while scoring 33 points).

None of this guarantees that Chip Kelly’s plays will work this year. I myself argued that he needs to make some fundamental changes earlier this year.

Thankfully, there are some encouraging signs that he has learned from his difficulties in Philadelphia, from the massive focus on improving the offensive line to acquiring mobile quarterbacks and lightening up on some of the player discipline (in regards to the color of socks, and no-longer-mandatory urine tests).

We don’t know what plays and formations Chip will unleash Monday night and of course the preseason tells us very little about that. Even the QB keepers we saw preseason could disappear when the games count. Will we see Chip play more wildcards like the Emory and Henry formation? It’ll be interesting to watch.

Emory and Henry formation, Eagles 2013
Emory and Henry formation, Eagles 2013