Chip Kelly lands in Philly: The NFL at a tactical crossroad

The Philadelphia Eagles have already taken on what will be undoubtedly the riskiest bet of the NFL 2013-2014 season when they hired Chip Kelly to succeed Andy Reid as head coach. Kelly held for four years in the same position with the University of Oregon Ducks. Beyond Kelly’s colossal salary, the hire itself represents a huge risk.This decision from owner Jeffrey Ermie is one that exudes despair, and the result is likely to reflect that. Most likely, the Eagles will either be recognized as visionaries who will have jumpstarted a new evolution of offensive tactics in the NFL or as the most recent case of a team to whiff on a college coach whose system was not adapted to the NFL. The list of flops is long: from Lou Holtz to Bobby Petrino to Steve Spurrier. If the Eagles are wrong about Chip Kelly, they’ll be neither the first nor the last team to hire the wrong NCAA coach.

Principles of the Kelly system

It’s a safe bet that, despite the doubts of some, the arrival of Kelly in Philadelphia spark a wave of enthusiasm. The new coach comes to town with a record of 46 wins and seven losses with the Ducks. His offensive system, the trademark of his time at Oregon, is hard to defend because of the combination of two tactics that are themselves difficult to counter.

1. The spread option

The idea is to align three or four wide receivers most of the time in order to force the defence to defend the entire field, which creates spaces that the offence can then exploit. Traditionally, the spread is a philosophy designed to maximize the productivity of the passing game.

This is where Chip Kelly’s sytem moves away from  conventions. To the spread look, Kelly adds the option, an offensive system as old as the world is which involves choosing an opponent – often a defensive end – the offensive line will not block, but who will be forced to choose between two threats to carry the ball – the quarterback or another ball carrier (mostly the running back, although many variations exist), which in turn puts the defensive player in a position where the decision he makes will always be wrong regardless of which it is.

Teams like Kelly’s, who play spread systems, refer to this base play as the “zone read” or “read option” (the latter usually run from the pistol formation). When properly executed, the option forces the defence to try to stop the offence with one player less, since the victim of the option is “blocked” by the player who will not get the ball on the option and because the quarterback in an option system, unlike traditional pocket passers, forces the defense to consider him a true running threat. By incorporating the option in his spread attack, Kelly has built a system that, despite its spread look, is built around the ground game.

2. The no-huddle

The spread option is already difficult to defend in and of itself, but when combined with the fact that the opponent’s offence chains together plays at a frantic pace, the task becomes almost impossible. The Ducks maintained an average of 82.8 offensive plays per game in 2012, an unthinkable figure a few years ago. This is how Chip Kelly and the Ducks have abused the overwhelming majority of defences they have faced. Rather than huddling up, the offence immediately lines up in position to run another play and then either receives its call from the sideline or gets it from the quarterback, who calls it based on what he sees from the defence on his pre-snap read. The advantage of this tactic is threefold.

First, a defence whose conditioning is not at top level will get tired long before the end of the game. It is often at this point that the Ducks pile up points faster than the scoreboard dude can add them up. Second, it prevents personnel changes, forcing the same defensive players to stay on the field longer and continue to play at full speed physically and mentally, which becomes increasingly difficult as the game progresses. Finally, this limits the variety of plays that the opponent’s defense can call. Generally, the defensive coordinator has different personnel groupings put together to do different things. Therefore, they are reluctant to force their players out of their comfort zone, which often leads them to stick to the playbook’s most basic scheme, which they know all their players can perform. In turn, this makes it easier for the offence to analyse.

The thing Kelly preaches compulsively is tempo. His teams are at their best when they run their schemes at a higher speed than what the adversary can handle. No doubt Kelly will try to convey this mindset to the Eagles who, in Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, have the kind of speed that Kelly looks for when he builds his team. Moreover, it is easy to see running back LeSean McCoy excel in this kind of offence.

A big risk

If the Chip Kelly system is so prolific, why is it not the norm in football? One reason is that it is a fairly young system, used by some NCAA coaches since the 2000s (Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez). But there are also significant technical considerations.The offence requires numerous specific qualities from its quarterback, which makes finding the proper triggerman, already difficult task at the university level, even harder to do in the pros. Kelly must find a smart player, capable of reading the defence and making decisions very quickly while still passing the ball properly. The absolutely ideal candidate would probably have been Robert Griffin, but it will not happen for obvious reasons, so what are the real possibilites? Kelly will not be able to get away with the kind of ordinary passer he made look good at Oregon, because the passing windows close much faster in the NFL.

