Thursday saw the music stop on the league's annual game of coaching musical chairs, and the most intriguing development was unquestionably San Francisco's decision to give former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly their top job. It's a pairing of both a head coach and a franchise who each looked like they were among the best in all of football as recently as two years ago and who now -- at least in some circles -- are regarded as laughingstocks. The 49ers got their man. Now they just need to figure out if he's the right one.
You don't need me to tell you that this is a fascinating mix of egos and skill sets. Both Kelly and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke do some aspects of their jobs very well and others, not so much. They've each been accused of running off significant assets: Baalke is blamed for the departure of Jim Harbaugh to Michigan, and Kelly shipped off a number of good Eagles players over the last few offseasons. They each would probably grimace and make an awkward face if you ask them about what happened in 2015.
It's 2016, now, though, and the idea that Kelly and the 49ers are doomed from the start is misguided. In truth, we know very little about whether a head coach will succeed on the day he's hired, and while both sides in this relationship have their flaws, there are plenty of reasons to think that this could be the right decision for the 49ers. To have that faith, we must first dispel a number of myths surrounding Kelly, the 49ers organization and how the two will interact from Day 1. Which is today.
Let's run through the four negative storylines that don't add up when it comes to Kelly in San Francisco:
Myth No. 1: Chip Kelly's run in Philadelphia proved that he isn't a good NFL coach.
I recently wrote about this argument during Kelly's dying days in Philadelphia. The idea that Kelly has been found out as some sort of scam artist is absurd. The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, but we don't have to look into ancient history to see how successful Kelly has been in his nascent professional career. At a basic level, he took over a 4-12 team and finished 26-21 with the Eagles, producing two winning seasons in three years.
The followup argument is usually that Kelly failed to win a playoff game during his time in Philadelphia, which is an absurd standard to use in determining whether a head coach is any good. Do you know who else didn't win a playoff game during his first three seasons as a head coach? Bill Belichick, who started his head coaching career with three consecutive losing seasons in charge of the Browns. Future Super Bowl winners like Don Shula, Dick Vermeil, Chuck Noll and Mike Shanahan also failed to win a playoff game during their first three seasons at the helm of an NFL team. It's a meaningless indicator of whether a head coach is going to be any good, especially if that coach is winning regular-season games.
In reality, Kelly won nearly nine games per season (8.9) with a motley crew of quarterbacks, including Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford and Matt Barkley. Those guys aren't exactly world-beaters. And Kelly might have a better quarterback waiting for him in San Francisco.
Myth No. 2: Colin Kaepernick is washed up as an NFL quarterback.
Speaking of "What have you done for me lately?" recency bias brings us to San Francisco, where in just 21 months, Colin Kaepernick went from being one pass away from back-to-back Super Bowl trips as recently as January 2014 all the way to benched for Blaine Gabbert. And then Gabbert outplayed him. You can spin a narrative where Kaepernick emerged with a great running game, a dominant defense and an incredible head coach running an unfamiliar zone-read scheme in 2012 and then slowly saw his talents fade like he was living out a football "Flowers for Algernon."
Again, though, you can't just write off the past as totally irrelevant. The idea that teams somehow discovered Kaepernick's fatal flaws on film like he was a pitcher tipping his curveball is absurd and doesn't match up with how defenses actually attack quarterbacks. If Kaepernick was a ticking time bomb waiting to be found out by a smart enough coach, he wouldn't have flummoxed Belichick in December of 2012, or nearly beaten the Ravens when they had two weeks to break him down before the Super Bowl, or stomped on the Packers after an entire offseason of tape in Week 1 of 2013.
Defenses did grow more comfortable in attacking the read-option, and it's unlikely that Kaepernick will ever again run roughshod over a defense like he did when he annihilated the Packers in the 2012 playoffs, but the Chiefs, Seahawks and Panthers all manage to incorporate the zone-read into their offenses right now, and they're doing just fine.
Kaepernick is the first quarterback besides Vick that Kelly has had who can genuinely threaten teams as a runner. Vick wasn't even that good a runner in Kelly's scheme; despite his obvious athleticism, Vick had little experience executing the zone-read and regularly failed to make the correct choice during his brief time as the starter in 2013. The Eagles looked like a team whose was quarterback was reading a defender at the mesh point on their running plays during the Foles and Bradford eras, but the runs were rarely ever plays where the quarterback was going to pull the ball and keep it as a runner. If a defense doesn't have to respect the QB's willingness to run at all, the concept is simply less effective.
It's also bizarre to suggest that Kaepernick was unplayable in 2014. He did take a step backward from where he had been in the previous two years, but he was a totally justifiable choice at quarterback. He finished 15th in Total QBR, which includes his considerable value as a runner, with a figure of 60.0. That mark wasn't subject to a second-half decline, either; Kaepernick was actually 11th in Total QBR (at 62.2) over the final eight weeks of the year.
So, what did go wrong for Kaepernick? As is often the case, it was a combination of several factors coming together to cause him trouble. His offensive line, once the best in football, decayed badly from its peak of 2011-13, frequently leaving Kaepernick to run his way out of pressure. His sack rate jumped from 7.9 percent before 2014 to 10.0 percent afterwards. As Matt Bowen noted for ESPN Insider yesterday, Kaepernick's mechanics and footwork grew inconsistent, leaving him to force throws into windows that weren't quite there. Kaepernick was also pretty banged up this year -- he has now undergone three surgeries since October. Some of that's unquestionably due to line issues.
