I was surprised by Chip Kelly’s firing from his twin post of head coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, but I cannot say I was shocked. My surprise came from the fact that the team’s decision to sack him went against everything we were hearing in the days that preceded it. And while even his most energetic defenders (of which I am one) wouldn’t dare say the firing was unjustified, hence the absence of shock, his firing, much like his hiring, carries the potential of league-wide ramifications. Knee-jerk reactions were legion, but it matters for the NFL that its notoriously conservative
boys’ club of coaches draw the right lessons from his firing.
One rather large problem for both Kelly and any team thinking of hiring him is that there are very few organizations for which the former Oregon prodigy coach is actually a fit. One of the reasons why this is the case is because it is rather necessary that he be hired as a head coach. Allow me to explain. Some people have suggested that an NFL team should hire Kelly as an offensive coordinator. In abstracto, this makes sense. After all, why not limit him to a role that more rarely demands the leader-of-men qualities Kelly so obviously failed to display as a head coach in Philadelphia? Upon further scrutiny, however, this idea carries its share of potential pitfalls.
The most obvious one is the following: if Kelly is not the head coach, then the team’s entire coaching staff must be unequivocally on board with the changes that Kelly’s hurry-up, no-huddle offence entails. You see, I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a mere hurry-up offence; there are only hurry-up TEAMS. Having the hurry-up as your base offensive M.O. forces coaches on both sides of the ball to alter their coaching methods to the extent that anyone who has coached in a more traditional setting will find themselves profoundly challenged by this new format. The odds are that, while some coaches may embrace the opportunity to innovate, most will not. The way hurry-up college teams practice would be heresy to many seasoned NFL coaches. A few years ago, I had the privilege of coaching a football camp with former Montreal Alouettes receiver Shaun Diner, who played for Kelly at New Hampshire. At the time, Kelly was starting to become a household name at Oregon, and Diner told me the biggest thing for Kelly was always that everyone buy into what the team was doing. Nothing kills the hurry-up, no-huddle’s chances of success faster than coaches and/or players who let their skepticism affect their preparation. If Kelly is the head coach, then he gets to pick assistants who believe the system can work. If he’s not, he has to win over a staff he hasn’t chosen, in which case his odds of stumbling into colleagues who are refractory to his methods increase dramatically.
There is more. Within the NFL community, two highly problematic viewpoints about Kelly’s system appear to persist:
- The system has become so intimately associated with Kelly himself. Is it possible that Kelly simply lacks the man-management skills required to connect with
the group of narcissistic and capricious millionaires known asNFL players? Of course. However, it would be both dangerous and intellectually inept for the larger football community (Yes, I’m looking at you, media!!) to create an amalgam between the system he brought to the league and the way he interacted with players as well as with his unequivocally disastrous decisions as personnel director. Whatever one thinks of Kelly’s system, though, it would be hasty to condemn it along with the coach himself given that so many other factors went into the Eagles’ struggles this year. If the NFL community refrains from hiring a coach who runs a similar offence just because Kelly “failed” in Philadelphia, then his firing will be a tremendous setback for the mere idea of offensive innovation in the NFL. (P.S.: So two 10-win seasons and a playoff berth in three years is failing in the NFL, now? I’m sure the likes of Ron Rivera, Jason Garrett, and John Fox are glad they weren’t held to that same lofty standard. Makes you wonder why, though.)