On paper, Michael Vick has the qualities that would make him a world beater in the Kelly system. However, he is no longer a youngster and his contractual situation along with the questions about its durability make him a big question mark. Guaranteed to be on the way out as long Andy Reid remained in charge, Vick now sees his chances of staying increase a little bit. After all, if it is not Vick, than who can Kelly find?

Tim Tebow’s name comes quickly to mind, as he played in an option system with the Florida Gators, under the tutelage of Urban Meyer. But do Kelly and the Eagles want all the publicity that would inevitably follow Tebow to Philadelphia? And what about the Golden Boy’s passing skills – or lackthereof? This attack is easily Kelly thwarted when the passing game does not work (see game vs Stanford this year), so it is hard to imagine that a passer as mediocre as Tebow can get it done against a quality opponent.

Another source of concern, and this is probably the main reason why it took so long for a spread option coach to get a chance in the NFL, is that the quarterback who doubles as a ball carrier is exposed to frequent contact with the league’s nastiest defenders. No owner likes to see his quarterback, whom he pays millions a year, collide regularly with the likes of James Harrison or DeMarcus Ware. But nowadays, with each new rule increasingly favouring the offence and with the hyper-protection (if not over-protection) of quarterback today, I do not think the risk is as important as it would have been a few years ago. Moreover, if we look at the statistics of  Oregon’s offence this season, we see that the quarterback Marcus Mariotta is indeed third on the team in terms of rushing yards, but he is far behind the first two : running back Kenyon Barner and all-purpose speed dynamo De’Anthony Thomas. Chip Kelly’s system does not require a quarterback to carry the ball very often, only to be able to do it effectively.

The other challenge that will face Kelly will be to “sell” his vision to the veteran players under his leadership, whose disillusionment with Andy Reid became most obvious through the course of the 2012 season. These players will make politically correct statements during the offseason, but there doubtlessly will be a fair amount of skepticism in the Eagles’ locker room. In the summer of 2011, I had a very interesting discussion with former Alouettes receiver Shaun Diner, who played for Kelly at the University of New Hampshire while he was offensive coordinator there. Diner revealed to me that the neglected element of Kelly’s success is his ability to convince his players to buy into his vision. “Kelly,” Diner told me, “has a vision in mind and knows what it takes to get there, but if you, as a player, do not fully buy in, it will not work.” For the success of Chip Kelly’s offence is based on frenetic tempo and relentlessly fast execution, not on the complexity of the system. It is the ideology behind the system that makes it another animal altogether. Everyone knew what Chip Kelly’s Ducks would do, yet nobody could stop them.

An exciting prospect

The last coach hired by an NFL team in similar circumstances was probably Steve Spurrier, and his failure with the Redskins was miserable. Kelly must learn from Spurrier’s two major errors in Washington. There isn’t a reason to be too worried about the first one: Spurrier tried to play his system “Fun-N-Gun” as he did at Florida, without adapting it to the NFL. However, Kelly has probably seen how some teams, including the Redskins and the 49ers, have managed to run option plays while protecting their quarterback and causing headaches for opposing defences. Surely, he’ll draw some inspiration from what these teams did.

The second mistake will be more hazardous to avoid . Upon his arrival in Washington, Steve Spurrier was quick to sign several former players of his at the University of Florida, most of them fundamentally limited in terms of athletic ability, because they knew his system. That was a big mistake. Kelly must  be careful, however tempting it will be, not to fall into the same trap.

Nevertheless, it has been a while since a coach hired from the NCAA into the NFL had the potential to change the game so profoundly. If Kelly, as Jeffrey Ermie believes, succeeds in establishing his attack as viable in the NFL, it will be a tactical revolution. The NFL is, after all, a “copycat league”, and if Kelly makes his system work in the NFL, many bad teams will  subsequently scour the college ranks to find the next Kelly.

Hiring Chip Kelly is definitely a risk. It is possible that NFL defences will prove too athletic for the offence to work against top teams, as it is possible that the devastation of the Packers by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick  is a taste of what is to come during the Kelly era in Philadelphia. Will the gamble pay off for the Eagles? Five years ago, I would have said no. But if the NFL of today, which gets a little closer to being flag football every year, is not ripe for such an offensive system as Chip Kelly’s, then it is difficult to imagine that it would be one day. No attack in the NFL in 2012 was half as enjoyable to watch as that of the Oregon Ducks. It is therefore likely that the Eagles will be more exciting to watch next year (not difficult).