You can argue that Kaepernick was a Harbaugh creation who was always going to look better with a great coach, and there's some truth to that, but the reality is that Kelly's also a pretty effective quarterbacks coach, given how much better players like Foles have seemed in Philadelphia than in their stops elsewhere. (That's true of Andy Reid, too.) Kelly's scheme lost some of its vibrancy this year as he relied on tried-and-true route combinations and play-calling tendencies, but freed of personnel duties, it's not difficult to imagine that Kelly might be a little more creative with his new team. Especially given the new weapon he has to work with at quarterback.
There is a possibility that Kelly could cut bait and move on from Kaepernick, with some people speculating that Kelly could go after Bradford in free agency, but that seems unlikely. Kelly kept Vick when Vick was in similarly choppy waters before the 2013 season. Kaepernick's $11.9 million base salary is guaranteed for injury, meaning that the Niners might run into a grievance if Kaepernick is unable to pass a physical before the deal fully guarantees in April. Otherwise, they can cut him now or anytime in the future with modest cap penalties. It's a team-friendly deal.
The 49ers also don't really need the cap space. They had a whopping $29 million tied up in dead money on their cap this season, thanks to the unexpected departures and retirements of players like Ray McDonald, Anthony Davis, Aldon Smith, and Chris Borland. Failed free-agent acquisitions like Shareece Wright and Darnell Dockett didn't help matters.
Next year, that won't be the case. They have less than $4 million tied up in dead money on their cap, and $3 million of that belongs to Davis, a tackle who may very well return from his one-year sabbatical. Otherwise, the 49ers can carry over $13 million in cap space from this season to add to the $39.4 million they already have free, giving them in excess of $50 million before they even have to worry about Kaepernick. With little in the way of departing talent they would be interested in re-signing -- their unrestricted free agents are past their peak (Anquan Boldin, Phil Dawson), injury-prone (Ian Williams, Reggie Bush) or disgruntled and disappointing (Alex Boone) -- the 49ers will have as much to spend as anybody in football. And they'll be able to spend it because ...
Myth No. 3: Players won't come play for Chip Kelly.
Of course, it's true that Kelly has something of a negative reputation around the league, with ex-players like LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson publicly denigrating their former head coach for moving them on. It's entirely possible that Kelly's reputation could cause a player to lean in the other direction if all other things are equal. That's not out of the question.
You know what's also true, though? Kelly had a reputation as a micromanager who pushed players through his sport science program before 2015, too, and it didn't stop him from signing a whole bunch of free agents. Granted, I'm not suggesting that the likes of DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell came in on deals that the Eagles are happy to have signed at this point, but when Kelly wanted a player, it sure looks like he was able to get him. Most players chase money and a chance to win, and again, Kelly was a winning coach during his time in Philadelphia.
Baalke, too, has had a reasonable track record in free agency. Granted, 2015 won't go down as one of his better years, given that he whiffed on Wright and Dockett and gave a large deal to Torrey Smith, who only caught 33 passes during a difficult season. That's a bad year. But it doesn't mean that Baalke is an inherently poor judge of talent in the free-agent market; remember 2011, when he went into the pool and came away with Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, and Jonathan Goodwin while buying low on re-signing Dashon Goldson. That was one of the more impactful and successful free-agent periods a general manager has had in recent memory.
The 49ers have holes, but they should be able to devote the resources they have toward some of the better talent in the free-agent pool. Kelly's not going to be making personnel decisions, but the Niners will surely go after players who fit his known preferences. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the 49ers come away from free agency with a bunch of mid- to upper-tier free agents: a group like Coby Fleener, Alshon Jeffery, Bilal Powell, Jason Pierre-Paul and Nolan Carroll won't turn the 49ers into winners overnight, but it would give them a core of veterans to fill up a roster mostly devoid of veteran talent.
Filling up the roster will take cooperation, and that may be the toughest nut of all to crack.
Myth No. 4: There's no way Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke will get along.
I'm really sure Kelly is a good football coach. I'm pretty sure Kaepernick will be a decent quarterback in his system. I think players will come play for Chip. But this is the aspect of this hire I'm most skeptical about. Kelly had personnel power a month ago, and he's ready to simply put those instincts away overnight? You'd think this could get ugly, and that isn't an issue of recency bias, either, as both Kelly and Baalke were rumored to be fighting with their internal competitors for years. It could very easily happen again.
At the same time, though, if Baalke and Kelly were really going to end up in a turf war, why would they agree to work together? It's hard to imagine that Kelly couldn't have found a head coaching job elsewhere, even if it meant taking a year off from the league. And Baalke could have found a more palatable coach, even if it meant going after Mike Shanahan, who was rumored to be the other candidate from which the 49ers were choosing.
Let me play devil's advocate for a second. Isn't it possible -- at least a tiny bit possible -- that Baalke and Kelly learned from their previous mistakes? It's easier to reduce people to caricatures, sure, but both Baalke and Kelly are regarded as reasonably smart humans. Kelly's emphasis on sport science is years ahead of the curve, and Baalke's emphasis on acquiring draft picks is hardly dissimilar from the league's model franchises.
Couldn't Baalke have seen how disastrous it was to have run off a superstar head coach and sworn to go after a highly-regarded X's and O's mind, even if it meant giving up some power? And couldn't Kelly have seen how wrong he was about his personnel evaluations in Philly this offseason and realized that he needed to take a step backwards? Indeed, reports suggest Kelly wasn't requesting personnel power this offseason.
Maybe it's all a ruse. It's possible that, by this time next year, Kelly and Baalke could literally be fighting each other in Santa Clara quicksand to take control of a moribund, barren roster. That's not impossible to imagine. After all, those two were on top of the league as models of virtue and fell abruptly to the bottom of the barrel. But it's naive to suggest they can't re-ascend just as quickly.