- It’s still often associated with the expression “The Spread”, and with option quarterbacks. Coming into the NFL, Kelly had enjoyed plenty of success spreading the field, and combining his hurry-up, no-huddle with a lethal read-option game at Oregon. Unfortunately, though, it seems that seeing so much option coupled with spread formations, the hurry-up, and the no-huddle has convinced many people, including several journalists that all these things go together and cannot be dissociated from each other. Without getting into the tactical minutiae of why this idea is problematic, let’s just quickly separate these notions from one another. Not all spread attacks carry pure run-run option plays (in fact, on aggregate, few of them do). Moreover, we really have to rethink of what we include in the definition of the “option” play, because to think of it as strictly a running play that puts the quarterback in jeopardy, nowadays, is inadequate; the run-pass option, which usually keeps the quarterback in the pocket as a passer, is such a huge part of college football now that many offences use it as the foundation of what they do. Also, just because the quarterback is in the shotgun doesn’t mean his team runs a spread offence, nor does his being under-centre prevent the offence from being a spread (to the latter’s effect, the system Drew Brees ran at Purdue comes to the mind). Even if your quarterback is in the gun, if the rest of your personnel includes a fullback, a tailback and a tight end, you’re not in a spread alignment. Too many people who comment on the NFL have internalized these amalgams (along with the idea that spread offences can’t work in the NFL though they have now become the norm in the league today), and it’s a problem.
Looking at things as they stand today, it seems obvious that many people around the NFL are delighted that Kelly has “failed.” Unfortunately for those of us who badly want to see his brand of offence succeed in the pros, his detractors have on their side a few undeniable points:
- The fact that, for the reasons we’ve just covered at length, he HAS to be head coach if you’re going to hire him.
- Making his offence work is going to be a high-maintenance balancing act from a personnel perspective: If the player personnel director isn’t on the absolute same page as Kelly, the organization risks assembling a team of square pegs for round holes. Therefore, the easiest thing would be to put Kelly in charge of personnel… except the Eagles tried that, and the results were nothing short of atrocious. In the span of what amounts to a year-and-a-half, he managed to a) cut two key starting offensive linemen and replace them with scrubs; b) get some players to state publicly that he can’t relate to stars, and that he doesn’t like black players (the latter is most likely untrue, but the damage is done); c) make other really, really puzzling roster moves – i.e. 1) let Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson go, but re-signed Riley Cooper, 2) traded Brandon Boykin for what amounts to Big Mac leftovers, 3) spent a first-round pick on the invisible Marcus Smith, 4) spent big money on free agent bust Byron Maxwell, a press corner who, from the very beginning, might as well have come from Seattle with the expression “product of the system” tattooed on his forehead, and then played him at free safety, where he’ll never get to press, 5) signed BOTH DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews to play running back, neither of whom were really going to work because the O-Line was neglected, and Murray flopped badly; d) replaced Nick Foles (not a great fit for Kelly’s offence) with Sam Bradford (an even worse fit for his offence). The condensed version of this train crash? Kelly has proven himself unworthy of controlling personnel.
- The offence may be a tough sell for many NFL veterans. We’ve blamed Kelly, the person, for many of his Eagles’ struggles. Journalists have speculated ad nauseam about whether his way of handling players might only be suited for the college game. However, the system does require an unusual level of commitment from players, especially when it comes to the way they practice. I want to blame Kelly’s failings on his inability to be the diva whisperer most pro coaches have to be and on his blunders as a GM. Still, we have to account, at this point, for the possibility that the system itself might be as tough to accept for players as Kelly’s personality. I hope it’s not true, and I don’t think it is. But we can’t rule it out.
That said, NFL GMs and owners would also do well to contemplate the following facts, which show Kelly in a more favourable light:
- The notion that his system has proven itself fundamentally unsound for the NFL is a misconception: No, it didn’t look pretty this year with the wrong personnel, and yes, it does put pressure on the defence when they fail to at least gain a few first downs. Yet, Kelly himself will have to wonder not only what possessed himself to make all these reprehensibly dumb personnel decisions, but also why he so bastardized the offence that worked so well in his first year. In fact, one could make the argument that he coached against ghosts, and anticipated that opposing coaches would “figure it out” instead of testing whatever so-called solutions DCs would have for it. He was roasting the NFL with his run-pass option plays his first year. Why did he get away from that? What would happen if a coach, Kelly or someone else, stuck to that gameplan and combined it with Kelly’s trademark tempo? Take the read option, for example. Tune in to the NFL Network, and you won’t have to wait long to hear some meat-head ex-player triumphantly claim that NFL coaches have figured the read option out. No, they haven’t! There is no “figuring it out.” You either ask one guy to play both potential ball carriers, or you assign a player for each one. Both ways have their strengths and weaknesses but, in the end, it’s a sound football play that carries its share of counters depending on how the defence plays it. And in any case, athletes will make plays on it, or they won’t; just as is the case with any other play, really. Kelly’s tempo just makes it harder for defensive players to muster the concentration required to defend it properly.
