Schemed to Death: A Chip off the Old Block
My mother always told me, “Son there’s more than one way to skin a cat!” I have no clue why she was “skinning” cats, but that might explain that weird tasting meat loaf she made?! But as it pertains to today’s offenses in the NFL – this weird saying most certainly lends credence to itself. We are seeing some of the most scheme heavy, multiple personnel groupings we’ve ever seen. Teams like the 49ers and Redskins have brought in formations and sets once only seen on Saturday’s in the college game. They are advancing NFL offenses more in one season, than in the past decade. I believe the 2013 season will be the year of the scheme. Chip Kelly and his Philadelphia Eagles will be at the head of the class.
From the time that Chip Kelly was hired in 2007 to become the Oregon Ducks offensive coordinator, until his recent departure after the 2013 Fiesta Bowl- the Ducks high octane, misdirection, basketball fast break-style of offense captivated even the most general of spectator. People have asked many times will his style of offense work in the NFL. Well in 2013…We will see! It’s hard to imagine that he will run the same exact offense that he ran in Eugene, Oregon. But it’s also intriguing to imagine him doing it! I poured over film from 2007 all the way to his last game to see if I can project out exactly what might happen.
To identify what could happen in the future, you should observe past and current trends. In my observation I came to the conclusion that the Eagles roster as it’s presently constructed might be the closest roster in the NFL to his Oregon roster. One constant in his personnel at Oregon was versatility. Receivers often ran the ball. Running backs often caught the ball. Lineman ran misdirection type blocking schemes, and were athletic as all get out. Quarterbacks threw a lot of short timing plays with the occasional over the top deep throw to keep the secondary on its heels. Quarterback’s often ran or pretended to, along with some of the best play-action I’d ever seen. Fake reverses. Read Options. Cross-field throw backs, and designed runs were all performed with a number of different personnel groupings and alignments.
The most common theme I found was TEMPO! Oregon would sometime snap the ball within 10 seconds of finishing it’s last play. Good luck trying to substitute personnel to match up defensively. And with so many players having so many different roles it becomes majorly confusing to try to stop. I see no reason as to why confusion and tempo won’t have the same kind of success in the pros. Consequently I see no reason why he can’t replicate his type of roster with his current Philadelphia team.
Right away I notice similarities at quarterback. In his system you need to make lightning quick decisions and be able to deliver short passes so receivers and running backs can be hit in space and have enough time to run after the catch. It helps if the quarterback is athletic enough to threaten defenses with his own athleticism in bolting the pocket.
Coach Kelly had success right away at Oregon in part to senior quarterback Dennis Dixon. Dixon was seen as sort of a disappointment the year before. He was equipped with a really strong and accurate arm. Those attributes were coupled with innate athleticism rarely seen in a QB. But consequently after a disappointing stretch of games he was benched in favor of Brady Leaf. Leaf was the opposite of Dixon athletically. He did posses a strong throwing arm and decent mechanics. He was also the little brother of former highly touted NFL draft bust Ryan Leaf. (The mercurial player who some thought was better than Peyton Manning when both were in college.) Under the tutelage of Kelly, Dixon finally lived up to his billing and was seen as the front runner for the Heisman before a season ending knee injury late in the ’07 season. Because Kelly hadn’t been on campus long enough to have a whole roster tailored to his liking, he had no choice but to insert the traditional pocket passing Brady Leaf in as starter. Right away it was a notable difference as there was no threat of a run from Leaf. But ever the innovator, Kelly made it work as best he could. Tons of quick throws at a break neck pace were stressed to press the defense.
A quick scan of the roster shows a couple of quarterback’s similar to Dixon, the first of which being Michael Vick. Vick, 33, took the world by storm in the early stages of his career with his extreme athleticism and a rocket arm. In 2000, Vick quarterbacked the Virginia Tech Hokies to the national title game and was subsequently selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the first overall pick the following season. Seen as the new breed of QB and blessed with 4.3 speed, he used his uncanny athleticism to toy with defenses while becoming the first QB ever to rush for over 1,000 yards. Now -a-days Vick is older, fragile, and systematically unreliable. After a great start with the Eagles – he’s now seen as a stop gap type of QB at this stage of his career. He believes he can have a career resurgence in this offense as the league is now looking for QB’s in the mode of him. He’s publicly stated he will have a career renewal on his way to 1,000 yards rushing again. If anyone can rejuvenate the fallen superstar, Chip Kelly can…
One of the negatives I see in having Vick as the starter is the fact that he’s not very accurate on short throws. Only once in his 12 year career has be completed more than 60% of his throws. He’s also known for some of the slowest on-field decision making in the NFL. He holds the ball too long while trying to figure out exactly what to do. This leads to sacks and injury. But if Chip Kelly can get him going in a positive direction it could have spectacular results…. Another quarterback that’s on the roster that reminds me of Dennis Dixon is quarterback by the name of……Dennis Dixon!
Yep! The same guy that brought Chip Kelly to the national spotlight happens to be on this team. Kelly signed him a couple of weeks after accepting the job. He was originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers where he sat behind one of the most successful players in team history in two-time Super Bowl Champ Ben Roethlisberger. Despite only getting a couple of starts, one of which being a very respectable win over one of the best franchises of the past 5 seasons in the Atlanta Falcons, (A game in which he completed 18 out of 26 passes for 236 yards, a 69.2% completion rate avg 9.1 yds per completion) Dixon showed me that he can be a very respectable NFL starter.
I hear many fans say stuff like; “He’s in his 6th season he’s already shown he’s not good.” Uh no! Inactivity is not necessarily a determining factor in future success. Listen, he was behind Big Ben and talked his way out of town only to end up behind current Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco on the Baltimore Ravens. There was no way he’d supplant any of these guys so that shouldn’t have any bearing on how good or bad of a player he is. It’s just circumstances. It’s also circumstantial that he could win the Eagles job and show that he’s still the same talent he was perceived to be in college. We will see soon enough. I certainly believe if given the opportunity he will prove all the non-believers wrong.
Also on the roster is a Brady Leaf like pocket passer in 2nd year QB Nick Foles. Foles was privileged to start 7 games as a rookie for an injured Mike Vick. At times he looked like a young Drew Bledsoe under former Eagles coach Andy Reid’s precision timing West Coast offense. At other time’s he looked like a rookie. Many believe he’s the odd man out after showing he could potentially be a really good player and possible franchise quarterback
Pundits and fans alike believe Chip Kelly has to have an athletic QB to be successful. I beg to differ. As I pointed out – you must be accurate and make quick decisions. Nick Foles fits both of those descriptions. It definitely helps to have a QB with Dixon’s or Vick’s athleticism but it’s not a requirement. Foles is a 6’6 245 lbs quarterback, that has little to no athleticism. But his arm strength, accuracy and decision making are unquestionable. As a rookie he completed 61% of his passes with 6 TD’s and 5 Int’s in those aforementioned 7 starts. He also threw for over 1700 yards. It’s not out of the question that he won’t win the job. Although I’d rather see a younger athletic quarterback drafted and developed under Kelly, and Foles moved to a team with a more traditional offense where he can star. It’s fair to note that Kelly says the job is an open competition and he’s been a fan of Nick Foles’ skills since the two were in competition at rival schools in the Pac 12 conference. Foles has emphatically stated he can run Kelly’s “Showtime” offense. I tend to believe him.
One of the more notable things in a Chip Kelly offense is what I like to call the focus player. This player is a hybrid running back/receiver. The first notable player of that ilk was current San Francisco 49er running back LaMichael James. Defenses would have to identify him coming out of the huddle as he was a match-up nightmare. His speed, agility, and catching ability frustrated defenses and kept them on their toes. He rode his role in Kelly’s offense all the way to All-American status and an NCAA rushing title. James’ last season in Oregon coincided with De’Anthony “The Black Mamba” Thomas’ first season. Although Thomas is listed as a wide receiver, the majority of his video game style plays come on runs. Having these two on the same team with another star tailback in his own right, Kenjon Barner made for one of the most exciting and explosive teams of all time. It also highlighted Kelly’s creativity as he would often get these guys on the field at the same time.
Here I diagram the many options out of the same 3 back set. To the naked eye this looks like a 1 back set with Lamichael James next to the QB in the backfield. But the two players in the slot are running backs as well. In the slot on the left is Thomas, his counterpart over to the right is Barner. The play can start with the normal read option where the QB reads the defensive end and either keeps the ball and runs or hands it off depending on the Ends reaction. Either one of the slot guys can motion in the backfield and run the same exact play and either act as a runner or a blocker for James. One of the slot guys can catch a quick screen and have an immediate blocker in the X and Z receivers. Reverses are often ran with the slot guys. Most of the standard route tree are available to all 4 receivers.
All plays are designed to get the ball in the hands of the play-makers fast and in space. And being that the slot receivers are running backs, they tend to be a bit more physical with blocking. Philly has one of the most versatile backs in the league in Lesean McCoy. His hands and route running ability are as dynamic as his speed (4.4 forty yard speed) and superior agility. He’d play the role of LaMichael James. They also have a 6’0, 225 lb second year back in Bryce Brown, who rushed for 178 and 169 yards in consecutive games – and looks like a budding superstar with 4.4 speed. He’d be Kenjon Barner.
The guy that would be the “Focus” player that I highlighted before is DeSean Jackson. One of the most explosive and dynamic players of the last 5 years. He is a Pro Bowl returner and receiver. His 4.35 speed makes him a nightmare on reverses and screen passes. He’d be the Eagles version of “The Black Mamba”.
The Eagles signed versatile Tight End/Fullback James Casey from the Houston Texans who fits the mold of a Chip Kelly versatile player. The incumbent tight end Brent Celek is a really good player when healthy. They have another receiver who is every bit dynamic of a play-maker as there is in Jeremy Maclin. The offensive line is athletic and darn good when healthy. It’s also worth noting that in his time at Oregon, there was never a standout outside receiver. Guys like Jeff Maehl and Lavasier Tuinei were the most successful players at the position and both have not sniffed an NFL field. This offensive scheme is misidentified as a throwing offense when in reality all the stars have been running backs. (i.e. Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, along with Thomas, James, and Barner – all of which have been or are expected to be pretty successful in the NFL) That style should bode well for long-term offensive success.
Bottom line, Chip Kelly is perceived to be one of the best offensive minds in the game. His Eagle team is stock-piled with players similar to what he had in college. He could duplicate his college success rather early or he could be one of the latest college guys who’ve failed miserably. I’m counting on the former rather than the latter. Scheme’s kill!