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Sorting through the Chip Kelly postmortems

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Two major articles offer interesting insights

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The end of this miserable 49ers season offers two consolations; the simple fact that the pain is over, and a raft of new information about what went wrong.

The latter includes inside info from Bruce Feldman (Chip won’t rule out college jobs; 2 schools might fire their coaches if they can get Chip) and Jay Glazer (Baalke killed the Adam Gase hire last year; Chip chose not to fight with Baalke; and "Chip told me last night, 'I'll go be an offensive coordinator somewhere.' He just wants to be a football guy.“)

Then there was this, from Matt Miller and Mike Garofalo:

While Jed York and Trent Baalke have a history of leaks, Chip Kelly and his circle have been unusually tight-lipped, at least while he is employed. Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard told a Philadelphia radio station that his major 2015 profile of Kelly

"was one of the toughest assignments I've had. His inner circle doesn't give anything up."

When Chip gets fired, though, that changes, either through leaks or direct quotes (as Jay Glazer had above.)

The best articles in this flood of data come from Yahoo’s Charles Robinson and ESPN The Magazine’s Seth Wickersham.

Robinson is an investigative writer and NFL columnist for Yahoo!, combining a lot of sources with strong opinions. Earlier, he had pinned the 49ers’ problems on Jed York failing to stand up to Trent Baalke. Tuesday, he wrote that Chip never had a chance, in an article filled with choice nuggets of information based on, “multiple sources – some close to Kelly, some inside the 49ers franchise and some in the NFL personnel community.”

Robinson argues that Kelly’s confidence, and assurances of support from Jed York and Tom Gamble, led him to accept a doomed job he should have passed on. The article contains at least two very interesting scoops:

1. The New England Patriots had offered Chip some sort of vague role in 2016.

While friends reached out to Kelly and invited him to spend some time with their organizations as he regrouped (including the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick), York was the only one who immediately expressed interest in snapping up Kelly.

2. Baalke undermined the coach by calling a staff meeting while Chip was off at his dad’s funeral.

According to one source, Baalke called a staff meeting at some point during Kelly’s two days away from the franchise, apparently hoping to send a message about rallying down the stretch. Some in the building felt calling such a meeting was inappropriate with Kelly out of town.

The gist of his argument is that Chip carefully avoided exerting his influence in personnel matters or fighting with Baalke -- after his fatal battle with GM Howie Roseman in Philadelphia — but that conflict continued nonetheless.

Robinson’s quotes don’t quite support that picture, to my eye. They speak more of an aloof relationship between the men than the “toxic,” “battling” relationship Robinson portrays. But those scoops alone make it a must-read.


Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine is arguably the best feature writer in sports, and not just because there are only a handful left. He has written perceptively on Kelly before, in his longform article about the coach’s relationship with LeSean McCoy from August of 2014.

A great feature story is the symphony of sportswriting, mixing a wide-angle view with incisive details, a moving personal story and, ideally, truths about the broader world outside of sports.

This story has many of those elements. Wickersham starts strong by getting the big picture right — that Chip Kelly has always suffered from the hype around him, hype he did little to foster.

I believe he was just pursuing aggressive football the way he knew best, but his no-huddle tempo offense, sports science, sideline picture play-calls and aggressive strategy was a perfect match for Nike’s marketing department and the budding Internet media-scape’s visual emphasis. Kelly was able to recruit players such as LaMichael James to Oregon in part due to the flashy uniforms Nike provided.

All of this hype created, “a weird expectation, which he neither endorsed nor completely denied, that he would not only win, but also engineer a football revolution.”

And that expectation immediately created a backlash among more traditional fans and pundits. The kneejerk dismissals of his “gimmicky college offense” continue with a bizarre vigor four years later, despite all evidence to the contrary.

To be fair, I profited from and contributed to this hype as much as anybody by writing two books and hundreds of columns about Kelly, though I stand by everything I wrote. My second book, “Controlled Chaos,” tells the story of the 2014 season starting with the DeSean Jackson controversy and captures the moment where the wheels started to come off of Chip’s bandwagon.

Wickersham goes on to sum up the rest of Chip’s history deftly and succinctly: his relative inflexibility, and fatal weakness in picking defensive coordinators; his influence on NFL schemes, tempos and sports science; his successes despite poor quarterbacking; and the growth in his “emotional intelligence” this year.

I don’t agree with everything Wickersham writes. It’s not accurate to say Kelly “never adjusted or modernized his offense” in a year when the coach abandoned tempo, adopted the pistol and introduced new plays such as the counter-trey.

The writer makes too much of Chip telling LeSean McCoy that “I want to be the best coach ever.” Is any other goal acceptable? I wouldn’t hire someone who said “If all goes well and I catch a couple of breaks, I think I can be a Jeff Fisher-level coach for at least 4 to 5 years.”

Then there’s this passage:

People always cast him in scientific terms -- the Chip Kelly Experiment -- but really, he carried a promise.

Kelly knew it, too. He would tell friends that he always felt he was playing with house money in the NFL. He would either revolutionize professional football or go back to college, where his dominance was unquestioned.

I totally believe that Chip told a friend that he was playing with house money in the NFL. Hell, I think he probably felt he was playing with house money at Oregon, after a long and happy stretch as an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of New Hampshire.

But there is no way Kelly ever said “I am going to revolutionize professional football or go back to college where my dominance is unquestioned.” That’s just not how he talks or thinks. Like Marcus Mariota, Kelly has a very rare mix of supreme confidence and a sort of humility. Someone is putting words in Chip’s mouth there, either Wickersham or the source(s) he is quoting.

If Chip continued that thought, it would sound more like:

I’m playing with house money. I get to coach football with the best players and opponents in the world for at least a few years, and if I don’t cut it, I can always go back to college or be an assistant somewhere.

Which is probably what he will do. Because, those quibbles aside, Wickersham’s conclusion nails the big picture:

...in the end, Chip Kelly turned out to not be an idea after all. He was, like the rest of them, just a coach.