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I’m a big fan of Mike Tanier, an excellent writer formerly of Football Outsiders and now with Sports on Earth. Yesterday, Tanier threw cold water on the idea that Chip Kelly is going to be the next great NFL coach. Tanier labeled him him this generation’s Steve Spurrier, and argued that it is lazy and unsophisticated to simply assume that “great NCAA coach = great NFL coach.” Unfortunately, his analysis only required the expenditure of one extra ounce of effort and intelligence:

Kelly is an offensive mastermind. He is guru of the modern college spread option. Marcus Mariota, his current quarterback, fakes a shotgun handoff, stands in the pocket while a file downloads, then floats passes to receivers who are open by five yards. Or, Mariota hands off to Kenjon Barner, who busts off 300-yard games against overtaxed defenses. Or, Mariota keeps the football himself. There are trick plays, wildcat packages, fake field goals, bells, whistles, onion rings and shakes. It’s fun, and the quarterback is always in the gun. Is your SpurriDar beeping yet?

Kelly runs an explosive college offense, but like Spurrier’s fun ‘n’ gun, it is distinctly and uniquely a college offense. It is built on the principle of littering the field with speedy young men who can outrun the opponent’s speedy young men in the wide-open spaces that only exist at a level of play where everyone is a step slower, an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter.

Kelly’s offense is often mischaracterized as gimmicky, but Chris Brown did an excellent job explaining how traditional football principles are the key to Kelly’s offense at Grantland yesterday. Brown has also written a bit about Kelly’s zone-read running game, the way the Ducks teach reading the defensive tackle, and how Oregon’s attack compares to Nebraska’s old rushing offense over at his website, Smart Football; alternatively, you can read about Kelly’s offense straight from the horse’s mouth.

Can Kelly simply pack his playbook, spend a training camp with an NFL team, and turn them into the pro version of the Ducks? Of course not; even if his running game works perfectly, his runs will mostly go for 8-yard gains, not 40-yard sprints (unless he’s playing the Raiders). But reducing Kelly to an X’s and O’s guru incapable of adaption is unfairly harsh. Tanier credits the great Nike machine with providing Oregon with superior talent, but that’s not a fair criticism. Oregon has never had a top-ten recruiting class under Kelly, and Rivals generally ranks Oregon’s classes in the teens or early twenties. Spurrier, coaching in talent-rich Florida, not remote Oregon, was playing with a decked more favorably stacked than Kelly ever has. But more importantly, Kelly’s offenses were unstoppable when he coached at New Hampshire without any recruiting edge, and his success at Oregon happened immediately, even before Oregon truly became the nouveau riche of college football.

In 2006, the Ducks ranked 18th in offensive SRS; in 2007, Kelly’s first season, the Oregon offense was outstanding, hitting the 48-point mark six times. Oregon was 7-6 in 2006, but rose to #2 in the country in 2007 with Kelly as the offensive coordinator. When star quarterback Dennis Dixon went down, Oregon slumped, losing three straight games, including any ugly shutout loss against UCLA. But in the Sun Bowl, the Ducks rebounded by scoring 56 points, and finished the year 3rd in offensive SRS. In 2008, Oregon ranked 2nd with a junior college transfer at quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli) and Legarrette Blount leading the charge. In 2009, Kelly was promoted to head coach.  His first game was an unmitigated disaster; by the end of the season, his team again ranked second with Masoli and a new star, LaMichael James, teaming up to give Oregon one of college football’s most feared atacks. In 2010, the offense was even better and topped the 600-point mark despite having to integrate a new quarterback (Darron Thomas) into the offense; the Ducks ended the season in the national championship game. Last year, Oregon scored 645 points, and this year, with another freshman quarterback (Mariota) and no LaMichael James, the offense looks better than ever.

Kelly’s offenses have been nothing short of incredible, with many changing parts and often less-than elite recruits. Could you say something similar about Steve Spurrier? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make the two comparable any more than being a fast, black quarterback makes Cam Newton cut from the same cloth as Vince Young. Tanier unfairly glosses over Kelly’s “incredible leadership and management skills” and his unconventional-but stats-nerd-approved decision making. That’s the key: Kelly is a creative and intelligent football mind, the exact type of person that should be able to succeed in a league that tolerates strategists like Pat Shurmur and Marvin Lewis.

So I went to grab Harbaugh by the neck and...

The Oregon offenses are famous for their tempo, and that’s a style that Kelly could bring to the NFL regardless of the specific plays he calls. An up-tempo attack makes it difficult for defenses to substitute and tires out a defense, making life easy for an offense. If you think that sounds like a successful recipe in the NFL, you’re right. In 1978, another college coach had the 5th ranked offense that many described as gimmicky, but Bill Walsh turned out to be a pretty good NFL coach, too. Sure, Walsh learned under Paul Brown and had NFL experience, but that didn’t make his offense less controversial at the time.

Kelly has lightning fast practices and has his teams well-trained for games. Does that not sound like something that could translate into the NFL? On HBO’s Hard Knocks we saw Miami coach Joe Philbin running up-tempo, fast offenses, and the world did not suddenly end. Kelly’s approaches to running a practice and developing players are creative and intelligent, and there’s no reason to think his style wouldn’t work in the NFL. More importantly, what we’ve seen from Kelly is that he’s spotted inefficiencies in the collegiate market — lack of depth at most schools, focusing on large playbooks over conditioning, etc. — and exploited them. No one doubts that there are many inefficiencies in a league where Norv Turner and Mike Tice will coach on ad infinitum, and Kelly seems as capable of any coaching candidate as exploiting them. That’s what Belichick has done for a decade.

But the bigger question isn’t ‘whether or not Kelly will fail’ because ultimately most coaches do. Rex Ryan was the toast of the town two years ago, reaching the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, and now seems on his way out the door. Tom Coughlin may be the single best coach in professional football, and Giants fans have wanted him fired for long stretches of his career. After awhile, every coach becomes a failure. Andy Reid is learning that lesson quite painfully in 2012.

Instead, the real question is whether Kelly is a better option than what’s behind door number 1 (NFL retread) or door number 2 (NFL hotshot assistant). Are those doors any safer? Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden may be available — or may not be available — but history is littered with successful coaches who failed the second time around — and remember, no coach has ever won Super Bowls with two different teams. Are Wade Phillips, Andy Reid, Jason Garrett, or Norv Turner the type of coaches that would make you feel more comfortable hiring than Kelly? Eric Mangini, Raheem Morris, Hue Jackson or Jack Del Rio?

The other main option is to go the hotshot coordinator route, which might leave you salivating over Rob Ryan and Ray Horton, who have coached strong, aggressive defenses in Dallas and Arizona, but have no experience as the top dog. Kyle Shanahan is doing a nice job in Washington with Robert Griffin III and Mike McCoy is succeeding with Peyton Manning in Denver, but does that make them safe bets? Perry Fewell is the Giants defensive coordinator and is well-respected, but does that make him a safe bet?

Few elements of football are more art than science than the hiring of a head coach. The options always come with bright red flags. College coaches aren’t even in the same league as NFL coaches, young coordinators have never shown the ability to lead, and retreads have already proven that they can fail. The skills needed to make a person a great position coach or a great coordinator often have little overlap with what is needed of a head coach. And while it’s true that the skills needed to make a great college coach a great NFL coach are different as well, criticism of Kelly as ‘just a college coach’ is short-sighted. You can’t pluck the next Bill Walsh off of Craigslist. Kelly is smart, creative, and a proven winner. He can bring a level of clarity to an otherwise dysfunctional organization. To me, he’s the most attractive option out there for the half-dozen or so teams that will need a new coach in 2013.

  • Richie

    One minor nitpick, that might be irrelevant, since I don’t really know much about the intracacies of recruiting:

    Spurrier, coaching in talent-rich Florida, not remote Oregon, was playing with a decked more favorably stacked than Kelly ever has.

    Oregon does a ton of recruiting in California. It looks like there are 45 players from California on their roster this year (I have no idea how much those guys contribute.).

    This makes me think, though. Has anybody done or seen a study showing how effective various schools are at recruiting players from their local areas? It seems (anecdotally, as a frustrated UCLA fan) that there are lots of southern California high school players who end up playing college ball in other areas.

    • Chase Stuart

      I probably didn’t make it clear, but that was the point. It’s a lot easier to recruit locally, and Oregon can’t do that. The Ducks lose a ton of recruits to USC, and a good amount to UCLA and Cal. In Florida and Texas, it’s incredibly easy to recruit. For the most part, that’s the case at USC, too. Ohio State also has it pretty good.

      But when you’re coaching in Oregon, you don’t get that luxury. Obviously they’re going to California to get their recruits, but it’s nowhere near as easy as it was for Spurrier.

      ( Miami is another easy job, where the Hurricanes can basically walk around and get five star recruits, but the number of players there is several magnitudes smaller than it is for teams like the Trojans or Longhorns. In 2008, Miami signed 8 players from Miami Northwestern High School.)

  • Pablo

    N.B. When “genius” Bill Walsh returned to Stanford for his last coaching stint,they (Stanford) ended up LAST in the PAC-10 both years !