San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly apparently wants to stick around with his current 1-7 franchise after the 2016 NFL season is finished. But what are the pros and cons of a potential departure?
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Oct 16, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly watches play during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Buffalo beat San Francisco 45-16. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
The more the San Francisco 49ers lose in 2016, the greater the speculation will be about head coach Chip Kelly looking for employment elsewhere next season.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Kelly’s first two years at the NFL level are a distant memory now, and his pro-level reputation is marked by what happened with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 and now the mess of a situation in Santa Clara.
“I haven’t talked to a college since I’ve been in the NFL and that’s not my goal,” Kelly said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, earlier this month. “My goal is to be the head coach of the 49ers and that’s where I want to be. I don’t know why… it surprises me that that continues to be a new story. It’s been the same story since I left four years ago.”
Of course, this could be just smoke-and-mirrors talk. Would anyone realistically expect Kelly to say, “I’d rather be back at the college level” right now?
It might also be a ploy to drive up the asking price if, let’s say, a program like Kelly’s former employer, the University of Oregon, came calling.
But let’s evaluate the positives and negatives surrounding a possible Kelly departure — via firing or on his own will — after this dreadful season is finished.
Jun 8, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly during minicamp at the San Francisco 49ers Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Pro: No More Dabbling with Experimental Offenses
One of the main complaints about head coach Chip Kelly’s offense is that it’s been figured out at the NFL level.
The shock of his uptempo scheme likely wore off after 2014, after he helped guide the Eagles to two-straight 10-win seasons.
CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora quoted one NFL executive, who said, “He just keeps running the same s–t and it isn’t fooling anybody. Do you think they could bring him back to Oregon?”
Kelly knows more about offensive game-planning than any of us ever will. But defensive coordinators around the league are pretty smart too. It’s why read-option schemes, once a seemingly revolutionary thought not long ago, aren’t as prevalent now. The league caught up.
Pro-style offenses work because, well, they’re tried and true. Sure, minor changes here and there happen. But college-level offenses rarely, if ever, make the cut.
Dec 6, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly looks on from the sidelines during the second half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Con: Chip Kelly Takes Another Hit at the NFL Level
This is more of a setback for Chip Kelly than the 49ers. But it’s still a con, at least from the head coach’s perspective.
Kelly was ousted in Philadelphia, although most would view that due to his failures to handle the Eagles roster after he took over general manager duties.
He doesn’t have those in San Francisco now. But the marks against his offense already in place would be highlighted by the failures the 49ers are currently experiencing.
The 49ers were supposed to be a better team this year, at least on paper. 2016 was to be a year of building and transition. Instead, the season has revealed a team in full-on regression mode from the 5-11 campaign of a year ago.
Without throwing general manager Trent Baalke into the mix just yet (we will shortly), all anyone would have to do is point the finger at Kelly.
Remember, NFL head coaches are a prime fraternity. It’s the elite of the elite. So if Kelly departs for college, he’ll never be back at the pro level again.
Aug 20, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans linebacker coach Mike Vrabel watches play against the New Orleans Saints in the second half at NRG Stadium. Texans won 16 to 9. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Pro: Defensive-Minded Coaches Would Want to Come to the 49ers
Prior to the 2016 season, NFL Films senior editor Greg Cosell laid out on KNBR 680 (h/t CSN Bay Area) how any defensive coordinator serving under head coach Chip Kelly would have some pretty rough numbers.
October 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 33-21. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
“No matter how much better the talent might be, the numbers will probably not be great because you’re the defensive coordinator on a Chip Kelly team,” Cosell said.
San Francisco tabbed former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to lead the defense, likely because no one else wanted to come to Santa Clara.
And O’Neil’s 49ers defense now ranks dead last in nearly every major category. It could easily be historically bad too.
Talent-wise, San Francisco was supposed to be better in 2016. True, injuries to players like linebacker NaVorro Bowman have hurt. But this does not explain why up-and-coming contributors like Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Aaron Lynch haven’t provided much of an impact.
With Kelly gone, the 49ers would at least be able to lure in defensive-minded coaching to help push this unit in the right direction without the fear of being offset by an uptempo offense.
Oct 16, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead (91) against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Con: No Consistency for the 49ers’ Young and Developing Players
Change isn’t always a good thing, even when it’s perceived as a need.
Should Chip Kelly depart, the 49ers would be searching for their third head coach in as many years. And with each new coach comes a new scheme, a new staff and an entirely different way of doing things.
Aug 10, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive guard Joshua Garnett (65) warms up during the training camp at Kezar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
Veteran players might be OK with frequent changes. But younger players, and the 49ers have a lot of them, could easily see their progression stunted and any potential never reached.
Just ask former Niners quarterback Alex Smith. How many offensive coordinators did he go through over his first five seasons in San Francisco after being drafted?
Instead of becoming dominant forces, guys like DeForest Buckner, Joshua Garnett, Trent Brown and even Rashard Robinson might go from possible Pro Bowl-caliber types to merely OK players.