More exciting, sure. But better than before?

Note: This feature was first published in French for the web site Accrofoot.com. You can access the French version here: 

http://accrofootmag.com/2013/01/chip-kelly-a-philly-la-nfl-a-la-croisee-des-chemins-tactiquement-du-moins/

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Picks for this upcoming weekend’s NFL playoff games

Seattle over Atlanta: I’ll start with the shortest one. Seattle is on a hot streak right now, and in this blog post (https://turpterritory.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/on-the-falcons-so-called-elite-qbs-tebow-to-the-jags-and-the-holidays/), I explain why I’ll bet against Atlanta all the way until they win a Super Bowl. Pick: Seattle

Denver over Baltimore: Last week, I discussed how depleted, aging and on-the-decline the Ravens’ defence is, but they were playing the Bengals, so meh! This week, the bad state of their defence is a real problem facing Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ O. Besides, that Ravens O-Line is going to need some serious help to block Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. I think the Broncos are just superior, plus the game’s in Denver. Pick: Denver.

New England over Houston: The Bengals’ D, which might be better than the Pats’, gave real headaches to Houston last week. Houston’s offence is so heavily dependent on them successfully running the outside zone that a big game for Vince Wilfork and ILBs Mayo and Hightower could completely derail their plans. Last week, the Bengals did it and Houston couldn’t move the ball. I think it happens again this week. Moreover, the problem with Houston’s D is that if you block JJ Watt, the rest of the unit is nothing to brag about. I think the Pats will minimize Watt’s impact. He might annoy them a bit, but I see the Pats spreading out the Houston back 7 and picking them apart. Pick: New England

San Fran over Green Bay: Did the Niners peak at the wrong time? Maybe, but I think the matchup with the Packers favours them. There’s no need to worry about making the Packers’ offence 1-dimensional; it already is. Then, there’s the fact that the GB OL is lousy and crippled by injury. If Donald Barclay is still playing RT for the Packers, there is trouble ahead. There is no way Barclay is blocking Aldon or Justin Smith unless he’s allowed to use a 2-by-4. The Packers already can’t run, which means Aaron Rodgers is gonna have to win this on his own, which I can’t see him doing given how little time he figures to have to throw the ball. On the other side, you can run against this Packers D, and while they… no, wait, Joe Webb did a good job stopping the Vikes’ 1-man offence, between Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and three backs who can be dangerous catching out of the backfield, the Niners have enough options to trouble the Packers defensively. Meanwhile, the Bears will tell you how well things will go if you’re reduced to throwing the ball without much of an O-Line. This could be an ugly game for Aaron Rodgers. Besides,if San Fran establishes the running game, and I can’t see how the Pack stops both Gore and Kaepernick, it’s over. Pick: San Fran.

Response to Bill Simmons: why Jadaveon Clowney is no cause for questioning the NFL’s three-year rule

Sometimes people you care for will say something that makes you want to whack them behind the head with a clipboard. As a trained journalist, I like Grantland founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons a lot. He has rejuvenated my interest in basketball with his consistently funny analysis of the NBA and of his darling Boston Celtics, whom he criticizes in a way only affectionate fans can. You can tell hoops is a sport he has followed all of his life. Moreover, he wrote my single favourite piece of sports journalism of 2012, a touching, engaging column entitled “The consequences of caring,” which I strongly recommend you read right here: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8026268/the-consequences-caring.

However, listening to my man Simmons on his podcast, The B.S. Report (hahaha… I know), he said two things so ignorant my heart sank. The discussion revolved around South Carolina’s alien defensive end Jadaveon Clowney and how impressive it was to watch him de-cleet Michigan running back Vincent Brown, which it was. The hit forced a fumble from Brown, which Clowney subsequently recovered. With one hand. (Side note: The hit was indeed impressive, but look at the play again. Watch, after Clowney crosses the OT’s face into the B gap, his acceleration to get to Brown. THAT is rare. It’s what allowed Clowney to derail Brown like an 18-wheeler running over a cat and it’s what makes Clowney the freakiest defensive end to grace the fields of college football since Julius Peppers some 11 years ago. That and his hands, which must be about as big as my size 15 feet.)

But I digress. Simmons indeed did not think his words through. First, he criticized the NFL’s rule that forces players to wait three years after graduating high school before entering the league. And secondly, he questioned why anyone would watch college sports (which really ticked me off). But I shall deal with these claims in separate posts, lest I hit the 10,000-word mark. I shall now deal with why Simmons is wrong to call the three-year rule into question.

