Chip Kelly and the 49ers Are the Worst Match Imaginable

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 14, 2016

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly watches from the sidelines before an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia.  (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Michael Perez/Associated Press

The 49ers must not have been listening.

That's the only explanation for their hiring Chip Kelly as their new head coach.      

Team owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke must have had the TV on mute during Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie's press conference on Dec. 30—the one where Lurie explained firing Kelly and spoke of needing a new coach with "emotional intelligence" and "accountability." Lurie emphasized those buzzwords as he said them, but York and Baalke clearly didn't get the message.

They also must not have heard about DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Boykin, Evan Mathis and all of the other past and present Eagles players Kelly left disgruntled, alienated and generally angry.

And they can't have been tuned in for Kelly's last seven games with the Eagles, which included losses by scores of 45-17, 45-14 and 40-17.

There must also be some short-term memory loss, too.

The 49ers were coached by an innovative, abrasive, big-name Pac-12 expatriate just two years ago. What was that guy in the khakis' name again? The one who clashed swords with Baalke until he skipped town to coach his college alma mater, leading Baalke to promote the guy who wiped down the weight benches to head coach?

York and Baalke simply must have forgotten all about that guy when they hired Kelly, a coach who also clashed with his general manager, then had him ousted, then went on a manic trading and spending spree that even he regretted when it came time to plop Murray and his $18 million guaranteed contract on the bench.

TONY AVELAR/Associated Press

That's what must have happened. Temporary deafness with a dash of amnesia. How else do you explain it? How else could you miss that Kelly and the 49ers are as bad for each other as a coach and an organization can possibly be?

An impatient, impetuous maverick with dubious people skills is the last thing the 49ers need right now. Retirements in the wake of Jim Harbaugh's—that's the name we were looking for!—departure last year gutted the roster. Skepticism after Jim Tomsula's promotion to head coach defined the 2015 season. The 49ers were not just a bad team, but a despondent one for most of the year. When a veteran like Ahmad Brooks says your team couldn't get psyched about a battle with the archrival Seahawks because the weather was overcast, your locker room has a serious problem.

So here is your solution, oh demoralized 49ers: The coach who trades players without contacting them. The coach whose superstar acquisition complained to ownership on the flight home from the team's biggest victory of the year. The coach with the whiff of racial accusations trailing in his wake.

Veterans who may not be comfortable with the 49ers' new direction will also be unhappy to learn that Kelly will change everything about the playbook, the practice schedule, the practice style, the contents of the cafeteria, the amount of monitors they wear and medical tests they take.

Yes, some of that science stuff can do a world of good. But when you're down and out, you need empathy—someone with "emotional intelligence"—not a hydration test and an energy drink.

It's not like Kelly's system arrives from Philly with rave reviews or positive results. Just the opposite. Kelly comes with a reputation for front-office skullduggery, which is precisely what turned the 49ers from one of the NFL's top contenders into an embarrassment in two short years. Officially, Kelly will only coach the team, with Baalke making the personnel decisions. But no press conference announcement or organizational flowchart can do justice to what kind of matter-antimatter explosions will result when Kelly and Baalke first collide on a personnel decision. These are both men whose top conflict-resolution strategy is to stage a coup.

Maybe the 49ers should sell tickets to organizational meetings instead of games. The meetings are certainly destined to be more entertaining—and possibly harder hitting.

The Kelly hire does not even make the most superficial sense. Sure, Kelly's option-flavored offense could revive Colin Kaepernick's career. Except that Kelly failed to revive the careers of Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford—and only breathed a few weeks of life into Nick Foles back when opponents were seeing the Kelly offense for the first time. He just spent three years swearing his offense has nothing to do with the read-option and starting some of the most immobile quarterbacks he could find.

And Baalke's personnel control means Kaepernick might not really be in the team's long-range plans, anyway.

Jan 3, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) walks on the field before the start of the game against the St. Louis Rams at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

So what were the 49ers thinking?

Veteran columnist Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News saw the 49ers' coaching search as riding on two tracks. Baalke was seeking candidates who, in Kawakami's words, were "guys he knows, guys from the Bill Parcells line, guys who will let him remain the Alpha Grinder." York, meanwhile, sought "guys 49ers alums are suggesting, guys who have name-recognition."

(So York and Baalke operate independently and at cross purposes, just like Baalke and his coaches. At least the 49ers are consistent.)

Based on the Kawakami paradigm, Kelly is a York hire. The owner wanted a big name and was indifferent about potential friction in the organization. That's a bad strategy on a variety of levels. The phrase "wanted a big name and was indifferent about" is really never used in connection with smart, forward-thinking management in any field.

So York has thrown together two individuals whose defining weaknesses are an inability to recognize their own limitations and an inability to work well with others, probably because he also shares those weaknesses. All three parties also have a knack for displacing blame, which may be why York and Baalke missed the timbre in Lurie's voice three weeks ago when he stressed the syllables of accountability.

It's hard to imagine Kelly and Baalke getting through free agency and the draft without conflict, let alone a season. And we're not talking about the kind of steel-sharpens-steel conflict that leads to mutual respect and understanding. We're talking about the kind of conflict that spills onto the field, that sends mixed messages to players, that prompts free agents and those who represent them to seek employers who have a clearer vision of what they want.

Almost any solution would be better for the 49ers than hiring Kelly. They could have used a youthful, enthusiastic coordinator to set a new tone and improve locker room morale. They could have used a careful empire builder in the Tom Coughlin mold. A college coach with real rah-rah chops, as opposed to Kelly's clinical approach to human behavior, might have mixed some new ideas with a little emotional intelligence. Heck, another year of Tomsula could have at least signaled stability to free agents and veterans within the organization with one finger on the button for the ejection seat.

The 49ers got none of those benefits. The team with a sour reputation around the NFL hired a coach with a sour reputation around the NFL. The team with the short memory and bad listening skills hired the coach with the short attention span and bad communication skills.

In some ways, it's a perfect match.

But in the ways that matter, it's the worst match imaginable.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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