The Spotter’s View: Chip Kelly

chip-kellyThe Eagles continue to surprise everyone in the NFL after agreeing to terms with their new Head Coach, Chip Kelly – the polarizing architect of the most explosive offense that college football has ever seen. Remember, this is a front office that traded Donovan McNabb on Easter, signed Terrell Owens out of nowhere, spent massive amounts of money on the “Dream Team” and gave Michael Vick a shot at redemption.

It appears now that owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman will give Kelly a chance at the NFL. They’ll also be giving him loads of money. The move is shocking and exciting for a fan base that has become disheartened in recent weeks. First, we lost Bill O’Brien. Then we lost Chip. Then we interviewed Mike Nolan and Bruce Armstrong and Gus Bradley and Mike McCoy and any other assistant coach that had the credentials to warrant a sit down. Then we interviewed Lovie Smith and Ken Whisenhunt and even Brian Billick – retreads with Super Bowl credentials. Still – nothing happened. No announcements. No head coach to replace Andy Reid and the 14 seasons he gave us.

Until now. Enter Chip Kelly. Here is The Spotter’s View on the offensive mastermind and what he’ll be bringing to Philadelphia. The good, the bad and what it all means…

College Coaches Fail at the NFL

Let’s start with the history of big-name college coaches who failed once they made the transition to the NFL level. The names are well-known.

  • Nick Saban went 15-17 with the Dolphins. His QBs were Gus Frerotte, Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington.
  • Steve Spurrier was worse. The Ol’ Ball Coach posted a 12-20 mark with the Redskins. His QBs were Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Hasselbeck.
  • Bobby Petrino stepped into a nightmare situation in Atlanta after Michael Vick was incarcerated for his dog fighting ring. Petrino went 3-10 with the Falcons before leaving his post during the season. His QBs were Harrington, Chris Redmon and Byron Leftwich.
  • Mike Riley left Oregon State to coach the Chargers. He failed miserably going 14-34 in San Diego. His QBs were Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer, Moses Moreno, RYAN LEAF and eventually Doug Flutie.
  • Butch Davis built The U into a national champion before taking a job with the Cleveland Browns. His record in the NFL 24-35. His QB: Tim Couch.

Do you see a trend emerging here? All of these great coaches who competed at the highest levels of college football failed miserably at the NFL level for basically the same reason. They didn’t draft, sign or find the right quarterback. Re-read those QB names from above. The only two who had mediocre success in the league at any point were Harbaugh and Flutie. The rest were unquestionable busts (Leaf, Harrington and Couch), journeymen (Redmon, Leftwich, Kramer, Hasselbeck, Frerotte, Ramsey and Culpepper) or borderline talents that probably didn’t belong in the NFL to begin with (Moreno, Matthews and Wuerffel).

This is the decision that will ultimately decide Chip Kelly’s fate with the Eagles. More so than the questions surrounding his unique, break-neck scheme. More so than the uncertainty of who will run his defense. More than anything else, Kelly needs to find the “right” guy to line up under center each and every week. If he falters here, he’ll likely wind up back at Oregon in a handful of years.

Who is the “Right” Guy?

Let’s first discuss Kelly’s history. He started to make a name for himself coaching the University of New Hampshire Wildcats back in the early 2000’s. He found a kid who lived a few doors down from him in Manchester NH to run the show. Ryan Day was phenomenal. His next QB was my brother – Michael Granieri – who he found at a coaching clinic held at Boston College. Michael posted video game type numbers for the Wildcats despite playing in a high school offense that threw the ball 6-8 times per game. During his senior season, Michael tore his ACL against Delaware. Did the Wildcats miss a beat because of injury to their star player? No. In came Ricky Santos who went on to win the Walter Payton Award (basically the Heisman Trophy for the FCS level).

After gaining notoriety as a great offensive mind due to the success he enjoyed in New Hampshire, Kelly signed on with Oregon – first as their OC and eventually as their head coach. His QBs in Eugene: Dennis Dixon (Pac-10 Player of the Year), Jeremiah Masoli (Davey O’Brien Award Candidate whose career was derailed due to off field issues), Darron Thomas (Oregon record holder for TD passes and QB of 12-0 team that appeared in the National Championship Game) and Marcus Mariota (a 3-star recruit that led Oregon to a one-loss season as a red-shirt freshmen).

The point I’m trying to make here is this: Kelly has a history of “finding” his guy. Whether it’s a kid who lives nearby, or due to a chance meeting at a coaches clinic, or in distress because his starter got in trouble or simply identifying talent where others did not. Kelly has a track record of success in this regard. You would have to in order to take unknown New Hampshire to the heights of the FCS level…..let alone what he did at Oregon – a school that had zero sway with recruits prior to his arrival.

