Is he a certified genius who’s misunderstood? Or a stubborn, overrated pit bull of a football coach who has fooled a lot of people over the years?
Whatever the perception, whichever the hot media take, Charles Edward “Chip” Kelly doesn’t give a donkey’s tail what you and everyone else thinks about him. The only thing that matters to him are the 11 guys on offense, the 11 guys across from them and an obsession to revolutionize offensive football, ideally making the Silicon Valley his new tech lab as the 49ers’ new head coach after his three-year crash in Philadelphia.
It has been this way for Kelly since he was a kid in North Manchester, N.H., where he and buddies played football and hockey until the lights went out. He was Chip with a chip, one of those sawed-off jocks who always had a better idea, it seemed. As a high school quarterback, he called the plays in the huddle for no other reason than he could do it better than his coach. He bragged to anyone who would listen that he’d be calling the coaching shots himself someday.
Decades later, Kelly hasn’t changed much. He’s 52 now, still obsessed with the game. He still has the desire to leave his mark. He still believes he has most if not all the answers. He remains intensely private, and not much is known about him outside football circles because little if anything else interests him. He can go on and on about the nuances of the game, but once the the subject moves elsewhere, his mind is liable to run a fade pattern into the distance.
“I wouldn’t hire him, OK?” said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager who was part of two Super Bowl championship teams. “Yet I think the guy is terrific in games as far as being a play-caller, getting a tempo in the game. I guess the thing is, you have to resolve these issues in your mind.”
The question: Do 49ers fans have the patience and the faith?
REVOLUTIONARY … OR WACKO?
As a walk-on, Kelly didn’t play much college ball, so he did the next best thing. Not long after his graduation from the University of New Hampshire, he was hired as defensive line coach. The first thing he did was switch to a zone-blocking scheme. He was all of 25. “He always was ahead of the curve,” said the program’s longtime coach, Bill Bowles.
Most aspiring young coaches wouldn’t have stayed in one spot too long, but Kelly wasn’t into the norm. He struck up a relationship with trusted new coach Sean McDonnell, who hired him to run the offense. Better yet, he was told to run it any way his busy mind desired.
Kelly’s love for offense took him on the road, where he scouted other teams often out of his own pocket. He came upon a scheme that intrigued him, one called the spread offense. While the system was nothing out of the ordinary, Kelly had a fresh vision for it. He had his players pick up the pace between plays, treat ball possessions as if they were basketball fast breaks. Because Kelly had such an innate ability to change on the fly, his group was one step ahead in the chess game, which made for gaping holes in the line and open receivers downfield. Defenses became worn out if not downright confused.
Word about Kelly and his offense began to spread as quickly. In 2006, he turned down a chance to become a New York Giants’ assistant. One year later, he finally decided to jump when Oregon offered him the keys to its offense. Now Kelly was in his own hurry-up mode. Only two years later, he was promoted to head coach, instantly striking up a conference rivalry with Stanford … and a young, headstrong coach named Jim Harbaugh. He studied different aspects of the game, and the more he learned, the more he turned up the volume. His teams were among the first to practice with loud music in the background.
What didn’t change was the ability of Kelly’s teams to light up scoreboards. In four seasons, the Ducks posted a 46-7 record and appeared in four major bowls, including the 2010 national championship game. What’s more, they pulled it off with a limited talent base, as Kelly inherited a program that wasn’t in position to recruit top prospects from across the country. Not one member of the 2010 team was a first-round draft pick. Kelly had done the remarkable — turned a once-sleepy Oregon program into a revved-up national power.
A new way of football had been born. Or was it a monster?
“Let’s take the big picture. Let’s take Philadelphia,” Casserly said. “In college, [Kelly] didn’t spend any time on defense. He didn’t spend time on defense it appears in Philadelphia. The defense never got any good, OK? That’s one thing.
“The up-tempo part of it, he’s never worried about defense. I remember there was a quote I saw in New Hampshire years ago. The head coach was trying to get him to slow it down, [and Kelly said], ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. We’ll score 50 (points). We’re gonna win it scoring 50. Don’t worry about it.’ Well, sometimes I think you have to change the game and slow it down. I think that helps your defense.”
In his final three seasons, Oregon ranked among the top four teams in the nation, at which point Kelly had nothing left to prove. In 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles came a-callin’, and he accepted a five-year, $32.5 million contract and free rein to do his thing again.
NFL FIGURED HIM OUT
To some extent, those who believed Kelly’s system couldn’t work in the NFL were proven wrong immediately. The Eagles turned in consecutive 10-6 seasons even if they played (and lost) only one postseason game. The NFL had seen hurry-up offenses before, but never had it seen one quite like this. The Eagles ranked among the top five in points scored and yards gained both years.
But for as much detail attention as Kelly pays to offense, critics say he has an incurable blind spot that will stand in the way of championship success. That is, Kelly has little if any interest in the other side of the ball, the defensive side, the one where championships are won as many in the know will tell you.
The Eagles had their wow moments on offense, to be sure, but few were sold on them as a serious contender for that reason. While the offense was capable of the spectacular, the pace took a toll on the defense, which was forced to be on the field for extended stretches. Result: The Eagles finished 29th and 28th in yards allowed and 17th and 22nd in points allowed, respectively. This season was no different. Only two teams gave up more yards and only four yielded more points in the league, which led to losses when Kelly’s offense turned the ball over and wasn’t always a model of efficiency.
