The story that nails Chip Kelly, or at least illustrates how he grew to be football’s resident coaching freak/fascination/fad/folly, is the one where he purportedly was so devoted to his life’s work that he never married. In truth, he was married for seven years, exposed only after a Washington Post reporter dug into worn, dog-eared media guides when Kelly was a low-level assistant at the University of New Hampshire and realized the entire “hopeless bachelor” thing was a farce.
That led Kelly’s ex-wife, still friendly enough with him to attend his NFL coaching debut three years ago, to reveal he was shy when they met and took to reading self-help books. If those details constituted breaking news, understand that the cardinal sin in Kelly’s world is to talk about him in the media, putting him in the same privacy-lockdown mode as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Bill Belichick and other control addicts — without their, er, results. The marriage flap may prompt you to ask, “What the bleep?” — until you realize Kelly indeed is an intensely private individual who won’t allow anyone in the Bay Area inside his personal cocoon, not even his 49ers bosses.
He’ll wit-spar with the media, which can serve as fun entertainment in a place that views its local NFL team as an ongoing soap opera, of which Santa Clara qualifies. He’ll reference a line from an old movie, such as “Beverly Hills Cop,” or he’ll spin something about “informed acquiescence” that may seem to be a peek at a higher intellectual level about his business management interests. “It depends on what model of organization you want. Do you want blind obedience or informed acquiescence or self-governance?” said Kelly, who has met with top Silicon Valley executives to pick their brains, surely intriguing Jed (My football team is a tech startup) York. All of which sounds groovy and progressive until recalling the defining quote from Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who fired Kelly last month.
“You’ve got to open your heart to players,” said Lurie, pointing out what Kelly lacked. “I would call it a style of leadership that values information, all the resources that are provided and, at the same time, values emotional intelligence.”
Meaning, football players are humans, not robots or iPhone apps.
Yep, he’s from New Hampshire, which may explain everything about Chip Kelly because no one comes from New Hampshire other than pro wrestler Triple H and comic Sarah Silverman, who’s as outrageous on her stage as Kelly is on his. He is psycho-obsessive, more so than the Type A-on-triple-espresso Jim Harbaugh, making it fair game to wonder throughout this social experiment how he’ll get along with York and Trent Baalke when Harbaugh did not. He’s adventurous enough to run with the Bulls in Pamplona, anal enough to demand his players take daily urine tests, impulsive enough to run a play every 22.7 seconds and daring enough to attempt an offensive revolution in a sport that doesn’t take kindly to eccentrics. But he is not a people person, to say the least. He is not even of this planet or solar system, say many of his former players and executive associates.
And if Kelly claims not to be “governed by the fear of what other people say,” here’s a newsflash for the new head coach of a struggling organization that must appease angry consumers who pay top dollar for “Stadium Builder’s Licenses” in a facility closer to Watsonville than San Francisco:
You’d better win, at once.
For no one has patience for a fallen “genius” who keeps losing, despite getting a second crack at success here when every other NFL team with a coaching vacancy dismissed him as toxic and unhirable. Kelly’s current lot in coaching confirms a 2013 prediction by Bruce Arians, now the wildly successful coach of the Arizona Cardinals, who said Kelly’s creation at Oregon was a terrific collegiate offense that wouldn’t work in the NFL.
“I don’t care what other people think. It doesn’t bother me,” Kelly shot back. “To spend time to think about what someone else thinks is counter to everything I’ve ever believed in my life. If I believe what other people think, that means I value their opinion more than I value my own. That’s not the case.”
When he meets with the media this week at Levi’s Stadium, we’ll be curious if Kelly’s brashness has softened after his spectacular crash with the Eagles. Then again, acknowledged humility may only serve to backfire on a rebel whose audacity allowed him to soar professionally. “I was probably a pain in the ass as a little kid, I would imagine,” Kelly once said. “I questioned everything. I’ve always been a ‘why’ guy.”
