How Chip Kelly Changes 49ers’ Offensive Scheme
What will life be like with Chip Kelly at the controls? Interesting, to say the least…
Chip Kelly is in town, and the San Francisco 49ers’ offense should be dramatically different.
That’s an obvious statement, but we can break it down more—how will Kelly’s arrival alter the offense, and who benefits? By looking at what Kelly did in Philadelphia, we can get a better idea of what Kelly does and does not do, and what concepts and formations he’ll have to try to shape around the 49ers in 2015.
We’re going to be primary looking at the 2013 and 2014 stats for both Philadelphia and San Francisco. For the Eagles, this eliminates the effect of Chip Kelly, general manager—a significant portion of Philadelphia’s struggles last season came from Kelly’s personnel moves, so by ignoring that year, we can get a better grip on what Kelly brings solely as a coach. For the 49ers, that looks at the last successful 49er teams, ignoring the Jim Tomsula era—something 49ers fans are really looking forward to doing in the not-too-distant future.
Let’s start with the basics. There’s a myth that hurry-up offenses, like Kelly’s, must involve throwing the ball up and down the field, but that simply isn’t the case. In 2013-14, the Eagles ran the ball 44.7 percent of the time, seventh-most in the league. That’s still less than San Francisco’s 49.6 percent, but it’s very much a run-first philosophy. What is different is the sheer number of plays that occurred—the Eagles ran the third-most plays in the league those two seasons, rattling off 2,181 offensive snaps. The 49ers ran the fifth-fewest plays in the league, with only 1,974 offensive snaps. That’s more than six extra plays per game.
Kelly gets that volume by not caring about time of possession at all. You may have seen NBC and other networks running “seconds since the previous snap” graphics during Eagles games, and that’s not just a gimmick; the Eagles averaged a league-least 26:30 of possession during 2013 and 2014—and remember, that’s with 10-win teams. Teams that are winning often have the ball longer, both from simply being better than their opponent, as well as from trying to bleed the clock as they sit on leads.
The 49ers, in those years, averaged the sixth-most time of possession, at 30:54 per game. Add that in to the number of play discrepancy, and you can see a major difference—the Eagles ran a play once every 23.3 seconds, while the 49ers ran one once every 30.1 seconds. Jim Tomsula talked, last training camp, about emphasizing a faster offense. Chip Kelly lives faster offense.
Kelly’s not the only coach who deemphasizes time of possession—Bill Belichick has also downplayed the stat—but he’s the most devoted disciple of the “plays run over time with the ball” philosophy. When your offense is good, it makes a ton of sense—you have more opportunities to strike when you run more plays. However, if you go three-and-out frequently, it just ends up giving your defense less time to recover.
The more efficient a team is, the more Kelly’s offensive philosophy makes sense—if you’re more successful than not, you want more opportunities to score, to reduce the effect of luck. Less efficient offenses, on the other hand, probably benefit more from slowing the game down—it increases variance and increases the chance of pulling off upsets. A fast pace tends to favor the better team; that’s a classic game theory argument. Underdogs want fewer, high-risk high-reward plays. Favorites want consistent plays, and tons of them.
So, Kelly designs his offense around being better than his opponent—an ideal which is easier to reach in college, where you can recruit on an unfair playing ground, than in the theoretically parity-driven NFL. Still, when it works, as it did in 2013 and 2014, it works really well.
One thing you may remember from 2013 and 2014, of course, was the 49ers issues getting to the line of scrimmage. The 49ers led the league in both 2013 and 2014 in delay of game penalties. They also wasted an above-average number of time-outs to avoid further penalties. That’s not something that’s going to fly in a Kelly-led offense, and will result in changes.
Under Harbaugh, the 49ers had a relay system in place—Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator, would call plays down to Harbaugh, who would then call plays into Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, who would then relay the play to the other players. That cut trimmed down to just coordinator-to-quarterback under Jim Tomsula, but even that is too slow for Kelly’s system.
Kelly calls the play into the headset, just like every other team. However, rather than the quarterback relaying that play call to the rest of the offense, Kelly has assistant coaches on the sideline signaling elements of the play to the various position groups—sort of like a third-base coach on a baseball team will relay information the hitter. They’re also indicating which of the various pictures on various cards being held up mean something for the playcall, and which are decoys. The goal of all this frantic waving around is to create a code that’s simple for the offense to understand, yet too difficult for opposing defenses to crack.
At the very least, this should cut down on delay penalties; the Eagles had a grand total of six in 2013 and 2014 combined, less than the 49ers in either one of those two seasons. So, the play’s been relayed in, and the huddle has been bypassed—how will the offense look different on the field?
First and foremost, you need a quarterback who succeeds at making pre-snap reads. Now, some of this can actually be done by Kelly himself—with the faster tempo, he has more time to tell the quarterback through the radio that the defense is in zone or to watch out for a linebacker before the radio cuts out with 15 seconds left on the clock. Still, it’s primarily the quarterbacks’ job to identify the defense.
