The simple genius of Chip Kelly’s approach

Chip Kelly tries to score.

That sounds dumb. That sounds simple. It sounds like what every coach tries to do.

It isn’t.

Chip Kelly tries to score.

When you first hear that, you might say to yourself, “What makes that special? That’s the whole point of the game. Every team does that.”

They don’t.

Chip Kelly tries to score. And it is the whole point of the game. And that’s exactly what makes him special.

Other coaches try to do other things with the football. Extend drives. Establish field position. Control the clock.

Chip Kelly tries to score.

I think that’s the fundamental basis behind his coaching philosophy. The point of having the ball on offense isn’t to keep the other team from scoring. It isn’t to set up short conversions. It isn’t to manage the clock. The point of having the ball is to score.

Possession is valuable in a football game. You know what’s more valuable than having the ball? Seven points. A possession can’t end in a better result than a touchdown (and conversion). Maximizing a possession means maximizing the chances of scoring a touchdown. An offense that is always trying to score a touchdown is an offense that is trying to get the biggest play possible every single play. It’s an offense that isn’t conceding downs to unnecessary or obvious plays because of notions of “balance” or “playing by the book.” It’s an offense that gets the most out of its talent and doesn’t hamstring it with needless inefficiencies.

I have a related suspicion as to how this difference in philosophy affects an offense. There’s an old saying that I was originally told was a Chinese proverb1: “Shoot for the moon. If you miss, at least you’ll land among the stars.” I wonder if the wisdom behind that saying is similarly applicable to football. Aim for the end zone. If you miss, at least you’ll gain a lot of yards. More important is the inverse of that philosophy. To wit: If your goal on first-and-10 is a five-yard gain, what’s the upside? What’s the downside?2┬áIt reminds me of Earl Weaver’s philosophy regarding playing “small ball” baseball, with lots of sacrifice bunting and whatnot: “If you play for one run, one run is all you’ll get.”

1 – the Internet mostly seems to think it’s an original of motivational speaker Les Brown, which can’t possibly be right. Others cite “Unknown,” so let’s go with that.

2 – In calculating DVOA, Football Outsiders considers a successful first-down play to have gained four yards or more. If you’re only trying to gain five yards on first down, what is your range of expected outcomes?

It’s one of those things that shouldn’t be a radical new idea. It’s one of those things where conventional wisdom, much of which was borne in a time where the forward pass was largely a novelty, is so entrenched that ideas which seem obvious to a newcomer are considered foreign and dangerous. The rules and the development of coaching innovations have made the game one where spreading the field and attacking through the air is the most effective method of moving the football and scoring on offense, yet many coaches seem to adhere to philosophies built in the days when quarterbacks and receivers weren’t protected, when spreading a field with four receivers was simply unheard of, when passing games were simply an adjunct to running the ball well and not a primary part of the gameplan.

Chip Kelly doesn’t. And that’s why he’s a special coach.

As a footnote: This is also to say that Art Briles thinks the same way. And that’s why I think the Houston Texans should make a run at him. He may not have the NFL experience the team is looking for, but then, neither did Chip Kelly. He may be difficult to pry from Baylor, having just signed an extension, but a job three hours away from his current one, as head coach of one of the two NFL teams in his home state, might be enough to do it. I think Briles can be a special coach, just like Kelly is.

1 comment on The simple genius of Chip Kelly’s approach

  1. I don’t see why it was ridiculous to consider Chip Kelly the best coach in the NFL before he even coached a regular season game though.

    1. Chip for life.

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