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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2 thoughts on “Chip Kelly lands in Philly: The NFL at a tactical crossroad

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