Good luck, Chip Kelly, but innovation alone won’t win in NFL

January 17, 2013 

As we note the defection of Oregon coach Chip Kelly to the NFL, which some see as the start of a schematic revolution, it’s timely to re-examine what kind of offenses historically work best in the NFL.

The ones with the best players.

Meanwhile, the kinds of defenses most likely to stop the newest trends in offense? The ones with the best tacklers and coverage guys and pass rushers.

A talented team might win with a bad coach for a while, but a great coach is going nowhere without talented players.

And as Kelly makes the big, belated leap, it’s fair to recall that so many other factors are involved that his arrival doesn’t necessarily signal a revival for the Eagles nor a tidal change in offensive schemes.

Kelly has been inventive and creative, and reshaped how many colleges approach the game, which led to success for Oregon and frustration for its opponents. And after nibbling at NFL bait for two seasons, he finally accepted the offer to coach the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday.

Pacific-12 Conference coaches are delighted to see him go, no doubt. I suspect some NFL defensive coordinators are already watching film of the Ducks.

He runs a widespread offense with numerous options, but the defining characteristic is not so much the plays as the tempo.

At times, the Ducks snap the ball every 10-13 seconds, and it has been pointed out that Oregon ran more total plays in 13 games than all but six NFL teams ran in their 16 regular-season games.

Can a team sustain that pace in the NFL?

Kelly has already indirectly proven it can. During the last offseason, Patriots coach Bill Belichick consulted with Kelly and incorporated some of Oregon’s fastbreak techniques in his offense.

The Patriots barely huddle enough to get to know each other these days, and averaged about seven more plays and three more first downs this season than last because of it.

Of course, Belichick has Tom Brady and a top-quality corps of receivers.

It’s fair to assume that Pete Carroll and Kelly were not the dearest of friends when Carroll was at USC, but Kelly has been seen on the sidelines at times when the Seahawks practice, where Carroll and Kelly appeared to be exchanging tactical wisdom.

So, New England, San Francisco, Carolina and Seattle employ elements in their offense that resemble Kelly’s Oregon stuff. It won’t be a total surprise to NFL defenses.

Kelly appealed to NFL teams with coaching vacancies because he offers change – a different way of doing things – and that brings hope to a fan base.

His predecessor, Andy Reid, had the Eagles in the postseason nine times in 14 seasons, but 8-8 and 4-12 records the past two seasons made ownership eager for something new and shiny.

The success of college coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll seemed to clear the way for Kelly, although both those had NFL experience.

So when examining the challenges for Kelly, we might go back to 1995 in Seattle when the Seahawks brought in Dennis Erickson.

Erickson had even more success at Miami – with two national championships – than Kelly has at Oregon. And his spread passing offense was also considered inventive at the time.

Erickson could coach and motivate. But when he got to Seattle, he found a lousy owner (Ken Behring) and a subpar quarterback (Rick Mirer). And it didn’t help that about half his staff was composed of college cronies, some of whom weren’t up to the challenge.

He ended up 31-33 in four seasons and on his way back to the college ranks.

So, what will Kelly find in Philly? Michael Vick or Nick Foles as his quarterback? Vick would seem a perfect fit for the offense – but he’ll be 33 in June.

The Eagles have speed at running back and receiver, which Kelly can exploit, but Eagles quarterbacks were sacked 48 times, fifth-most in the NFL last season.

While the speedy “skill” players always got the attention at Oregon, a real key has been an offensive line that’s been among the nation’s elite for years.

And Kelly will be reminded of a disappointing fact as soon as he arrives in Philadelphia: He can’t recruit a couple of dozen new fast guys to suit his needs. Realistically, he’s going to have to reshape the offense in increments, a handful of guys at a time.

Kelly has a full toolbox, and it’s not just about his offense, but also about training, conditioning and attitude. His methods are going to shake some things up and cause people to rethink how they’re approaching their craft.

But innovation has a short shelf-life in the NFL. There will be guys watching film around the clock to devise their own strategies.

And in the end the team with the best quarterback, the best blockers and the best tacklers usually win the games anyway.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ @DaveBoling

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