The Diff: Coveted Chip Kelly brings Moneyball style to NFL

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about some Browns storylines heading into Week 1. Now, I’m writing about the NFL’s latest fad and one of my favorite topics ever: Chip Kelly.

The Diff

Jan. 5-6, 2013: A crazy weekend in Browns news. The next Monday, the WFNY crew congregated for a roundtable to reflect on what exactly just happened. In the end, University of Oregon football coach Chip Kelly had indeed bolted for the NFL, but chose the Philadelphia Eagles instead of Cleveland or elsewhere. I was pretty decimated; not only because I was on Twitter alert for 16 hours a day for naught, but because the much-coveted Chip Kelly had gone elsewhere. My favorite football coach wouldn’t be coaching my favorite team.

That weekend, I had one backup focus to all of the Twitter news and latest “reports” from the negotiating dinner tables in Arizona: Absorb everything possible about one Chip Kelly. A tweet, an article, an essay, a profile, whatever it was, I planned on reading it. I took in as much as I possibly could and quickly drafted over 1,000 words on a piece titled “Myths and Facts: Tying up the loose ends on Chip Kelly”. It was also for naught, and I was forced instead to write that weekend about Brett Myers and the 2013 NBA Draft. Now, I’ll share some of those remnants.

That January week, the Browns were said to have interviewed eventual Bills coach Doug Marrone, eventual Bears coach Marc Trestman and many, many others. That Friday, they eventually shocked the region when they announced Rob Chudzinski as the new head coach. Yet one name remained on the minds of many Northeast Ohio fans as a lost opportunity in Cleveland: Chip Kelly.

Fast forward eight months, just after another woeful Browns loss, and the Eagles are playing their opening game on Monday Night Football against the reigning NFC East champs. Their electric first half takes over Twitter and the NFL community by storm: Philadelphia ran a shocking 53 plays in 30 minutes en route to a 26-7 lead. Eventually, they held on for the 33-27 victory over the Washington Redskins. They ran just 77 plays in the game, slowing down their frenetic pace in the second half.

Background of success

To know 49-year-old Chip Kelly’s current status as NFL innovator and the latest to shun Cleveland, it’s relevant to share his history as an elite coaching prospect. He started out as a high school quarterback, University of New Hampshire cornerback and high school offensive coordinator. Then, he jumped around various mostly defensive-oriented assistant coaching jobs in East Coast colleges, proving he isn’t just a offense-only coach.

Throughout all these years, he soaked up all of the information he could. He would attend clinics, information sessions and conferences to learn from anyone he could. He added bits and pieces of information into his coaching footprint from dozens and dozens of places. Then, in 2007, after multiple record-breaking seasons as the New Hampshire coach, he got his first “big” break to become Mike Bellotti’s offensive coordinator at Oregon. When Bellotti became the athletic director in 2009, Kelly was promoted to head coach.

The Eagles website Iggles Blitz had a great breakdown last December of Kelly’s track to being the one that other coaches sought out for advice. And these weren’t just ordinary coaches: This was Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll. Some NFL and collegiate champs, some of the best in the business. His up-tempo non-stop offense quickly gained a reputation, leading to a major Pete Thamel New York Times article in 2010.

But to say Kelly designed the first fast-paced offense isn’t exactly accurate. A 2008 Rivals article breaks down how an even more extreme Arkansas high school sought out a computerized system for various football odds. It resulted in a team-wide decision to avoid punting at all times. This was a team that was causing headaches for its opponents for years, albeit less popularized than Kelly’s success in Oregon, and before that, New Hampshire and elsewhere. More on this math-based approach to football later.

Running-based attack

NFL fans received their introduction to Chip Kelly’s offensive style in the Eagles’ shocking win on Monday night. The damage: a career-high 31 carries for LeSean McCoy for 184 yards. Overall, Philadelphia ran on 49 of those 77 plays, preferring a even more conservative style in the second half with the lead. DeSean Jackson also had an impressive game with seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.

The Oregon football analysis website Fish Duck had a very intricate multi-part tutorial series on the team’s spread offense last year. In these various photos and videos, based on reports from the team itself, one can see the multi-look running plays that were a focus of the Ducks’ multi-year success in college football. The Inside and Outside Zone Read were the basic initial building blocks.

Below, one can see a chart of Oregon’s offensive statistics during Kelly’s six years on staff. The 2007-2008 seasons were as offensive coordinator and the final four were as the head coach:

chip kelly oregon

One can note how in 79 total games, Oregon ran 75.6 plays from scrimmage per game. Of those plays, nearly 62% were running plays. No NFL team has exceeded a rate of 54% running plays over the past three seasons. The Ducks also averaged 5.94 yards per these carries, which was right on par with what the Eagles accomplished on Monday night. These teams were built on running the football — not exceptionally so per se with the quarterback, despite public opinion — and accurate passing.

