In less than six weeks, Chip Kelly will make one of the most highly-anticipated head-coaching debuts in NFL history when the offensive mastermind, formerly of the University of Oregon, leads the Philadelphia Eagles into battle against the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football.
Kelly, of course, has never coached in the NFL, but his high-tempo, super-efficient style has gained national attention in recent years. Now he's making the jump, becoming just the ninth NFL head coach in the last 30 years without any pro experience.
Nobody knows exactly what Kelly will attempt to do in his first NFL gig, but there are strong indications that he'll try to carry over a significant portion of the tendencies he used at Oregon.
That could mean any or all of these features:
- Run-first offense with lots of zone read
- Versatility within the scheme and among the personnel
- High-paced attack with lots of offensive snaps
- Aspects of the spread offense
When discussing the carry-over last week, tight ends coach Ted Williams wasn't coy. From Philadelphia's Sheil Kapadia:
I don’t think that anything’s going to change from what he knows. It’ll be very, very similar to what you saw at Oregon because the play-calling… he needs to be comfortable with what he’s saying to the offense and how he’s communicating it. So you don’t just out of the box decide that you’re going to do something a certain way and you don’t feel comfortable with it. So it’s going to look like Oregon.
What everyone is really wondering is whether Kelly will try to run the zone read as often as he did in the Pac-12. Considering that said offensive tactic has recently become trendy in spots like Washington, Seattle and San Francisco, it's not far-fetched to imagine Kelly going heavy on read-option plays during his first year with the Eagles.
The problem is, though, that we're still not sure who the quarterback will be. And Kelly has said all along that the personnel has to dictate the scheme, not the other way around. Michael Vick might be a strong zone-read quarterback due to his sheer speed, but Nick Foles and Matt Barkley probably won't be counted on to run those types of plays 10 or 20 times per game.
I think the idea is to be versatile. So much changes from week to week, and Kelly's got the right idea if he's preparing his offense to adapt not only to the weapons in place but also to the defenses it will be facing.
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski suggested in May that Kelly's system wouldn't work at the pro level because it lacked NFL passing concepts. Fine, but Kelly has never suggested that he'll simply drop what existed in Eugene into Philadelphia and hope for the best.
As Smart Football's Chris Brown noted in January, Kelly's "individual schemes have always evolved at Oregon and undoubtedly will even more so in Philadelphia." The next step in the evolutionary process might be to simply add more layers, more options, to the offense itself.
Kelly couldn't do that with such limited practice time as a coach on the college level, but now he has a chance to take the best of what he had in college and combine that with whatever his offensive mind can come up with at this level. He can implement whatever he chooses and his full-time employees can make it happen. That's scary.
“The biggest thing about this offense is it has flexibility, so that’s exciting,” Williams said. “You don’t get pigeonholed. I’m not the guy who always lines up here. I have the flexibility to line up over there, over here, I can be moved, I can motion.”
So expect to see some zone read and some aspects of the spread, but expect that to change from week to week, depending on what type of defense they're facing and who's under center. That's where the versatility will come into play. That's how Kelly can avoid becoming another Steve Spurrier.
However, being versatile isn't unique in and of itself. In fact, there isn't a singular aspect of Kelly's offense that hasn't been successfully utilized at the pro level, except the tempo.
NFL teams run, on average, about 65 plays per game. At least 60, rarely more than 70. Last year, Kelly's Ducks ran an average of 82.8 offensive plays every Saturday. Of course, it's a shorter season and these are highly-driven 20-year-old kids, but few coaches have the ability to create a well-oiled machine like that.
Some surely do, though, and haven't. Why? The guys at Philly's Inferno establish here that there's a direct correlation between running more plays than your opponent and winning games, but nobody seems to be emphasizing this. Two problems:
1) The officials, quite literally, get in the way.
"We have to make sure teams understand that they don't control the tempo, our officials do," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told The Wall Street Journal this week. "We're going through our normal ball mechanics, we aren't going to rush [unless] it's in the two-minute drill."
Blandino noted that NFL rules differ dramatically from college in this regard, so Kelly will be handcuffed to a degree.
2) Rosters are smaller, the season is longer and the risk of injury increases with every snap. Asking DeSean Jackson or your offensive linemen to run 80-plus plays every Sunday could be football suicide.
Regardless, look for Kelly to gain a small edge here, simply because it's already a point of emphasis. The New England Patriots' offensive philosophy resembles Kelly's, mainly due to the coach's connection to former Pats offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. And in 2012, the Patriots ran 74.4 plays per game, which was the second-highest total in NFL history. It can't be a coincidence that they also had the third-highest point total in league history.
So expect fluidity, and expect a lot of the facets we saw from Kelly at Oregon. Beyond that, we're still in the dark. What we do know is that Kelly has most—not all, but most—of the pieces in place to succeed, regardless of scheme.
Yes, the quarterback position remains in flux, but it almost feels as though the pieces assembled on this offense are built for a coach like Kelly, and that's a major reason why he'll have a chance to breathe new life into a desperate football town this fall.
The Quarterback Who Can Run
Kelly has said he prefers a quarterback who can run, but not a running back who can throw. Vick has toed the latter line at times, but he's still one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history and has a missile attached to his left shoulder. He might have passed his prime, and he might make too many mistakes for Kelly, but on the surface he's close to being tailor made for this offense.
The Running Back(s) Who Can Carry the Load
LeSean McCoy took more snaps than any back in the league in 2011 and has been one of the most effective and consistent backs in the NFL since his 2009 rookie season. He dealt with concussion issues last year, but he's healthy now and is still only 25. To boot, he's supported by flashy complement Bryce Brown.
The Receiver with Blazing Speed
Jackson possesses the speed Kelly loves, and is a threat to go deep at all times. That'll be important if/when Kelly tries to find a happy medium between his base philosophy and current offensive trends at the pro level.
The Swiss Army Knife
Kelly brought in James Casey, who can work as an H-back, tight end and slot receiver. He has the ability to be effective in myriad roles, and the Eagles are paying him handsomely to do so.
The Athletic Offensive Linemen
Kelly handpicked Lane Johnson for a reason, and he'll love having the versatile Todd Herremans inside at right guard. Jason Peters and Evan Mathis make up the best left side in the game and Jason Kelce, who has plenty of experience in a dynamic offense after his college career at Cincinnati, is a rising star in the middle.
The Eagles offense scored only 280 points last year, which ranked fourth worst in the NFL. But between 2000 and 2011, they averaged 23.9 points per game, which was the sixth-highest total in the league.
The offense was hit harder by injuries last year than any other offensive unit in the league, according to Football Outsiders, so if health is on his players' side there's good reason to believe Kelly has the right recipe in place to revive a once-highly-charged unit.