We shouldn’t automatically assume Kelly is the best for developing young talent. But instituting regular changes isn’t necessarily a good thing either.
Jun 7, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels coaches during mini camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Pro: 49ers Could Target Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels
Current New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be a hot commodity this offseason.
True, McDaniels’ last head coaching tenure with the Denver Broncos didn’t go so well. But before, and since, he’s had the chance to work with one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, Tom Brady, and has maximized the efforts of Brady’s supporting cast.
Simply put, McDaniels learned from his mistakes in Denver. Just like Pats head coach Bill Belichick likely learned from his failed time with the Cleveland Browns.
McDaniels would probably have an easier time assembling a staff as well. San Francisco wouldn’t have to scramble for assistants much either.
November 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly (left) talks to quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) during the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Levi’s Stadium. The Saints defeated the 49ers 41-23. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Con: The “What Could Have Been” Argument
Let’s go back in time to a year in which the 49ers finished 2-14 and had one of the least talented rosters in the NFL.
1979 marked the first year Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh took over the franchise, and he finished with what many consider to be one of the worst seasons in San Francisco history. The roster was in terrible shape, and Walsh regularly held open tryouts, according to NFL Network’s A Football Life.
It took time for the Niners to go from a 2-14 team in 1979 to a Super Bowl champion after 1981.
We won’t say head coach Chip Kelly is the next coming of Walsh. No one is. But if Kelly departs, one can only wonder if the long game would have ended up working in Santa Clara.
“He’s still a gifted offensive coach and should have time working on his side in San Francisco,” Yates wrote of Kelly. “If the organization is willing to be patient — and this roster isn’t ready to win right now — Kelly can help architect a turnaround.”
October 23, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Pro: A New Head Coach Would Likely Have a Clean Slate
Chip Kelly didn’t inherit roster control when he signed with the 49ers. Those duties fell on general manager Trent Baalke.
Baalke’s efforts in recent years are largely responsible for the current state of the team. There isn’t any denying that. And it’s safe to say he’s on the hot seat entering the offseason, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Baalke is jettisoned in January.
Who knows if a new head coach would assume GM duties in Santa Clara. But there’s a good chance he’ll have some major influence.
San Francisco has needs across the board. And the Niners should have a great deal of cap space to hit free agency this offseason — $46,305,666, as projected by Over the Cap.
The next head coach won’t be forced to embrace the current state of the roster or whatever scheme is trying to be implemented. No, he could start afresh.
Jan 15, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke (L), head coach Jim Tomsula (C), and owner Jed York (R) pose for a photo in the locker room after a press conference for the introduction of Tomsula as the head coach at Levi’s Stadium Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Con: Who Would Want to Coach the 49ers?
No, the 49ers head coaching job isn’t a coveted position anymore.
Even former head coach Jim Harbaugh, the last person to lead San Francisco into the postseason, wasn’t safe. Neither was one-and-done head coach Jim Tomsula.
And with all the infighting, leaks, rumors and controversy within the organization, Chip Kelly being the next to go would only mean this job would be less desirable.
With the current state of San Francisco’s roster, any new head coach would know he’d be in for some very rough times for the next few years at least. It’s not going to be a good look for any coach’s resume.
So that means the Niners would likely have to tab either a retread head coach — hey, Mike Holmgren is still out there — or some less-than-coveted candidate who might be viewed as no more than a stopgap option.
Jan 15, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York looks on during a press conference to introduce Jim Tomsula as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Pro: The 49ers Would Be Starting from Zero
Let’s face it, everything with San Francisco is a mess. From the top to the bottom, nothing is working with the 49ers right now.
Assuming general manager Trent Baalke is gone, a Chip Kelly departure would be the full indication CEO Jed York is admitting this franchise needs a fresh start without holding onto any of the past, failed measures taken since 2015.
Even if Kelly voluntarily leaves, this still could easily be what the 49ers need moving forward. Kelly in place doesn’t indicate the team has any sort of direction — it doesn’t — and San Francisco needs more short-, medium- and long-term goals to help guide it forward.
Can it change overnight? No. But there are steps the 49ers need to take.
York isn’t going anywhere. Let’s establish that. Yet he does have the power to admit past mistakes and move forward.
Remember, former owner Eddie DeBartolo made mistakes too. Just recall former GM Joe Thomas.
There isn’t a reset button in the NFL. But if there was one, the Niners need to press it.
Dec 28, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers chief executive officer Jed York (left) shakes hands with head coach Jim Harbaugh (right) before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Con: New Year, Same Story for the 49ers
Should Chip Kelly leave, 2017 would mark the third consecutive year a new head coach would be needed.
Not a good look.
San Francisco would emulate other teams which have had revolving doors at head coach. Remember the Oakland Raiders of not long ago? How about the Cleveland Browns before Hue Jackson?
Nothing defines laughingstock status more than an ever-changing carousel atop the roster. The 49ers are already wallowing in this reputation. But another coaching change would appear to be more “spinning wheels” rather than moving in the right direction.