Chip Kelly Lands in San Francisco: Are the 49ers His Best Chance at Success?
The NFL is a more interesting place when Chip Kelly is involved. Just go back and look at the 10 minutes of Twitter after it was announced Kelly would be the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
After being let go from the Philadelphia Eagles before the end of the regular season, Kelly’s name was sparsely officially mentioned as an interview candidate for most of the vacant head coaching jobs around the league. San Francisco appeared to be the most serious candidate, and that’s where the Chip Kelly Experiment will take its second act.
Like how the Cleveland Browns will unfairly be pegged as the sole litmus test for analytics in the NFL, Kelly was also unfairly judged for his philosophies of a hurry-up offense and the implementation of sports science. When the Eagles did well in Kelly’s first two seasons, those ideas were revolutionary. When those same ideas brought Philly to a 7-9 record in 2015, they were deemed unfit for the league and Kelly was out of a job.
When it came to the on-field product, Kelly has been a good head coach more often than not, and that’s what the 49ers are taking their gamble on.
Streets of Philadelphia
While we’d love to make definitive statements about Kelly as a coach in the NFL, in reality, we still have a small sample of data. In Kelly’s first season as Eagles coach, the team ranked seventh in nERD -- our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team -- on the way to a 10-6 record. The team also rated well by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. The team was fourth in Adjusted (for strength of opponent) NEP per play on offense and 11th on defense on the way to a playoff appearance.
In 2014, the Eagles again went 10-6, but were left out of the playoffs by tiebreakers. There were, however, some slight dips in the team performance. The Eagles dropped 12th in nERD and 15th in Adjusted NEP on offense, while there was an improvement to 8th in Adjusted NEP on defense.
Of course, there was this past season when it all fell apart. The Eagles were 19th in nERD, 23rd in Adjusted NEP on offense and 14th on defense. Clearly that’s a trendline going in the wrong direction, and Kelly could be put at fault for many of the things that went wrong. And while recency bias will keep that as the prominent picture in many people's heads, it shouldn't be the final take on his tenure in Philadelphia.
The biggest complaint about the downturn in Philadelphia was Kelly’s growing role as the man in charge of personnel. DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin were released, traded and allowed to leave in free agency, respectively, taking away the three biggest playmakers on the roster. Then there were the free agent additions of DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell this past offseason, which produced lackluster results after significant financial investment. Murray -- who finished 2015 24th in Rushing NEP per attempt among 44 running backs with 100 or more carries -- never appeared to be a fit in Kelly’s offense, and there was never much of an attempt to change that during the season. The problems that plagued the offense early in the season were often the ones that still popped up later on. That was also a knock on Kelly -- his inability or unwillingness to adapt through struggles, and that could be something he changes in a new setting.
For the time being, though, the war between Kelly the coach and Kelly the GM doesn't appear to be an issue. 49ers general manager Trent Baalke will continue his role overseeing the roster and Kelly’s main duty will be as coach of the team. That won’t save San Francisco -- Baalke’s moves have not been stellar over the past few seasons -- but it should keep a glaring weakness for Kelly off the table. This also contradicts reports that the 49ers front office was looking to hire a "yes man," who would not give Baalke and CEO Jed York trouble, much like Jim Tomsula was perceived. It might be giving too much credit to the current San Francisco front office, but there likely is a mapped out power structure for this group. If not, for this to succeed there should be one put in place soon.
Wake Up, San Francisco
Any analysis of Kelly as a coach in the NFL is going to include a look at the quarterback position. During his time in Philadelphia, Kelly saw good play -- whether consistent or not -- from Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford. Foles was the fourth best quarterback by Passing NEP per drop back in 2013 before dropping to 24th in 2014. 2014 was an injury riddled year for Foles, but in his place, Sanchez ranked 13th in Passing NEP per drop back among the 43 passers with 100 or more drop backs on the season.
Bradford, in his lone season under Kelly, ranked 25th in Passing NEP per drop back. Foles, meanwhile, in his year without Kelly in St. Louis, was one of the worst passers in the league according to our numbers, ranking 43rd out of 46 qualified quarterbacks.
Kelly will now inherit a roster that features Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert as the quarterbacks. While Kelly never got to run his full system in Philadelphia because of the mobility of his quarterbacks, a mesh with Kaepernick is also not as simple as looking at his ability to run.
Kaepernick hasn't always been an accurate passer, and took a sizable step back in performance last season. Kaepernick was 39th in Passing NEP per drop back last season, one spot behind Gabbert. However, even with those struggles, it’s not a stretch to place Kaepernick as the most talented quarterback Kelly has coached during his professional career. Back in 2013, Kaepernick was ninth in Passing NEP per drop back, easily the best season for a Kelly quarterback not under Kelly’s tutelage. This union does not mean imminent success, but it could be the closest to a full-Kelly offensive plan that we’ve seen in the NFL.
The rest of the San Francisco roster is also quite thin -- it’s a team that ranked last in nERD this season, and the 49ers play in a division that features the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, our two best teams by nERD this season. This isn’t a job that is going to lend itself to instant success, and this could be a building process for the Niners to again become a competitive team.
Like his stay in Philadelphia, the view of Kelly as a success could come from whether the perception ever meets the reality. Kelly’s turn as the Eagles coach was viewed as a failure, even as his tenure featured more good than bad. With the step away from the personnel side, there’s a chance Chip Kelly the coach could thrive in the right setting. It’s not a promise San Francisco is that setting, but it’s certainly going to be fun to find out.