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Chip Kelly, the Learning Curve, and the Quarterback

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Is it too early to cut bait on Chip?

Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports

by Patrick Causey, on Twitter @InsdeTheHuddle

I want to start by telling you a story.

Gather round. Grab a beer and put your feet up.

This story is about a coach.

A coach that was filled with ambition and whit, an acute knowledge of the game, a mastery of details, and the ambition to go after what he wanted most.

He had proven his worth by excelling with every coaching opportunity he received, and while he had yet to be an NFL head coach, he seemed destined for greatness.

His first break finally came for a franchise in a blue collar city whose fans were as passionate as they were desperate to break the city’s long streak of futility. That frustration was sometimes expressed through negativity, and anger, and maybe even a little venom.

This coach enjoyed some success, even making it to the playoffs. And pretty soon, his team was being mentioned as a trendy pick to win the Super Bowl.

But there were issues bubbling just underneath the surface, issues that were threatening to explode like a powder keg if things went awry.

For starters, he despised the local media, and over the years, they started to despise him, most particularly because the coach went to great lengths to reveal absolutely nothing to them at any chance he could get.

He was also "wound tighter than a hair braid" and handled roster decisions with the bedside manner of the Tasmanian Devil. It began to wear on the veteran holdovers from the prior regime.

That was especially true when the coach started bringing in "his guys" and jettisoning a fan favorite, in part, because he clashed with the coach. Maybe as a result of inexperience, hubris, or both, the coach didn’t anticipate the blowback from these decisions or the effects they would have on the team.

Over time, he had alienated the veteran players, the hyper-loyal fans, and the media. They loathed him for his smugness and his inability to connect. So when the wheels fell off the wagon and it became clear that the Super Bowl aspirations would not be reached, they had a field day at his expense. The fact that it came about as the result of his own errors in football judgment made it all the more sweet.

If I gave you a guess as to who this coach is, odds are you would guess Chip Kelly.

It’s a good guess all things considered.

But you are wrong.

It was a story about Bill Belichick while he was the coach of the Cleveland Browns. You can read the article I based my story off of here.

I could craft a similar story about a college coach who was in over his head in the NFL. A college coach that was once listed as one of the Top 10 NFL Coaches who never should have left the college ranks.

But I won’t bore you with another contrived story; we can skip right to the end: that coach would be Pete Carroll, when he coached the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

It’s easy to forget these blips on the otherwise illustrious coaching resumes of Carroll and Belichick. But they are great case studies to consider given our current predicament for two reasons:

  1. Like Belichick and Carroll, Kelly is finding out the hard way that the NFL has a steep learning curve.
  2. That learning curve is being exasperated by a lack of a franchise caliber quarterback.

The Learning Curve

The NFL is a brutal league. It will expose your flaws, as a player or coach, without hesitation or equivocation.

All new head coaches learn this eventually. It normally happens in the first few years of a coaches tenure, while coaching mistakes are often overshadowed by the poor play of a rebuilding team. You hope as an owner and fan that the coach figures it out by the time the team starts to get better.

Carroll and Belichick certainly had their fair share of mishaps during their first coaching stints. Belichick was aloof, too controlling, and rubbed those around him the wrong way. He made personnel blunders galore and had only one winning season in five seasons with the Browns.

Carroll was too laid back and empowered his players too much. They were used to the rigid, in your face style of Bill Parcels. The California Cool act didn’t fly, and he was quickly and unceremoniously shown the door in New England for none other than… you guessed it, Bill Belichick.

For Carroll and Belichick, vindication came after they were kicked to the curb, discarded as failures, and given the fortunate opportunity to be allowed to step up to the plate and take another swing. The fact that they were able to find success their second (or in Carroll’s case, third) time around had as much to do with learning to fix their past mistakes as it did finding a franchise caliber quarterback (more on this in a moment).