Which brings us to the Eagles. In my opinion, Kelly’s history of finding talent at the quarterback position leads me to believe that he won’t follow in the footsteps of Saban (who passed on Drew Brees due to concerns of a shoulder injury in favor of Culpepper), Spurrier (who tried to use his own college QBs at the NFL level – Matthews and Wuerrfel) or any of the other coaches on the list from above.

Kelly will find his guy. But who will it be? The Eagles currently have Michael Vick, Nick Foles and Trent Edwards on their roster. I think it’s safe to say that Edwards has little to no chance of sticking around. Based on what Kelly has always valued in the quarterback position – a passer that can run – it would seem that Foles isn’t a fit either. Though Kelly did have good things to say about the former Arizona QB back when they faced each other in the Pac-12. So….maybe? It would take some serious tweaking of Kelly’s scheme – which features the read option and an entire package built on designed QB runs.

Which leaves Vick. A quarterback who probably possessed the ideal skill set for Kelly’s offense back when he was in his prime. The 2004 version of Vick would eliminate all doubts. He would be the guy. But this isn’t 2004. Vick is coming off a season in which he struggled mightily and was benched in favor of Foles. He’s been injured. He turns the ball over entirely too much and you’d have to wonder if his role in the locker room has been damaged by the on-goings of this last year. Still….if there was ever a chance for Vick to reinvent himself AGAIN – wouldn’t it have to be in a system like Kelly’s?

He’s got to be the front-runner at this point. But in the NFL – unlike the NCAA – there are financial considerations that have to be brought into the decision-making process. Vick is owed a whopping $15.5 million dollars next season. Quite a ransom for a 32-year-old QB who has been in decline for over a year.

Logic would dictate that Vick would need to take a considerable pay cut to stay in Philadelphia. I’m not sure he’s willing to do that and I’m also not sold on Kelly wanting him to stick around. Though it would be interesting as hell.

My gut says Kelly will follow the same route he used at UNH and Oregon. He’ll want his guy. A young, athletic passer who can grow along with the new system in Philadelphia. Vick – at his age – is likely more of a stop-gap at the position. Based on what happened with the previous college coaches who failed in the NFL, it would probably make sense for Chip to avoid the stop-gap solution. It leads to uncertainty and change and ultimately failure. Even in the best case scenario, Vick plays in the system for a year – is replaced at some point in year two and by year three you finally have a youngster ready to take the reigns. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’d expect Kelly to find his guy this off-season and have him ready by opening week this year.

Possible QB Candidates

Vick is the only viable option as of today but the Eagles do have some firepower in the NFL Draft. They hold the #4 overall pick, they have Foles and Vick as trade bait. There is some room for creative maneuvering. It’s up to Howie Roseman and Chip to identify the right target(s) and to make it happen. The best QB who might fit Kelly’s system in this year’s draft is West Virginia’s Geno Smith. He played in a similar spread offense at WVU under Dana Holgerson and amassed huge offensive numbers. 71% completion rate, back to back 4,000 yard seasons and 42 TD passes against just 6 INTs last year.

Smith didn’t run all that frequently as a Mountaineer which might be an issue but he is a 4.6 guy who does have the athletic ability to be a threat on the ground. Interesting to consider. There’s also the possibility that Kelly makes a trade to find his guy. One of his former signal callers from Oregon – Dennis Dixon – is a member of the Baltimore Ravens practice squad. Small chance of that happening but – again – worth noting.

The last option would be finding a QB later in the draft that is currently off the radar. Kelly has had success doing that at the college level and although the NFL game is much more complex – it could happen.

No matter how it all plays out…. Vick, Smith, an Oregon re-tread or a QB that we haven’t discussed – I have complete trust in Kelly’s ability to evaluate talent. He’ll find his guy. He won’t make the one critical mistake that doomed Saban and ruined Spurrier.

Scheme

The other major question mark facing Kelly is how will this “gimmicky” scheme transition to the NFL? Based on my understanding of it through conversations with my brother (who played QB in this system), I think the foundation of this offense is fundamentally sound.

It uses the same basic premise that all “check w/ me” offenses use at the line of scrimmage. First you identify the number of defenders in the box. If it’s six and you have an advantage by having six or more blockers – you run the inside zone. If it’s seven and you don’t have an advantage – you option off of the seventh defender and synthetically tilt the numbers in your favor. The defense has to now defend the option – or choice – of the quarterback. If it’s eight, you throw quick-game (three-step routes).

There are other packages and play-action routes built off of these run actions. There are also designed route combos, an entire red zone and short yardage offense and other facets of the offense that are too in-depth to discuss. But the overall premise of his attack is found throughout the NFL already. How it’s attacked is unique but what they’re attacking is not. In fact, the “how” part of the attack isn’t totally unique unto itself. The 49ers and Seahawks and Redskins all used parts of it this year by employing a read-option scheme. It does work. Those three teams were in the Playoffs this year.

