When he’s done explaining why he hates green vegetables, why he isn’t a racist, why he failed in Philadelphia, why his players wear GPS gadgets, why cognitive psychology relates to his spread offense and why a “guy’s guy” from New England digs the soundtrack from “The Lion King,” Chip Kelly should excuse himself today and call a meeting.
Not with Elton John. Not with Dr. Phil. Not with the horticulturist in the Levi’s Stadium rooftop garden. Not with Elon Musk. Not even with his bosses, Jed York and Trent Baalke, who will flank him in the team auditorium for his introduction as 49ers head coach.
No, he should huddle immediately with Colin Kaepernick, who, it is hoped, removes his red Beats headphones and agrees to talk.
That way, Kelly might see what we see and realize it’s wrong — if not scary — to assume Kaepernick is an ideal quarterbacking match for the incoming perpetual-motion, rapid-fire system.
Already, there’s a maddening fallacy in these parts about the NFL version of Kelly’s offense. Contrary to perceptions formed when he was staging track meets with Phil Knight’s swag at Oregon, his current modus operandi doesn’t allow for a rambling, scrambling QB unless he’s also an accurate passer with on-his-feet intelligence to achieve what Kelly wants every 22.1 seconds. That is, quick strikes that move the chains, create a relentless rhythm and flow and, most importantly, aren’t disrupted by dud throws. In one’s fondest fantasies, it’s surely not a description of Kaepernick, the league’s least accurate passer this season from 10 yards and shorter when he wasn’t misfiring in all air ranges. Carried by a stout defense and pounding run attack in The Jim Harbaugh Era, he could take off on breathtaking, loping, 40-yard romps and appear to be revolutionizing the sport — which is what they said of Kelly then, too, as he was leaving Eugene for the Eagles. But the read-option is only one element of Kelly’s big-picture philosophy.
He wants a dart-thrower who’s hitting the bullseye, not a novice who sometimes nicks the drywall and has to buy a round.
“Repetitive accuracy,” Kelly said often during his Eagles tenure, “is the No. 1 thing we are looking for.”
And what he doesn’t want: “I want a quarterback who has the ability to run and not a running back who can throw. That’s been the biggest misconception. If there’s an opportunity to get a first down, get it. But in this league, you have to be able to throw the football.”
After five seasons in the NFL, four as a starter, Kaepernick remains a passing-game novice. His work last winter with dedicated QB gurus, including Kurt Warner, failed to bring the desired results in mechanics, footwork and pocket presence. It didn’t help that his blocking front was a sieve, leading to beatings and a season shortened by injuries and three eventual surgeries. But Kapernick also was culpable because of his skittishness and inability to complete even the simplest throws with consistency. He not only lost his mojo, he lost his confidence, his job and, apparently, his love of the game. “If I don’t have football in my life, I’ll be fine,’’ he said, more than once.
So, as he turns 29 next season, isn’t the Kaepernick we’re getting now also the Kaepernick we’re getting for good? This isn’t the Manning Passing Academy coming to Santa Clara, you know. Kelly needs to be competitive immediately in a division with a possible Super Bowl team (Arizona), a recent Super Bowl champion (Seattle) and a talented team with fresh life in a new home (Los Angeles). He doesn’t have a year or two to be patient with Kaepernick. He might have part of this first offseason, and that’s it.
What does Kelly do, then? The answer will be the biggest takeaway, at least in the interim, from his opening press conference. Know who would have been terrific in the Kelly offense? Alex Smith — collective sigh — whose departure increasingly looks like a regrettable decision despite Kaepernick’s Super Bowl run and other successes. If Kelly really wants to give Kaepernick a big opportunity, then he must wait until his injuries have healed, incuding the repaired thumb ligament on his throwing hand. April 1 is the key date, remember, when the 49ers owe Kaepernick $11.9 million if he isn’t healthy enough to pass a physical. If Kelly doesn’t want Kaepernick, an injury settlement should be executed now, and he should be sent on his way so that Kelly’s time — and ours, as keenly interested observers — isn’t wasted.
If not Kap, who’s the QB? Baalke and Kelly, who have sworn to York they’ll co-exist in personnel matters after the Baalke-Harbaugh rifts, could use a wealth of draft picks to move up from No. 7 in the first round and take Cal quarterback Jared Goff. More of a pocket passer than a hybrid, he does possess the polished touch and accuracy to click in Kelly’s offense — if not the wheels of Kaepernick or Michael Vick, his first Philly QB three seasons ago. With so many needs on offense and defense, would the 49ers want to relinquish many picks for Goff? I would, knowing the last time they rejected an acclaimed Cal QB in the first round, Aaron Rodgers wound up in Green Bay for a Hall of Fame career of Hail Marys and insurance commercials. If not, they could stay at No. 7 and take a QB, but 6-6 Paxton Lynch and a late-riser — 6-6, 235-pound Carson Wentz of North Dakota State — don’t fit the Kelly mold. A physical receiver with size, Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss, might fit for Kelly, who loads up on playmakers in his sleep.
Another option won’t excite Stadium Builders License owners, but Kelly may ask Baalke to bid in free agency for Sam Bradford. Though the Eagles went 6-9 and got Kelly fired before the final weekend, Bradford was effective the last seven games, completing 68.2 percent of his passes for almost 2,000 yards with 10 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. That is the model of Chipball efficiency. Problem is, the Eagles could sabotage Kelly’s plan by keeping Bradford via a franchise tag or signing him to a new deal. And they just might.
“I think he’s a top-notch quarterback,” new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday. “Look what he did that last half of the season, the numbers he was able to put up. As a quarterback, he would fit perfectly with a system that I’m going to bring.”
The rumblings are that problem child Johnny Manziel or downward-spiraling Robert Griffin III could wind up with Kelly as a backup — I’d prefer Steve Young, at age 54. Besides, goofy as this sounds, Blaine Gabbert showed enough accuracy and mobility in his 49ers trial to merit some sort of look. In fact, realizing we’re only 2 1/2 years removed from a tatted-up phenom gracing a GQ cover, I’m actually going to declare this about Colin Kaepernick in 2016.
For Chip Kelly’s purposes, Gabbert actually makes more sense.
Welcome to town, hotshot. Eating more green vegetables might be a good idea.
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.