Everybody has an opinion on Chip Kelly. Some people see him as the mad genius who will lead the Philadelphia Eagles to greatness by using unconventional means that no one else has thought of to give his team an advantage. Others see him as just plain mad. While this has been the story of many great innovators — both inside and outside the world of football — there is one man who shares a lot of similarities with Kelly: Bill Walsh.
Much like Kelly, Walsh was known above all else for being a masterful offensive mind. Starting out as an assistant under Al Davis in Oakland, Walsh learned the ropes and trained on the vertical passing game that Davis had learned from his mentor Sid Gillman. Originally, Walsh favored this deep passing game just as Davis and Gillman did. This eventually changed during his time under legendary coach Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Working under Brown, Walsh invented his signature offense largely out of necessity — of not having the type of quarterback who could consistently throw the deep ball. His solution to this problem was to focus on his quarterback’s strengths (mobility, quick decision-making, and accuracy on short to intermediate passes) rather than on his weaknesses. This offense focused on these shorter passes, relying on crisp timing and understanding of every play. It utilized multiple options on each play depending on how the defense played. Sound familiar?
Similar to how Walsh had one type of offense that he later adapted to fit different personnel, Kelly has seemingly shifted from the spread-option offense he was known for at the college level.
Since coming into the NFL, Kelly has not had the type of dynamic athlete at quarterback that he would need to run his option offense. Instead of trying to cram a round peg into a square hole by making Nick Foles run the read option, Kelly simply modified his offense. Instead of basing all of his option plays and packaged plays on traditional QB/RB options, Kelly shifted the focus to short passes and bubble screens as the basis of his option offense.
With this subtle shift in focus, Kelly has rebuilt his offense into a powerful juggernaut capable of hanging with the best in the NFL. Both coaches built their offensive scheme out of necessity and then perfected these schemes by getting the players that fit the innovation perfectly. In Kelly’s case, that meant getting a strong inside runner such as DeMarco Murray and trading for Sam Bradford, who, ironically, fit well enough in both Kelly’s and Walsh’s offense.
Elliot Shorr-Parks of nj.com points out another similarity between the two coaches, “Like Kelly, Walsh entered his first head-coaching job in the NFL considered an innovative offensive mind, and he is credited with starting the ‘West Coast offense,’ a system nearly all NFL teams still use to this day. Kelly has already had an impact on the league, as his fast-paced offense, quick practices and emphasis on sports science are all starting to be copied by other teams.” While only time will tell if Kelly eventually has the long-lasting impact on the game that Walsh had, in the short term it would seem that both his offensive ideas and his way of organizing his team have had an impact on everyone else.
As Shorr-Parks quotes from MMQB’s Greg A. Bedard, “Leaping from Stanford to the 49ers in 1979, Walsh believed that his offensive scheme could make up for San Francisco’s talent shortcomings, but he quickly realized that the same could not be said on the other side of the ball.”
“In his second and third drafts … Walsh spent 14 of his 22 picks on defensive players … Likewise, in his second and third drafts with the Eagles, Kelly … spent 10 of his 13 selections on the defensive side of the ball.” Both coaches came to the realization early they needed to beef up the defensive side of the ball because their schematic genius was largely limited to the offensive side of the ball.
While the jury is still out on whether Kelly will be a flash in the pan or not, everyone can agree that Walsh was one of the all-time greats. With that being said, any comparisons between the two certainly make Kelly look better. In the end, it may very well come down to whether Kelly can match Walsh’s Super Bowl total in deciding how he will be remembered.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline