Even while out of work, Chip Kelly remains one of the most interesting figures anywhere in the football ecosystem. His shadow is set to loom over the next college football season and the SEC.
Kelly’s ill-fated run with the San Francisco 49ers came to a close after just one year in the Bay Area, and the coach has thus far failed to land another NFL job. Kelly was a finalist for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive coordinator job before being overlooked. And he remains in the running for the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons’ OC job when current coordinator Kyle Shanahan is expected to fill the head coaching vacancy left by Kelly in San Francisco. Regardless of where he ends up next season — and sources tell SEC Country that a “back of house” role with the New England Patriots remains a significant possibility — Kelly once again will be a sought-after name by the time the next college coaching carousel rolls around.
In a recent interview with FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman, Kelly was open to returning to the college game after four years in the NFL, saying, “I evaluate all jobs individually. I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
While his final two seasons as an NFL head coach were ultimately failures — though he was hamstrung with a tragic roster and poor decision-making above his head with the 49ers — his collegiate track record speaks for itself. And soon he’ll become a coveted “savior” by fan bases and athletic directors alike.
At Oregon, Kelly took the Ducks to national prominence: leading them to a national title game, two BCS bowl wins, and a 46–7 record. As much as he won, Kelly became equally well-known for his team’s style and presumed innovation.
I always found Kelly’s “maverick” title interesting. His style, in reality, was more about evolution than it was revolution. He took decades-old concepts and ratcheted up the tempo and space. It was innovative, and era-defining. However, as Kelly has acknowledged, his innovation shone so bright because he was standing on the conceptual shoulder of giants. In fact, Kelly has often resisted the “genius” tag that is often so freely applied, telling Thomas Neumann of ESPN’s Page 2 in 2010 that “Jonas Salk was a genius; I coach football.”
At the heart of it, his program-defining rushing-scheme was a simplistic as you can imagine. The key concepts were cherry-picked from the best pro football has ever offered, like the classic Steelers deuce-block double-teams on inside-zones and Vince Lombardi’s power-sweep. The genius part? Running it all at an unprecedented speed, fusing in option-elements to each call, and spreading the field by formation — with receivers lined up in what many call plus-plus splits right outside the numbers or near the sideline to naturally unload the box. All of it forced defenses to simplify their coverages or simply tire out. The pace-and-space spread-option attack that would come to define his career and grant him the “genius” tag among media outlets was born.
The same was true with his passing scheme, which has been much the same ever since he left his Air Raid days at the University of New Hampshire. In his time at Oregon, the program ran a traditional West Coast passing offense: based on rhythm and timing — pairing the quarterback’s dropback with the steps of each receiver. Many of Oregon’s base concepts would not have looked out of place in the godfather of the West Coast’s playbook, Bill Walsh. But again, there was an evolution.
Kelly began to introduce packaged plays, where those traditional running concepts and West Coast passing concepts were built into a single play. The quarterback would read one individual defender and slice the field in half, rather than needing to bounce through a full-field progression. It simplified the game for a collection of Oregon’s quarterbacks who lacked natural talent from within the pocket.
When Kelly finally landed a rare quarterback in Marcus Mariota, who had a skill set unlike we’ve seen in recent years — word-class athleticism, an electric release, natural feel for the pocket, and an ability to deliver the ball on-time and in rhythm — Kelly developed a hybrid system that combined everything he’d developed into one devastating system: relentless speed, full West Coast principles, packaged plays, option football, and tons and tons of scoring.
None of this is to downplay Kelly’s innovation. There are only so many variables and possible concepts on a football field. If anything, looking at plays as seemingly perfect as Vince Lombardi’s power-sweep and thinking “how can we improve that?” is the ultimate in coaching critical-thinking and the hallmark of an innovator. But I wouldn’t describe him as a maverick. When the chance came to jump to the NFL and leave the recruiting trail behind him, Kelly bailed. After a strong start in Philadelphia he ultimately flopped. And that was followed up with a disastrous year in San Fran.
Now, he’s back on the open market, and the Brink’s vans presumedly will line up for one of the sport’s sexiest names.
