Chip Kelly must feel pretty cramped these days. It is hard to prepare your team for a Pac-12 title, and possibly a BCS championship, when you are stuffed inside a dozen Christmas stockings.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and a constellation of Eagles blogs are buzzing with “Chip Kelly Replaces Andy Reid” chatter. Bills bloggers and Chargers fans have wish lists, and Kelly tops them. There are Kelly rumblings in Jacksonville. There will Kelly murmurs in Dallas after the Cowboys’ next loss. National writers listing the NFL’s most eligible coaching bachelors start with Chip Kelly and Jon Gruden, then open their web browser in search of other names.
All of which is fascinating, because Kelly might as well wear a sweatshirt that reads: "College Coach Who Will Flop in the NFL." He doesn’t set off your Spurrier Radar (or SpurriDar), then you don’t have SpurriDar. If you were trying to create an exceptional college coach who is completely unsuited to the NFL, all you would need is Kelly’s DNA and resume.
The Usual Suspect. Anyone can make a list of great college coaches who flopped in the NFL. In fact, everyone has: It is one of the great throwaway lists/slideshows of Internet football journalism, up there with “top draft busts” and “hottest quarterback wives.”
Here’s a typical list: Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis, Dennis Erickson, Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier. It’s a list of spectacular, embarrassing failures: coaches who didn’t bother learning player’s names, coaches who spent more time on front office skullduggery than the game plan, coaches who went out for a pack of cigarettes in Week 13 and never came back.
There is also a list of successful college-to-NFL transitions: Jimmy Johnson. This list does not lend itself to a slideshow.
Any article about college coaches who do not succeed in the NFL follows the list/slideshow with some oversimplified explanations about why college coaches fail: recruiting is totally different from drafting, millionaires are not like teenagers, the spread-pistol-air raid-triple-wishbone-wildcat that baffled the defenders at Directional State will get scraped off Brian Urlacher’s cleats after one game.
All of these hoary tropes are true. All of them apply to Chip Kelly.
Kelly is an offensive mastermind. He is guru of the modern college spread option. Marcus Mariota, his current quarterback, fakes a shotgun handoff, stands in the pocket while a file downloads, then floats passes to receivers who are open by five yards. Or, Mariota hands off to Kenjon Barner, who busts off 300-yard games against overtaxed defenses. Or, Mariota keeps the football himself. There are trick plays, wildcat packages, fake field goals, bells, whistles, onion rings and shakes. It’s fun, and the quarterback is always in the gun. Is your SpurriDar beeping yet?
Kelly runs an explosive college offense, but like Spurrier’s fun ‘n’ gun, it is distinctly and uniquely a college offense. It is built on the principle of littering the field with speedy young men who can outrun the opponent’s speedy young men in the wide-open spaces that only exist at a level of play where everyone is a step slower, an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter.
Kelly acquires these speedy young men by showing up at their homes with a mirrored helmet in one hand and a DVD of the USC game highlights in the other, mentioning Nike every other sentence, and pointing out that the Ducks are on ABC or ESPN nearly every week, while Oregon State gets a highlight clip on the Independent Film Channel. Yes, yes, that’s being glib: recruiting is grueling and challenging, and Kelly and his staff are excellent at it. But Oregon gets to be Bigfoot in a region that ranges from Sacramento to Walla Walla, with Nike providing the duds and ABC-ESPN the national buzz. Kelly doesn’t have to glean the fields for talent.
Kelly’s model for football success is customized for the college game: recruit with every advantage you have, build a need-for-speed offense that both attracts recruits and makes the most of their gifts, and survive annual USC shootouts to become a legend. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this model. It could bring Kelly a national championship. It worked for Spurrier, and the defensive version works for Saban. It is completely untranslatable to the NFL, but that is no problem for a college coach, which is what Kelly has always been.
We Beat Towson. Bring on the Steelers. You may think I cheated with that one-man college-to-NFL list a few paragraphs ago. Where are Tom Coughlin and Dick Vermeil, you ask, successful coaches at Boston College and UCLA, respectively, who won Super Bowls in the NFL?
The answer is that Coughlin and Vermeil had experience as NFL assistants before moving into the college ranks. Coughlin spent seven years as an NFL receivers coach before joining Boston College. It’s a whole different resume. The NFL assistant learns about working with professionals, dealing with roster constraints, and game planning in a world where one play-fake won’t allow your receiver to beat a safety by three steps.
Kelly does not have that kind of background. He worked his way up as an assistant from Columbia to New Hampshire, with a year at Johns Hopkins, before landing the offensive coordinator job at Oregon. Coughlin’s early career prepared him to deal with people like Plaxico Burress; Kelly’s prepared him to teach spread-option principles to future journalists and doctors.
Kelly’s New Hampshire offenses were, by all accounts, amazing. They were also as far removed from the NFL as a coach can be while still being employed in the continental United States.
He now has exponentially better talent to work with than he did when he faced opponents like Central Connecticut State. Strangely, little of that talent has gone on to NFL success. The Ducks have sent 14 players to the NFL in the draft during Kelly’s four years as a head coach, plus LeGarrette Blount, who went undrafted because of character issues. Blount, Seahawks center Max Unger and Bills safety Jairus Byrd are the only “stars,” give or take an Ed Dickson or Patrick Chung. It’s a surprisingly small haul for such a high-profile program.
Oregon draft classes are conspicuously short of skill-position players. Blount and Dickson are the only former Ducks you are likely to see handling a football on a Sunday. No receivers have been drafted at all from Oregon since 2007; quarterback Dennis Dixon, who earned a fifth-round pick in 2008 (when Kelly was offensive coordinator) as a third stringer and “slash” prospect, was recently released from the Ravens’ practice squad.
So Kelly recruits great college players who put up great college numbers in great college systems, but his talent, even at the skill positions, is not designed or developed for the NFL. Your SpurriDar has to be glowing white-hot at this point. If not, there are some Danny Wuerffel videos on You Tube you need to look at.
Kelly’s job is not to acquire or develop NFL talent, but to win at the NCAA level. That is exactly the point. Equating Oregon success with NFL success is completely misguided. Everything about Kelly’s system and background is NCAA-specialized. That does not mean he has no chance of succeeding in the NFL. It does mean that there is no reason to believe that he is as qualified as a veteran NFL coordinator who was coaching professional linebackers when Kelly was game-planning to beat Moravian.
The problem with Kelly’s NFL resume, simply put, is that there is no NFL whatsoever on it.
Best Wishes. Upon entering the NFL, Kelly will have to throw away the recruiting edge and the offensive gizmos. So what’s left? Why are so many people placing Kelly on the Mt. Grudenmore of available coaches?
There are some current NFL coaches who have enjoyed a degree of success after excelling in the NCAA: Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Schiano. This is Carroll’s third pitch in the NFL, and he is batting with an 0-2 count. Harbaugh, an NFL quarterback for 14 years, is an unusual case. (You can say that again). Schiano has won five games. None of these coaches are comparable to Kelly, except in the broadest sense.
Kelly has a stat-friendly reputation. Kelly tries two-point conversions early in games, doesn’t subscribe to the Pat Shurmur School of Midfield Punting and makes the kind of percentage plays that people who understand percentages love. I am a stat guy, and I cannot wait for NFL coaches to figure out that going for it on fourth-and-two from the opponent’s 44-yard line is not a “gamble.” But calling onside kicks is an incredibly tiny part of an NFL coach’s job.
Kelly’s brand of spread-option offense is catching on in the NFL. Look at the success Chan Gailey is having in Buffalo! No, scratch that, look at all the success Josh McDaniels had calling the shots in Denver! This is another argument that actually works against Kelly: He won’t actually bring some never-before-seen system to the NFL. Defenses have been adjusting to spread principles for years. It’s Kelly who will be facing something new.
Kelly is a leader, a teacher, a motivator, a man of destiny. No one reaches Kelly’s level of success without incredible leadership and management skills. Many experts are raving about Kelly’s personal traits right now, and most of these experts have spent more time in Eugene than I have.
Intangibles are what they are, and are also what they are not: untouchable and un-measurable, so we can claim they are as huge or tiny as we like. Great things were said about Bobby Petrino as a human being when he took over the Falcons, and you wouldn’t let him valet your car these days.
Kelly’s excellence as a college coach is unquestioned. His qualifications to be an excellent NFL head coach are mostly wishful thinking. He should stay where he is until he becomes an old ball coach, a lesson he (and we) should have learned from the Ol’ Ball Coach.