College coaches looking to make the jump to the NFL are hurt by a stigma that the college game does not translate well to the professional ranks. It’s certainly true that in college, the recipe for winning is different than it is in the NFL – where coaches have to deal with more parity, a longer season, bigger egos, a salary cap, and a host of other issues that make the league more competitive and harder to dominate. Any time a college coach accepts an NFL job, he faces legitimate questions about whether or not he can adapt to the highest level of football.
The Eagles didn’t have definitive answers to those questions when they hired Chip Kelly away from Oregon. They were blown away by his track record: back-to-back Pac-10 Coach of the Year, a BCS title game appearance, back-to-back BCS bowl victories, the most exciting offense in college football, etc., but there is no guarantee of success outside of the college football world. It takes a special coach to transform a football team into a national powerhouse without a single top-10 recruiting class, which is why the Eagles were willing to overlook several potential red flags when they decided to hire Kelly.
I investigated some of those red flags by watching games where Oregon didn’t look at all like the Oregon football fans are accustomed to seeing. Kelly’s unique system looked brilliant against lower-level teams and even against many nationally ranked ones, but watching Oregon flounder against Auburn in 2010, LSU in 2011, and Stanford in 2012 raised concern. Will the Eagles be able to cruise to 60 points on a weekly basis as Oregon did against Pac-12 teams, or do Oregon’s underwhelming performances against elite defenses signal trouble ahead for the new-look Eagles?
The most alarming aspect of the Oregon offense was the absence of an intermediate passing game. The offense consisted almost entirely of runs, receiver screens, and long play action passes. In the NFL, Chip Kelly will need to challenge defenses vertically in order to deter them from crowding the line of scrimmage. He will also need to incorporate much higher percentage throws than deep posts off of play fakes. Oregon showed almost no straight drop back passes. Kelly’s entire passing game is predicated on the run game, which could spell disaster in long yardage situations and 2-minute drills. My sense is that new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who has an extensive background as a west coast guru and quarterbacks coach was hired to help develop more sophisticated passing concepts for the Eagles. While Kelly and Shurmur initially seemed like an odd fit, their different areas of expertise could complement each other very nicely.
While nobody knows how much the Eagles will look like Oregon’s offense, Kelly has said that he plans to push the tempo in the NFL much like he did at Oregon. As New England and Denver found out last season, a hurry-up approach certainly has its merits, but it also figures to put a lot of pressure on a defense that won’t be very good. The last two seasons, Oregon ranked 99th and 122nd (second to last) in time of possession among FBS schools. Expect those numbers to be even worse in Philadelphia as Kelly won’t have the luxury of leaning on an ultra-athletic, opportunistic defense at the pro level. Running a play every 15 seconds certainly places stress on the opposing defense, but it also places stress on an offense’s own defense. Kelly’s breakneck tempo will likely leave the Eagles defense on the field for 35 or more minutes a game, which forces them to thwart an additional one to two drives with run-of-the-mill talent. If opponents score more points, that in turn puts more pressure on the Eagles offense, which must keep up in shootouts.
For more specific cracks in Chip Kelly’s coaching armor, stay tuned for How Chip Kelly Loses, Part II.