- If it’s not Kelly, it’ll have to be someone else because… at all other levels of football, neither the spread nor the option are going away, people. Used to be, high school teams would take their best athlete and put him at running back, because if you’re running a pro-style offence, it’s the best way to get him a higher number of touches. But with the spread came the realization that while putting the great athlete at running back meant he touched the ball a lot, putting him at quarterback means he touches the ball every single play. It’s simply too advantageous a proposition to pass up. And since spread systems with lots of run-pass options (which mean lots of short throws to left-alone receivers) are now the norm in the NCAA as well, several players who would have played receiver or running back in the past because of their marginal passing skills now play quarterback despite the fact that they can’t make every throw because they’ll still be dynamite as dual-threat guys. Before Marcus Mariota, a legitimate first-round NFL prospect, those are the kind of guys (Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas) Kelly turned into college superstars. And no, none of Mariota’s predecessors would have been suitable starters for the NFL, but that’s the nature of the beast; some spread option products will be good enough for the NFL, and most won’t be. Yet, how is that any different from products of NCAA pro-style offences? Need we really reminisce about the likes of Jimmy Clausen, John David Booty, Jordan Palmer (Carson’s brother), Matt Leinart, or the immortal Mark Sanchez? In any case, spread passers outnumber the Andrew Lucks of the world by a stronger ratio every year, even now. UCLA has a dynamite pro-style prospect, Josh Rosen, who played the 2015 season for the Bruins as a true freshman. What did he run at UCLA this year? All run-pass option stuff. It baffles how quick we are to dismiss the likes of Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin as being finished as NFL starters because they don’t work when handcuffed in a traditional offence. Yet, we seem to think it’s OK that thoroughly limited players like Andy Dalton, don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferers like Jay Cutler, and good-stats-on-a-bad-team guys like Matthew Stafford are on $100-million contracts, holding their teams hostage because said teams don’t want to risk “winding up in quarterbacking hell.” Instead, these teams are stuck in QB purgatory, and I hope for their sake that their fans learn to enjoy it, because that’s where they’ll remain as long as these mediocre passers remain on their roster, eating up cap space like offensive linemen eat up carbs at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Something’s gotta give, so unless the NFL is willing to start its own minor league system, the league’s largely inflexible coaches will need to start doing a better job of tailoring their offence to the abilities of dual-threat quarterbacks.
Moreover, there is another reason to want Chip Kelly, and his brand of offence, to succeed: the sheer spectacle of it. Watch Oregon games from Kelly’s time there, or even the very first game he coached for the Eagles. It is fun, man! College football has spoiled us in terms of system diversity to the extent that I often find it tedious to watch 32 teams run variations of the exact same offence. Seriously, I watch NFL offences play, and most of the time, the only thing that allows me to tell them apart is their teams’ uniforms. Potentially, Chip Kelly could change that. There were even times in Kelly’s three years in Philadelphia when it looked as though he just might have pulled it off. For the sake of the “watchability” of its offensive football, the NFL needs Kelly, or someone else like him, to succeed. Since Kelly is already here, the NFL might as well give him a real go. Lots of things have to be in place within a team’s infrastructure for it to work, and for goodness’ sake, Kelly mustn’t be put in charge of personnel. None of it, however, alters the fact that the main thing I hope to learn about the Kelly experiment in the NFL is that it isn’t over.