After three seasons, it’s still not known whether Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense can work well enough to lead a team into the Super Bowl.
San Francisco is willing to gamble that it can.
Kelly’s hiring as 49ers head coach Thursday continues an experiment that went awry in Philadelphia. His final year with the Eagles was such a disaster on so many levels that Kelly was fired, err, “released” (as the team tried to spin it) before the 2015 season even ended.
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Kelly made a mess with his personnel moves after being given stewardship last offseason by Eagles owner Jeff Lurie. Kelly’s offense stammered like a car with a blocked muffler. His dealings with players and others inside team headquarters was so poor that Lurie chided Kelly for a lack of “emotional intelligence” when explaining the firing.
So why could this be a smart move for the 49ers?
Start with the quarterback whose NFL career he may save — and vice versa.
Whether his own fault or that of Philadelphia’s front office in his first two years, Kelly never truly had the ideal QB needed to run the type of system that brought him success at the University of Oregon. In 2015, Sam Bradford joined a list of starters that includes Mike Vick (too old and injury prone), Nick Foles (his limitations were exposed with St. Louis this past season) and Mark Sanchez (backup material only).
Colin Kaepernick fits the bill of what Kelly needs far better than any of them.
In November, it appeared Kaepernick was on his way out of San Francisco this offseason after a steady decline since the 2013 season. He was benched midway through this season in favor of Blaine Gabbert (!!!) before being placed on injured reserve.
Kaepernick has his limitations, especially in a pro-style system, but he has the potential to flourish in a zone-read scheme like the one Kelly brings to the Bay Area. Kaepernick’s base salary of $11.9 million is also manageable enough that the 49ers could bring in another mobile QB to compete with Kaepernick for the first-string spot and/or serve as needed insurance because of the exposure for big defensive hits that comes with Kelly’s system.
Sorry, let me clarify the above sentence. Kelly wouldn’t be making that signing. That falls to general manager Trent Baalke.
The days of Kelly having control of the roster are over (at least for now). Baalke continues to hold such juice in San Francisco.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering Kelly’s flame-out in Philly.
Baalke does have an eye for talent. He also is a political animal. The word in NFL circles is that Baalke balked at having anyone who could potentially usurp his power hired to replace the overmatched Jim Tomsula, who was fired after one forgettable season as head coach. Thus, other qualified candidates who interviewed — such as Hue Jackson and Mike Shanahan — became runner-ups with 49ers CEO Jed York still supporting Baalke.
Kelly didn’t work well with general manager Howie Roseman in Philadelphia, which led to the latter getting demoted for one year until returning to the top spot now running the Eagles. Baalke and ex-49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh famously feuded to the point the latter left for the University of Michigan.
Baalke and Kelly must now find common ground or both could be looking for jobs in the not-too-distant future. Kelly, too, must take Lurie’s words to heart about becoming a better people person or risk having another locker room chock with disenchanted players.
Any 49ers fan expecting instant success with Kelly at the helm could be disappointed. The 2015 roster was ravaged by offseason retirements and free-agent defections that Baalke is still trying to patch. And after the Eagles were last in time of possession for three straight seasons, it may very well be proven that Kelly’s approach can’t work in the NFL because of the strain it places on his defense.
Kelly, though, still had two seasons in which Philadelphia went 10-6 before the bottom fell out. Even his 6-9 mark with the 2015 Eagles was still better than the 5-11 mark posted under Tomsula.
So under the circumstances and with what York was looking for — a big-name hire with an offensive background to rejuvenate the fan base and co-exist with Baalke — Kelly makes sense.