Why the argument that “college is not for everybody” is irrelevant

Could Jadeveon Clowney play in the NFL right now? Probably. But to hear a respected writer say that this fact should bring the NFL’s 3-year rule into question is painful. I don’t want to be condescending (yet we all know this means I will be anyway), but this is a claim that could only be uttered by someone who has never played football at a high level (and Maurice Clarett).

Simmons is a big basketball guy and it shows. He compared Clowney to Lebron James, who didn’t play college ball and went straight to the NBA with the results we’re all too familiar with. The comparison is evocative, but it is so absurd that I’m shocked his colleague Bill Barnwell, who’s supposed to know something about football (to the degree that he interviewed for a job with the Jaguars’ organization), didn’t reign him.

Football and basketball cannot be compared. The former is a collision sport, the latter is… well, not. Before the NBA put its stupid one-year rule into effect, high schoolers made the jump to the big leagues fairly routinely. Some worked out (Lebron, Kobe), some didn’t (Gerald Green), but I’m not sure you could have pinpointed a significantly lesser degree of success on high school grads compared to their NCAA counterparts. Besides, forcing a bling-hungry and cash-craving basketball prodigy to spend one year in college (one semester, in fact)  is like forcing an alcoholic in denial to attend A.A. meetings and telling him he can leave after 15 minutes. It’s likely that kids walking into college with a plan to stay only one year will get next to nothing out of their fraction of a college education. Thus, Simmons is right to say that the NBA college rule is stupid.

However, there’s no comparing it to the NFL’s rule.

First, the NFL rule forces someone to wait three years before entering the league, not one. In three years, you can get a lot done in college, and players who declare for the draft as juniors seldom have demoralizing amounts of coursework to complete to get their degree when they decide to return to college. Contrast that with the NBA, where a freshman who declares for the draft is just getting started academically. What are the chances that a one-and-done-guy-turned-first-round-bust returns to college once he gives up on the NBA career? Not that he’d need to, but suppose he did, what are the chances of Melo Anthony returning to Syracuse after his career is over given that he still has at least three years left to complete?

Moreover, I don’t care if these players get degrees from their school’s faculty of “wiping your own ass;” the intellectual exercise that is attending and completing university courses trains these young men in several dimensions, many they might not appreciate until much later. Yes, some need university more than others and some are better suited for it than others, but there is no denying that the person who undertakes university studies will draw benefits from it which will remain foreign to the person who doesn’t. Running back Maurice Clarett, even though he studied in “Family resources management” (…lol?) at Ohio State before dropping out and challenging the three-year rule in court, would have been a smarter, perhaps even a better citizen, had he completed his university education. It’s not a foolproof solution by any means; university didn’t stop Lawrence Phillips from racking up a list of domestic violence incidents as long as your arm, and it didn’t stop Rae Carruth from murdering his girlfriend. But we must remember that cases of inappropriate conduct are the exception in the NFL and that most players are indeed model citizens who figure to have grown intellectually during their academic training. Besides, not to get political here, but it seems to me that the United States is not a country that can afford to gamble with its collective intellect any more than it currently does. Therefore, the phony argument that “college is not for everybody” means nothing to me. My answer is always, “how about we get these guys in a classroom and find out?” In other words, I have zero problems with the rule on that front.

If this doesn’t convince you, look at it from another perspective: what if Andrew Luck had been allowed to enter the NFL straight out of high school? We’ll get to physical readiness soon, but beyond that, do we really want to encourage a guy like him not to go to Stanford, not to max out his academic potential and give himself a backup plan in case the NFL career doesn’t work out? Yes, it’s unlikely, but hey, Rick Mirer had a great rookie year too. And how does this not open a total Pandora’s Box of inequality? Luck, or even Jimmy Clausen (who was, if you warp back to 2007, “the best high school quarterback prospect ever”), might not have felt any pressure to get paid early as they both came from deep pockets. But does the 17-year-old kid from a poor family in a dump town in Alabama have that same luxury when his mom is working three jobs? And why is this paragraph riddled with rhetorical questions? Seriously, though, describe the average NCAA football recruit. No, wait! I got this: somewhat self-deluded about his maturity and readiness, poor and black, mind you he could be white and it wouldn’t change a thing. It’s still a recipe for disaster to give these kids, who often have yet to acquire much of a feel for the long term, instant access to money and fame as an alternative to a college education. Critics might retort, “but how’s that different from a HS kid declaring for the NBA draft?” Well, it’s not, except for the fact that…