Kelly’s quarterbacks do not generally have the freedom to audible into new plays, but they do often have pass and rush options, depending on the opponent’s personnel and formation. Philly Mag has a good breakdown of one such combination package, which ties together a standard zone-read option and a bubble screen, with Nick Foles reading, before the snap, how the opponent lies up, and selecting the best of three options to run—either keeping the ball himself, handing the ball to Chris Polk, or firing the quick screen to Jason Avant. It requires the quarterback to read and diagnose mismatches through pre-defined reads before the snap.
We saw Colin Kaepernick famously fail at this back in November, with Torrey Smith lining up entirely uncovered and Kaepernick missing it entirely. That is not the kind of play which works well in Chip Kelly’s offense—it’s not the kind of play that works well in any offense. Kaepernick is rarely that poor at finding mismatches, but he doesn’t have a Manningesque ability to run the offense and identify defensive deficiencies before the snap. This is an area that Kelly and his quarterback, whoever it ends up being, will have to work on tremendously before the 2016 season.
Assuming that quarterback is Kaepernick, however, there is plenty Kaepernick can do in the post-snap reads that fits right into Kelly’s system. Kelly loves his mobile quarterbacks, and we’ve all seen what Kaepernick can do with his legs—just ask the Green Bay Packers what Kaepernick can do when the running game is unleashed.
Kelly also likes quarterbacks who don’t turn the ball over—that’s one reason he fell in love with Sam Bradford, who doesn’t throw interceptions often. After all, if you turn the ball over, you can’t run more plays! A Favreian-style, high-risk, high-reward quarterback isn’t what the Kelly system wants; it wants high volumes of consistent play.
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Over the past three seasons, Kaepernick has thrown an interception on only 2.02 percent of his pass attempts, fifth fewest among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts. Even during his at-times disastrous 2015 season, Kaepernick’s interception rate remained low, at just 2.05 percent.
So, Kaepernick has the physical athleticism and turnover-adverseness that Kelly wants, but not the pre-snap reads or short accuracy, having completed only 66 percent of his “short” passes since 2013, fifth-worst among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts. His saving grace in those two areas is that he is better statistically than Blaine Gabbert, but any analysis that Kaepernick is the “perfect” or “prototypical” Kelly quarterback is overly simplistic. Kaepernick would benefit more from Kelly’s system than other, similarly skilled quarterbacks—like, in all likelihood, Sam Bradford or Nick Foles—but there’s some work to be done to get him to be the perfect match.
Another player who might struggle some in Kelly’s offense is Torrey Smith. This isn’t because Kelly abhors the deep ball or anything, but Smith is really a deep-pass specialist, and specialists like that have less value in Kelly’s system. See, with Kelly’s rapid-fire pace, there’s less time to substitute. The entire philosophy is based around getting the next play off as quickly as possible, meaning you need your offensive skill position players to be able to handle multiple roles. This is one reason why DeSean Jackson, a deep threat who made the Pro Bowl with Kelly’s Eagles in 2013 was released. Some of it was due to off-field incidents and work ethic concerns as well, but those may have been overlooked if a deep threat was the key ingredient that made Kelly’s offense go.
Instead, Kelly’s offense wants to keep the same 11 guys on the field most of the time, running a bunch of different plays out of a bunch of different formatons. Kelly’s tight ends, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, could line up in line for a power run up the middle and then shift out as wide receivers the next play—it’s all about versatility. It remains to be seen how the 49ers’ personnel will work in Kelly’s system, as none have really shown an above-and-beyond ability to succeed in multiple roles.
Can Carlos Hyde be an all-around player who can catch the ball and pass protect? He’s only caught 23 passes in his NFL career, and hasn’t exactly lit up the field with fantastic pass-blocking while Kaepernick was running for his life. Receivers need to be able to line up in the slot and out wide and in the backfield when necessary, which isn’t something we’ve seen much of under either Greg Roman or Geep Chryst. Bruce Ellington might get a boost in Kelly’s system with his superior versatility, but he hasn’t had much time on the field.
Honestly, the sheer amount of cap space (third-most in the league with $54 million free, per Over the Cap) and draft picks (eight picks plus a possible four extra compensatory selections for the losses of Mike Iupati, Perrish Cox, Dan Skuta and Frank Gore), the key players on San Francisco’s offense next season could easily not be on the team at the moment. Perhaps they’ll make a run at Coby Fleener or Alshon Jeffery in free agency, or perhaps they’ll re-sign Reggie Bush for his pass-catching ability. With so much flexibility, Kelly can afford to shape the roster around his offense to a large extent.
The 2016 49ers offense might run as frequently as the previous iterations, but the similarities will end there.
Next: Chip Kelly Brings Questions With Him
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Bryan Knowles is a staff writer on Niner Noise. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.