Can Chip Kelly succeed in the NFL?
After four incredibly successful years at Oregon, Chip Kelly has bolted to become the Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Everyone wants to know if the Oregon offense he created, shaped and molded into a machine can be successful in the NFL.
My senior season, 2007, was Kelly’s first year as the Oregon Offensive Coordinator (OC). The previous season, 2006, we were awful on offense. We rotated two QBs, had no rhythm and the year was a bust. We ended the season 7-6 with an embarrassing 38-8 bowl loss to BYU.
In 2007, with Chip in charge of the offense, we were nearly unstoppable, that is before our likely All-American QB (and possible Heisman winner) was injured and lost for the season (which still haunts everyone in the program). What I loved best about Chip the OC was his willingness to always push the tempo, his motivational skills and his attitude towards staying focused on the goal or next task. If we screwed up a play in practice, we just skipped it and focused on the next play. That’s a real rarity in football. He had turned an offense lacking discipline into a well oiled machine.
Since graduating I have watched almost every Oregon game. I have kept in contact with current players and I do have a sense of the current offense. The principles of the offense were exactly the same in 2007 as they were in 2012.
Why his system can have success in the NFL . . .
Let’s get this out of the way. No offense in the NFL succeeds without the right QB in place to run that scheme. Spread, No Huddle, Ground and Pound, whatever… so Chip will need a QB who he feels can run his offense.
You may not believe this but the system Kelly runs isn’t complicated at all. It’s three to four basic run plays a game, but run out of many different formations. It’s a matter of keeping the defense guessing. Change tempo. Putting guys in motion. Reading different defenders from the same formation. All of these aspects of the offense help it run smoothly. Simplicity makes it easier to understand the playbook. Simplicity leads to playing faster. In the end, the players play with greater confidence. It’s a win, win all around.
Evolving and adapting the offense to fit the personnel and get favorable matchups is one thing that Chip does so very well. Some years the QB runs the ball more, other years not. Some years the emphasis was running short routes. Other years it was about play action. Every skill player on the offense can play any position and he showed that skill by varying formations each game, and sometime making changes within a game.
When Oregon lost games, it wasn’t because they got out schemed. There are times when you watch a game and can tell one team is more prepared than the other. That has never been the case with Oregon. Poor play in the trenches, turnovers, etc. have led to defeats but very rarely has Oregon been outsmarted.
We are starting to see current NFL teams incorporate different versions of a spread running option attack into their base offense. It’s a great way to neutralize a great DE. Just have the QB read the hard charging defender and he will take himself out of the play. San Francisco has been running a version of the Pistol offense at certain times with great success. Seattle has run some read option with success, same as the Redskins. I believe you’re going to see a combination of NE/DEN as far as tempo and passing game, then WAS for the running game.
What might hinder NFL success?
Tempo. For a variety of reasons it’s not possible to run the same tempo in the NFL as in college. First you can only dress 45 players (and 2-3 are specialists). I’d imagine Oregon played close to 60 guys each game. Lots of rotating to keep players fresh. The defense routinely played their two deep as early as the 2nd quarter because they were on the field for 35-40 minutes per game. In the NFL, they don’t dress an entire 2 deep on defense. Running the offense at a slower tempo gives the defense a chance to set up, rest and attack. It’s also not possible to practice at the same tempo as he did in college. 18-22 year olds can handle intense practice everyday. The older you get, the tougher it is to practice intensely. Just the way it is. Plus, the Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it tougher to have constant intense workouts seen on the college level.
NFL players buying into Chip’s philosophy and personality. Chip was able to get the entire program, top to bottom, to buy into what he was doing. Winning clearly helps with that buy in. In the NFL it will likely be tougher to get 25-30 year olds to completely buy in to a philosophy that, for most players, is completely foreign to them. In the NFL, players have their own lives, their own offseason training regiments, etc… There are some players who always want the spotlight on them and some who focus on just making as much money as they can. The best coaches are able to create buy in. But this might be the single biggest factor to his success.
Injuries. Real simple one here. The QB is going to take lots of hits if he tries to keep the same offense. As we’ve seen with RG III, too many hits can lead to debilitating injuries.
Lack of big plays. One missed tackle, and an Oregon skill player with the ball was gone. This isn’t going to happen nearly as much in the NFL. The defenders tackle much better and everyone on the defense is faster than their college counterparts.
Being able to get the right players into his system. Chip was fortunate to come to Oregon after we had been running the spread offense for two seasons. His first offense included seven NFL players (1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 OL, 1 TE). The program was able to build around the offense. It might take a few years in the draft and free agency to surround him with the right people to run his offense.
In the end, I do believe there are more reasons why his offense can work in the NFL than not. He should be able to evolve and adapt to mold the offense into something that works in the league. It might take a few years before he has success but if he can get the players to buy into what he’s doing, it might happen sooner than later.
Thanks to Max Forer @maxforer (UO OL 2006-2010) for insight and input into this piece.