In 2013, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had their next long tenured coach, ushering in a new run of contention after Andy Reid’s pretty good fourteen year run had come to an end. In 2013, it also looked like the San Francisco 49ers had their franchise quarterback, and franchise head coach, and would be Super Bowl contenders for a long time. Chip Kelly was going to change professional football the way he revolutionized the college game from the Oregon sideline, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the best of the crop of young mobile QBs. It’s amazing how much can change in three years.
Earlier this month, following a disappointing season in which the Eagles overhauled their roster but could not gain any ground in a putrid NFC East Division, Philadelphia fired Chip Kelly. After the season ended, the 49ers followed suit, firing first year head coach Jim Tomsula who led the San Francisco to a 5-11 season in a year when he had the unenviable task of replacing Jim Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick had been benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Maybe things were never as good as they appeared three years ago, but I never thought it would get this bad.
This week Will Leitch wrote a column ranking the careers of every quarterback who ever started a Super Bowl, 57 in total through 49 games (spoiler alert: Leitch ranked Joe Montana #1 with the caveat that a couple of weeks from now, someone else might take that spot from him), and Kaepernick was ranked #53. Leitch gave the following explanation:
When they watch highlights of this game in 50 years, they’ll have no idea how he didn’t become an all-timer. I’m not sure what happened myself. Choose your next step carefully, Colin: It may be everything.
It’s a good point. Kaepernick was awesome in that game, and he was so close to knocking off a Baltimore Ravens team that didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. At the time, the narrative during the season was one that drew parallels to the way the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI: the veteran former #1 overall pick gets hurt, the second year head coach gives the starting job to the second year quarterback, and lets him keep it, and they ride the momentum all the way to the big game, which is being played in New Orleans. As uncanny as all of that was, that is where the comparisons between the 2001 Patriots and 2012 49ers stopped, with all due respect to that Niners team. Alex Smith is a lesser quarterback than Drew Bledsoe, Jim Harbaugh is a lesser coach than Bill Belichick, Colin Kaepernick is a lesser quarterback than Tom Brady (but how many coaches and quarterbacks are greater than Belichick and Brady, in fairness?), and most of all THEY DIDN’T WIN THE SUPERBOWL!!!
Kaepernick falling off the map this past season is not the only reason that game feels like it was ten years ago while Super Bowl XLVII feels like it was yesterday (and still hurts just as much as a Pats fan). Jim Harbaugh was coaching the Niners against his brother John, who was coaching the Ravens, and Jim wore out his welcome in San Francisco and is now coaching at the University of Michigan. Important players from the Niners/Ravens Super Bowl include Randy Moss, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, and Ed Reed, all of whom are now out of professional football for one reason or another. In that matchup, it felt at the time like the Ravens were the team that needed it more, since they had more players near the end, while the 49ers seemed like the team just hitting their stride. Kaepernick gave San Francisco’s offense the spark it had lacked with Smith under center. Their defense was loaded, but they had a worthy divisional adversary in the Seattle Seahawks.
A year after breaking through and reaching the Super Bowl, the 49ers were back in the NFC Championship Game, but this time Seattle made the stop they needed to make at the end of the game, leading to one of the great remixes in the history of Youtube, and propelling them into their decisive rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. That was the last we heard from San Francisco as a contender. I thought a few years ago they would have a chance to be the first true home team for a Super Bowl with Super Bowl 50 being played in Santa Clara, but they declined quicker than anyone could have imagined. 2014 ended up being Harbaugh’s last year in San Francisco, and the 49ers had no real plan to replace him. 2015 was a lost season for a franchise that was once the gold standard for the NFL.
As quickly as things fell apart for the Niners, it happened even faster for Chip Kelly in Philly. In his first two seasons, the Eagles won ten games each year, making the playoffs in 2013, but missing them by a game in 2014. After 2014, Kelly gained more power within the organization, and now had control over personnel decisions. With his new found power, Chip Kelly the GM put Chip Kelly the coach in some tough situations. He traded star running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, which was a bit of a surprise, but defensible because in return, the Eagles got Kiko Alonso, an athletic linebacker who is two years younger than McCoy, and who played for Kelly at Oregon. Running backs have the shortest careers of any skill position in football, so anytime you can trade a running back for a linebacker the same age or younger, you do it. The more baffling move was to replace McCoy by overpaying for former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Murray is the same age as McCoy, and rushed for 1845 yards behind a really good offensive line in 2014 for Dallas. In Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, Murray only had 702 yards rushing in 2015, by comparison. I’m admittedly not as close a follower of the NFL as I was a few years ago, and I do not have nearly the amount of football knowledge as someone like Chip Kelly, but this was one thing that didn’t smell right to me from the beginning. I’ve been Pro-Chip since he was at Oregon, and as someone who spent seven summers on camp staff in New Hampshire, I really wanted to see this Dover, NH native (fun fact: between Chip and Giants GM and Concord native Brian Sabean, both Bay Area teams with “San Francisco” in their names now have key decision makers who hail from The Granite State) succeed at football’s highest level, and his handling of the Eagles’ roster had me almost as worried last summer as Tom Brady’s predicament with the league.