The other part of Kelly’s scheme that is critical to its success is pace. The Oregon offense basically has three gears: quick, fast and warp speed. The idea is simple and it’s one that has worked previously in the NFL.

First the idea: By running plays quickly out of a no-huddle offense, it gives you an advantage at the line of scrimmage. The defense doesn’t have time to substitute defenders – meaning you will run plays against the same defensive front for the entire drive. That means no sub-packages or specialty personnel groupings for the defense. That means limiting the time the defensive coordinator has to make a call from the sideline. It forces the defensive players on the field to make the adjustments on the fly, under the gun and – at times – while gasping for air.

It also simplifies the reads for your QB. In the NFL, the very best defenses use pre-snap movement to confuse opposing signal-callers. They morph, mutate and adjust their alignments in an attempt to create doubt. Kelly’s offense flips that relationship by creating doubt in the defense through pace. Every :15 seconds there’s another snap, and another and another and another. Eventually, there will be a breakdown in communication, a blown coverage a weakness for the QB to exploit. Go watch an Oregon game and you’ll see the number of times this happens.

“That won’t work in the NFL”. I’ve heard it already. To that, I say….it already is working in the NFL. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have taken pieces of Kelly’s offense already. Peyton Manning regularly uses the no-huddle to gain the same advantages I just mentioned. As does Matt Ryan. Historically speaking….Jim Kelly and Warren Moon also used pace to simplify reads and create doubt within a defensive scheme. Granted, Kelly’s version isn’t an exact match to these examples but the foundation of it’s principles are the same. What he NEEDS to do more than anything, is find the “right” guy to orchestrate his pace. Someone he can trust to be his coach on the field.

The Eagles Current Roster

If you were to try and find an offensive roster in the NFL with similar characteristics to the one Kelly is leaving behind in Eugene, I don’t think you could find one better than the Eagles. Let’s say – for argument’s sake – that Vick stays. He’s a mobile QB who can throw the football. He has experience running the option both at Virginia Tech and as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. He’s a dangerous play-action passer. For all his faults, he does have those three things going for him. To me, he’s at least similar to Marcus Mariota ON THE FIELD. Put the hype aside and the back story and the #1 Draftpick status. ON THE FIELD…they’re at least similar.

LeSean McCoy is a home run back with arguably the best open-field running skills in the league. He has experience running the ball out of the shotgun set – thanks to Andy Reid – and he is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Very adept in the screen game. This isn’t a bruising runner or a downhill back. He doesn’t need 28 carries to make an impact. To me…he resembles Kenjon Barner. Similar in terms of explosive ability and open field skills. Versatile and a matchup nightmare.

DeSean Jackson is the diminutive speedster that can score anytime he touches the ball. His size – though – is a detriment in a conventional role as a number one receiver. Dealing with physical corners and press coverage have never been his strength. His calling card is the long ball, the big play, the reverse and designed screen play that allows him to create in space. To me…he’s D’Anthony Thomas. Weapon-X. Kelly can design ways to get Jackson into that Thomas role – 8 to 10 touches per game – in the hopes that he can spring one.

Jeremy Maclin is the more physical WR on this roster. He lacks Jackson’s explosive ability but he is capable of stretching a defense. By all accounts, he isn’t a top-tier wideout but he can be the kind of guy that shreds single coverage – particularly in a scheme that causes so many problems for a defense. To me…Maclin is Josh Huff. He can be the guy who takes the “lid off a defense” and make a living off of all the play-action stuff off the zone reads.

Brent Celek is a physical TE that also has great receiving skills. He’s been up and down throughout his career but his ceiling has always remained very high. Many would believe he has the skill set to be one of the very best in football. To me….he has the opportunity to fill the Colt Leyra role in this Kelly attack. A little TE. Some slot work. A few snaps as an H-back. He can stretch the seam, provide lead blocking in the pistol set and also be a reliable check down in the passing game. Just like Leyra.

Overall

I really like the Kelly signing. Chip brings excitement to a beleaguered fan base and his system seems to fit the existing Eagles roster very well. I think he has the track record that says he’ll find the “right” guy to run his system and avoid the common pitfall that has ruined a number of other high-profile college coaches trying to make the leap to the NFL. His scheme is sound and parts of it are already found at this level. The question mark that needs to answered – and answered correctly – is at QB. Whether its Vick or someone the Eagles will acquire as we move forward, that decision more than anything else will make or break the Kelly era in Philadelphia.

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5 responses to “The Spotter’s View: Chip Kelly

  1. Pingback: The Spotter’s View: Chip Kelly and the QB Decision | Monday Night Spotter·

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