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Those Chip Kelly-to-Tampa Bay rumors are more than just rumors (Updated)

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Please see update at the bottom of the post. — ed.

Winter on the college football beat means a lot of dumb coaching rumors from dubious sources. So when a local television station in Portland, Ore., cited anonymous "sources" Sunday night who claimed that Oregon coach Chip Kelly was "in the process of finalizing a deal" to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the collective brain of the college football punditocracy — coalescing in a matter of minutes on Twitter — dismissed it as interesting but idle chatter. (Possibly started by his rival at USC, Lane Kiffin, because that would be such a Lane Kiffin move with just a few days to go in the 2012 recruiting cycle.) Why on earth would Chip Kelly want to leave Oregon with another national championship run on the horizon, and who had the idea he might be a good fit in the NFL?

Then came Bucs beat writer Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, who confirmed that where this is smoke, there is indeed fire:

Oregon football coach Chip Kelly is finalizing a deal to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, the Tampa Bay Times confirmed Sunday night.

Kelly met with the Bucs earlier this past week and both sides are hopeful an agreement can be reached within the next 24-48 hours.
[…]
The secret meeting between with Kelly, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik and members of the Glazer family which owns the team came during an exhaustive search in which they interviewed eight known candidates with a wide array of experience in the NFL, from former head coaches to offensive coordinators and position coaches.

Kelly is reportedly the first college coach the Bucs have interviewed in its "thorough and wide" search since firing Raheem Morris in January, and of all the college coaches they could have talked to, he makes the least sense.

Question 1: What does Tampa Bay see in Chip Kelly? There is really no coherent answer for that, other than his sterling record at Oregon. But that record is brief, and it is not what you would usually consider "NFL-friendly."

Not only has Kelly spent his entire 22-year career in college football: The vast majority of those years were in relatively small-time college football, including 14 years at his alma mater, New Hampshire. It wasn't until 2007 that he was plucked from obscurity to install the spread option as Oregon's new offensive coordinator, and he was only promoted to head coach in 2009. If he lands in Tampa, his career trajectory will have taken him from assistant coach at an FCS school to head coach in the NFL in just five years.

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On top of his complete inexperience in the pros, he's synonymous with the kind of quintessentially "college" scheme that is openly disdained at that level, with one exception: The Denver Broncos, who only embraced a spread option/zone read philosophy when it became clear that Tim Tebow was their only viable option at quarterback. The Bucs' starter, 250-pound colossus Josh Freeman, would look awkward in Kelly's system even against college defenses. And it's been at least a decade since Kelly has coached anything else.

Question 2: Is Kelly looking to jump ship before Oregon is bombarded by NCAA sanctions? On the same note, Kelly has few apparent incentives to leave Eugene: He's the highest-paid coach in the Pac-12 at $2.8 million per year — a number that could potentially rise to just shy of $4 million with incentives — and has three consecutive conference championships in his first three years as a head coach. Facilities are first-rate, recruiting is improving, and the Ducks are on the verge of joining an elite class of perennial national contenders.

The only plausible reason Kelly might want out of that situation — other than his ego — is the fear that an ongoing NCAA investigation into possible recruiting violations is about to drop a hammer on his burgeoning juggernaut. He wouldn't be the first: Two years ago, Pete Carroll took the same opportunity to bail on USC for the top job with the Seattle Seahawks, just six months before the Trojans were slapped with the most heavy-handed NCAA sanctions in more than a decade. A looming bowl ban may also help explain the otherwise baffling decision by quarterback Darron Thomas to skip his senior season for the draft despite the high likelihood that he won't be selected at all.

But Darron Thomas was not (so far as we know) making $2.8 million a year at Oregon; under the circumstances, Chip Kelly's willingness to ditch a plum position at a burgeoning powerhouse for an outfit that was outscored by more than 200 points en route to 10 straight losses and a last-place finish in the NFC South makes even less sense. Then again, Kelly didn't get where he is by biding his time.

UPDATE, 1/23 • 6:04 a.m. ET. After reportedly accepting the Bucs' offer late Sunday night, a "high-ranking team source" reports Kelly has reversed course and decided to remain in Oregon. For now.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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