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Playbook Confidential: Let's Talk About Chip Kelly

An in depth look at a possible Norv Turner Replacement.

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Steve Dykes

There has been a lot of internet buzz about Chip Kelly graduating from the college coaching ranks at the University of Oregon to make the leap to the NFL. Kelly has built Oregon into an offensive juggernaut, and a regular top ten team in the college rankings. According to "people close the program", Kelly does have NFL aspirations.

Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said Thursday it is "inevitable" that Chip Kelly one day leaves the school for the NFL.

Bellotti was one of two people close to the program who told they don't believe Oregon will be able to keep Kelly if the NFL comes calling again.

"There are nine chances in 10 if he wins out [this season] he's gone," said another source who did not want to be identified.

The monkey wrench of this line of thinking from Nov 9th of this year, is that Oregon just dropped a game to Pac-12 rival Stanford and is now struggling to maintain it's position to obtain a BCS bowl. They need a ton of help to have a chance to get into the BCS title game. Kelly turned down the Tampa Bay Bucs last off season season citing "unfinished business" (wanting a national title). It's unclear if that still holds, and this recent loss to Stanford will keep him in the NCAA ranks. For the purposes of this article, we're going to presume that Kelly is ready to try the pro game, and that the Chargers are in the mix for his services.

Offensive Philosophy (The Anti Norv)

This Yahoo sports article breathlessly maintains that Chip Kelly could spark a revolution in the NFL with his super aggressive (math based) game management.

Whenever Kelly does enter the league, he'll play the game aggressively, with "aggressively" meaning in a mathematically logical fashion. By the end of the season every coach will be going for it on fourth down, attempting fake punts, fake field goals, two-point conversions, and they'll likely do all of this oblivious to the fact that there's astounding mathematical evidence supporting the decisions they're making.

The author stresses that Kelly doesn't expect to convert on all those 4th downs and two point conversions. He knows in the aggregate long run, that converting most of the time and failing plenty is to his advantage. I love this line of thinking, and can not stand it when color commentary guys make statements like "And X team will HAVE to punt". No they don't. They don't have to punt. The coach is choosing to punt. If it's 4th and 1, but you average 4.3 YPC on a given day, it's not that scary to make the attempt. NFL coaches are not thinking of the odds of success, but are in fact terrified of failure in these go-for-it situations. Norv Turner definitely has this old guard mentality.

One thing Chargers fans constantly moan about Turner is that fact that he is his own OC and calls the plays, which takes away from his game management. Kelly does this too, so moving to Kelly would not alleviate that concern.

This Grantland story chronicles Kelly's coaching roots and modern scheme.

"We spread the defense so they will declare their defensive look for the offensive linemen," Kelly explained at that same clinic. "The more offensive personnel we put in the box, the more defenders the defense will put in there, and it becomes a cluttered mess." Twenty years ago, Kelly's high school coach ran the unbalanced, two–tight end power-I, so he could execute old-school, fundamental football and run the ball down his opponent's throat. Today, Kelly spreads the defense and operates out of an up-tempo no-huddle so he can do the exact same thing.

Does that coach from twenty years ago sound anything like Norv Turner? Do the defenses that oppose San Diego Chargers look like cluttered messes in the box lately?

You may think that spread offense equals passing. But the Ducks love to run the ball:

Chip Kelly's scheme is not traditional, and one of the areas where Kelly is a master is in messing with a defense's efforts at gap control. Coaches have long used a variety of methods to manipulate a defense's keys and assignments, from using unbalanced sets to extra tight ends to lead-blocking fullbacks and pulling linemen who can "remove" and "add" gaps that must be defended. Kelly uses those tactics, too, and they're blended into a mix of deadly spread concepts and old-fashioned, excellent blocking.

On [a] play against Wisconsin, Kelly packaged an inside zone running play with a "zone read triple option" to the backside. With the option, the quarterback's job is to read the backside linebacker. If the linebacker stays put, the quarterback hands it off to a running back. If the linebacker crashes toward the back, the quarterback keeps the ball and takes it outside. And if after keeping the ball the quarterback is threatened by another defender, he has the option to pitch the ball to another running back running behind him. The idea was to mess with that carefully calibrated gap-control defense and set up the thing Kelly really wants to do, the same thing his old high school coach wanted to do — run the ball right up the gut.

