What Has Chip Kelly Learned?

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The 49ers formally introduced Chip Kelly yesterday, and the media immediately wanted to know if Kelly intended to change anything from his stint in Philadelphia, where his people skills rubbed some players the wrong way and a good number weren’t too sad to see him go. “I don’t know if I can be significantly different,” Kelly admitted. “I think you have to be yourself in terms of how you do things. But we all learn.”

Kelly received a vote of confidence from a supremely unlikely source. Bills RB LeSean McCoy, who accused Kelly of getting rid of Philadelphia’s “good black players,” appeared on NFL Total Access the night before Kelly’s introduction, and said the 49ers are in good hands.

“No matter how good of a player or low player you are, if you just automatically believe him — no matter if it sounds crazy, you’re like what is he talking about — if you just automatically believe and buy in, I think you’ll be fine.”


You’ll notice that’s not exactly an unconditional endorsement. It points to Kelly’s reputation as a control freak, something that rubbed a lot of players the wrong way. (It’s probably not a stretch to say Kelly’s college experience played a a part in that. In college, you can be a dictator and the kids can’t do anything about it. You can also treat them like disposable cogs in a machine, because system trumps personnel to an extent.)

McCoy could have doubled down on his criticism of Kelly’s management style, but instead he used it to illustrate a point that often goes unacknowledged: Kelly’s points of emphasis aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just different. McCoy used current coach Rex Ryan as a contrast.


On how the two delegate responsibility:

“[Ryan] has been with teams where the veterans, the leaders kind of lead the team — the guys that put players in position to be more accountable...I think Chip Kelly is a coach that is more hands-on. There’s not really a lot of leaders on the team. He’s more of a leader. He’s the guy who’s kind of setting the rules.”

On how the two trust their players (or don’t) to govern themselves.

“[Chip is] monitoring everything, where Rex is more if it’s a big game against whatever team — you know how important this game is, I shouldn’t have to tell you to study, I shouldn’t have to tell you to get in your playbook, I shouldn’t have to tell you those types of things. You shouldn’t be out late, you should be already mentally focused for this game. Chip’s more on you. He has his thing with the sleep and different things. They’re obviously a lot different but they all have the same goal.”


Being an NFL head coach is an impossible job. There literally aren’t enough hours in a week to do enough preparation—even the shitty coaches are sleeping in their offices, watching film for 20 hours at a time. Instead, coaches have to make trade-offs, emphasizing certain aspects of the job over others. Consider: an ideal head coach needs to

  • Have an eye for hiring assistants and delegating responsibility
  • Run training camp and practices and institute season-long plans to keep players in shape and improving
  • Be a good evaluator of talent, based on both film and watching practices, and start the right players at the right positions
  • Formulate and utilize the appropriate schemes for the players he has
  • Be obsessively detail oriented in scouting opponents, tailoring a game plan to their specific strengths and weaknesses
  • Run a functional, integrated staff where everyone knows their job and is capable of doing it amid the pressure of a game
  • Be aware of the game situation at all times, and have plans on hand for any potential change in situation
  • Handle clock and timeout management, which requires instinct and flexibility
  • Be a dude who players and management actually like

It’s just not feasible to be good at all of these things. And when you have a glaring weakness, everybody notices.


Andy Reid’s the perfect example. He’s a fantastic coach, but simply for the life of him cannot adjust on the fly. It’s just not how his brain works. He is, as Tom Scocca put it before, a “powerful but slow football thinker.” And his two-minute offenses have cost him more than a few games. Those end up being more memorable than any number of games quietly won by his long-term strategic acumen.

Kelly’s a great example too. His offenses are regularly at the top of the league, and he’s managed to do it without a truly great quarterback. He’s a talented coach. He’s just not a “players’ coach,” and he doesn’t get along well with management, and his personnel skills, with limited evidence, have been questionable.


No coach is perfect, but the best are the best because they know what they do well and what they don’t. Bill Belichick, who ticks more boxes than just about any coach working, installed general offensive and defensive philosophies but left the implementation to a series of hand-picked coordinators. But, as he explained in 2011, he remains involved to a level he’s comfortable with: he maintains final say over every offensive play call, even if he usually doesn’t exercise that power.

Does Chip Kelly know his limitations? And is he willing to address them by delegating power in a way he didn’t in Philadelphia? He said all the right things yesterday.

“Communication is key no matter what organization you’re in,” Kelly said. “And how you communicate your vision in terms of what’s going on. And for me it was to make sure in my next situation that collaboratively I was on the same page.”


Whether Kelly can successfully adapt without demanding the franchise adapt to him remains to be seen. Still, I can’t shake the sense that the single most important factor in the perception of a coach’s skill is whether or not he has a good quarterback. In San Francisco, that too remains to be seen.