So was Harbaugh. Too many “whys” and tantrums got him fired. In most cases, championship-level prosperity is enough for an executive to overlook, downplay or at least manage a coach’s rough spots and quirks. From Belichick to Bill Parcells to Vince Lombardi to Nick Saban, coaching royalty has been filled with grumps and freaks. Harbaugh was the first whose flaws were deemed more destructive than his triumphs, which included three straight NFC title games and a near-victory in a Super Bowl.
Seems Kelly could be a more complex challenge for Jed and Trent. It was laughable to hear Baalke, coming off his tensions with Harbaugh, to say in a statement, “Chip possesses all the qualities we were looking for in our next head coach. He has demonstrated the ability to be innovative everywhere he has coached and has had great success throughout his career. Chip’s passion for the game and vision for the future of this team clearly stood out during the search process. He is an extremely driven individual that I look forward to working with.”
Now it’s OK to be “an extremely driven individual,” apparently. Fifteen months ago, it wasn’t. Whatever, the 49ers are a vaguely talented team that can get better if they hit big on considerable free-agency cap space and a wealth of draft picks. To that end, Baalke and Kelly must share the same vision, agree on the personnel decisions and engage in this project together.
Otherwise, both will be fired in due time, and we’ll be left with Jed and an empty stadium. Kelly, despite his firing, remains in the $6-million-a-year club after York gave him $24 million over four seasons. Only six other NFL coaches are in the club. When factoring in money still owed to deposed one-and-doner Jim Tomsula, York is on the hook for about $9 million in head-coaching compensation the next three years. Can’t say Jed is cheap.
Emotional intelligence, as Lurie put it, applies to how Kelly treats his players. If it’s true Kelly purged “all the good black players,” as former Eagles star LeSean McCoy said, does that make “good black players” vulnerable on the 49ers? I doubt it. But Kelly’s emphasis on optimum physical conditioning and the avoidance of off-field vices, such as alcohol and weed, won’t endear him to some star players, regardless of race, who think they’re entitled to train and behave as they please. If Kelly wants to rid the 49ers of bad guys, have at it; there have been too many of late. If he gets rid of players because he doesn’t like them as people, that’s a crisis waiting to happen.
“It ain’t going to be Kumbaya and I hug you the first time I meet you,” he said of player relations. “But if I see you every day and understand what you’re about every day and that you share the same vision that I have, then I’ll die for you.”
The national pundits who think Kelly is an automatic fit with Colin Kaepernick, the beleaguered quarterback, haven’t done homework. Kaepernick withdrew from his teammates, remember, burying himself in Beats headphones and drawing locker-room criticism. Twice last season, he mentioned how his life would be just fine without football. Does he share Kelly’s vision and intensity?
On the field, Kelly’s no-huddle, blazing-tempo, perpetual-motion offense requires an accurate passer to move the chains with dart-throwing zip. Kaepernick remains a mechanical misfit who was the league’s most inaccurate passer on short throws — 10 yards and under, so vital in Kelly’s attack — and among the least dependable on all throws. Niners great Jerry Rice sees hope, telling NBC, “I think Chip Kelly [brings] life to Colin Kaepernick, because you look at Kelly and what he was trying to implement in Philadelphia with [Mark] Sanchez, [Nick] Foles and [Sam] Bradford. Those guys were more like pocket passers. Now you have that read option with Kaepernick, a guy can get outside the pocket and extend plays and is a threat to run. It could be a good marriage for them.”
Yet we all know how Kelly loses faith quickly in QBs, having sifted through several in three years. Foles made the Pro Bowl and loved playing for Kelly. Then, snap — Foles was traded for Bradford, which didn’t work out.
To York’s credit, he has owned his management errors. “I think it’s important to learn and grow from your mistakes.” he said. “You have to learn from failure.”
The bigger question is, has Chip Kelly learned from failure? Or, does he even realize he failed?
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.