By Chris Mahr
Any NFL general manager or owner in desperate need of a new head coach is sure to give a long, hard look at whoever has reached the college football mountaintop. Hence the rumors in mid-October that new Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is already targeting Alabama’s Nick Saban.
So we shouldn’t be all that surprised that, around the same time “Nick Saban Cleveland Browns” became a popular Google search for Crimson Tide fans, Oregon’s Chip Kelly was being shortlisted as an NFL head coaching candidate. And this was before his Ducks eviscerated USC’s defense to the tune of 62 points and 730 total yards on Saturday.
Now that Kelly has that win under his belt, he’s sure to be an even hotter candidate. I’m not implying that Kelly wants to leave Eugene, but I do have a message for him if he’s even thinking about it.
Chip, it’s a mistake waiting to happen.
This is not an indictment at all. I’m prone to agree with the one NFC executive who said of Kelly, “He runs the best practices I’ve ever seen. I would hire him in a second if I ever had the opportunity.” You don’t become the subject of a UPS commercial for having poor management skills.
So why shouldn’t Kelly feel entitled to take his unique brand of football to the sport’s highest level? I can think of three reasons.
Reason No. 1: Bigger and Faster Defensive Players
Oregon’s breakneck pace gives fits to the majority of its opponents. But in Kelly’s three seasons at the helm, it’s been contained by the three most pro-caliber defenses it has faced: Ohio State (2010 Rose Bowl), Auburn (2011 BCS Championship Game) and LSU (2011 Cowboy Classic).
While the NFL has its fair share of porous defenses, it also has many more quality units than the three that Kelly’s Ducks teams have faced in the past three-plus seasons. Defensive players at the next level are just that much bigger, faster, stronger and better conditioned. The high-octane offense that leaves most of Oregon’s opponents in the dust wouldn’t be nearly as unstoppable at the next level.
Let’s use the New England Patriots as an example. Their “borderline illegal,” no-huddle offense is the closest thing the NFL has to an offense running at Oregon’s pace. But even it has been contained in recent years by the league’s best defenses. This season alone the Cardinals, Ravens, Seahawks and Jets have been able to put the clamps on it.
And while the Ducks run-spread offense is almost unstoppable at the college level (Oregon rushed the ball 60 times for 426 yards vs. USC), the NFL is now a pass-first league. Ask the Denver Broncos, whose spread offense last season to accommodate Tim Tebow was woeful but has now successfully been replaced by a pass-happy offense with Peyton Manning.
Kelly is a bright enough offensive mind where he’d adjust his offensive strategies if he took an NFL job. But any GM who hires him would have to temper their expectations when it comes to points scored as well as the ease by which they’re accumulated.
Reason No. 2: The Quirky Personality
At the college level, Kelly’s quips — many of which wind up on the @Chipisms Twitter feed — make for good media fodder. They make him beloved because, at the college level, being a coach and having a personality is a great attribute to have.
The media coverage at the NFL level is not as forgiving. It’s infinitely more suffocating, with everything a coach says subject to endless speculation and (very often) criticism. When it comes to personality, if the NFL doesn’t encourage something robotic (i.e. Bill Belichick), it encourages manic intensity – a la Jim Harbaugh and others.
Kelly’s witticism would come across as weird to many who have been permanently jaded by being in the business of pro football. And weirdness in the “No Fun League” is a death wish.
Reason No. 3: He’s Great for College Football
The ultimate reason for Kelly staying in the college ranks is also the most selfish. If college football lost Chip Kelly to the next level, it’d be losing a beloved iconoclast.
Being a college football coach this day and age has taken on a role akin to that of a CEO, along the lines of what being an NFL head coach is like. There’s a certain ruthlessness that defines the likes of Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin and many more.
As the aforementioned NFC executive’s comments indicated, Chip Kelly also composes himself like a CEO. But he’s not like the CEO of a big, heartless corporation. He’s the cool founder of the hottest start-up, one that embraces new and fun means of innovation not just because it appeals to the masses but also because it yields successful results.
Oregon is now in the title discussion every year with blue bloods like Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas and others because of Kelly (and yes, because of Uncle Phil Knight). It’s an inspiring example to other programs and their coaches with aspirations of turning an afterthought into a winner.
Ultimately, Kelly is a nice enough guy (at least on first impression) and a bright enough mind where he’s earned the opportunity to be an NFL head coach if he so chooses. Short of a national championship, he’s earned about everything you can as a college head coach.
Selfishly, I hope he doesn’t take advantage of those earnings.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.