And it’s not just his reputation, or lack of options in the NFL that make a return back to college a real possibility. Kelly’s 18-month NCAA show-cause has now expired, removing some of his previous baggage from the end of his time in Eugene. Furthermore, he is still receiving two pay packets from the NFL, from both the Eagles and 49ers. He has three years remaining on his 49ers’ contract which pays him $6 million annually and is fully guaranteed. His previous deal with the Eagles will run through 2017, though it’s offset against his pay from the 49ers rather than in addition to it. So he’s guaranteed $6 million for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, which will either be offset by a college salary or enhanced, depending on the terms of his 49ers deal.
What that means is that, in theory, Kelly will be able to survey job openings and pick the best spot and roster rather than jumping at the most lucrative salary. Furthermore, if you play it out logically, let’s say that Kelly’s contract with the Niners has any college job as offsetting the deal, that doesn’t include bowl bonuses and win bonuses. So, Kelly could be inclined to take a job where there’s a likelihood that he could add an additional couple of million by stepping in and winning right away.
I count as many as six SEC schools who may look at Kelly as the guy to revitalize their program or as a big-name guy who could go toe-to-toe with Nick Saban: Texas A&M, Tennessee, Auburn, Arkansas, and even LSU and Florida.
A&M and Tennessee are obvious fits. Each of them is loaded with talent and has failed to get over the championship hump with their current coaches.
To me, Tennessee makes the most sense. Now that Butch Jones has turned the culture around and loaded the farm with players, the temptation to go and land a rock-star coach with championship pedigree may well be overwhelming. Including this year’s recruiting class, the Vols will have landed four-straight top-15 classes: 13th currently in 2017, 14th in 2016, 4th in 2015, and 7th in 2014. Yet for all that talent, Jones has failed to win a downtrodden SEC East. How fun would it be to see those athletes in Kelly’s system?
However, according to 247 Sports’ Travis Haney, Texas A&M may be higher on Kelly’s list. Like Jones in Knoxville, Kevin Sumlin has done an outstanding job of recruiting talent and depth. But the results haven’t correlated with the recruiting classes or the millions of dollars of investment from boosters who’ve provided A&M with some of the best facilities anywhere. Sumlin’s status on the “hot seat” has always been unclear, but with the temptation of Kelly out there, the pressure is certainly on for 2017.
LSU would seem less likely, but you better believe that Kelly’s name will come up if Ed Orgeron doesn’t get off to a hot start. LSU hired Orgeron after striking out on two big-name hires and before Kelly was let go by the Niners. They also gave Orgeron a contract that would be politely described as “easy to get out of” and it’s not crazy to see them moving on sooner than later if they feel someone better is available.
As for Arkansas and Auburn, 2017 will be program-defining seasons for Brett Bielema and Gus Malzahn. If either school decides it’s time to move on, Kelly surely will be near the top of their lists. Unlike the other schools, any interest from Arkansas is unlikely to be reciprocated. But if you’re an administrator at the school, why not think big? For Auburn, Kelly would seem like the ideal replacement if things don’t go as planned for Malzahn.
And what about Florida? Personally, I’m a big Jim McElwain fan. I think he’s an outstanding game-day coach and brilliant offensive mind — contrary to the floods of readers who fill the comment section with numbers from the past two seasons. However, his recruiting hasn’t been up to the Gators’ standards and there were signs at the end of last season that there may be some unexpected pressure. With that said, he has won two SEC East titles in his first two years and is spearheading efforts to improve facilities. Obviously, those two things would suggest that McElwain’s job will not be in any kind of jeopardy. Yet Kelly is one of those names that a fan base like Florida’s will talk about and has the possibility of hanging over McElwain as an irritation.
It’s not just the SEC where Kelly’s name may become an irritant to current staffs. Perhaps the allure of other potential vacancies like UCLA, Notre Dame, or in the NFL will present a more appealing avenue to Kelly than trying to topple Saban. As a free agent, there’s no issues with a timetable or needing to negotiate with another school. Even if, as expected, he gets a job in the NFL, he won’t be the head coach and will be free to leave. And there’s no doubt current coaches will hear all about it.
There’s no doubt that Kelly will be the golden goose candidate for many enthusiastic boosters and bold ADs across the country.