If nothing else, they are relevant again, which always should be the mandate for the San Francisco 49ers of Santa Clara. Whether they are relevant for the right reasons, or because they submerge into the same clumsy dubiousness of the last two years, depends on whether Charles Edward “Chip” Kelly redefines himself after his Philadelphia crash and purges current perceptions — an aloof tyrant who alienated his bosses and angered some African-American players, an unmasked offensive strategist whose suspect personnel decisions led to his demise.
Give CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke some c-c-c-credit — why is that so hard to type? — for daring to make a lightning-rod hire that could end in yet another organizational disaster. In Kelly’s case, their risk is worth the possible reward, though it should be underlined that Jed and Trent were as desperate in locating a head coach as Kelly was in landing another NFL lead gig. Collectively now, these three men are professional failures who need each other to succeed but ultimately might be dragged down by each other’s flaws.
I’m betting this won’t work. I’m thinking that a 6-10 season in a difficult NFC West leads to Baalke’s dismissal and the ascent of Kelly’s already-in-place confidante, Tom Gamble, to a position of shared power. I’m thinking Kelly will have a major challenge convincing the locker room that he isn’t the divisive leader of whom ex-Eagles star LeSean McCoy said, “There’s a reason [Kelly] got rid of all the black players — the good ones.” I’m seeing shades of front-office tumult in the vein of Jim Harbaugh, which begs the question of why they fired Harbaugh in the first place when they’ve hired someone a year later with his same maniacal idiosyncracies.
But it will be fascinating, I must say, to watch it all unfold.
It’s an experiment, like all else that York touches, fraught with peril and doubt. After entering the league amid considerable hullabaloo after his revolutionary college tenure at Oregon, Kelly produced immediate dividends with the Eagles, only to collapse just as quickly last season. What York and Baalke want, with much pressure to appease fans who are angry about paying high prices at a far-flung stadium, is a coach smart enough to adjust in a second-chance situation as Bill Belichick did in New England. People forget that Belichick, one of pro football’s all-time elite coaches, flopped in Cleveland in his first NFL go-around. It was interesting, in fact, that Belichick rushed to Kelly’s defense after he was canned by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.
“I mean, Chip Kelly to me is a really good football coach,” Belichick said. “I think he does a great job. I think he’s done a good job with that team. It’s disappointing to see. He’ll end up somewhere and he’ll do a great job there.”
Just as interesting was seeing Kelly pop up two weeks in Alabama, where Nick Saban invited him for a skull session before the Crimson Tide scored 45 points and beat Clemson in the national championship game. These aren’t coincidences. The game’s greatest minds still think highly of Kelly, even if that opinion isn’t shared by those he left behind in the Philly rubble. The question: Which Kelly are the 49ers getting?
Is he the mastermind who revolutionized the no-huddle offense with a breakneck-tempo, perpetual-motion scheme that runs a play every 22.7 seconds and, over his three seasons, ranked third in the league in points (26.9) and total offense (392.8 yards) per game? Is he the Silicon Valley-friendly, detail-obsessed genius who demands that his players be in optimum shape, monitors their nutritional and sleep patterns and brought in a Navy SEALs coordinator to oversee sports science? Is he the guy who went 10-6 in his first two seasons?
Or is he the latest collegiate wizard to be figured out by the NFL’s brightest defensive minds, with the Eagles committing 67 turnovers the last two seasons and ranking 26th in efficiency despite all the razzle and dazzle? And did those frustrations turn him into the in-house ogre who burned out everyone in his midst, failed with the personnel control he demanded from Lurie and lost 12 of his final 19 games because his teams were exhausted by December? It isn’t rare for a team owner and players to express relief when a coach departs. It’s highly uncommon to see a coach trashed so mercilessly.
“You’ve got to open your heart to players and everybody you want to achieve peak performance,” Lurie said in a critical assessment of Kelly before hiring Doug Pederson to replace him. “I would call it a style of leadership that values information and all of the resources that are provided and at the same time values emotional intelligence. I think in today’s world, a combination of all those factors creates the best chance to succeed. [We want] someone who interacts and communicates very closely with everyone he works with.”
Kelly’s former players were harsher. In his world, the system is larger than any one star, which is why the dynamic likes of DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin were discarded. Kelly did himself no favors when he entered dangerous cultural territory in 2014, refusing to waive receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, after his racial slur at a music concert was caught on a phone and went viral. Later, Kelly gave Cooper a $22.5 million extension. From that point on, a stigma grew among African-American players — in Philadelphia and throughout the league.
Said McCoy, one of the league’s best running backs before Kelly traded him to Buffalo, in an ESPN interview: “He wants the full control. You see how fast he got rid of all the good players. Especially all the good black players. He got rid of them the fastest. That’s the truth. There’s a reason. … It’s hard to explain with him. But there’s a reason he got rid of all the black players — the good ones — like that.”
Said Jackson, the former Cal star who signed with the Washington Redskins after Kelly didn’t retain him: “I’m a firm believer that bad karma comes back on you. When you ruin a team like that, you do things to peoples’ families, you release people, you trade people, you get rid of good players who build something with the community, with the fans, with the kids—to have a guy come in and change up the team like that, I just believe in karma. … When we were there we were a brotherhood. So for everyone to go their separate ways and to see how it all ended up, it’s a very sad thing.”
Tweeted former Eagles linebacker Emmanuel Acho of Kelly: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
One would think York and Baalke are aware of these attempts to assassinate Kelly’s character. But you never know. Kelly was deemed “unapproachable” by some players, according to Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson. “I want to see a guy who really cares about his players and isn’t so set in his ways so we can all go in the same direction,” Johnson said. “I think Chip had good intentions. I just think that he didn’t have a good way to go about it, and sometimes it came off a little bit standoffish. That’s just his way.”
So, Chip Kelly has to show he has changed in a number of ways — culturally, schematically, procedurally — starting with an introductory news conference next week at Levi’s Stadium. On paper, anyway, Jed and Trent seem oblivious to the baggage.
“We are thrilled to announce Chip Kelly as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers,” York said in a statement. “Chip has a proven track record at both the college and NFL levels that speaks for itself. We believe strongly that he is the right man to get this team back to competing for championships. I look forward to watching Trent and Chip work closely to build a team that will make us all proud.”
Said Baalke, who recent failures as a personnel boss might be compounded by Kelly’s missteps: “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 to us during the search process. He is an extremely driven individual that I look forward to working with.”
The upbeat premise is that Kelly, who did groom Marcus Mariota at Oregon, could salvage the quarterbacking puzzle that is Colin Kaepernick. But unlike Mariota, who has a pocket presence and understands how to move first-down chains with his arm, Kaepernick remains a passing-game novice. Can Kelly teach the mechanics and footwook that Kaepernick has yet to learn, going on 29? Let’s hope the 49ers haven’t hired Kelly simply because Kaepernick’s various injuries, now including a surgically repaired thumb ligament on his throwing hand, might require an $11.9 million injury-guarantee payment on April 1. Both parties need a clean break, but by winning the final-game sendoff to Jim Tomsula and sliding from No. 5 to No. 7 in the draft, the 49ers blew any shot at Cal QB Jared Goff.
Herein lies the biggest hangup of a known offensive mind coming to this franchise: Who’s the quarterback? In Philly, Kelly played musical chairs with QBs. Here, there’s only one chair, and the parts are broken. Why didn’t Kelly choose to reunite with Mariota in Tennessee?
Answer: The Titans didn’t want him.
No one wanted Chip Kelly except Jed York and Trent Baalke. It is a marriage made in mutual desperation, perhaps doomed to fail.
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.49ersChip Kellyfootballhead coachNFL