In September 2012, The Oregonian’s Adam Jude wrote on the team’s breakneck speed and the records it was setting. Once, Kelly even called the offense merely “adequate” despite seven scores in seven series in the first quarter. That’s quite similar to what he was saying to the media after his NFL debut about the team playing too slow. No matter what, he’s always pushing for a faster and faster offensive pace.

College controversy

Yet, of course, Chip Kelly’s high-profile success wasn’t without some varied controversy. The negatives began mostly with Yahoo! Sports investigative report in March 2011 that shared how the program had paid over $28,000 for an eventually unsuccessful recruiting pitch. The Yahoo! crew followed up with more details that July.

A shadow then lasted over the final years of Kelly’s college days. Many felt it was just a matter of time before he made the more profitable leap to the NFL. A December 2012 Willamette Weekly article shared how boosters were never happy with his presence on campus. Kelly was never much into the pomp and circumstance required of a collegiate head coach: Fundraising, public appearances, socializing in general, etc.

Kelly made his leap for the NFL in January. Then in late June, over 27 months after the initial report, Oregon learned the penalties of the NCAA investigation: No bowl ban, three years probation, only one fewer scholarship and an inconsequential 18-month show-cause penalty for Kelly. It was considered a win for the university, and likely won’t ever affect Kelly again, but still will casually hang over his legacy such as Belichick’s Spygate.

Existing NFL influence

Here’s the part where many analysts diverged in discussing the “blur” offense creator’s future impact in the NFL: Was it too gimmicky? In a short synopsis: Absolutely not and it already existed, in pieces, in the NFL’s innovative offensive schemes of the last few years.

Chris Brown had two articles in 2012 about this exact topic — one at Smart Football alone in April and another at Grantland via Smart Football in November. In the first one, he shared some history of the no-huddle offense and that it was a “no-brainer” for it to explode soon in the NFL. Colleges were being far more innovative in this regard, a topic he featured more in his Chip Kelly profile over at Grantland. This article shared how the offense was “more familiar than it seems” with only a few basic formations and that Kelly’s NFL success was eventually inevitable.

The Boston Globe’s Greg A. Bedard wrote in October 2012 how the Patriots were using just one word to spark their no-huddle formations led by quarterback Tom Brady. Who else could have been the innovator of this? Kelly, who was called a “genius” by an NFL veteran. Again, Kelly’s footprint was all over Belichick’s historic success, a coach who was one of many to eventually seek out Kelly’s advice.

Chip Kelly’s future

Those fourth down calls epitomize Kelly’s aggressiveness but what the average football fan doesn’t realize is that Chip’s play-calls (the fourth down tries, fake punts, two-point conversions, etc.) are almost always the correct mathematical decision. Like Paul DePodesta and Billy Beane did in baseball, Kelly’s genius comes from exploiting arithmetic that other coaches are too naïve to acknowledge.

Tim Livingston’s November article for The Post Game sparked my initial math-related interest in Kelly. In it, more mathematical systems are introduced and expanded upon, the ones I shared being used for an Arkansas high school earlier. Much like what the A’s, Bill James and Baseball Prospectus did in the baseball world, this mathematical program estimated the impact every possible football play had on the probability of a win for a given team.

For many, the Chip Kelly stereotype featured a gimmick offense revolving around a mobile QB and a faster-paced version of the spread offense. But Livingston showed this was not the case. It was all based on math and win probabilities. My brother Adam was the one who intitially forwarded over that Livingston article. Knowing me so well and my affinity for math and Moneyball-esque revolutions, Adam’s comment was: “His math will revolutionize the NFL… hopefully for the Browns!”

That didn’t happen. In the end, Chip Kelly decided upon the Eagles and not the Browns. For one, it might be easier to point out how the personnel was likely a deciding factor. Running back LeSean McCoy is a more shifty and explosive back, like the Oregon sprintsters, as opposed to workhorse Trent Richardson. Mike Vick has proven to be an NFL star and the Eagles defense, despite its poor 2012 performance, also had proven in the past to be somewhat successful. This was going to be Kelly’s show and the players seemed to promote more early success.

While I think the Eagles will eventually fade to a mediocre yet exciting 7-9 or 8-8 this season, it will only be the catapult for a long track record of NFL success for Chip Kelly. It’s just bound to happen. Peter King noted at The MMQB how the Eagles’ Week 1 numbers did indeed mirror the Oregon numbers I shared above. It’s all going according to script. And most importantly for Chip Kelly, that began with a win, too.