Physical maturity is a serious, serious concern

Simmons, to my dismay, tried to ridicule this concern that many, who have far greater insight and experience in the game of football than he does, continue to voice. When Maurice Clarett temporarily got the three-year rule invalidated before it was reinstated on appeal three or four days before the 2004 draft,  nearly every pro player surveyed on the subject thought Clarett slightly mad. It turns they were right. After a one-year hiatus, he applied for the draft in 2005 during which he was picked in the third round by Mike Shanahan’s Broncos, but got cut before the end of training camp. Just to show how out of his depth Clarett was, I’ve watched the NFL for about 18 years, and I haven’t seen another third rounder get released so quickly. And he was picked by Mike Shanahan, whose offence could turn a one-legged blind donkey into a 1,000-yard rusher!

It’s all well and good to say that Clowney could play in the NFL right now, but he has just finished his second with South Carolina. It’s not as if he’s fresh out of high school. Could he have played right out of high school? I have strong doubts. Predictably, the kid is nonsensically dominant on his high school film, but the tape also told the knowledgeable observer (and even the less knowledgeable one) that Clowney needed to work on getting bigger and stronger as well as improve greatly from a technical standpoint. He’s been doing that for two years. This hardly strikes me as the type of detail one should overlook.

Besides, suppose we were to grant that he was ready out of high school, it still wouldn’t alter what common sense dictates. An athlete with Clowney’s gifts comes around every 10-12 years. The last one I can think of is Julius Peppers. These cyborgs constitute less than 1 per cent of college players. The quasi-totality of high school players, ridiculously gifted though they may be, cannot hope to withstand the punishment NFL competition dishes out weekly on the league’s players. This rule doesn’t just protect the NCAA, that mediocre organization, and its sleazy athletic directors’ ability to make money off marketable young talent they practically get to exploit for free, though it does that. It doesn’t just protect the NFL from having teenagers wearing its uniforms, though it does that too. It also protects potentially desperate kids from themselves (and, sometimes, from their families). I’m positively not being patronizing. Just for fun, picture an 18-year-old wide receiver running a crossing pattern with Ray Lewis patrolling the area (knocks his lights out, then tells the kid, “God says you’re not ready for this”). Or better yet, try to imagine an 18-year-old O-lineman trying to block some elephant-sized mutant like Haloti Ngata or a rhinoceros with homicidal tendencies like Ndamokung Suh. There was a show that had people attempt sure-to-be painful feats like this. It was called Jackass.

And we haven’t even gotten to the part where some raw slot receiver from Long Beach, California tries (and fails) to break free from Darrelle Revis man coverage, or when some 220-pound Ohio linebacker with great upside realizes it may have been a mistake to skip Ohio State the first time he gets run over by Trent Richardson during his first preseason game, or when Calvin Johnson has some Floridian track star looks like a dog chasing his tail. in coverage. And this would make the NFL more compelling to watch… how exactly?

To get back briefly to Ray Lewis, it just occurred to me the abolition of the three-year rule would mean that should Lewis have decided to return next year for another season, he technically could have played against his son. Think about it.

The basketball comparison doesn’t work, among other reasons, because of the nature of the sport. The physical demands of football make it impossible to look at the two side-by-side. The closest thing you could find in North American sport to what football demands physically from players is hockey, though even that is a completely imperfect comparison. People might point out to hockey and say, “it’s a physical sport, and players get drafted at 16 or 17.” Yeah, but a) they don’t have to learn a playbook so thick it could be used as a weapon, and b) what happens to about 90 per cent of NHL rookies? They spend a few years in the minor league system, which football doesn’t have. Again, the comparison is problematic.

So, in short, we have a proposal that:

  1. bases itself on the impossible comparison between football and basketball to…
  2. tell us we should be fine with skipping an opportunity to educate a population of young men who might otherwise never get a chance to receive such an education so they can instead…
  3. get mauled on a daily basis by grown men who’ve been playing football forever, which would in turn…
  4. hurt college football because it would lose talented players, as well as…
  5. hurt the NFL because to have teens in there who flat-out don’t belong would diminish the calibre of the league.

So, in short, Bill, I love you, and your proposal is a great one except for the part where it’s bad for everyone involved. It would thus be much appreciated if you could warn us when another idea like this comes to your mind so we can be sure to hide. And then just let us know when it’s safe to come out.

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