Kelly lost his job with the Eagles more for the roster moves he made than the coaching decisions, but as long as he had been in the NFL, critics had been skeptical of his fast paced system, that it weakens your own defense if the offense keeps going three and out. Kelly’s system dominated in the college regular season, but struggled in bowl games in every year except his last at Oregon, when he was the sexy, outside the box head coaching candidate for a lot of NFL teams. The only playoff game he coached for Philadelphia, which I recapped on this blog the night it happened, was oddly reminiscent of the BCS National Championship Game he coached for Oregon in 2011. Both games ended with Kelly’s team losing at the mercy of a game winning field goal as time expired, because Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints were able to slow their possessions down the way Cam Newton’s Auburn offense did.
One important thing to realize about football, and about all sports, is that no one system is going to work all the time. If that were the case, there would be no point in playing the game. Just declare Chip Kelly the genius who solved football and go home! What makes Bill Belichick so successful as a head coach is that he is not married to any one style of play, and has been able to constantly adapt and evolve his game plans with changing times and changing opponents. Another thing to realize about Belichick is that he was not great right away, and he is perhaps the best reason to be hopeful about Kelly’s future in the NFL.
Belichick has been working in football operations for NFL teams in various capacities every year since 1975. He never took a year off and never went into the college game. Even Lorne Michaels took five years off from Saturday Night Live in the early 80s. He was first hired as a “special assistant” by the Baltimore Colts, and did not get a head coaching gig until 1991, though he was run out of town along with the rest of the Cleveland Browns in 1995. It took another five years working under his mentor Bill Parcells with the Patriots and New York Jets before he took another crack at being a head coach again. By comparison, Kelly’s rise to the head coaching ranks of the NFL has been meteoric. He was a longtime assistant at the collegiate level, at Columbia, Oregon, Johns Hopkins, and his alma mater New Hampshire, eventually rising to offensive coordinator at UNH from 1999 to 2006. In 2007, he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, and was promoted to head coach two years later. He was only the head coach at Oregon for four years before the NFL came calling. His rise from offensive coordinator at a college campus in Durham, NH to head coach of one of the 32 NFL teams happened in the years between the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories. Most people to not rise that quickly in life, and it is remarkable what Chip was able to accomplish given how easy it would have been to be a complete failure.
As a Patriots fan, I am glad Bill got his growing pains out of the way in Cleveland, and I got to be witness to maybe the most dominant fifteen year run in football history. It would be in their best interest for the 49ers to be patient with both Kelly and Kaepernick, because the line between success and failure in the NFL is a lot closer than people realize. Imagine, for instance, if the Tuck Rule play had been assessed differently after review in the Snow Bowl between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2002. The Pats were able to capitalize on a gift of a non-turnover, and force overtime, and win it in overtime, but it was kind of a weird rule that is no longer on the books. Belichick made a gamble that season by sticking with Brady when Bledsoe was healthy enough to play again, and we remember that as the right decision because they won the Super Bowl. What if that play goes differently, and the Raiders advance instead of the Patriots? Belichick obviously liked what he saw in Brady, and still may have traded Bledsoe to Buffalo that offseason, much the way the 49ers traded Alex Smith to Kansas City after Kaepernick took them to the Super Bowl eleven years later. For the 49ers, the second guess of Kaepernick over Smith was something that still got talked about in the years that followed, and was cited as one of the ways Harbaugh lost the trust of his players. Two years after Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh is out in San Francisco and Kaepernick’s confidence is shot now that the coach who lobbied for him is no longer there. The Patriots went 9-7 in the 2002 season, and let three time All Pro Safety Lawyer Milloy go in training camp in 2003. In the first game of the 2003 season, the Pats were trounced by (you guessed it) the Buffalo Bills, led by Bledsoe and Milloy, by a score of 31-0. In the moment, things looked bleak for the Patriots early on in 2003. Imagine how bad it would have been if they hadn’t beaten the Raiders, let alone the Steelers and Rams, in the 2002 playoffs. Belichick would have been gone in New England before he had a chance to go 14-2 in 2003 and eventually beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick are each other’s second lease on an NFL career. They need each other right now, and I think it has a chance to work. I want it to work, even. The biggest reasons for hope in this situation, is that Kaepernick responsive when he had a good offensive minded coach in Harbaugh, and that Kelly was able to leave Philly with a career winning record despite never having a quarterback anywhere near as good as Kaepernick. Kelly had a 27-21 record with the Eagles when his quarterback options were Old Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Matt Barkley, and Tim Tebow (it’s worth noting that in 2008, Bradford beat Tebow for the Heisman Trophy, and in 2009 Barkley was Sanchez’ successor at USC when Sanchez was drafted by the Jets, but none of them have made it as quarterbacks in the NFL). It’s a quarterback league, but quarterbacks need coached. The other teams that hired new coaches did not do too much to rock the boat. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith with their offensive coordinators, the Eagles reverted back to what worked for them before Chip Kelly by hiring longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, the Cleveland Browns hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but until they prove me wrong I’m just going to assume it’s the wrong move considering Cleveland’s steadily revolving door of quarterbacks, coaches, and GMs for over a decade, and the Tennessee Titans simply took the “interim” label off Mike Mularkey’s interim head coach title, but San Francisco needed an innovative hire after hiring the defensive minded Tomsula from within their own coaching ranks was a failed experiment.
This is a good situation to get a second chance, but if it does not work, both Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as cautionary tales instead of what they should have become.