Chip Kelly The Coach couldn't live up to Chip Kelly The Idea

BySeth Wickersham ESPN logo
Monday, January 2, 2017

Chip Kelly has now been fired as the head coach by two NFL teams in the past 367 days. It's quite the feat for any coach, and yet it's both weird and fitting that it was Kelly who accomplished it. After all, he was never just a coach, right? He was always football's future. He carried with him a weird expectation, which he neither endorsed nor completely denied, that he would not only win, but also engineer a football revolution. He became a vessel for the blur offense, for sports science, for all college coaches with professional aspirations, for the spread, for fast practices and, most of all, for the idea of Chip Kelly. It was too much -- and yet it also seemed within the realm of possibility. People always cast him in scientific terms -- the Chip Kelly Experiment -- but really, he carried a promise.

Kelly knew it, too. He would tell friends that he always felt he was playing with house money in the NFL. He would either revolutionize professional football or go back to college, where his dominance was unquestioned. When news broke on New Year's Eve that the San Francisco 49ers would fire Kelly after what ended up being a 2-14 season, a massive chunk of the football world gloated, as if he got his due. Maybe he did. More than any other coach, he was always a man alone.

He never had a coaching tree. He never won a championship. He alienated the entire building with theEagles.He never assembled a first-rate NFL coaching staff. He twice botched the most important hire for his style of play -- his defensive coordinator -- especially last year when he picked Jim O'Neil over Eric Mangini, who had as many winning seasons as a head coach as Kelly did and a far superior record of drafting players as a GM. He was never known as a coach who logged long hours, like all the others. He was so sure of his playbook, that he never really adjusted or modernized his already-modern offense after defenses caught up. Nobody except the 49ers offered him a job last season -- only a few years after he was the mostsought after coach in football. "Chip?" said a grinning NFL coach when we discussed him last year. "He's a good story."

By that, he meant that Chip Kelly was a better idea than a reality. By that, this coach spoke for all coaches, who rarely deviate from their belief systems and resort to defensiveness at the suggestion that anyone thinking outside of the box might have a point. By that, he was really playing into the idea of Chip Kelly, and Kelly seemed to relish it. "I want to be the best coach ever," he once told LeSean McCoy.

The fact is, Kelly did change the NFL. Look at all the sports-science specialists with teams after Kelly introduced them. Kelly didn't invent the hurry-up offense, of course, but his willingness to deploy it regardless of circumstance was adopted over the years by many coaches, even his successor in Philadelphia this season, Doug Pederson. Chris Brown once wrote a story about Kelly called The Influencer, and the title was warranted. Kelly set Eagles offensive records. He coached a 27-touchdown, two-interception season out of Nick Foles that, until TomBrady's 28-to-2 this season, was the greatest such ratio in NFL history. He beat Super Bowl winners Bill Belichick in New England, Mike Shanahan in Washington, Tom Coughlin in New Jersey and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. He also whipped Ron Rivera and Sean Payton. Never once did he have an advantage at quarterback.

But then, Kelly lost 13 in a row this year. He nearly finished tied for the worst record in football with a Browns team that all but pulled a 76ers. He had a horrible last month. His father, Paul, died, and the team kept losing, and it became apparent that he was going to be collateral damage to the firing of GM Trent Baalke. Through it all, Kelly was well-regarded and well-liked in the building.

People said that he should have taken a year off after being fired by the Eagles to learn from his mistakes, but he did learn: He was popular in the locker room, and the team played hard for him, and he showed the "emotional intelligence" that the Eagles said he lacked in his deft handling of Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel for the national anthem. He still showed flashes of what could be and might have been. How many times did Blaine Gabbert orKaepernick miss wide-open receivers? But of course, Kelly was supposed to be immune to such excuses.Kelly's greatest strength as a coach is and always will be his self-confidence. He has always felt that he could plug whomever into his system and it would work. He felt he would revolutionize the NFL -- even with college football and professional football being two distinctly different games; even if NFL rules and referees and his own rosters conspired against his up-tempo attack; even if he fell victim to the familiar refrains of lack of time and patience; even if, in the end, Chip Kelly turned out to not be an ideaafter all.

He was, like the rest of them, just a coach.

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