This Week In Balls: Let The Chip Kelly Era Begin

week in balls

The Eagles are lucky they got him, but choosing Kelly over a proven NFL coordinator or coach comes with risks beyond unconventional schemes and play calling. Breaking with standard NFL protocol always creates the possibility of tension with players. 18-22 year old college players will tolerate a lot of abuse, but highly paid professionals, some of them primadonnas, are more volatile. He has to be careful not to lose control of his locker room.

Big news on the gridiron brought Michael Fichman back out for only his second “This Week In Balls” since 2008. In the immediate post-Andy era, what will football in Philadelphia look like? Meet us after the jump for the cold, hard probabilities.

This Week In Balls: Let The Chip Kelly Era Begin

Yesterday, the Eagles hired Oregon University coach Chip Kelly to be the 21st head coach in team history, replacing the deposed Andy Reid. This hire signals a new and unpredictable chapter of Eagles history which promises all the Sturm und Drang we’ve come to know and love from previous episodes, but with a twist. The new boss is not just another name on the NFL coaching carousel. Kelly’s tenure, in my opinion, will unfold one of two ways – he will either charge through the brick wall that is the NFL’s hyper-conservative coaching culture, or he will enrage fans, players and pundits in his attempts to do so.

Kelly is one of the more enigmatic recent coaches to attract significant attention from NFL teams. His somewhat experimental approach to football captures the zeitgeist of the game at the sub-NFL level in recent years. In high school and college there’s less pressure and more room for experimentation. Novel formations emerge. Probability-driven strategies emerge. Coaches make seemingly insane calls based on probability, not “common” football wisdom. Teams that never punt win state championships. Coaches base offenses on carving the field into zones, using spacing for receiver patterns, and using “plays run” as an indicator that co-varies with points. The best and most successful ideas move up the ranks to college, but seldom to the pros (for reasons I’ll discuss later). Kelly and those of his ilk are not unlike the “Moneyball” practitioners in baseball – looking for angles to victory their conservative opponents have ignored.

Kelly’s approach emphasizes speed. His teams seek to run more plays than their opponents. His squad rarely huddles. He runs spread formations seldom seen in the NFL. He goes for it on fourth down based on probabilities – chancing it more often than the NFL average. This approach may finally bring some of the recent innovations in college and high school football’s strategies and tactics into the pro game. Conversely,it may be tempered or rejected by an NFL culture that searches for scapegoats when expectations are not met.

In November, 2009, New England’s Bill Belichick went for a 4th-and-2 from his own 28, up six against Peyton Manning’s Colts. The Patriots didn’t get a first down, and Manning marched down the short field and won the game with a touchdown. Ultimately, the Pats went 10-6 and lost in the Wild Card round, the Colts got a first round bye and went all the way to the Super Bowl. That 4th-and-2 was widely viewed as the turning point in both team’s seasons. According to standard measures of Win Probability based on down-and-distance and the effectiveness of both teams over the course of the season, Belichick made a statistically sound decision.

Consider the ramifications for Kelly if he were to pull a similar move in a late-season rivalry game next season and lose. His win probability in that situation may be 0.79, but his job-retention probability may be somewhat lower. Belichick is one of the few coaches in the NFL known to actively draw ideas from Chip Kelly, and Belichick caught a LOT of flak for his fourth down call. If he was a first-year coach in a tough sports market, instead of a 3-time Super Bowl winner with all but tenure, his future may not have been assured.

This kind of statistically-driven risk analysis is what the NFL needs. If you play by the numbers, you will win by the numbers … if you have a big enough sample size. Hopefully Kelly is granted patience. NFL seasons are too short and margins are too thin for snap judgements. He is the most enigmatic and unconventional coach to come on the NFL scene in years and his tenure, if successful, may bring about changes not seen since the emergence of Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense. This willingness to experiment is long overdue in the NFL.

The Eagles are lucky they got him, but choosing Kelly over a proven NFL coordinator or coach comes with risks beyond unconventional schemes and play calling.

Breaking with standard NFL protocol always creates the possibility of tension with players. 18-22 year old college players will tolerate a lot of abuse, but highly paid professionals, some of them prima donnas, are more volatile. He has to be careful not to lose control of his locker room. Nick Saban, Alabama’s power-house coach, was reportedly so dictatorial during his tenure with the Miami Dolphins that his players despised him. I’m not sure what Kelly’s reputation is as far as temperament, but regardless, he must adjust to becoming a manager of an organization professional adults instead of the king of a fiefdom of overgrown kids.

Kelly’s Eagles may run the uptempo spread offenses he showcased at Oregon, which presents several other potential sources of friction. Kelly’s Oregon teams would practice at break-neck pace, working to create the rhythm and conditioning necessary to wear down their opponents. His players will have to buy into his program of intense, quirky practices and marathon-quality conditioning. Anybody coming to camp out of shape will be in for a rough summer. His defenses will have to agree to play extra minutes after quick touchdowns and defend short fields after failed fourth down attempts in their own territory.

Kelly will also have to convince fans and pundits that his spread offense will not expose his highly paid skill players to undue injury. The college spread offense uses fewer tight ends and backs to block and often incorporates option plays that put the quarterback in harm’s way. As we well know in Philadelphia, NFL culture tends to frown upon running your quarterback too frequently for fear of injury.

As a football fan, I can’t think of a better hire. Not only will Eagles fans be getting front row seats to an exciting brand of football from an innovative coach, they will also be getting tickets to a novel installment of the tragicomic Eagles Nation opera that is sure to start concurrent with the 2013 season.

– Michael Fichman

Michael Fichman is a writer, DJ and producer living in Philadelphia. Keep up with him here, and read previous editions of This Week In Balls here.