The zone read creates an extra man advantage for the blockers by leaving a defender intentionally untouched, who is then read by the quarterback.

Kelly has another similarity to Turner, in that he advertises a lot about what he plans to call before the snap, and counts on execution to succeed. The difference in that execution is a massive divide, and then Kelly abuses defenses using his own tendencies against them much more. Kelly's core plays involve two or three potential ball carriers, and lineman can take advantage of the defense knowing the play, by letting them over pursue. If the running back in Kelly's offense is behind the quarterback, the base play is an Inside Zone Read. If the running back is next to the quarterback, the base play is the Outside Zone Read, every time. At this point I need you to watch two rather long (12 minutes each) but WORTH IT, Youtube clips. You won't regret it. This FishDuck guy is really good.

The Kelly offense uses these two base plays (Inside Zone Read and Outside Zone Read) along with a power play to create huge play action passing opportunities. I have provided more links to selected fishduck videos at the bottom of this story.

Another thing Kelly famously does is run plays at a dizzying pace (hence the name 'Blur"). They try to snap the ball every 13-18 seconds. This keeps defenses on tilt. Then once they have a defense sped up, they slow it down (from Grantland):

This change of pace is actually how Oregon constantly keeps defenses off balance. If they only went one pace the entire game the offense would actually be easier to defend. When the defense lines up quickly and is set, Kelly takes his time and picks the perfect play. When the defense is desperate to substitute or identify Oregon's formation, the Ducks sprint to the line and rip off two, three, or four plays in a row — and it rarely takes more than that for them to score.

One piece of the sped up play calling is the quad card system. This is the best writeup I could find on the subject. They basically state from Kelly's own mouth that:

Kelly told ESPN that the placards communicate formation, play and snap count, and that each image means something.

This article had a slightly different take:

The Ducks couldn’t elaborate on the meaning of the images for obvious reasons, but Asper said it’s not rocket science.

"It’s just like the signals – each thing stands for different things,’’ Asper said. "We’re simple creatures. If a guy has a cap, it’s a cap. It’s real simple, real basic. Clover? OK, lucky, Irish – something like that.

"It’s not, ‘OK, I have to add the top square and the bottom square.’ We’re not dividing matrices out there. And you can immediately see what’s there, as opposed to going through the dance of all the formations.’’


No one is really sure what the card system means, or if it even means anything at all and isn't simply a distraction for the opponent.

Chargers Personnel

Let's put the focus on the offensive line for a minute. We'll turn to ESPN's Tuesday Morning Quarterback to set the table for this one.

These days most offenses use zone blocking in part because it involves the least effort for pudgy offensive linemen: just lean and push in the direction of the play. The Blur Offense uses one, two or three pulling linemen on most rushing downs, and has pull plays back-to-back. For the Ducks it's pull and trap, pull and trap -- the linemen are as fit as the wide receivers. The 340-pound offensive lineman today is common; Oregon's heaviest player weighs 311 pounds, and star left tackle Tyler Johnstone practically is a ballerino at 292 pounds.

Even on good teams, offensive linemen usually make an initial block, then just stand there watching the play. Oregon's offensive linemen hustle downfield to make secondary blocks -- this, not backfield stunts, is essential to the Ducks' rushing success. On a long Barner run, Johnstone "set the edge" by turning his man in, then after Barner passed, hustled downfield to block someone else. On another long Barner rush, guard Isaac Remington pulled, got a man, then continued downfield to block another man. Oregon blocks so well that it can use two linemen pulling one way as a misdirection, and the three linemen on the play side still clear a path.

