Kelly's success in NFL hinges on his ability to adapt
MOBILE, Ala. -- Had he been back in Eugene, Chip Kelly would have dismissed the question with at most a seven-word answer. After a Senior Bowl practice Monday, a reporter asked the new Philadelphia Eagles coach what he might hypothetically seek in an offensive coordinator. Had he still been the Oregon Ducks' coach, Kelly woulbd have zipped past the query faster than his offense could run the next play. Monday, Kelly apologized before blowing up the question.
"I don't mean to say it this way, and I'm not being gruff, but I'm not a hypothetical guy," Kelly said. "Hypothetically, I want a guy who can score a billion points in a game."
At Oregon, Kelly could go straight to being gruff. Going 46-7 in four seasons earns a coach a little license to snark. But now Kelly is 0-0 in a league that has chewed up and spit out some of the brightest, most innovative, most successful college coaches. Kelly can't zoom into Philadelphia, promise to Win The Day and merrily roll along. He has gaps on his staff that he has yet to fill. (The Associated Press reported Monday night that Kelly had hired former Browns coach Pat Shurmur as his offensive coordinator. The Eagles have yet to confirm staff assignments.) Kelly probably has some idea of what concepts he plans to import from the college game, but until after the draft, he won't know exactly how his vaunted offense will look because he won't know exactly who is on his roster.
So, for now, Kelly must make nice. He may eventually revolutionize offense in the NFL the way he did at the college level, but at the moment, he's the new guy in a town where people boo Santa Claus and consider Cheez Whiz the Lord's condiment. He isn't worshipped anymore. He is the subject of cautious optimism. Kelly's track record and football smarts suggest he can adapt his offense to succeed in the NFL. Heck, playoff teams (the 49ers, Patriots, Seahawks and Redskins) enjoyed offensive success this season incorporating concepts (blazing tempo, the zone read) that were cornerstones of Kelly's Oregon offense. But the NFL can be cruel to newcomers. Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban are two of the best head coaches to ever blow a whistle at the college level, and each failed in the NFL. Kelly might be like Jim Harbaugh, who won at Stanford and kept right on winning in San Francisco, or he might be another Spurrier or Saban. Which will he be? I don't know. You don't know. He doesn't know.
Just because Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III confounded some defenses with zone read plays doesn't mean Kelly can instantly turn the Eagles into the Ducks with boring uniforms. Even though some of the schematic concepts are similar, Kelly will have to make drastic changes. The numbers dictate that. There are still 11 on a side, but Kelly now gets 53 roster spots instead of 85 scholarships. The field is still 100 yards long, but the hash marks are now 18.5 feet apart instead of 40 feet apart. Think that doesn't matter? Try spreading out a defense when the field side and the boundary side don't look that much different.
At Oregon, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti ran his unit like a hockey coach, shuttling in waves of fresh players. Aliotti did this because Oregon's tempo on offense forced the defense back on the field quickly -- even when the Ducks scored. If Aliotti didn't have 20 players ready to go, his defense would tire too quickly. The NFL's roster limitations make such wholesale changes almost impossible, so Kelly may have to slow down on offense to give his defense a chance. He'll also have to consider this issue as the Eagles stock the roster. "You have a 53-man roster," Kelly said. "Every defensive coordinator wants 30 of them. Every offensive coordinator wants 30 of them. I'm not good at math, but that's 60."
Kelly also will have to alter the way his team practices. At Oregon, the Ducks zoomed from one practice period to another. Music blared. Everyone moved at full speed every second. Even the managers had to be in shape. This eliminated the need for post-practice conditioning, and it also made the Ducks the best conditioned team on the field most Saturdays. That's easy to do when the offense and defense can practice their first and second teams against scout teams made up of walk-ons and redshirting freshmen. With a 53-man roster and eight practice-squad spots, Kelly knows the Eagles will have to take the occasional break between reps. "You have to adjust to the numbers," Kelly said. "The Philadelphia Eagles are a football team, not a cross country team. If we go at the pace that we practiced at Oregon, we'd have a real good cross country team. But we're not playing at Valley Forge Park."
Kelly can adjust. As an offensive coordinator, he made a seamless move from the FCS (New Hampshire) to the FBS (Oregon). With the exception of the 2009 Boise State game -- his first as the Ducks' head coach -- Kelly made a smooth transition from coordinator to the big chair. He knows he will not run the same offense in Philadelphia that he ran at Oregon. Kelly assembled a set of favored concepts into an offense that would succeed in the Pac-10/12. He'll have to do the same in the NFL. "If you weren't in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne," Kelly said, "you stole it from somebody."
One advantage Kelly should have is a superior eye for talent honed during years as an FCS coach and while recruiting against college football's superpowers while at Oregon. Despite its Nike connection, Oregon was not favored by most elite recruits because most elite recruits hail from California, Florida and Texas, and Oregon is in Oregon. The top deciding factor for elite recruits in college football is proximity to home, and Oregon was a long way from home for most of them. So for most of his time at Oregon, Kelly had to choose from the players who, for one reason or another, didn't quite match the archetypes sought by USC and then train those players to beat USC. "I don't think the evaluation changes one bit" from college to the NFL, Kelly said.
Once he and general manager Howie Roseman select the players, Kelly will have to decide how to best deploy them. Kelly doesn't need all the answers now. He still has more than seven months before he coaches a regular-season game. Assuming Shurmur is Kelly's hypothetical billion-point offensive coordinator, Kelly can now hunt for his dream defensive coordinator. "I'll give you a new word -- Shutoutability. That would be the one, overriding quality," Kelly joked. "I'm not sure how we can define that, but that's a pretty good word. ... If you have Shutoutability, I need to talk to you."
Since neither coordinator will actually match either of those descriptions, Kelly will have to use every ounce of the creativity that made him one of the brightest minds in the college game. Still, even that might not be enough in a league that doesn't care how many days a coach won in college.