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More on Chip Kelly and Time of Possession

"Two years ago, a Thursday night game, we played UCLA. They ran 73 snaps, we ran 71 snaps. They had the ball for 40 minutes, we had the ball for 20 minutes. We won 60-13."

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Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

by Mark Saltveit (guest writer)

If you want to piss off Chip Kelly, it's easy. Just ask if he's worried about his team's time of possession. His teams always have less than their opponents. He is just fine with that, because they win, but reporters keep pressing him, with furrowed eyebrows, on why he isn't more worried.

I don't know which reporter made the mistake of raising this issue at the Eagles' press conference last Thursday, but Kelly unloaded on him or her, with the coach's favorite example, which is also in my book (from a 2012 interview):

"Two years ago, a Thursday night game, we played UCLA. They ran 73 snaps, we ran 71 snaps. They had the ball for 40 minutes, we had the ball for 20 minutes. We won 60-13."

On the flip side, the Eagles were leading in TOP at halftime against Jacksonville, 16:30 to 13:30, despite a very sloppy first half that left them trailing 17-16. You know who holds the record for Time of Possession? Linda Blair, in The Exorcist, and look where it got her.

So Time of Possession just doesn't matter. Cut and dried, right? Well, not exactly.

There are actually two separate issues around time of possession, and one is more serious than the other. The issues are:

1) Denying the other team the ball; and

2) Wearing out your defense.

Chip's answer to both concerns would probably be the same; "we're just more efficient, but what really matters is the number of snaps." And he's right, of course. But there's a rub.

Chip's 2012 Oregon team took an average of 2:07 to score, and they almost never kicked field goals. Basically, a two minute drill was their average speed. They scored 24 touchdowns last year in less than a minute, and 46 in less than two minutes. Against Arkansas State, they scored their 50th point with seven minutes left in the second quarter. Against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, they were leading 8-0 after 12 seconds.

You get the picture. They scored fast. So opponents couldn't really deny Oregon the ball, because the Ducks didn't need much time. As long as they executed their offense, and got some snaps, they scored. When you play that fast, you create time.

Furthermore, Oregon had a gambling defense that defined "bend but don't break." So, against the Ducks, you grind down the clock, chew up 5 minutes driving to the Oregon 10, get intercepted and the Ducks score in 90 seconds. How's your time of possession now, eh?

The Eagles clearly have a long way to go to be called a gambling defense. They’re last in the NFL in takeaways, where Kelly’s Ducks led college football in turnover margin all four years he was head coach. But if you squint – and the team somehow picks up another good coverage player or two – you can see the outlines of a hard-blitzing defense that might pick up a decent number of sacks and strips, if not interceptions.

When you change the subject from TOP to number of the snaps, the Eagles are doing well. They lead the NFL with 75 per game -- more than the league-leading Patriots had last year with the help of Chip's advice on accelerating the no-huddle. But that's not all of it either. There is also efficiency of scoring per play, and Oregon also led the nation in that category, scoring a touchdown every 11.8 plays. So even with the same number of snaps, at the same speed, they would outscore you. (But they had more snaps, faster, so they dominated.)

The second issue, weariness of your defense, is a more serious concern. It's true that Coach Kelly's first answer applies here as well; number of snaps is more important than time of possession. If the Eagles defenders face 65 snaps, it doesn't matter whether the other team takes 40 minutes or 30 to run them. If anything, it will be easier to defend a team that takes longer to run those plays. Your defenders can catch their breath during the huddles. All points being equal, you want to lose Time of Possession as decisively as possible.

The problem is, that assumes that the other team runs a conventional, slow, huddling offense. If they are also a blur type offense, then both teams might run a lot more snaps per game. If both teams run 90 plays per game, your defense will definitely get pretty tired by the end of your game. (So will your offense, for that matter.)

At that point, fatigue will become a real issue. Who does that favor? The team with better conditioning, able to operate at the edge of endurance due to better nutrition, hydration, and player sleep. Advantage Eagles (for now), as Chip is pushing all of those areas very aggressively.

This situation is a second level advantage for the Eagles, as the battleground has then shifted from talent and years playing together under the same system, to different areas that Chip Kelly has a better chance to control this year. In the long run, this may change as other coaches see the value of Chip Kelly's methods. But right now, these sports science techniques are much safer ground for this Eagles team to compete on than raw talent and the fit between players and scheme.

Furthermore, Kelly has developed ways to handle fatigue. He likes to rotate players aggressively, especially on the defensive line, to the point where it resembles a hockey team putting in new lines. This naturally strengthens your depth and insulates the team against injuries, as well as taking pressure off of the starters.

I think the real reason TOP offends Kelly is that it's part of a loser mentality. No one worries about Time of Possession unless they're coming from behind; if you're leading, you want to kill the clock, or score again. Asking about TOP is like saying "But how are you going to come back all the times that you're losing?" Well in 2012, the Ducks led by an average of 22 points at halftime, and the only time they trailed in a second half was in their one loss, to Stanford.

Even in that Stanford game, there was only one moment they trailed after halftime -- at the final horn, after Stanford kicked the winning field goal in OT. The Ducks' problem in that game wasn't Time of Possession; it was getting stuffed by the nation's leading run defense, and missing two field goals that would have won the game.

Actually the Ducks picked up 198 yards rushing, less than their average of 352 but almost four times the 54 yards Stanford was giving up to other teams, on average. The teams were essentially tied on offense and defense; Stanford, which actually improved after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL, just converted a couple more big plays including a very controversial touchdown by Zach Ertz.

The bottom line is, fast and efficient offenses win. If everyone goes with a blur offense though, the nature of football will change in unpredictable ways and these equations may be different. At that point, I'll put my money on the coach who favors science over tradition, innovates and picks up good ideas for changing his program from anywhere he can find them.

Note from the editor: Mark Saltveit wrote "The Tao of Chip Kelly," which is a great quick read. I highly recommend.

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