The reason Oregon coach Chip Kelly has become, if not the NFL’s hottest coaching candidate, then its most intriguing is as simple as the box score from the New England-San Francisco game a couple weeks back.
That night, the New England Patriots ran 92 offensive plays in a loss to San Francisco. It was an unusual game, with New England needing a huge second-half comeback, and thus Tom Brady to chuck it around just to make it a game, but still … 92 snaps is 92 snaps.
For three decades the average number of offensive plays per team in the NFL has hung around the low to mid 60s. This year it's 66.8. Yet here was New England, threatening 100 with a season-high 92, but also part of a season trend. The Patriots are averaging a league-high 74.4 snaps per game, up dramatically from 67.2 just a year ago.
In short, the Patriots are playing fast this year; really, really fast. Fast like one of those dynamic college offenses that blur your vision despite not having the kind of mobile quarterback or employing a zone-read running game such as the Washington Redskins or Seattle Seahawks.
Bill Belichick has embraced the speed spread that makes the no-huddle look outdated. Combine this high-octane approach with what Pete Carroll is doing with Russell Wilson or Mike Shanahan is doing with Robert Griffin III and on Black Monday the following also suddenly makes sense:
No matter his no comments about the NFL or his job security in Eugene, there’s been no better time for Kelly to leap to a league that is suddenly open-minded to a system that was long considered a college gimmick.
[Also from Dan Wetzel: Chuck Pagano's perseverance inspires Colts to defy odds]
Kelly has not spent a minute in the NFL. Not as a player. Not as a low-level gopher. Certainly not as a coach.
His résumé is rich in low-level football spots: Columbia, Johns Hopkins and New Hampshire. He headed to Oregon in 2007 as the offensive coordinator and his talent was so obvious, his boss Mike Bellotti soon "retired" in part so the school wouldn’t lose Kelly to someone else. Kelly has been the head Duck for four seasons now, and he’s 45-7 heading into Thursday's Fiesta Bowl.
Whatever he lacks in NFL pedigree can be overcome. This is a different era in the league, with new layers of complexity and execution gaining the upper hand on old-school, smash-mouth toughness and locker room pep talks. In essence, Kelly’s influence, among others, is already being felt. (Oregon is averaging 84.4 plays a game this season).
If he could convince NFL players that he knows what he’s doing and what he’s doing will work – and if there is one thing Kelly doesn’t lack it’s self-confidence – then they’ll respond.
It’s innovation, more than anything that moves the needle. Any coach standing pat is falling behind.
Belichick is 60 years old and has been in the NFL since 1975. He’s the old school of the old school, except he’s running the fastest offense in the league, once again ahead of a trend line. His players speak in awe not of his locker room speeches or their deep personal relationships, but his precision coaching in film rooms and strong game management.
Chip Kelly may not duplicate what he does at Oregon – the vast majority of college games are played against teams with inferior talent and depth. It’s unlikely he’d go for two points so frequently in the NFL.
Yet he can apply the principles while using his own acumen to shape the offense around the talent he has. The man is smart, frighteningly smart. Smart enough to be flexible and work with what he has.
And that’s part of the NFL appeal. The reasons to leave the college game behind are obvious. No more recruiting – Kelly is already under NCAA investigation for that. No more boosters – some of them have complained he doesn’t play golf with them enough and video-conferences into a weekly luncheon rather than drive to Portland.
Mainly though, there are fewer restrictions on time. Unleashed, the 49-year-old bachelor can plot more, not less. And given a quarterback who never graduates, he could build and adapt, the way Belichick does knowing Tom Brady can keep up.
For the NFL, Kelly is no less a risk than anyone else. There is no proven blue print for success in coaching prospects – Belichick himself was fired once and his assistants have a shaky track record. Black Monday saw Super Bowl coaches Lovie Smith and Andy Reid fired. So, sure you'd prefer he had some level of NFL experience, but his upside is far too tantalizing to pass on.
For Kelly, there is hardly a downside. He has a terrific situation in Eugene (even with NCAA sanctions coming) but it’s not the only good job out there. Even if Kelly was a spectacular failure in the NFL or found he didn’t like professional football and wanted a return to campus, he could all but name the school. If anything, a bit of NFL experience would only make him more appealing.
And unlike a year ago when he nearly accepted the Tampa Bay job, the league is even better positioned for, and more welcoming to his frenetic, pressure style.
It's happened that fast.
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