Which brings us to Chip Kelly. Perhaps buoyed by his newfangled offense, Kelly was able to delay that learning curve, starting out his coaching career with an impressive 20-12 record.

But the NFL caught up — it was always going to catch up — in year three. And we are starting to see it unfold before our eyes. I have criticized Chip Kelly from a managerial and head coaching perspective many times his year, even when it wasn’t the trendy thing to do (allow some shameless self promotion for a moment, you can read them hereherehereand here).

If you don’t want to read approximately 10,000 words on the subject, let me give you the cliff notes version: Kelly did a poor job rebuilding this team, investing in the wrong positions (RB) instead of the right ones (oline, edge rusher). He has abandoned the run too quickly, failed to utilize players properly, and struggles to make in-game adjustments in a timely fashion.

But, let’s not pretend that this is a repeat offense from Kelly. Let’s not pretend that his teams have been mired in mediocrity, or worse, during the first three years of his tenure. Kelly has hit a rough patch — and indeed, the latest loss was about as rough as it gets.

But I think we are making a mistake if we think it is too late for Kelly to turn things around. Kelly is a football junkie, one who spends an inordinate amount of time studying up on team building, and culture, and football strategy. He’s not Steve Spurrier, who spent as much time on the golf course as he did in the film room. So I don’t doubt for a moment that Kelly can turn this around. It just largely depends on whether he can find that quarterback.

Speaking of which…

The Coach and the Quarterback

It is exceedingly rare for a head coach to succeed in the NFL without a top-15 quarterback.

Consider this: prior to getting Tom Brady, Bill Belichick had just one winning season in sixseasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots, with a combined record of 41-55 (.427 win percentage). In the 15 years since he teamed up with Brady, Belichick does not have a single losing season, and has a combined 165-54 record (.687 win percentage).

Pete Carroll’s combined record at the Patriots, Jets and Seahawks before drafting Russell Wilson? 47-49. Since Russell Wilson became his starting quarterback? 40-17. (With the obvious caveat that the defense has as much, if not more, to do with that winning record as Wilson).

Belichick and Carroll are considered two of the best coaches in the game today, but were largely ineffective until they were able to secure a top level quarterback.

Now look at this chart:

Coach

Win %

Bruce Arians .690
Bill Belichick .670
Mike Tomlin .638
John Harbaugh .615
Sean Payton .609
Andy Reid .585
Ron Rivera .574
Chip Kelly .571
Pete Carroll .571
John Fox .564
Marvin Lewis .540
Jason Garrett .537
Tom Coughlin .538
Jeff Fischer .520
Rex Ryan .481
Bill Belichick without Brady .427

Bruce Arians has Carson Palmer. Bill Belichick has Tom Brady. Mike Tomlin has Big Ben. John Harbaugh has Joe Flacco (and arguably the best GM in football). Sean Payton has Drew Brees. Andy Reid’s high win percentage is largely due to his time spent with Donovan McNabb. And the same can be said about Ron Rivera and Cam Newton.

The fact that Kelly has been able to go 24-18 with a cast of Foles, Sanchez, Vick, Barkley and Bradford as his starting quarterbacks is somewhat remarkable. His .571 winning percentage puts him at a tie with Pete Carroll and ahead of good NFL coaches like Tom Coughlin, Marvin Lewis, and John Fox.

In fact, the one time that Kelly was given above average quarterback play — that would be during the second half of 2013, when Nick Foles went absolutely bonkers — the Eagles went 7-1. The remaining time when Kelly got below average production from the quarterback position? The Eagles are 17-17.

Would a franchise quarterback have cured all that ails this Eagles team? Of course not.

But did anyone else notice that the Cowboys, losers of seven in a row without Tony Romo, looked suddenly competent again last week in their win over the Dolphins?

Or did anyone notice how the Colts went from 10 wins with Peyton Manning in 2010, to two wins with Curtis Painter in 2011, to 11 wins with Andrew Luck in 2012?

