Chip Kelly will get his shot to prove his worth in the NFL next year with the Philadelphia Eagles, but elements of Kelly’s success precede him.
The driving force behind Oregon’s famously relentless offensive attack is the zone-read option. For a casual fan, the rushing scheme thrives on deception. The quarterback either gives or fakes a handoff to the running back before the two split in opposite directions. The defense must commit to one or the other, and if the offensive linemen give the quarterback an attractive option, the play can be deadly.
Entrusting the play to the quarterback, regardless of the defense’s alignment, has become trendy in the NFL. Dual-threat quarterbacks aren’t novel at the pro level, but in the last few years, NFL teams have paired athletic quarterbacks to schemes like Kelly’s with a large degree of success.
“We’ve seen the read option have a ton of success in Washington,” ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth said shortly after Kelly’s hiring. “We’ve seen it happen with the San Francisco 49ers. We’ve seen it happen with (quarterback) Cam Newton in Carolina. It has proven successful.”
Kelly’s teams at Oregon ran just four rushing plays: the inside zone, the outside zone, the counter and the draw. While that playbook will need to have a few significant wrinkles added to it next year, that basic groundwork is what helped Colin Kaepernick lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl this year.
In the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick and ex-Duck LaMichael James faced a second-and-six from their own 44-yard line. Out of the shotgun — an Oregon constant — Kaepernick faked the inside handoff to James. As the rookie running back drew the defense inside, Kaepernick sprinted out to the right, found a gap and outran the Packers’ defensive backs for a 56-yard touchdown.
The play was textbook Kelly.
“Once Kaepernick got in there, we went to a lot of spread stuff so it is a lot of the same stuff I have been doing,” James said at Super Bowl Media Day. “It is pretty much similar. You are in the gun and is pretty much a zone-read offense. It has been doing a great job helping me out being a young player and doing some stuff I am familiar with.”
Despite the term “zone-read,” the new Philadelphia Eagles head coach has emphasized more can be less during the game.
“This may sound like a contradiction,” wrote Kelly in a lecture about the option, “but we do not read anything. When you read, you become uncertain. We want the ball in the running back’s hands … We want the quarterback to give the ball unless he cannot (due to the defense).”
But the threat of the quarterback running can sometimes be enough. In Washington, the Redskins have effectively used Robert Griffin III as a decoy as much as a rusher. Near the end of the year, Griffin was averaging only eight rushes per game, the same as Kelly’s last collegiate quarterback, Marcus Mariota.
But even teams without a slash-and-burn signal caller are finding relevant components to thieve from Oregon’s offense.
While the Ducks aren’t the fastest college football team in history, they’re perhaps the most famous for their speed. Three-time Super Bowl winner and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has met with Kelly to discuss offensive pace. After all, Kelly’s simplicity and consistency would be blunted if not executed at a frenetic tempo.
In Oregon’s run to the National Championship in 2010, the Ducks averaged 78 plays per game. In Kelly’s last year, that number was pushed to 81.
This regular season, the Patriots led the NFL in points and yards, but also led the NFL with 74 plays per game. Tom Brady and Belichick have also reportedly axed a lot of verbiage from its play calling. The result is a faster, sleeker, more effective offense. Or, in other words, Kelly’s trademark.
Inevitably, Kelly’s success will be predicated not on the genius of his schemes, but by his wins and losses. NFL defenses are intelligent, adaptive and just plain strong. But teams are already showing that with the right mix of deception, athleticism and spacing, there’s room for the game to grow.