Philadelphia Eagles brass defied convention with the hire of former Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly — though not necessarily for the assumed reasons.
Pundits and fans have spent the six months since Kelly’s hiring dissecting how the uptempo version of the spread offense he employed at Oregon would translate to the pro game.
The Football Cliche Bingo Card space most invoked: “copycat league,” in reference to the success the Washington Redskins had with Robert Griffin III, the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers with Colin Kaepernick.
And indeed, Kelly certainly could attempt a version of his spread in Philadelphia. He has Michael Vick, the prototype for the current crop of dual-threat, NFL quarterbacks. Kelly also has Jeremy Maclin, the kind of wide receiver explosive in space that was so necessary to Oregon’s offense. Also in the fold is LeSean McCoy, a running back who has proven he can be an effective ball carrier and receiver. If there’s one position that thrived most under Kelly at UO, it’s running back.
Yes, Kelly could run the exact same offense that produced four straight BCS bowl appearances at Oregon. But there’s no guarantee he will, and that’s what makes him a great coach.
Front office management is beginning to look past simply seeing schemes when evaluating coaches, and rather the process they employ.
Jenny Vrentas profiled Eagles’ staffer Shaun Huls on Sports Illustrated‘s new endeavor MMQB. It’s an excellent piece well worth your time, and one far too nuanced to sufficiently summarize here.
The main crux, however, is that Kelly is an innovator. He also has plays his hand close to his chest, which forces opposing coaches and naysayers like Ron Jaworski to go all-in when Kelly is holding a full house.
To assume a system defines Kelly is a fool’s errand. The quality that made him such an immediate success at Oregon wasn’t what he ran, but rather how he ran it. Vrentas’ feature provides insight into the highly structured practices Kelly runs.
Mike Bellotti brought Kelly to Oregon out of relative obscurity. Everyone who paid even the slightest bit of attention to the Ducks in the last few years knows that Kelly came from FCS New Hampshire. Less covered is that while coordinating the Wildcats’ offense, Kelly had one of the most prolific passers in the nation, Ricky Santos.
Santos was a ball carrier, sure. He rushed for over 1500 yards in four seasons at UNH (three of which were during Kelly’s tenure). But in those three years running Kelly’s system, Santos was also one of the nation’s top 20 passers (top eight in 2005 and 2006).
Marcus Mariota operated similarly in his first year at Oregon, which was a deviation from how Kelly used Jeremiah Masoli in 2008 and 2009.
Kelly operates within the framework of his available talent, then builds accordingly. This is a perspective already growing in the college ranks, and likely to spill over into the NFL.
Take Kevin Sumlin, the spread guru whose successes at Houston and Texas A&M thrust his name into the NFL conversation this off-season. Sumlin coached two of the nation’s best quarterbacks in consecutive seasons, but Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel were two very different players.
Sumlin formulated his strategy around his players’ skill sets, then guided them into mastering the gameplan. Charles Sims was an oustanding pass catcher for UH, so Sumlin utilized the running back position as a prominent part of the passing game. Conversely, Ben Malena and Christine Michael were not often used as receiving targets.
Bill O’Brien made the transition in reverse, going from the NFL to college. However, the same philosophy that guided Penn State to eight wins in his debut season and transformed Matt McGloin, was key to the New England’s Super Bowl XLVI run. And that philosophy is one that, until recently, would have been considered decidedly collegiate, relying heavily on shotgun formations and no-huddle snaps.
O’Brien, of course, worked alongside one of the most currently celebrated NFL minds in Bill Belichick. Reflected in Belichick’s style are the same qualities that made Chip Kelly an attractive NFL candidate. Both are innovate, and each is highly regimented.
New Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones likened the job to being a CEO at last week’s SEC Media Days. It’s a comparison that has been made prior, and by others. But Jones’ assessment resonates now more than ever.
An effective head coach finds the right staff, develops a strategy that fits his available pieces, then implements a practice regimen that drills home said strategy.
In summary: practice makes perfect, but only if you practice perfect.
Much like the success of dual-threat quarterbacks last year didn’t translate to a run on them in the 2013 NFL draft, Kelly’s mere arrival in Philadelphia won’t necessarily mean a raid on college coaches who don’t fit the typical mold.
Other recent NFL hires from the collegiate ranks certainly reflect a more traditional mindset. Greg Schiano built Rutgers from perpetual cellar dweller to BCS bowl contender by employing an NFL style. Doug Marrone returns to the pros following a four-year stint at Syracuse. He spent 2001-2008 coaching on Sundays prior to leading the Orange.
Ultimately though, the hows of coaching are going to matter more than the whats. If Kelly breaks through, expect more of his ilk to make the move to the NFL.