Does anyone else remember how quickly Andy Reid’s regime fell apart when he was unable to replace Donovan McNabb (save for the one year of competent play from Michael Vick in 2010)?

A quarterback has a funny way of changing a teams fortunes and masking its flaws. That’s why it is considered one of, if not the most important position in all of sports.

How Good Does the Quarterback Need to Be?

If you have read this far along, perhaps I have convinced you to keep an open mind to the possibility of not giving up on Chip Kelly just yet. You see, it is not far fetched for me to envision a scenario in which Kelly enjoys a resurgence — maybe not this season — but in the not so distant future.

And while Kelly will need to do some soul searching this offseason, consider his approach to team building, consider adjusting his rigid adherence to playing at a fast pace, etc., he can solve a lot of his problems by finding his quarterback.

The only question is: how good does this quarterback need to be? There seems to be a common misconception about this answer, so I decided to try to figure it out.

As you can see from the chart below, I broke down the DYAR and DVOA rankings from FootballOutsiders.com for the Super Bowl winning and losing quarterbacks since 2000. DYAR and DVOA are advanced metrics that rank quarterbacks, much like quarterback ratings and Total QBR.

I chose this time period because of the rule changes that occurred around this time that favored the quarterback and the passing game. The new-aged NFL is a different game from years gone by, as the old-timers are quick to remind us.

Now, this isn’t the perfect methodology (I am not, and never will claim to be, an advanced mathematician). Perhaps I could have studied the DYAR and DVOA ratings of the top five teams each season, since the regular season is a much more reliable sample than the unpredictable playoffs. But at a minimum, I think this approach gives us a good bench mark to consider.

The numbers suggest that you need a quarterback in the top 13 to compete for a Super Bowl:

Year QB (DYAR / DVOA) QB (DYAR / DVOA)
2000: Baltimore: T. Dilfer (39th / 39th) New York: K. Collins (8th / 9th)
2001 New England: T. Brady (13th / 12th) St. Louis: K. Warner (1st / 1st)
2002 Tampa Bay: B. Johnson (10th / 11th) Oakland: R. Gannon (1st / 4th)
2003 New England: T. Brady (9th / 13th) Carolina: J. Delhomme (18th / 23rd)
2004 New England: T. Brady (4th / 4th) Philadelphia: D. McNabb (6th / 6th)
2005 Pittsburg: B. Roethlisberger (10th / 15th) Seattle: M. Hasselbeck (30th / 31st)
2006 Indianapolis: P. Manning (1st / 1st) Chicago: R. Grossman (29th / 29th)
2007 New York: E. Manning (40th / 34th) New England: T. Brady (1st / 1st)
2008 Pittsburg: B. Roethlisberger (26th / 27th ) Arizona: K. Warner (5th / 8th)
2009 New Orleans: D. Brees (4th / 3rd) Indianapolis: P. Manning (3rd / 5th)
2010 Green Bay: A. Rodgers (4th / 4th) Pittsburg: B. Roethlisberger (7th / 2nd)
2011 New York: E. Manning (8th / 9th) New England: T. Brady (3rd / 3rd)
2012 Baltimore: J. Flacco (17th / 17th) San Francisco: C. Kaepernick (13th / 3rd)
2013 Seattle: R. Wilson (9th / 8th) Denver: P. Manning (1st / 1st )
2014 New England: T. Brady (6th/ 6th) Seattle: R. Wilson (13th / 14th)
Avg. 13th / 13th 9th / 9th
Here’s a quick summary of what this chart tells us:
  • 4 out of 15 Super Bowl winners ranked in the top 5 of DVOA and DYAR.
  • 8 out of 15 Super Bowl winners ranked outside the top 10 in either DVOA or DYAR.
  • In other words, twice as many quarterbacks outside the top 10 have won a Super Bowl as those inside the top 5.
  • 7 out of 15 of Super Bowl runners up were ranked outside of top 5 of DVOA and DYAR.

