Challenging the Myths of New San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Chip Kelly
By Peter Panacy
New San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly brings a unique offensive mindset, but he’s also accompanied by plenty of question marks after his tenure in Philadelphia. Niner Noise takes a look at which concerns are legitimate and which ones are misleading.
Chip Kelly is going to be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers — news of which was announced Thursday, January 14.
When Kelly broke the collegiate ranks after a successful tenure at the University of Oregon and joined the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2013, he was seen as an offensive genius. Kelly was a coach capable of reinvigorating an offense.
That approach seemed to work for the first two years with the Eagles. Kelly posted a 20-12 record between 2013-14 before a series of personnel decisions and clashes with the Philadelphia front office led to his dismissal in 2015.
The Eagles finished with a 7-9 record last year.
Needless to say, Kelly comes with a lot of baggage and should be viewed as a high-risk, high-reward signing by San Francisco.
But how much of said baggage is legitimate and how much is misconception?
Perhaps the best analysis of some of the myths surrounding Kelly comes from David Neumann of Niners Nation. Neumann put together a tremendous piece breaking down each of the assumed traits and characteristics associated with Kelly.
And many of them are more fallacy than anything else.
For example, one notion is Kelly can’t identify with players in the locker room. Rather than professional athletes, Kelly treats his players as if they were still in the college ranks.
Former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick pointed this out a while back (h/t John Breech of CBS Sports).
“This thing is a powder keg ready to blow up, because as you guys know, you talk to the players, I’ve done their games, even when they’re 10-6 the last two years, the players aren’t real fond of the way they do business and the way they practice,” Billick said on the Move the Sticks podcast. “They feel like they’re being treated like college players.”
Similar rumblings were heard during the Jim Harbaugh era. Just ask former NFL great Deion Sanders or 49ers guard Alex Boone for clarification.
But Neumann puts a detailed explanation behind this slippery-slope assumption of players “quitting” on their head coach:
"The problem with these sort of narratives is that they’re often lazy, hindsight-driven excuses for poor play on the field. I’m not denying that some players may not like Kelly or the way he does things. But in nearly any work environment it’s naive to assume that everyone has the warm and fuzzies for their boss, let alone all 53 players on an NFL roster.It doesn’t take an exceeding amount of effort to find additional examples of coaches who have gone through rough patches and had their team supposedly quit on them, only to rebound with zero discussion on how the team un-quit."
Neumann also goes into extensive detail about Kelly’s up-tempo, fast-paced offense. Just like the assumption about the NFL catching on to quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he tore through the league between 2012 and 2013, one might argue the NFL figured out Kelly’s offense as well.
Kelly’s offense over his first two years with Philadelphia ranked within the top five — No. 4 and No. 3 in points, respectively. But that rank dropped to No. 13 in 2015.
It seems easy to connect the dots, right? The league caught up.
Not so fast. Neumann points this out:
"To say Kelly should be credited for introducing to professional football many of the concepts he’s criticized for would also be incorrect. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been carving up defenses with the no-huddle outside of the two-minute drill for years — which also happens to be a strategy the NFL can trace back to the Bengals of the 1980s — and the Patriots began to implement Kelly’s famed tempo back in 2012.Tactics attributed to Chip’s gimmicky offense have already spread throughout the league, and they’re tactics that are here to stay."
Another excellent point by Neumann is to evaluate how Kelly’s up-tempo style comes at the expense of his defense.
Perhaps this is a notion carried over by the four seasons Kelly was at the helm of the Oregon Ducks. But Kelly’s offense ended up running fewer plays than his opponents, on average, twice between 2009-12. And the difference was never greater than 5.2 plays per game — not exactly an overwhelming difference.
Neumann points this out as well during Kelly’s pro tenure:
"Kelly’s Eagles did consistently see a high number of snaps on defense — Philadelphia finished in the top two in defensive snaps during each of Kelly’s three seasons, a feat they matched on offense — but there’s not some extreme difference between the Eagles and the rest of the league. The difference in snaps between the Eagles and an average NFL defense over the past three seasons works out to about 5–7 snaps per game, hardly enough to get up in arms about."
Five to seven snaps per game — right in line with the difference seen at Oregon. And it’s also misleading to view Kelly’s offense as operating at only a breakneck speed.
Like many offenses with up-tempo potential, Kelly is known for varying the offense depending on what the defense is doing. It was a concept argued by 49ers coaching legend Bill Walsh in his book Finding the Winning Edge, and the approach has been used around the league long before Kelly broke the NFL ranks.
Kelly doesn’t have an offensive game plan consisting of just full-throttle tactics. All it takes is a casual observation of the Eagles’ last three seasons to view that. Go subscribe to NFL League Pass if you have any doubt.
The final misconception is that Kelly will eventually butt heads with general manager Trent Baalke — a problem not seen long ago when the latter had his issues with Harbaugh.
Yes, this happened before with Kelly. And it’s likely a primary reason why he was let go from the Eagles.
For now, that potential conflict will be put on hold. Kelly is to handle the on-field efforts while Baalke handles personnel, per NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport.
And if that relationship stays this way, there shouldn’t be too much cause for concern. But going deeper, it’s impossible to say a coach — or a human being, for that matter — can’t learn from mistakes.
Kelly gambled on himself in 2015. It failed. While Kelly may have his own vision which, at some point, could clash with Baalke, it’s reasonable to assume the former has had his fair share of “humble pie.”
Perhaps Baalke has too after the debacle that was the transition from Harbaugh to Jim Tomsula as head coach.
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It’s impossible to predict exactly what happens from here. But one thing that should be established is the preconceived notions accompanying Kelly to San Francisco are just that: preconceived. There are more than enough facts standing in stark contrast to what has been said about the 49ers’ new head coach.
So maybe this works out to the Niners’ benefit after all.
Next: Pros and Cons of Hiring Chip Kelly
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.