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Chip Kelly Bet on His System Until It Failed

The San Francisco 49ers fired Kelly on Sunday. Once seen as a football mastermind, his coaching future is now in doubt.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Chip Kelly’s NFL coaching career took such a quick turn south that it could cause a legal battle. The Eagles fired Kelly in December 2015 with two years remaining on his contract. Now Sunday, after one season with the 49ers, consisting of two wins and 14 losses, the 49ers have fired him as well, with three years remaining on his deal. That means two NFL teams will owe Kelly money next season, neither of which will employ him. The teams are reportedly set to squabble over who will have to pay him, and since this happens so rarely, nobody knows who will get stuck with the check. Kelly entered the league hailed as one of the most impressive football minds of his generation; it seems like he’ll leave with two teams paying him not to coach.

Firing Kelly makes sense for the 49ers, even if it costs them. The team, in case you haven’t heard, is an utter mess, a franchise that’s slid from championship contention to complete disarray in a few years thanks to management that’s been both foolish and foolishly proud. It started with the 2014 firing of Jim Harbaugh, an excellent coach, and subsequent hiring of Kelly’s predecessor Jim Tomsula, a guy with a mustache who wears tracksuits as a fashion statement. It continued with the more-or-less complete dismantling of a Super Bowl–caliber roster. A lot of this fell on general manager Trent Baalke, whom San Francisco also fired on Sunday. Kelly seems to be losing his job because of Baalke’s failures as much as anything. The team needs to rebuild from the ground up, and should be able to do so with a new general manager and the no. 2 pick in the 2017 draft. That GM will probably want to have a say in selecting a head coach, which means Kelly has to go.

Taking the Niners’ dysfunction out of this, though, it’s strange to see Kelly fired as part of a regime change. With innovative schemes and a devotion to playing a ludicrous offensive tempo, Kelly was supposed to be the biggest shock to NFL coaching convention in years. People who watched his University of Oregon teams thought he was a football mastermind who would change the way professional teams played the sport; NFL purists thought he’d flame out, a proponent of gimmicky styles that would never function at the game’s highest level. But whether his star would shine or explode in a cataclysmic supernova, it seemed like he’d leave an indelible mark on the league.

Now his exit comes as an accessory to somebody else’s downfall. I always figured that if Kelly’s neck ended up on the chopping block, it would be as a result of his own revolution, not because he chose to keep the wrong company.

Kelly gave us plenty of reason to believe that he’s a brilliant football mind. With a system that emphasized speed, he made Oregon’s offense one of the best in college football as its coordinator from 2007 to 2008, and had the program regularly competing for national titles as its head coach from 2009 to 2012. If you don’t follow college football: Oregon is not historically a national championship contender, and under his successor, Mark Helfrich, the Ducks reverse-hatched back into eggs.

Kelly’s wizardry continued in the NFL, as he instantly made the Eagles one of the best offenses in football upon his arrival in 2013. They ranked second in yards per play (6.3) and fourth in points per game (27.6) that season. The leader in both categories was Denver, because Peyton Manning threw 55 freakin’ touchdowns. Kelly had Nick Foles, post-prison Michael Vick, and then-rookie Matt Barkley as his quarterbacks. Sustaining a competent offense with that trio of passers was unlikely. Kelly went 10–6 and won the NFC East by crafting an unmistakably potent unit.

But his honeymoon period was short-lived. He missed the playoffs in his final two seasons with the Eagles, and this fall The Ringer’s Chris B. Brown wrote about how Kelly’s offense devolved from one based on dynamic innovation to one of the most predictable in football. His successes came from a playbook in which any single play could feature multiple options; in his last year in Philadelphia, opponents could call out the team’s plans simply based on how the offense lined up.

Perhaps more worrisome, though, was that Kelly insisted on gutting his rosters. Kelly was apparently behind the decision to cut receiver DeSean Jackson in March 2014, and Jackson has proved himself capable of playing at a Pro Bowl level in his post-Eagles career. After Kelly won a power struggle to assume control of Philly’s personnel affairs in 2015, he exchanged running back LeSean McCoy for linebacker Kiko Alonso, which makes little sense even in retrospect. The best deal Kelly made was probably trading with the Rams to get quarterback Sam Bradford — not because Bradford was any good on the Eagles, but because the team acquired a 2017 first-round pick as part of a trade that sent him to the Vikings following Kelly’s departure.

By 2015, with less-talented players and predictable playcalling, the Eagles dropped to 7–9, finishing 23rd in yards per play (5.3) and 13th in points per game (23.6). While the offense stagnated, the defense declined in each of Kelly’s three seasons. And that spelled the end of his tenure in Philly.

So he took a job on a team with even less talent: The 49ers, the most poorly run franchise in the NFL. He signed up to be in charge of a group that had willfully disassembled a Super Bowl roster in just three seasons, believing he could turn it around.

To say that Kelly has failed would be an understatement. His Niners were ranked 28th in yards per play (5.0) and 27th in points per game (19.1). Combine a crap offense with the only NFL defense crappy enough to allow 30 points per game, and this team was disastrous.

Kelly came to the NFL because he thought he could succeed, and he did. He muscled his way to the top of the Eagles organization because he thought he was smarter than the people in charge, and he wasn’t. He took a job with the 49ers perhaps because he thought he could turn the team around even though the roster lacked talent. At the end of the 2016 regular season, it is clear that he could not.

And so I’m still left wondering about Kelly’s coaching credentials. The X’s-and-O’s acumen was there, at least when he first started. But as Kelly led progressively worse teams, the question changed. How much of Kelly’s failure was due to his coaching ability? And how much of it was due to the awful situations he helped create?

This is why Kelly’s next move will be fascinating. While he is likely perceived as toxic in the NFL, the college football world is abuzz as people wonder which deep-pocketed program will shell out megamillions to hire him. But Kelly would prefer to avoid returning to the NCAA. It’s well known that he hated the tedium of recruiting and the meddling of boosters, only now that’s probably his best route to landing another head-coaching gig. And Kelly would have to seriously swallow his pride to take anything besides a head-coaching gig.

The legend — myth? — of Chip Kelly, football genius, remains alive, and a not-insignificant number of people continue to believe it. The question is whether Kelly still does, too.