I’ve been waiting for somebody to hire Chip Kelly so I could write this article, and I thought I was going to miss out on the chance for this season. The Eagles have landed (their guy) though, so it turns out I get to write it. I think it’s going to be a home run for them, and I applaud them for going all out to land the man they wanted.
A lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about are going to condemn the Kelly hire, and say their stuff about how he runs a gimmick college offense, and it’ll never work in the pros, and blah blah blah. They’re wrong, though, and the evidence of the last couple of seasons is accumulating that teams can have a lot of success in spreading out defenses, and running the ball with zone-read concepts.
There is no monolithic “spread offense,” and anybody who acts like they’re all the same is ignorant. Kelly’s offense does like to use a lot of fast personnel, and does spread out its formations. It’s a run-heavy offense though, and if anything, it’s more old-school than it is revolutionary.
Running the football successfully is a math problem, as I’ve told you all many times. How many blockers do you have against how many defenders? By using a bunch of wide receivers, the offense forces the defense to play a lot of cornerbacks. Many corners aren’t good tacklers, and they’re negatives in the running game. (Yes, I know, Champ Bailey can tackle. He’s not representative of the cornerback population at large.)
Kelly’s offense gets a lot of 7-on-6 and 8-on-7 blocking matchups, and that’s a big reason why they carved up a bunch of defenses in college. Another reason is that they always had excellent players at running back, who played with a lot of speed. The Eagles have LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown, who had a nice rookie year, and they can also get DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin involved in their running game. Their other receivers are Jason Avant and Riley Cooper, who are both good blockers in the run game.
The biggest thing that’s going to drive success for Kelly, though, is going to be playing at a fast tempo. I expect them to continue to use the placards from the sideline to signal in plays, because that will allow the team to play at their preferred tempo regardless of crowd noise. They’ll come out for a series with 10 personnel - four wideouts and a single back - and they’ll roll with that group until they score or give up the football.
Sometimes, they'll use a guy who is nominally a receiver as a second running back. Picture Maclin in that kind of DeAnthony Thomas role, probably. Defenses will be forced to keep the same personnel on the field as well. From a tactical standpoint, I have no doubt at all that it’s going to work in the NFL. I recommend you read Chris Brown’s Grantland article about the Oregon offense from November, if you want to understand it better.
For those who are thinking this may be a place for Tim Tebow suddenly, think again. From that Grantland article:
This misunderstands Kelly's attack. "I look for a quarterback who can run and not a running back who can throw. I want a quarterback who can beat you with his arm," Kelly explained at a coaches clinic in the spring of 2011, emphatically adding, "We are not a Tim Tebow type of quarterback team. I am not going to run my quarterback 20 times on power runs."
Sorry, Zombies. That does get to one issue for the Eagles, and that’s determining who the QB is going to be. I don’t think Nick Foles fits the scheme, and Michael Vick can’t possibly be back at the kind of money he’s signed to ($15.5M, $3M of it guaranteed for injury), running ability be damned.
None of the QBs in this 2013 draft class are much as runners (and no, Geno Smith is a pocket passer, despite the fact that he’s a black guy). That probably leaves the Eagles needing to find a veteran NFL player to fill the role. They will throw the ball, especially when they start getting safeties up into the box.
I think the best fit might be Alex Smith1, who played in a similar spread offense in college, and who’s perfect for a run-heavy offense that asks its QB to make good decisions. You don’t think of Smith as a runner, but he’s an above-average athlete, and he can help an offense 4-5 times per game when the backside is wide open, believe that. Kelly doesn't want to run the QB all that much anyway; it's all about taking easy yardage when it's wide open, and having the threat of the QB run give defenders some pause on every play.
The big challenge for Kelly will be how well he interacts with and leads grown men, and it remains to be seen what degree of success he’ll have there. If he’s smart, he’ll come in knowing that’s a new thing for him, and he’ll hire some experienced NFL hands for his coaching staff.
To me, the people management side of the equation is the only place where Kelly can really trip up. The Eagles have a good owner, and a strong framework in place, and I expect that they’ll be patient as their program is completely remade.
1 Note from Doug: Smith is due to make a very modest $7.5M salary in each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, plus a $1M roster bonus due this March. Only $1M of his 2013 salary is guaranteed. He became a slam-dunk to be traded as soon as Colin Kaepernick lit up the Bears in his first start, and the Niners will be able to do so without penalty.
San Francisco currently has $3.9M in cap room, and a trade of Smith would result in a cap savings of his full $8.5M compensation for the year (his guaranteed funds for 2012 were paid as a roster bonus and were confined to the 2012 cap). In other words, he's easy to trade, and the Niners will be anxious to do so, to create room, and to avoid paying a backup quarterback $8.5M.
Think mid-round pick, perhaps a third- or fourth-rounder, as the level of compensation going back to San Francisco in return. If another team gets involved, like the Jets or Bills, perhaps it becomes a second-rounder. This would be pretty high compensation for a veteran quarterback who's sure to be traded these days, but he's also a near lock as a starter, and comes along with a very reasonable salary and not much in guaranteed money.