Breaking Down Chip Kelly's Unconventional Play-Calling
Before arriving in Philadelphia from the University of Oregon, the extent to which many Eagles fans knew Chip Kelly was he ran one of those crazy college-style offenses and was the type of head coach who would go for a two-point conversion whether his team needed one or not.
We’re still learning who Kelly is exactly as an NFL coach, but that aggressiveness was part of the selling point during his jump to the pros—maybe not two-point tries in particular, but going for it on fourth down certainly and other outside-the-box thinking in general.
Yet we’ve nearly reached the 2013 season’s midway point and Kelly’s play-calling has fallen under scrutiny more weeks than not during his first season on Philly’s sideline. Not surprisingly, Kelly’s been called too aggressive at times. In some situations, he’s actually been accused of not being aggressive enough.
Everybody loved it on the Eagles’ first series under Kelly, when the offense wound up with a 4th-and-1 at Washington’s 21-yard line, and without hesitation or even slowing their uptempo pace at all, the Birds lined up and went for it.
It was the right call, and it was successful as LeSean McCoy ran it up the gut for four.
Every time the Eagles have lost, though, there’s been at least one play or series where Kelly’s decision-making has been criticized. Hey, that comes with the territory when you’re the head coach. However, the question is: Are we making too much of these supposedly controversial of calls?
A lot of time and energy has been used to dissect some of the stranger things the Eagles have done this season. Some of them have been labeled “rookie mistakes” at best—at worst Kelly’s mindset has been too collegiate, if that’s a thing. Yet where have these plays that folks are so fired up over come back to cost the Eagles?
Week 2: Driving down the field too quickly
The Eagles received the ball down 30-27 to San Diego with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter and proceeded to go right into their no-huddle offense. They were stopped and kicked a field to tie the game after using 80 seconds of clock, leaving the Chargers 1:51 to drive and make their game-winning three-pointer.
The criticism was, Kelly’s offense didn’t use enough of the clock. His explanation was their uptempo offense resulted in touchdowns on two previous possessions, and he thought it gave them the best chance to get back inside the end zone. They scored, so it's certainly debatable whether they should have done anything different.
Week 3: "Swinging Gate" two-point conversion
Rather than line up for a traditional extra point following a first-quarter touchdown, the Eagles came out in the swinging gate formation in the first quarter against Kansas City. The ball was snapped and lateraled to tight end Zach Ertz behind a wall of blockers. A missed assignment caused Ertz to be tackled short of the goal line, though.
Fans and analysts were highly-critical of this “college” play making its way to the NFL. As Jimmy Kempski wrote for Philly.com, however, it was execution, not the call that was the problem. Either way, it meant nothing in the grand scheme, as Philadelphia lost 26-16.
Is one point worth getting that worked up over?
Week 4: Punting to Peyton Manning
With the clock winding down in the first half and trailing the potent Denver Broncos 21-13, Kelly opted to take a delay-of-game penalty on 4th-and-6 from Denver’s 37-yard line and punt the ball. Donnie Jones’ boot was too strong, but the Eagles caught a break with a penalty on the play, so it wound up being just like pinning the Broncos on their 10.
The decision had the desired result. Making Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning march the length of the field with 2:07—while far from impossible—was a success as the drive fizzled outside of field-goal range. Had a fourth-down conversion failed, Manning would have easily gotten at least three points before the half ended.
Week 7: 60-yard field-goal attempt
Down 3-0 with 14 seconds remaining in the first half and 4th-and-1 at the opponent’s 43-yard line, the Eagles attempted a field goal rather than going for it or even punting it away. Alex Henery’s inevitable miss from 60 yards gave Dallas the football at midfield with nine seconds remaining—potentially enough time to get into field-goal range or attempt a Hail Mary.
The Cowboys did attempt to move the ball and eventually threw one to the end zone, but the pass was intercepted. No harm, no foul.
Only against the Chargers did Kelly’s decision have a meaningful or measurable negative impact, and who’s to say, had he done anything different in that situation, the Eagles still would have tied the game?
The uptempo offense was what was working to move the football.
These other decisions that have drawn scathing reviews around the league, however, all amount to nothing. In one case—his lack of aggressiveness in Denver—the questionable call actually achieved the desired result: keeping the opponent off the scoreboard.
Is it possible Kelly’s “unconventional” decision-making will eventually backfire?
It’s easy to say that one point didn’t matter against Kansas City in hindsight, or there was no harm in attempting that 60-yard field goal because Dallas didn’t score either. One point certainly can make the difference, though, and bad things do happen to teams that try 60-yarders.
Yet it’s hard to be overly critical when the negative results don't actually come to fruition. Chip Kelly’s decisions are fine as long as they’re not what’s costing his team wins, and so far they haven’t. Focusing so much attention on these small plays seems arbitrary compared to the impact most have had on the outcomes.
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