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Chip Kelly and Season-Long Strategy

A possible explanation for Chip's conventional coaching.

Rob Carr

A lot of words have been used to describe Chip Kelly. Innovative. Bright. Unorthodox. But recently, the Philadelphia media has thrown around a new word: "castrated." It refers to Kelly's recent habit of behaving like an ordinary NFL coach. He has been punting on fourth-and-shorts, settling for field goals in the red zone, and kicking extra points after touchdowns. Additionally, Chip has become a rather vanilla play-caller as the packaged option plays we saw in the preseason have mysteriously vanished from the playbook.

What makes this even more frustrating is that everyone saw that first half against Washington. There, Kelly did look like the man Jeff Lurie hired to turn this team around. He went for it on fourth down. He used the packaged plays. It was more than just the hurry-up offense we've seen over the last three weeks - it was a show. And an exciting one at that. So what happened?

This is why everyone has been saying that Chip was "castrated," which is a fair analysis when viewing tape. But I'm not buying that - at least, not yet. I think Kelly has done his research and has had the suspicion that the division would be wide-open for quite some time. Now, that is a fact; the NFC East is terrible and even the Giants could still win the division if they really got their act together. Even at 1-3 the Eagles only sit a game behind the first-place Cowboys, a position I believe Kelly is content with after a quarter-season of play.

So what's my point? Look at the Eagles' last three opponents. What do they all have in common? This isn't a trick question - they're all AFC teams. They have absolutely no bearing on playoff tiebreakers or affect positioning within the division (with the obvious exception of number of wins). So I think that Kelly has purposefully dialed back his offensive play-calling in an effort to give conference and divisional opponents as little tape as possible. I'm sure Kelly has wanted to win all of the games very badly, but what has he strategically lost by losing them? Being in first place in a terrible division that he's only one game behind in anyway? And suppose he did pull out all the stops to beat at least two of those opponents. What did he gain? A first place spot in a terrible division by winning less-meaningful games while giving opponents that have more value all-important film to study and prepare with?

In a nutshell, I'm speculating that Kelly is bluffing. Rather than give away his entire hand against three out-of-conference opponents, he's scaled back in an effort to keep an element of surprise in divisional and conference play. Of course, there are some institutional problems that are somewhat out of his control, like turnovers and red zone offense, that have been hindering the offense's performance. But people have pointed to Kelly's play-calling as well and there could actually be a reason behind that.

Kelly has scaled back his offensive in an effort to keep an element of surprise in divisional and conference play.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this season is largely Chip's learning curve. He needs to feel out professional football to figure out what he can keep from college and what he should scrap as well as what elements of traditional professional offenses he can blend in with his philosophies and style of play. The only way to do that is by actually putting it on the field, but you can't attempt to answer all of those questions at once. He might be picking and choosing when in the schedule he wants to figure things out - for example, he could have chosen the three out-of-conference games to gauge how well traditional offensive tactics work with his system since those are things most teams have seen before. As it turns out, they actually work well; you might have read something about the Eagles being the first team in NFL history with over a thousand passing yards and seven hundred fifty rushing yards through four games. Even without the packaged plays and high risk-high reward play-calling, Kelly is simply a master at getting the most out of the talent he has on offense. "Putting players in a position to succeed," as one coach might have said a few years ago.

So as the Eagles take the field tomorrow to play their first conference and divisional game since the Monday, do not be surprised if Chip Kelly resumes the type of play-calling we expected when he was hired. The time for a smokescreen is over; it's time to put it all out on the field and catch the league by storm (again). We wanted more than just a hurry-up offense, and if Chip is truly planning out his chess moves in the long term, we might just get it once the season really starts to heat up over the next few months.