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How Chip Kelly Loses (Part II)

In the first part of this series, I opined that in order to have success at the NFL level, Chip Kelly would have to show a greater commitment to the intermediate passing game and ball control. Those issues stem from Kelly’s overall approach to offense, and could be seen in both Oregon’s blowout wins and narrow losses. The other potential holes in Kelly’s game plan arose when Oregon took the field against college football’s stingiest defenses (e.g. 2011 LSU, 2012 Stanford).

Through his play design, Kelly attacks defenses horizontally in the most creative way that I have ever seen. Oregon recruited some absolute burners at the skill positions who could take advantage of zone reads and misdirection to make defenders miss in space. Against lesser opponents, the pure speed of players like LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and De’Anthony Thomas would be too much. They could easily elude linebackers and defensive backs in the open field and outrun the entire defense once they saw a crack. Against LSU, Stanford, and Auburn, though, Oregon’s pint-sized backs found it much harder to break off big chunks of yardage. Here’s why:

The inside zone read

The bread-and-butter of Oregon’s spread attack was the inside zone read, which Kelly described as a downhill, smashmouth play. Against top competition, though, the smaller-but-athletic Oregon offensive line could not generate any push up the middle. In turn, the inside zone read became ineffective and Kelly was sometimes very quick to abandon it. While it was worrying to see Kelly give up on his signature play so easily, the Eagles will not be over-matched up front. Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis, and Todd Herremans form a rock solid interior offensive line when healthy.

Too much side-to-side

Apart from the inside zone read, the Oregon offense was far too east-and-west for my liking. In the NFL, teams generally run the ball best from under center instead of out of the shotgun. While the zone blocking scheme that has worked so well in the NFL hinges on stretching the defense laterally (as Oregon’s zone blocking scheme does), NFL running backs are generally much more decisive and disciplined in their cuts. Oregon backs often tried to bounce every run to the sidelines against tougher competition, and at the NFL and elite college levels, defensive athletes are simply too fast for that. Fortunately for Kelly, the Eagles have two of the only running backs in the league who excel on lateral runs when they have the freedom to bounce or cut back as they see fit. In this sense, Kelly’s style of play suits LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown very well.

Even so, Kelly’s lateral offense gets killed by penetration and results in far too many negative and zero yardage plays. At Oregon, Kelly handed it to his speedsters hoping they would get loose for a few long touchdowns. More often than not, they did, but as Oregon played faster teams, their backs struggled to find any daylight.

Little backs

As Kelly moves into the NFL, he will find that the wide open holes he created in the Pac-12 will shrink considerably, just as they shrank when Oregon competed against SEC teams. He may discover that featuring a 190-pound scat back will not work in the NFL. The Ducks running backs gained precious few yards after contact, mainly because they were undersized and rarely squared up to the line of scrimmage. Again, Kelly is fortunate to inherit bigger, stronger backs in McCoy and Brown, but such a finesse approach to running the football is unlikely to succeed as it did at Oregon.

The receiver screen

In the passing game, Chip Kelly only knows the play action fake and the receiver screen. Of the two, the only high percentage throw is the screen. Unfortunately, the smoke/tunnel/bubble screen will be the easiest play for NFL defenses to take away from him. The quick receiver screen is the staple of many a spread offense in college football, and is so popular because college defenses refuse to play press coverage. College corners are nowhere near as talented as NFL corners and usually line up 7-10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, making a screen pass a simple pitch-and-catch between the quarterback and receiver. NFL defensive coordinators will not simply concede that play as college coaches have, so Kelly must find alternatives to the receiver screen. Oregon almost never ran quick slants, jerk routes, back shoulder throws, dig routes, or any of the other common NFL short-to-intermediate pass patterns. It’s quite possible that Kelly has a much more sophisticated passing mind than he lets on, though. Darron Thomas, Jeremiah Masoli, and true freshman Marcus Mariota were not advanced passers and would have been unable to execute a pro style aerial attack.

The Foles/Barkley effect

We’ve all seen the gaping holes that Oregon running backs have been fortunate enough to burst through. Much of that is due to Chip Kelly creating a mathematical advantage with his personnel. While his zone read plays are designed to go to the running back and not a true option play, the success of play still hinges on an athletic quarterback. Oregon often reads a weak side defender, hoping that the defender will honor the quarterback’s threat to run. Though Kelly insists that he can win with Nick Foles or Matt Barkley at the helm, it’s unlikely that defenses will respect them as runners. As a result, defenses will commit an additional player to stuffing the back. With defenses already loading the box against a Chip Kelly offense that can’t threaten them vertically, Kelly may not be able to overcome one more player keying on the running back.


Chip Kelly can’t expect to win many games at the NFL level by copying his Oregon playbook. On the other hand, his reputation as college football’s greatest innovator is well-deserved, and Eagles fans largely have faith in his ability to adjust to the pro game. While the Eagles have the skill position players to thrive in a horizontally-based scheme designed to get them the ball in space, Kelly has work to do. The Eagles must develop some semblance of a short-to-intermediate passing game that can keep the chains moving. Without it, the team will have to overcome lots of incomplete passes and negative runs that will make it very tough to sustain drives. Kelly must also play at a very deliberate tempo, ensuring that he does not expose his defense. Most of all, he must recognize what elements of his Oregon playbook will carry over to the pro game and consider incorporating more pro-style concepts into his playbook.



  1. D.Way

    July 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Maybe I’m over optimistic, but I’d like to believe CK used a lot of screens BECAUSE the corners were playing 7-10 yards away from the line of scrimmage which made those plays effective. I think he’ll be able to adjust his game plan to the NFL passing game style, especially with the help of Shurmur as OC.

  2. Joe Sageman

    July 10, 2013 at 7:20 am

    That’s certainly possible. I can’t try to project how Kelly will change his offense at the NFL level, only write down what I saw him do at Oregon. The point is, he hasn’t proven he can live without that screen pass. Whether he can or not is still very much up in the air.

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