If you want to see more detail on Oregon lineman pulling all over the place, you can go back to Fishduck for this breakdown of their power running play series. Now start to think about the Chargers offensive line; huge, slow, un-athletic, and very little second level effort. Between the power play pulling, and the way lineman 'kick' move on the Outside Zone Read, I don't see Jared Gaither, Tyrone Green, or Jeromey Clary running this offense. Nick Hardwick and Louis Vasquez could probably hang with this stuff. For some reason I feel like Mike Harris would have a shot (remember, he ran the zone read pistol in college at UCLA). David Molk probably has the right body type, at least. Bringing in Chip Kelly to San Diego would require us to junk three fifths of our starting line (but two of the replacements might already be in house).

Back to the Grantland Piece. Kelly does not need Michael Vick or Vince Young to run his offense, but he probably needs someone more mobile than Philip Rivers.

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."

The numbers back him up. Marcus Mariota is third on Oregon's team in rushing, but he's far, far behind Barner and Thomas. In 2011, the Ducks finished the year fifth in the nation in rushing yards per game and ended with more than 4,000 on the year. Only 206 of those came from quarterback Darron Thomas. Compare that with Tebow, who led Florida in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in each of the three seasons he was the starting quarterback in Urban Meyer's spread-option offense.

Kelly explained that he merely needs a quarterback who, if the defense "forces" him to run, "can do it effectively." Although this rules out some of the NFL's best quarterbacks — from Peyton Manning to Tom Brady — it doesn't mean that his offense requires Cam Newton or RG3.

This brings us to a position of having to show some faith in Kelly's ability to adapt if we want him to coach the Chargers. Aside from the 2011 Tebow Broncos (which was fluky, relied on an elite defense, and was quickly abandoned), I can't think of anyone in the modern NFL running a zone read offense successfully. The reason is probably because defenses get a ton more film study and coaching, while NFL linebackers are much faster at the pro level. Could he make his offense work in the NFL? How much tweaking would that require with ideal personnel? Can he make his offense work without a credible running quarterback threat? Would the Chargers move in a different direction under center if we brought in Chip Kelly? This is the central question that must be answered before he is hired. It doesn't seem to me that the Inside Zone Read or Outside Zone Read can work with Philip Rivers (that defensive end or outside linebacker can just crash the back every time), and those two things working well make everything else a thousand times easier.

Ryan Mathews seems like a perfect fit. We would have to get a second credible back for those triple option plays. I am uncertain about the receivers. Either way we're stuck with Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem for the near future because of their contracts and cap implications.


I didn't see much of the recent Oregon-Stanford game, but I'm trying to see if I can research what Standford did to stymie that explosive offense. This past week, they held Oregon to 14 points, the Duck's first sub 40 point outing in many years. Stanford just showed the world what defensive scheme can make the Blur crystal clear.

The bottom third of the league according to the BFTB consensus power rankings includes a lot of nifty potential Chip Kelly quarterbacks; Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, and Jake Locker to name a few. If Kelly has a lot of NFL bidders (and why wouldn't he?), it may be hard to woo him while clutching to Philip Rivers.

In summary, he may not want to leave college for the NFL yet, he will have many other NFL suitors with more attractive personnel, he'll have to figure out how to adapt his system to the rigors of the NFL, and San Diego would probably have to junk their entire o-line and possibly their franchise QB. That said, I still can't wait to get the popcorn out and root for it to happen. Just doing the research for this story makes me want to run through a wall for the guy. The San Diego front office would need to be ready to pounce right after the New Year's Bowl season, and NFL Week 17 (Dec 30).


This is a white paper Kelly wrote about his own offense

This is a great fishduck video on the Oregon 3-4 defense and how they mask their coverages and blitzes to great effect.

Below is the entirety of the Fishduck Oregon offense tutorial series.

Understanding the Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial Series

Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #1: The Inside Zone Read
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #2: The Outside Zone Read
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #3: The Power Play
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #4: The Straddled Triple Option
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #5: Chip Kelly's New Universal Formation
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #6a: How Chip Kelly Game Plans For Opponents
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #6b: How Chip Kelly Game Plans for Opponents II (Introducing Surprise)
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #6c: Chip Kelly Game Plans of 2011 (Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!)
Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #7: Oregon's Most Important Offensive Play