How Chip Kelly Will Have to Adapt His High-Powered Offense to the NFL

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2013

BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Head Coach Chip Kelly of the Oregon Duck looks on during pre-game warm ups before their NCAA College football game against the California Golden Bears at California Memorial Stadium on November 10, 2012 in Berkeley, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The on-again, off-again romance between Chip Kelly and the NFL is on—and this time, the Philadelphia Eagles hope to put a Super Bowl ring on it.

With a tweet from ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Kelly's national cachet, trademark visor and high-powered offense head for always-sunny Philadelphia.

But what is Kelly's high-powered offense? Would Eagles quarterback Mike Vick be a perfect fit or all wrong? If Vick is a cap casualty, can backup Nick Foles run the offense? What will Kelly, who has no pro experience, have to do to adapt his scheme for the NFL?


What Is Chip Kelly's Scheme?

Most people talk about football schemes based on the base formations or personnel. They talk about how many wide receivers or backs are used; whether the offense primarily uses shotgun snaps or center snaps.

But all of those things are a means to an end.

Every offensive or defensive system has a design goal. What's the team trying to do? What do they hope to accomplish? The personnel and formations flow from that, not the other way around.

Kelly's so-called "blur" offense is generally talked about as a pedal-to-the-metal extreme spread offense built around a running quarterback. In reality, Kelly's offense has three distinct tempos, spreads the field to run up the middle and uses designed quarterback runs sparingly.

Kelly's goal is to force the defense to cover as much of the field as possible, then punch it in the mouth.

What Kelly's program stands for, as he told the Nike Coaches Clinic in 2009, is "fast," "play hard" and "finish."

We want to get off the ball and be a physical, downhill-running football team... We teach our linemen a block we call a 'bust block'. The idea is to bust their sternum up against their spines on every running play. We want to come off the ball, create a double-team, knock the crap out of the defender, and deposit him in the linebacker's lap.


Simplify, Simplify

Defenses key themselves off the offense. Defensive linemen line up in relation to the offense using a "technique" indexing system developed by legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant:

Defenses then name the "gaps" between each offensive lineman to each defender, like this:

Each front-seven defender is responsible for stopping the running back from getting through his assigned gap. Most NFL defenses use this one-gap system, even those based on 3-4 alignments. 

Typically, offensive linemen are coached to recognize how the defense is aligned against them and anticipate and counter the defense's scheme. This is part of the cat-and-mouse game all coordinators play.

Kelly dispenses with that.

Kelly's offense spreads multiple receivers out across the line of scrimmage, forcing the defense into constant use of nickel and dime packages. This turns the defense's front seven into a front six or front five every time.

Kelly uses four basic running plays: inside zone read, outside zone read, counter, draw. He's added wrinkles over the years, but these four plays allow him to ensure all five or six defenders have an offensive player neutralizing them.


The Inside Zone Read

The inside zone read is, as Kelly says, Oregon's "signature play," its "go to work" play. The Ducks run it many times a game, every game. Like Vince Lombardi's power sweep, Joe Gibbs' counter trey, Marty Schottenheimer's Power G or Tom Moore's levels, defenses know full well the inside zone is coming. Kelly dares them to stop it.

Here's a fantastic video from, an outstanding website dedicated to understanding the Oregon offense. If you want to really understand the inside zone read, watch this video:

If you can't watch the video, here's the upshot. The Oregon offense runs to the opposite side of the defense's best edge defender, leaving him unblocked on the back side of the play. When the running back goes to take the handoff, the quarterback reads the unblocked defender.

If the defender attacks the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs through the hole where the defender used to be.

If the defender stays home to contain the quarterback, the quarterback hands it off; the running back doesn't have to worry about backside pursuit.

If the offensive linemen all win their one-on-ones, and the quarterback and running back do their jobs, an Oregon player will be gaining a big chunk of yards. Oh, and if the defense pulls defensive backs back into the box to contain the run?

Somebody's open downfield.

As Chris Brown of explained, Kelly has built several devastating wrinkles around the inside zone read and outside zone read. Kelly is preying upon defenses gearing up to stop Oregon's run game with play-action bootlegs, bubble screens and a "triple option" involving a second running back.


Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

But all of this relies on the big "if" above: if the offensive linemen win their one-on-ones.

This is the part of Kelly's scheme that causes the most concern when translating it to the NFL.

Can the Eagles really leave DeMarcus Ware unblocked, then block three linemen and two other linebackers one-on-one? Can the Eagles really take Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo out of the game by running at one and away from the other?

What makes the answers to those questions not immediately "no" is the way Kelly's scheme maximizes the linemen. Kelly's offensive linemen never have to stop and think; they know their jobs instinctively.

By forcing defenses to reveal their hand with spread formations, giving the offensive linemen clear responsibilities and simplifying reads for the quarterback, the offensive players can feel free to disengage their brains and simply execute.

Of course, they can't do that if their muscles don't already know what to do.

Kelly, fortunately, is a maniac about practice. He crams the maximum number of reps into each practice, working with crazy tempo and efficiency, training those players' muscles until everything happens at maximum speed and maximum force with minimum effort. found a transcript of another Kelly seminar, this one on optimum use of practice time. Kelly repeatedly uses the phrase, "If you accept it, expect it."

In Kelly's mind, the lowest common denominator of what you let slide in practice becomes reality. Let's say a player holds the ball loosely in practice, but he doesn't get an earful about it. That weekend, the same player fumbles.

By not accepting mistakes in practice, they happen much less frequently in games.

In the meantime, the crazy number of training reps perfectly hones young players to fit what Kelly wants them to do.

But what about grown men?


Chip Kelly and the Eagles

Professional football players are a different beast altogether. With the Eagles, Kelly will have some players suited to do what Kelly's liked to do up front, like outstanding guard Evan Mathis. The Eagles, of course, also have LeSean McCoy, who's the prototypical Kelly back.

When it comes to the quarterback, don't overestimate Vick's potential within Kelly's offense, nor underestimate Foles'. Grantland's Brown quoted Kelly from the transcript of a 2011 talk he gave:

I look for a quarterback who can run and not a running back who can throw. I want a quarterback who can beat you with his arm... We are not a Tim Tebow type of quarterback team. I am not going to run my quarterback 20 times on power runs.

But all of this might be a red herring.

What makes Chip Kelly a great football coach is not the offensive system he ran at Oregon. It's his approach to the game, his understanding of how to make his players better by making their jobs easier. It's his ability to carve beautiful football out of the bedrock principles of the old-school game.

Kelly has said many times that it's not about what your football team's identity is, it's that you have one. That there's something you do that's reliably great, something players can hang their hat on, something to fall back on when nothing else is working.

Kelly is smart enough to adapt his scheme to the talent he has. If he hands out copies of his 2012 Oregon playbook to his Eagles at training camp, and a few weeks into the season it's not working, Kelly will come up with something that works.

The Eagles did not hire a "blur offense"; they hired its architect. The Eagles hired a man who can build a new winning identity and keep it fresh and strong for years on end—just like his predecessor did.