THE FIRST HALF OF the Chip Kelly era was everything Philadelphia fans had hoped for. With a flurry of no-huddle plays, exotic formations, quick passes and ankle-breaking runs in space from LeSean McCoy, the Eagles dominated Washington 26--7 midway through Monday Night Football. They had run a ridiculous 53 plays. The NFL was never going to be the same, right?
Not exactly. Until Sunday's 49--20 victory over the Raiders, Philly had won twice in seven games—against the Giants and the Buccaneers, who were a combined 0--8 at the time. The Eagles didn't find the end zone in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and the Giants (in a rematch), and during that stretch they were outscored 204--143. They dropped to 4--5.
Is there a future for Kelly's offense in the NFL?
A FORMER quarterback and defensive back at New Hampshire, Kelly became the Wildcats' offensive coordinator in '99. Durham was perfect for Kelly. He could focus solely on football. He could think about it, experiment with it and see what happened.
Each off-season Kelly would travel to places such as Wake Forest or Northwestern or Clemson, looking for ideas, paying particular attention to teams doing more with less.
What Kelly latched on to in particular was the concept of packaging, in which three or four plays are combined into one. In a formation with two receivers to one side, a single receiver and tight end to the other and single back, the two receivers might set up a bubble screen while the quarterback and running back execute a read-option play and the single receiver and tight end run traditional route patterns. The QB can keep it or hand it off, throw the bubble screen, throw a pop pass to the tight end, a vertical pass to the single receiver or even hit the back on check down. Three distinct plays that give the offense six options. "Chip's offense is designed to distribute the ball to the place where the defense is giving you an advantage," said Scott Frost, who has inherited Kelly's scheme as Oregon's offensive coordinator. "It's very flexible. I think it's almost foolish to run any other kind of offense."
In the NFL the concept of having run/pass options built into plays was not entirely new. Under Mike McCarthy, Brett Favre would call a running play, and everyone would carry that out. But if Favre saw a cornerback playing off a receiver, he would give the receiver a certain look, keep the ball and fire it out. The nine other players would carry out the run. Only Favre and his receiver knew a pass was coming.
But to have an entire system built off multi-pronged plays had never been seen in the NFL. Kelly's arrival coincided with a wider deployment of packaged concepts; the Bills, Bears, Panthers and Chiefs have all introduced the scheme this year as well.
The revolutionary aspect of Kelly's attack is its implications for quarterbacks. For years the NFL has been ruled by the talented passers who won before the snap. Favre, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and others could decipher a defense's intentions by looking at it, then audible into plays that were more advantageous. The Kelly system reduces that presnap emphasis because most decisions are made off one or two simple postsnap reads.
Take the second play the Eagles ran against the Redskins. After the snap Michael Vick read linebacker London Fletcher as McCoy approached for a handoff and tight end Brent Celek ran a pop pass route. If Fletcher drifted into his pass responsibility, Vick would give the ball to McCoy. Instead, Fletcher played the run. Vick pulled the ball back and fired to Celek for a 28-yard gain. By having two options built into one read, in theory the defense should always be wrong—provided the quarterback makes the correct choice.
EVEN BEFORE Sunday, Philadelphia's offense, in many ways, has been a success. The Eagles became only the fourth team to have at least 400 total yards in each of its first six games. Entering Week 9, they led the league with 45 plays of 20 or more yards, McCoy led the league in rushing, and the team was second in rushing yards per game.
On the downside, Philly totaled only 478 yards in those back-to-back losses. In both games the defense played man-to-man and the Eagles struggled. That shocks people who know the system. "You can't run [man-to-man] against Chip's offense or he'll burn you," Frost says. Maybe in college, where Oregon almost always had a speed advantage. But in the NFL, where the talent level is close and games are often decided by which team gets more great performances from elite players, it hasn't worked out. "Obviously [Philadelphia has] struggled," said Sean McDonnell, who was Kelly's boss at UNH. "I don't think it's because of system. I think it's because of personnel."
In Vick, McCoy and receiver DeSean Jackson, the Eagles have three of the best players in space in the game. But outside of Jackson, the Eagles don't have a receiver or tight end capable of consistently burning man-to-man coverage. In addition, the offense's route concepts are very simple for an NFL scheme. The Eagles will have to find more speed at receiver in the off-season, and Kelly will most likely have to tinker with his pass patterns.
At quarterback, Vick has missed most of two games and backup Nick Foles missed one week with a concussion. Even when Vick was healthy, he proved too inaccurate from the pocket to succeed for an entire season. Foles completed 71.0% of his passes in a win over the Buccaneers and their zone coverage, but when the Cowboys played man, he connected on only 37.9%.
Overall, Foles has shown the most potential—especially considering his NFL-record-tying seven touchdowns at Oakland, which played mostly zone—because he's the best pocket passer. When Kelly's attack is really humming, though, it's because it stresses the defense the entire length and width of the field, which is why the Eagles need to find a quarterback who throws well and threatens a defense with his feet. The team is expected to draft a QB, and thanks to the proliferation of Kelly's system on the college level, he won't have trouble finding someone who knows the system.
The biggest thing that puzzles former Kelly colleagues when watching Philly is the lack of pace. "It works when you play fast," said New Hampshire receivers coach Ricky Santos, who was the first star quarterback in Kelly's system. "It doesn't have as many plays as some other systems, but when you play fast, run every play correctly and with every look, it's a tough deal."
The Eagles lead the league with one play run every 22.35 seconds (next fastest are the Bills, at 23.05), but that's on the slow side for a Kelly offense. Are the players not capable of operating it faster in the first year? Is Kelly worried about fatigue injuries now that he doesn't have the huge roster he did in college? Nobody but Kelly—who hasn't discussed it—knows.
Some think the Kelly hype was overblown, but the statistics show that for a first-year implementation, he's onto something. At the least, the packaged plays have made their way to the NFL, and that could have a long-term impact. The NFL is changing. It's just not going to change as quickly as Chip Kelly would like.
JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
NICK OF TIME Back from injury, Foles (9) exploded against Oakland's zone for seven TDs, but the Eagles are still likely to draft a quarterback this April.
JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED