Before the second play of his first NFL game, Philadelphia’s new head coach, Chip Kelly, a man who made his reputation as the architect of college football’s most prolific offense — the Oregon Ducks’ fast-break, spread-it-out attack — did the unthinkable: He had his team huddle. He followed this with another knee-weakening moment: His quarterback, Michael Vick, lined up under center, an alignment from which the Eagles ran a basic run to the left. For 31 other NFL teams, this would be as ho-hum as it gets. But this is Chip Kelly, he of the fast practices, fast plays, and fast talking. By starting out this way, Kelly, who repeatedly has said he doesn’t do anything without a sound reason behind it, was no doubt sending some kind of message to fans, pundits, and opposing coaches waiting anxiously to see what a Chip Kelly offense would look like at the professional level. It was a message that was unmistakable: See, I can adapt to the NFL.
At least that’s what I thought at first. But after studying Philadelphia’s game against New England, I came away with almost the exact opposite conclusion: While there were clear differences from what Kelly’s system looked like at Oregon, his Eagles offense looked a lot more like the Ducks offense than I ever anticipated.
Preseason game plans are often described as being “vanilla,” and rightly so. The ostensible purpose of the preseason — other than as an opportunity to put more football on TV, which I’m not complaining about — is to evaluate talent as rosters get cut to 53 and players compete for starting spots. Given that preseason football is essentially practice with game uniforms, there is no incentive for a team to reveal its intentions for when the real games begin.
Yet in these vanilla preseason plans often lies some basic truth about a team’s identity. In the regular season, the plan will be carefully tailored to the specific strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of that week’s opponent; in the preseason, the plan is stripped to focus only on the most basic, foundational concepts installed in the first few days of camp — the elements the coaches have decided are so essential that a player who cannot master them cannot be on the team.
And so, at the risk of sounding like Vincenzo Coccotti, Michael Vick may have said the Eagles only used about “a third” of their total scheme, but what Philadelphia did was show a lot about how Kelly and his staff will approach bringing his offense to the NFL. More than anything else, Kelly showed that he’s not leaving behind what worked for him at Oregon.
For years, Kelly’s teams have been synonymous with one word: speed. Speed on the field, in practice, and, most famously, in how often they run plays. Known for a blistering, unrelenting pace, Kelly’s teams at Oregon were perceived to have simply exhausted opponents, causing missed tackles and blown assignments as defenses cried out for help. This isn’t devoid of truth, but the idea that Kelly’s teams always went at warp speed has been overblown, and since he became head coach of the Eagles, the myth that Kelly would go into every game trying to run as many plays as possible has been treated as established fact.
“It will be a weapon for us and a tool in our toolbox,” Kelly said of the fast-paced no-huddle after the game, according to the team’s website. Even at Oregon, Kelly’s offense had not one but three speeds: red light (slow), yellow light (medium: team gets to the line but quarterback can slow it down and change plays), and green light (superfast: get to the line and run the play). Good defenses will adapt to any pace, but a good no-huddle — whether it’s Kelly’s Eagles, Peyton Manning’s Broncos, or Tom Brady’s Patriots — will vary the speed, using it strategically, waiting to put its foot on the gas pedal precisely when the defense has the wrong personnel stuck on the field.
Against the Patriots, the Eagles didn’t use a lot of their superfast tempo, but when they did it was effective. About midway through Vick’s first drive, the Eagles sped up the pace after a 22-yard completion to Jason Avant, and two plays later Vick hit DeSean Jackson streaking down the right sideline for a touchdown. After the game, Vick talked about how the Patriots had been trying to disguise their coverages, but the quick tempo helped force the Patriots safeties to show that Jackson would be single-covered.
Later in the half, the 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive led by Nick Foles took just more than four minutes of real-world clock. Despite some hand-wringing about whether NFL referees would acquiesce to Kelly’s preferred pace, his tempos — whether fast or slow — looked a lot like at Oregon, with similar results.
In the preseason, a team can limit its formations, personnel groupings, and even its choice of pass patterns, but when it comes to the running game, you more or less are what you are. If you’re a zone blocking team, like the Washington Redskins or Houston Texans, you’re going to run a lot of zone-blocking plays. If you’re a straight-ahead “isolation” and “lead draw” team, like the Minnesota Vikings, that’s what you’ll see as well. There’s no point in trying to hide this; focusing on blocking schemes that won’t be emphasized during the regular season would be a waste of valuable resources.
At Oregon, Kelly’s three foundational running plays — as defined by the blocking schemes his offensive line performed, not the various backfield motions and options that can be added and subtracted throughout the year — were the inside zone, outside zone, and power. All three were used heavily against the Patriots, and they will likely form the foundation of the Eagles running game this season.
“The inside zone is our ‘go to work’ play. It has become our signature play,” Kelly said at a clinic a few years ago. “We want to get off the ball and be a physical, downhill running football team. This is not a finesse play.” It’s effectively a fancy dive play; the “zone” element refers to the specific reads and footwork of the offensive line as it determines who is double-teaming which defensive linemen and who will slide up to block the linebackers. As Kelly explained, the inside zone “is a great equalizer. We are double-teaming a defensive lineman with a mathematical idea behind it. We have four legs and he has two legs, so we win. The zone play can be run against multiple looks by the defense.”
Although Kelly’s version of the inside zone is typically associated with the read-option element he often added to it at Oregon, against the Patriots, Philadelphia almost never asked its quarterback to read a defender and decide whether to hand off or run it on an inside zone. (Of the Eagles’ top three quarterbacks, only Matt Barkley ended up with a keeper on the inside zone read.) Instead Kelly relied on other complementary tactics to make the play go. The first was his other bread-and-butter inside run, power, which asks the linemen on the play side to block down and double-team the defensive linemen, while a backside guard pulls around and leads up on the linebacker.
Kelly has long added a misdirection element to his version of power by offsetting the running back to the side the play is headed. By doing this, Kelly’s power, with its down blocks and the runner crossing in front of the quarterback, looks to the defense exactly like his inside zone, only going the other way. That is until the pulling guard appears, and then it’s too late. Oregon dropped 47 points on a USC defense orchestrated by current Seattle head coach Pete Carroll with this simple adjustment.
Along with inside zone and power, Kelly’s teams also have the outside zone. “If we start to get many twists and blitzes on the inside, we run the outside zone play,” Kelly said at the same clinic. “The blocking rules for the offensive line are the same as the inside zone. The difference is the aiming point of the offensive linemen. Who we block is the same, but how we block is the difference on the outside zone.” To oversimplify, if the inside zone is like a drive-blocked dive play, the outside zone is a “reach”-blocked sweep. It’s also a sweep with a wrinkle: Kelly’s team isn’t actually trying to get the runner to the edge. Instead, it’s trying to get the defense to overreact and stretch to the sideline, thus creating straight-ahead creases for the runner.
The Eagles didn’t hit any big plays against the Patriots on the outside zone, but it did give rise to the most “Oregon” play I saw on Kelly’s opening night. After I wrote about defending the read-option on Grantland, I got a text from a coach at a BCS school who said he couldn’t “wait until NFL teams start reading the linebackers and 1 and 3-techniques. Ha.” In other words, while almost all read-option plays in the NFL last fall involved a quarterback reading a defensive end, any front-seven defensive player can be the focus of a read, something Kelly has been doing for years.
In their first drive — sandwiched between Vick’s completions to Avant down the middle and to Jackson on the touchdown — the Eagles combined the outside zone with a read of the Patriots’ “shade,” or one-technique, Vince Wilfork. Kelly did this because blocking that defender is very difficult, not only because it’s Wilfork, but also because the guard has to get his head all the way around a defender lined up to his inside. NFL teams traditionally blocked this defender on the outside zone by cutting him, a controversial technique made famous by the Denver Broncos of the 1990s with Terrell Davis. Kelly frequently has his quarterback read this defender, thus eliminating a block many players consider dirty by avoiding the need to block Wilfork at all.
Although this is a read-option play, and the quarterback could keep it himself, it’s a relatively safe concept because he will only keep the ball if the shade totally vacates his area, ensuring the quarterback five yards before he’s even touched. Note in the clip above how the left tackle immediately releases for the weakside linebacker while the guard is the one who kicks out the defensive end.
Of course, other than wrinkles like reading Wilfork, the inside zone, outside zone, and power are foundational run plays every NFL team uses. For now, I’m looking for clues as to how Kelly is going to assemble his offense, especially since he has said repeatedly that he doesn’t need a mobile quarterback to make it go. Maybe the biggest clue was the concept he ran more than any other against New England — inside runs packaged with outside receiver screens.
Although not all the Eagles quarterbacks are fleet-footed, whoever ends up the starter will be required to make quick decisions and efficiently distribute the ball to a variety of weapons; in a reply to a question from ESPN’s Todd McShay about who would be his ideal quarterback, Kelly’s response was Rajon Rondo. If the game against the Patriots is any indication, one of the ways in which Kelly will have his quarterback play point guard is by combining run plays with passing and screen concepts, and asking his quarterbacks — sometimes before the snap, sometimes after — to get the ball to the right player.
This concept, known in coaching circles as “packaged” or “combo” plays, resulted in two of the Eagles’ three touchdowns against the Patriots (one run, one pass) and was especially useful when the Eagles went to their fastest no-huddle tempo. The idea behind the play, like so many of Kelly’s concepts, is basic arithmetic: If the defense doesn’t put two defenders over the outside receivers, the quarterback will throw a quick screen that direction; if they do line up those defenders outside, the offense should have favorable numbers to run the ball inside.
There’s nothing revolutionary here, and Eagles fans shouldn’t pin the success of the offense on Greg Salas’s ability to make two defenders miss every time. (Though DeSean Jackson could be a different story.) But such combination plays were a central feature both in the first preseason game and in Kelly’s game plans at Oregon. Current 49ers coaches Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio gave up 52 points to Kelly while at Stanford, as Oregon repeatedly used this concept to stretch out the Cardinal’s defense. This is read-option football for quarterbacks who can’t run the read-option.
Formations and Personnel
Kelly’s offenses at Oregon were known for throwing a variety of formations at defenses, looking for any mismatch or numbers advantage he could find. It’s clear that formation variety was one victim of a limited preseason game plan. But there were still lessons, most notably how Kelly used his tight ends.
Against the Patriots, Kelly weaved in and out of formations that split two, three, or four receivers wide, but all with the same or similar personnel. The players who are going to make this possible are tight ends Brent Celek, James Casey, and Zach Ertz, all of whom rotated lining up as tight ends, as slot receivers, and even in the backfield. The purpose of doing this is to force the defense to declare how they are going to match up — by either putting in an extra defensive back or using traditional linebackers. This allows the Eagles to react accordingly. Kelly frequently split his tight ends out wide in the “stacked” four-wide formation to block on the combo inside run/outside screen play described already.
With Jeremy Maclin’s injury, the Eagles are no doubt desperate for other players to step up and make plays, and the player who most looks like the real deal — other than Jackson and LeSean McCoy, who will remain the focal points of the offense — is second-year running back Bryce Brown. One of the most highly touted high school runners in the last decade, he had an essentially nonexistent college career, bouncing between Tennessee and Kansas State while rumors swirled about his relationships with various “handlers.” Now in the NFL, Brown shows a burst and explosion that can’t be coached, and it’s clear Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will heavily feature the running backs in the passing game. That said, it appeared (without knowing the exact protection call) that Brown missed more than one pass protection assignment, something he’ll have to fix if he wants to share the load with McCoy.
While most of the analysis about whether Kelly’s offense would translate to the NFL focused on the no-huddle, the read-option, or even spread formations, my biggest concern has always been how his passing game would fare in the league. And this summer Ron Jaworski gave a big fat “no” when asked whether Kelly’s passing offense would work in the NFL, primarily because he didn’t see any “NFL passing concepts.”
Although I agree that Kelly’s passing game remains the biggest question mark about whether his offense will work in Philadelphia, my concern wasn’t that he lacked NFL passing concepts at Oregon. It was about how they were being taught. Some of this can be credited to the fact that Kelly only had talented passers in his first and last seasons at Oregon — first with Dennis Dixon and then last season with freshman Marcus Mariota. Still, Oregon’s passing game never struck me as particularly crisp. The concepts were there — including NFL staples like snag/scat, four verticals, drive, and cross — but Kelly’s quarterbacks rarely took a true drop, instead just shuffling in place, and all too often the timing and precision of the passing game was off. Despite the record numbers his offense put up, one always got the sense that without the impressive running game and dynamic overall design, Kelly’s Ducks would be an average passing team.
In this context, however, Kelly’s seemingly odd hires of Shurmur, quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, and wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell, who each have years of NFL experience coaching the passing game, make a lot more sense — Kelly was hiring to his weaknesses. His staff’s influence and an improvement in Kelly’s passing game were evident against New England.
Somewhat surprisingly, I didn’t see the Eagles run any passing plays that Kelly didn’t also use at Oregon — each Philly quarterback threw snag with backside double slants, for example — but it’s clear the Eagles staff has been drilling the quarterbacks and receivers on footwork, timing, and the other little details necessary to complete just about any pass in the NFL. Philadelphia’s passing game actually looked better than its running game against New England.
That said, it’s still far too early to level any judgment on how good the Eagles passing offense will be. The number and variety of coverages and blitzes will jump from preseason to the real games, and the Eagles’ emphasis on giving receivers the flexibility to adjust their routes on the fly means that it will take weeks of study for any outsider — including Philly’s opponents — to get an accurate handle on what they are being asked to do and how well they are doing it. I’m not ready to declare the Eagles passing game a success (let them at least pick a quarterback first), but it’s clear Kelly is trying to address my biggest concern, namely the basic fundamentals of throwing and catching the football.
“If you weren’t in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne,” Kelly said in January at his Fiesta Bowl news conference, “you stole it from somebody else.” Kelly’s probably right, and it’s with that in mind that I say whatever he does in Philadelphia won’t revolutionize the NFL. You can’t tell from one preseason game whether Kelly’s offensive attack will succeed at this level, and given the turnover in the Eagles’ personnel, it’s quite possible it could take more than a season to truly know.
In the short run the Eagles’ focus will be on identifying their best personnel, perfecting those simple concepts Kelly’s already shown, and intelligently adding new ones through the year. Both Kelly and Eagles GM Howie Roseman have talked about this season being about establishing a program for the long term and finding building blocks for success. And, at least in the limited sense of offensive design, it looks to me like Kelly’s already got his foundation.