Does Chip Kelly to 49ers Change the Balance in Power of the NFC West?
By Jerod Brown
The 49ers have officially announced Chip Kelly as the head coach to follow Jim Tomsula. After a disappointing 2015 season, is it possible that Kelly’s hiring changes the balance of power in the NFC West?
The 49ers went 5-11 in 2015 but, more importantly, only won one divisional game all season. In Week 17, facing the St. Louis Rams minus their rookie sensation running back Todd Gurley, the 49ers managed to pull off an overtime win. The win, despite being a nice sendoff into mediocrity, signaled the end of the Jim Tomsula era.
Fast forward 11 days and 49ers CEO Jed York announced the team had found Tomsula’s replacement.
While the 49ers were searching for a new head coach, two division opponents were playing in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Although the Seattle Seahawks recently lost to the Carolina Panthers, the Arizona Cardinals survived Aaron Rodgers’ magic and will play for the NFC title next weekend.
The 49ers are at the bottom of the division looking up. And that won’t be changing anytime soon.
Despite taking a tour around the facilities, the 49ers have yet to hold Kelly’s introductory press conference. Kelly’s press conference, expected to be later this week, will answer the questions that many fans have, including what will the 49ers do at the quarterback position moving forward.
Kelly is almost surely going to handle his first press conference better than Tomsula, but the changes that need to be made extend far beyond media interaction. The 49ers have experienced a tremendous drop from being considered one of the top teams in the NFC with Harbaugh to the laughingstock of the entire league. Kelly’s largest task will be to turn around a young roster and expect success.
As a head coach, Kelly saw success early in Philadelphia, going 10-6 both of his first two seasons. The team decided to part ways with Kelly after a 6-9 record heading into the final game of the 2015 season. The team record wasn’t pretty but it was Kelly’s relationship with players that signaled his firing.
As a coach, Kelly may be one of the best. But personnel decisions and interactions instigated his downfall.
Numerous current and former Eagles players have openly ripped Kelly’s process both as a coach and as a personnel decision maker. Most notably, Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy has labeled Kelly as a racist and believes that he based personnel decisions on the race of some of his star players.
While it is hard to assess exactly what happened during Kelly’s tenure as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, it is clear that he was wearing on players. When the team’s record began to dip, the voices chimed louder and Kelly found himself looking for a job.
The 49ers had an eventful 2015 of their own and are now in a similar situation as Kelly. That may be why this hire works so well.
Kelly, York and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke are all looking to rebound from damaged images in 2015. York has seen fans grow increasingly frustrated with his involvement as CEO. Baalke’s rise to superstar GM is beginning to fade. And Kelly, although he quickly turned around the Eagles’ franchise, has seen his methods challenged by players.
All three men recognize that they are in need of an image overhaul. Working together could be the remedy for each of them.
Kelly’s hire makes the 49ers interesting again. Last season, the 49ers charade of a coaching search felt hollow and the results on the field angered fans even more. In Kelly’s case, however genuine the search was, it felt as though York and Baalke were actually interested in finding a coach capable of turning the franchise around.
Ultimately, while Kelly may come in and implement a fast-paced offense that excites more than former offensive coordinator Geep Chryst’s, the 49ers are the farthest of any team from competing for an NFC West division title.
The Arizona Cardinals are still alive in the playoffs. The Seahawks have built a culture of winning and routinely competing for titles over the last five years. And the Rams, now calling Los Angeles home, have one of the best young defenses in the league and a rookie that looks poised to become one of the top running backs.
The 49ers have a young defense that can’t play on the road and an offensive line that leaks like a cheap paper towel holding water. Until Chip Kelly gets his team on the field, the 49ers find the power balance tipped far away from themselves.
Kelly could very well come in and quickly create a winning team. He did it in Philadelphia. But, after a difficult year with the Eagles, Kelly’s name is no longer enough to inject hope into a franchise.
Sure, York and Baalke needed to make an impressive and attention-grabbing hire. They did that. Give them credit.
But we have no clue what Kelly plans to do with this offense and no amount of personalized smoothies will answer the questions facing this team.
Will the team move at a frenetic pace on offense? Will Carlos Hyde be suited for Kelly’s system? Are any of the offensive lineman besides Joe Staley suitable for this offense? Who is running the defense?
Kelly will need to spend the next few months before the draft answering these questions. The 2016 NFL Draft holds incredible importance for this team and, if we thought the picks might tell us where this team was going before Tomsula’s departure, they’ll tell us even more now.
The NFL is a league that expects immediate results and the 49ers simply haven’t done much. They moved into a swanky new stadium and promptly fired an excellent head coach in the name of compatibility. They hired an inept replacement that looked routinely uncomfortable on the sidelines. And watched player after player look for the door.
Most fans agreed that nearly anyone would be an upgrade over Tomsula. Kelly has fans optimistic that things might improve in Santa Clara next season. If nothing else, York bought himself time among fans that will tune in next year to see if the Kelly experiment works out.
In his first season as head coach of the Eagles, Kelly designed a rushing offense that ranked first in the league in total yards and a defense that ranked third in takeaways. Those improvements, if made in Santa Clara, could immediately make the 49ers contenders again.
Under Tomsula, the 49ers ranked 21st in the league in rushing yards and were 31st in defensive takeaways. The book on Kelly says that his defense is constantly on the field, but generating turnovers neutralizes that. The 49ers didn’t do that last year and, as a result, they saw plenty of snaps as a unit.
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Kelly enters a situation in Santa Clara with a team in transition. They have veterans like NaVorro Bowman and Eric Reid that can be defensive leaders for the team while young players like running back Carlos Hyde learn to stay healthy and productive.
For now, the 49ers hold no power within their division. Fortunately, sometimes the best expectations are no expectations at all. Kelly can come in with the same enthusiasm as former head coach Jim Harbaugh and breathe some life into an ailing franchise.
The balance of power still tips in the favor of Seattle and Arizona but the 49ers are at least back on the scale with the hiring of Chip Kelly.
Next: Quarterback Options for Head Coach Chip Kelly
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.