Now let’s be clear and distinguish between what these numbers do and do not tell us. These numbers do NOT say that elite quarterbacks are overrated. Having Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers dramatically increases your chances for regular season success, which in turn gives you more chances to win a Super Bowl.

But these numbers DO tell us that an elite signal caller is not a prerequisite to winning a Super Bowl. Remember, the average DVOA and DYAR ranking for Super Bowl winning quarterbacks over the last 15 years was 13, while 71% of the Super Bowls winners had a quarterback that ranked in the top 15 of DVOA and DYAR that year. So if the rest of your team is good enough, history shows us you can realistically compete for a Super Bowl with a quarterback in the top 13-15.

And for those wondering, I also went back and looked at the team efficiency rankings for the Super Bowl winners and runners up so we can understand how good the team needs to be:

Year Team DVOA Off

Rank

Def

Rank

Team DVOA Off

Rank

Def Rank
2000 Ravens 3 22 2 Giants 11 8 12
2001 Patriots 11 11 13 Rams 2 2 5
2002 Bucs 1 20 1 Raiders 2 2 7
2003 Patriots 4 14 2 Panthers 16 18 10
2004 Patriots 2 3 7 Eagles 6 9 16
2005 Steelers 4 8 3 Seahawks 3 1 16
2006 Colts 7 1 25 Bears 5 20 2
2007 Giants 14 18 13 Patriots 1 1 11
2008 Steelers 4 21 1 Cardinals 21 15 21
2009 Saints 6 2 17 Colts 8 6 16
2010 Packers 4 7 2 Steelers 2 5 1
2011 Giants 9 10 3 Patriots 1 1 21
2012 Ravens 8 13 19 49ers 4 5 3
2013 Seahawks 1 7 1 Broncos 2 1 15
2014 Patriots 5 6 12 Seahawks 1 5 1
Avg. 5.53 10.86 8.06 Avg. 5.66 6.6 10.46

Putting these numbers together, the following picture emerges for the average NFL Super Bowl Champion:

  • A top 5 ranked team;
  • With a top 10 offense;
  • A top 8 defense; and
  • A top 13 overall quarterback.

Each individual champion does not fall neatly into that category. The 2000 Ravens, for example, were 3rd overall, with the 22nd ranked offense, 2nd ranked defense, and 39th ranked Trent Dilfer at quarterback. But again, we are focusing on the big picture.

Now, here are the Birds numbers under Chip Kelly:

  • 2013: TEAM: 8 overall; 3rd offense, 23rd defense. QB: Foles: 5th/2nd.
  • 2014: TEAM: 7th overall, 13th offense, 10th defense. QB: Foles: 19th/20th; Sanchez: 24th/23rd.
  • 2015: TEAM: 12th overall, 23rd offense, 2nd defense. QB: Bradford: 28th/28th.

These numbers suggest two things: the Eagles are not that far away from being a contending team, and the thing most likely holding them back has been the subpar play at the quarterback position. It’s not a stretch to think that a top 13 quarterback could improve the Eagles 23rd ranked offense this year, which in turn would improve the team’s overall ranking (and arguably, help out the defense too).

But I digress. The purpose of this exercise was to dispel the notion that we need the next Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady to compete for a Super Bowl. Remember, Eli Manning and Big Ben have more Super Bowl rings than Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning combined. So while it wouldn’t hurt to get a top five stud, we can still realistically compete if we can find a top 13-15 guy.

Conclusion

While I was beating the drum on Kelly’s coaching mistakes all season (and got crushed for doing so by some in the process), I am getting the sense that the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction. While Kelly is not without his flaws,  especially on the personnel side, he is still a good coach. And it would be a mistake to run him out of town.

Kelly’s future success will depend on finding that top 13-15 guy, through free agency, trade, or the draft. Here is hoping he can do so in the next year or two, otherwise we might be looking at Philadelphia being to Kelly as Cleveland was to Belichick and New England/New York were to Carroll.