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What happened to Chip Kelly’s offense?

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Over a year in, things are not working at UCLA, and there are a lot of reasons why.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

I believe the most effective football offenses are those which make the simple look exceedingly complex. Perhaps nothing’s ever shown how to do that better than Chip Kelly’s offense did at Oregon.

You can add all the tempo and the motion and screens with the wide receivers in the world on top to make it look way more complicated than it is, but the core of his offense is easy to grasp. If you don’t believe me, ask Kelly: He willingly explains that simplicity in coaching clinics and to the media. Here’s how he described it during his first training camp practice with the Eagles:

“We run inside zone, we run outside zone, we run a sweep play, we run a power play. We’ve got a five-step [passing] game, we’ve got a three-step game, we run some screens. We’re not doing anything that’s never been done before in football.”

In years past, Kelly’s offenses seemed to have a bottomless bag of tricks to automatically score points, but he only ever had four running plays. At least two of them, inside and outside zone, are run by basically every other modern offense. Kelly loves inside zone especially. He calls it a “go to work” play. It sounds like football speak (and it is), but it’s important to understand that Kelly comes from a slobberknocking background, schematically speaking. That runs counter to the connotation that comes with a heavily shotgun-based attack, that shotgun-only teams are soft -- that’s according to his predecessor at UCLA, Jim Mora. There isn’t anything soft about a foundational run play which includes a blocking technique that allows linemen to “bust [defenders’] sternums up against their spines on every play,” as Kelly put it during a coaching clinic.

What made Kelly’s offenses truly unique was what happened before the ball was snapped. On the field, Kelly wanted to trick you just enough. He wanted you to line up just half a gap too far over, or shift just a hair. That’s where his ingenuity came in. He made speed a way of life with turbocharged practices. He laid tempo over spread and spread over the zone read and voila, four run concepts became “over 200 plays.” He tacked passes onto those simple runs, and mixed different concepts into a schematic cocktail. Onlookers were intoxicated.

So why hasn’t Kelly evolved — or has he?

This is from Kelly’s first regular season game with the Eagles, against Washington in 2013, a staple formation of his offense that year:

The Eagles came out in an unbalanced set. In a moment of schematic weakness, Washington left a gap open over the left guard. Kelly’s offense attacked the Broad Street sized hole and punished their rival on 2nd and 14 for 34 yards and six points.

Here’s the 2019 season opener with UCLA. The splits were different for the WRs and RBs, but this was the same formation, with the strength flipped from left in the NFL to right against the Bearcats.

Kelly evolved the Eagles concept above with orbit motion at UCLA to make it a triple option look. Orbit motion, where a wideout runs behind or “orbits” the QB pre-snap, is en vogue across the college game, and Kelly uses it a lot.

Same formation and a similar play. The orbit motion may just be window dressing, but it is still an additional element layered onto something Kelly’s done for years.

But ya wanna see what happens when the defense is in the right place at the snap and it’s also not blocked effectively by the offense?

The linebacker on the back side has bad intentions. The running back actually does really well to jump cut this and gain four yards.

Let’s go back to the tempo we talked about earlier. When I say Kelly wanted to do it fast, I mean he wanted do it really fast. His Oregon teams ran plays every 15 seconds during their quickest scoring drives. But Chip Kelly has not run the pace that he initially wanted to run since at least 2012. A 19-play touchdown drive with his 2010 Oregon team against Arizona took 6:07 (19 seconds per play). A nine play touchdown drive for his 2019 UCLA team took 4:42 (31 seconds per play).

Something happened when he got to the NFL:

  • Eagles, 2013: 23.38 seconds per play
  • Eagles, 2014: 21.95
  • Eagles, 2015: 22.21
  • 49ers, 2016: 25.43

A contemporary who would one day embrace some of Kelly’s principles explains:

“In the NFL, what they did is the officials stand over the ball until the officials are ready to call the game,” Nick Saban said in 2014 while raising questions about the hyperfast tempo that spread throughout the game in large part due to Kelly’s success with it at Oregon. “The coach at Philadelphia ran 83 plays a game at Oregon, and runs 65 a game in Philadelphia. … The league said, ‘The officials control the pace of the game, not a coach.’”

The shifts and the unique formations are still there in Kelly’s offense -- and they’re evolving -- but the tempo isn’t. There are other reasons why Kelly may not want to try to speed things up. He could go blur quick, but he hasn’t, and here’s why.

So why isn’t this working at UCLA?

I think Chip Kelly is trying to innovate, but I don’t think he has the players to do it — or much else — through 15 games in LA.

There is a disconnect between the lightning quick touchdown runs on his Oregon highlight reels and what his offense has been producing lately. UCLA was 50th in offensive SP+ in 2018, and the Bruins are 87th through three games in 2019.

UCLA runs a play every 22.34 seconds overall, Right at the pace Kelly’s been running since he got to the NFL. His last Oregon team was at 20.68. You can’t run an above average number of plays if you can’t sustain drives at an above average rate no matter how fast you go. The Bruins only converted 37 percent of third downs last year, and are only converting 33 percent of their drives in 2019.

There are other reasons why Kelly probably doesn’t want to inject more tempo into what UCLA’s doing.

The first is that Kelly has said he doesn’t really know what he has with his group of linemen.

Tempo with a good offense is effective. Tempo with a bad offense just leads to really fast three and outs. Three and outs lead to your defense being exposed to more plays leading to more points being allowed. Now your poor offense has to chase the game.

Their opportunity rate (the amount of rushes that go at least five yards) is 43.2%. That’s 93rd nationally and eight percent lower than it was last season (when they were 65th nationally). They’re also nearly dead last in stuff rate, with 29.6 rushes ending with the ball carrier tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. If the run is not working at this pace, then speeding it up isn’t a silver bullet.

When you give defenses more time, they eventually catch up. Kelly could continue to try and outpace them, but by choosing not to he loses some of the ability to catch defenses out of position and attack weak spots.

The way to fix UCLA isn’t just for Kelly to do what he did at Oregon. He’s not that coach, and they’re not any one of those teams.

Kelly has never said that he’d run in LA what he did in Eugene.

“He came out of nowhere in Eugene, Oregon. Why can’t he do it here too?”

Kelly “revolutionized” the game until he didn’t. Now his tempo is commonplace across high school, college, and pro football. His next innovation isn’t going to come from looking at his past, because what he did is no longer exotic. In 2009, 14 teams ran 2.5 plays per minute or more. In 2018, 42 did (including UCLA).

What Kelly did at Oregon was exploit inefficiency in his opponents with his own style, using tools that had always been available. But the game adjusts. You adapt or you die.

He’s trying to evolve to again be ahead of the curve. But he hasn’t been there in at least five years Whether he is or not a football genius is irrelevant, for now. What’s relevant is that he’s still billed as such. When the answers to the questions UCLA is facing aren’t coming rapidly, then his reputation starts to work against him as quickly as it appeared his brain previously worked for him.