“He’s a guy that, even if he doesn’t have control of personnel, has strong feelings about what he wants in his players,” Casserly said. “That’s good, but I’m not sure the model works. He doesn’t seem to value speed at receiver. He seems to value size and blocking ability. That’s what he’s looking for. He wants, big tall [cornerbacks]. Well, that’s great, but they all can’t play, see. OK? So there are some things there in his personnel characteristics I’m not sure I’m sold on.”
Whether defenses became wise to Kelly’s ways this season is open to debate, but there’s no argument that his talent evaluations had much to do with the 6-9 record that got him fired with one game left in the regular season.
Kelly might be a lot of things, but dumb isn’t one of them. He learned the value of power years ago, and after the 2014 season, he got what many said he wanted all along — final say in personnel decisions. General manager Howie Roseman was stripped of clout on football-related matters, which left the coach to call the shots on and off the field.
What followed was a series of mistakes that ultimately led to Kelly’s departure with two years left on his contract, although to hear him tell it, he never had been given the title of general manager and the decisions were not his to make alone.
“The only difference is, I was in control of the 53-man roster and now I’m in control of the 90-man roster,” Kelly said recently, before his firing in Philadelphia. “But all those decisions that are made in season were always … We always went over who was available for putting a guy on [injured reserve]. We all understand that. So my job has never changed. To say I’m a head coach and a general manager — I’m not the general manager. I don’t negotiate contracts. I don’t do any of that stuff. I just have a say of who’s on the 90-man roster as opposed to who’s on the 53-man roster. But once the season starts, I always had control over the 53-man roster. So that hasn’t changed at all. Nor has there been any more time devoted to any of that because that’s not the way it’s set up here.”
Whatever the case, the trades of running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City — and the $40 million addition of running back DeMarco Murray as a free agent — had disastrous results. The departure of Maclin rid the offense of its most talented and dependable target, while Murray and his straight-ahead style proved a bad fit for the zone-blocking schemes. Worse yet, the Murray controversy did nothing to improve team karma, which eroded as losses and frustration mounted.
The Maclin trade marked the third in as many years that involved a star black player. That led some to believe that Kelly had biased tendencies, although his one-time boss at New Hampshire saw him differently. “Chip is not a racist,” Marty Scarano said per Philadelphia magazine. “He can be a bastard with everybody, regardless of religion, creed or color.”
“Dealing with the players, obviously, he didn’t connect with as many players probably as he should have during that time,” Casserly said. “So I have more questions than answers on the guy. And I think San Francisco is a tough job. Philadelphia had much more talent than with the team he’s walking into in San Francisco.”
CAN HE REDEFINE HIMSELF?
Now Kelly starts over with the last-place 49ers, who are worse than their 5-11 record talent-wise, and red flags have been raised around the league already.
Will Kelly recognize the needs of his defense for a change? Can he resurrect the career of quarterback Colin Kaepernick? Is it a only matter of time before he initiates a tug-of-war with general manager Trent Baalke, given that former Eagles personnel chief Tom Gamble is in the organization and in line to take over?
Most of all, can Kelly’s way work in the NFL as it has in college?
Kelly inherits a talent base that ranked 31st in yards gained and 29th in yards allowed and lacked difference-makers on both sides of the ball. Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is expected to be offensive coordinator — Kelly recruited him at New Hampshire without success — but he will be that in name only. Kelly will continue to call the plays.
The system requires a quarterback to read defenses, throw accurate short-to-intermediate passes, move around the pocket if necessary and do them all at break-neck speed. Even though Kaepernick comes off the worst season of his career, he may be the best candidate to fill the role because he’s more athletic than journeyman Blaine Gabbert and has had more success at the pro level. At the same time, Kaepernick never has been known for his accuracy and football I.Q.
Kaepernick also has knee, thumb and shoulder issues. Ultimately, their status will determine whether he’s still on the roster on April Fool’s Day, at which point his $11.9 million contract for next season becomes guaranteed. Those are a lot of ifs right now.
As it stands, whoever throws the ball will have limited options. Torrey Smith is a longball threat, which isn’t among Kelly’s top priorities. Free agent Anquan Boldin has expressed a desire to return, but at 35, he struggles against man-to-man coverage. The line features Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley, guard Alex Boone and not much else. Expect the voids to be addressed in the draft and free agency.
But while the offense will front and center, as it always is for Kelly-coached teams, it’s the defense that will make or break him when all is said and done. It’s only Pro Bowler is linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who has made a remarkable recovery from a career-threatening knee injury. Otherwise, this is a nondescript group that lacks experience and know-how, one that will be even more under the gun if required to be on the field for long stretches.
Whatever happens in the months ahead, Kelly figures to be on a long leash. Given the disinterested fan base in a relatively new stadium in the dead of Santa Clara, team management can’t afford another early divorce.
Kelly signed a four-year, $24 million contract, which puts him among the top seven highest-paid coaches in the league. Coupled with $10.5 million owed to predecessor Jim Tomsula, the organization will shell out $34.5 million for head coaches through the 2019 season. That gives the new coach a lot of wiggle room, and history tells us that Kelly plus leverage can be a combustible formula.
“I’m not governed by the fear of what other people say,” Kelly said not long ago. “ Events don’t elicit feelings. I think beliefs elicit feelings. I understand what my beliefs are, and I know how I am.”
And whatever you think he may be exactly, Chip Kelly doesn’t give a damn, frankly.