Every 22.1 seconds, it seemed, Chip Kelly was either dropping a famous name, commending his bosses or trying to charm the pants off us with cracks about not wearing pants. He was part schmoozer, part huckster, part crazy uncle. At one point, the new 49ers’ coach mentioned his golden retriever, Henry, the dog that sat on general manager Trent Baalke’s lap for 2 1/2 hours during their initial job discussion at Kelly’s New Hampshire home.
“Sheds a lot,” he said, presumably referring to Henry, not Baalke.
On his suit lapel was an SF pin, and from it came gushers flowing of optimism and mutual rejuvenation for a failed coach and a futility-clogged franchise. As if following a pre-plotted playlist of propers, he checked off every box in his Levi’s Stadium introduction. He hailed the Niners as the NFL’s “pre-eminent organization.” He spoke of walking down Bill Walsh Way, gazing at the five Super Bowl trophies in the lobby, bringing a sixth to “4949,” the team address on Marie P. DeBartolo Way. He described Jed York, his new boss, as “smart … aggressive.” He described Baalke, who wanted Kelly and now must find common ground with him on player personnel decisions, as “a football guy … a grinder.” He spoke of the synergy in the hallways, how “everybody is on a quest to win the Super Bowl.” He spoke of “the Faithful, the great fan base they have here in San Francisco,” though he actually was 44 miles away.
“If you really look at the past five years, Jed and his family built the best stadium in the National Football League, they’ve been to a Super Bowl, and they are now hosting a Super Bowl,” Kelly said.
Check. Check. Check.
“I can’t tell you what a blast it’s been in the last two weeks,” said Kelly, “just talking football, talking vision, talking, `How do you see this, how do you see that?’ ”
Had Jed and Trent scripted his speech?
And the humor? Who knew? For those wondering why Kelly was appointed to the job last Thursday and didn’t conduct his first press conference until Wednesday, would you believe he didn’t have any clothes? Having decided they wanted him after the first interview — or, closer to the point, knowing Sean Payton had stayed in New Orleans and Hue Jackson had signed in Cleveland — York and Baalke asked Kelly to fly to Santa Clara. “I asked them kind of, `What’s the deal?’ and (they) said, `Just jump on a plane,’ ” Kelly said. So he did — with the pair of sweatpants he was wearing and nothing sartorially presentable in his bag.
He accepted the job offer at Baalke’s house, which led someone to ask, “Without any clothes?”
“I had clothes on,” Kelly shot back. “Let’s not get weird here.”
I haven’t heard that many media people laugh at Levi’s since … since … ever?
After finally procuring a suit and tie — and spending weekend time with his father for his 87th birthday — Kelly officially returned to the NFL less than a month after being fired for the first time in his life. He even is finding comedy in that experience, saying he did more than look in the mirror when examining his three-year regression with the Philadelphia Eagles. “I looked at it like more of an autopsy,” he said. “So I’m in the middle of that autopsy right now. I sent some toxicology reports out, and we’re going to see when they come back. I’ll give you a full answer of what went on.”
To all of which, there is this sobering reaction:
Enjoy it now, gentlemen.
The Kumbaya-laced gleefest will fade quickly enough.
No amount of Day One joy can soften the harsh reality that Kelly, York and Baalke all have hit football rock-bottom. They converge in desperation, at a time when no other NFL team was hiring Kelly and no hot coaching name was interested in the 49ers. Kelly comes after crashing so hard in Philly, after a meteoric rise at the University of Oregon, that several league notables were compelled to console him. “When I was let go in Philadelphia, to be at home and get a call from Bill Belichick or Tony Dungy or Jon Gruden or Bill Parcells or Bill Polian — It just made me feel good that there are people in this game that truly care about where the game is going and what this league is all about and what direction it’s heading in and telling me, `I hope you stay in the National Football League,’ ” Kelly said.
Problem is, we’re not certain he’s still in the NFL, seeing how the 49ers right now would have difficulty beating Stanford. So thin is the talent level, they may need every one of the 12 draft picks this year and nine next year to click. And with Baalke, a recent draft-and free-agency flop, combining brain cells with Kelly, who sabotaged himself in Philly with poor personnel calls, who can be sure that better times are ahead? Especially in a mean division, the NFC West, that includes Bruce Arians, Pete Carroll and Jeff Fisher?
The question is whether Kelly can change, whether he actually needed a year away from the pro game to assess his failings. His spread offense can’t work in the NFL at its current rapid-gun pace. It wears out his defense, leads to more injuries and causes complete team fatigue come December. Yet there was Kelly on the podium, saying he might “tweak” but remains averse to overhauls.
“I don’t know if I can be significantly different,” he said. “I think you have to be yourself in terms of how you do things.
“I’m hands on. I lead with my feet, not my seat.”
To that end, a wobbling offensive revolutionist will need a good quarterback. Will four years be enough time to find one? Kelly stopped far short of declaring Colin Kaepernick as the top guy, hinting that he’s puzzled by his struggles while calling him “an extremely talented football player.” In the same breath, Kelly said he was impressed by Blaine Gabbert. Only a month ago, before he was fired, Kelly said he wanted to keep Sam Bradford in Philly. Bradford happens to be a free agent coming off a solid second half, and if the Eagles don’t slap him with a franchise tag, Kelly might approach Baalke with a request: Sign Bradford, the only decent free-agent QB. Last summer, unfortunately, Bradford’s agent reportedly asked the Eagles for $25 million a year, which is insane.
If Kelly wants to be competitive immediately and avoid more losing shame for the franchise — and his own reputation — Bradford would know the offense better than Kaepernick, who is nicked physically and emotionally. If Kelly wants to groom a future star, he will urge Baalke to trade up in the draft, take Jared Goff and use Gabbert as a short-term sacrificial lamb.
In his mind, his spread offense still works at its perpetual-motion pace. “We have to be better in situational defense,” Kelly countered.
Wait until he sees the holes in this defense.
For now, York and Baalke are unconcerned about explosive shots directed toward Kelly in Philadelphia. Some of his discarded African-American stars, as referenced here in recent days, have suggested race played a role in Kelly’s decisions. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said Kelly lacked “emotional intelligence.” Baalke chuckled at that, wondering how Lurie would define that. York dismissed the chatter, too, saying Kelly’s right-hand man with the Eagles — Tom Gamble, who was fired by Lurie and, very curiously, wound up in Santa Clara last season — provided context that satisfied the 49ers.
“Chip’s going to here for a long time.” York said. “Period.”
For now, it’s a triangle of love and admiration, Jed and Trent and Chip, all converging in the cradle of technological innovation. “It’s probably the most fertile, creative ground when you look at the companies and Silicon Valley and the whole Bay Area itself,” Kelly said. “I walked to work this morning (from the hotel), and you smell the air around here, you get smarter. So, hopefully, that’ll teach us to get a couple more W’s.”
It’s a good idea in the beginning, endearing oneself to bosses and fans and even the techies. But all of this sounded like three men praising each other for what they once were … and aren’t anymore.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.