How Dennis Dixon Fits in Chip Kelly's Offense
Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles made one of the more predictable moves of the 2013 offseason Thursday when they signed former Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon to a two-year deal.
CSN Philadelphia initially reported that after the hiring of Kelly in January the Eagles were eyeing Dixon, who won a Super Bowl as a member of the Ravens practice squad in 2012. ESPN's Chris Mortensen confirmed the signing Thursday.
NFL teams receive just one week of exclusive rights time to re-sign practice squad players, meaning Dixon was free to sign with whichever team he wanted to starting last Monday.
The Eagles were a natural fit, both for Dixon and Kelly.
During his senior year at Oregon—a season in which Kelly ran the offense as coordinator—Dixon was a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and eventually won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.
Over the first nine games, Dixon completed almost 68 percent of his passes for 2,136 yards, 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 583 yards and nine scores as Oregon raced out to an 8-1 record and the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings.
Dixon would later tear his ACL, dooming both his run at the Heisman and Oregon's national championship hopes, but the mastery of the Kelly offense in 2007 was already very apparent.
Now, Dixon will get the chance to take that history with Kelly and turn it into a legitimate run at playing time as quarterback for the Eagles.
While Dixon won't have the monetary security that Michael Vick now has ($3.5 million guaranteed and up to $10 million overall in 2013, per Pro Football Talk) or the experience working with the Eagles' roster that Nick Foles possesses, he should enter training camp this summer with one very desirable trait: the knowledge and understanding of what Kelly does and expects on offense.
Put in the simplest of forms, Kelly runs an up-tempo spread offense. The attack is predicated on running the football, making the defense cover every inch of the field on every play and varying the speed of the calls.
There should be expected evolution as it translates into the NFL—a faster, bigger game than college—but the same core principles should remain.
And just to be clear: Kelly won't be running the Pistol offense, which Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers have integrated into the NFL consciousness. This is a similar idea that's implemented differently.
Everything Kelly does works around getting the numbers in the offense's favor. Whether it's with the inside zone read, bubble screens or play action, Kelly wants to shift the balance of the mathematics.
The zone read puts pressure on the front seven to account for everyone. Want to stack the line of scrimmage to take away the run? A bubble screen into space, threatening the seam against straight man-to-man or running a play-fake off the zone read are all concepts Kelly can use to counter it.
But the offense may be even more simple than that. Chris Brown of Grantland and Smart Football—and, might I add, a football genius—summed up Kelly's offense best here:
Chip Kelly's offense works not because it's a gimmick, but because rather than choose sides between old and new, Kelly's teams straddle history. Oregon is successful because it does well what good teams have always done well, albeit with a slightly more modern wardrobe.
While Kelly's offense is more traditional at its roots than most believe, it does require a quarterback with a certain set of skills.
Foles can still be an effective player in a slightly re-formatted Kelly offense, and there's little doubt that he'll get at least a chance to adapt this summer. If Foles proves he's the best quarterback of the three, Kelly should start him.
However, Dixon is the kind of dual-threat that makes the high-octane, high-volume offense work.
The inside and outside zone reads require the threat of running from the quarterback, or defenses could simply go back to not accounting for the position.
With a quarterback who can run, the "option" part of the play—or the attempt by the ball-handler to eliminate a player on the defense—allows a play-caller to shift the math in his favor.
Undoubtedly, Dixon has that kind of athletic ability. He ran for 1,208 yards from scrimmage at Oregon, and, in limited action in the NFL, Dixon has rushed for 56 yards on 10 attempts.
Worries about Dixon (6'3", 209 lbs.) taking too many hits in such an offense in the NFL is probably not as big of a concern as most would think. Certainly, the Eagles won't be running power runs with the quarterback in the Tim Tebow mold.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon's freshman quarterback in 2012, ran just 106 times, or right around eight times a game. He never ran more than 15 times in one game. A reduction in amount of runs from the quarterback position in Kelly's NFL offense is to be expected.
And while Dixon may not be a great passer—he's completed 59.3 percent of his NFL passes, with a passer rating of 71.4 in three starts—he knows the system well enough to be effective throwing the football right away for Kelly.
According to an AFC personnel man (via CSN Philadelphia), Dixon has "tremendous NFL potential that can be maximized in Kelly's offense."
Any starter for the Eagles will still need to make throws on time and into tight windows, but when the pacing and math is right, Kelly's offense doesn't require Tom Brady at quarterback for the thing to work.
Of course, that is the beauty of Kelly's offense as it evolves into the NFL: multiple dimensions with old-school roots that can evolve on the run.
Last November, Brown explained further why he thinks the Kelly offense can work in the NFL:
Time will undoubtedly tell whether Kelly's offense can work in the NFL, but my vote is that it will. It would require Kelly finding the right players, but a Chip Kelly–coached NFL team would win for the same reasons that the Chip Kelly–coached college team wins. Behind the speed, the spread, the Daft Punk helmets, and the flashy uniforms, Oregon ultimately wins with old-fashioned, fundamental, run-it-up-the-gut football. I think everyone, even fans of the spread offense, can appreciate that.
Signing Dixon fits the idea of "finding the right players."
While he may not end up as the Eagles starter, Dixon does provide the understanding of a system and the athletic skill set to make this a three-man race. If nothing else, he can provide the other two quarterbacks with a wealth of knowledge on how the operation works and what Kelly wants.
Sometimes in sports, fits between players and teams or coaches make too much sense and don't happen. This time around, however, such an easily connected and understandable marriage actually came together. For the Eagles, adding Dixon is a win-win.
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