The USC head coaching search is beginning to heat up with NFL teams dropping out of the playoff hunt and college coaches positioning themselves for big raises.
When Steve Sarkisian was fired by USC in October, one name was associated with the Trojans head coaching vacancy before any other. Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly is three years into a five year deal with the Eagles, but after a 45-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, the former Oregon Ducks coach may have his wings clipped.
Last spring, Kelly was criticized for his unpredictable, if not erratic personnel moves. Those moves have not benefited Philadelphia in the win column as the Eagles currently stand 4-6 on the season. Kelly hasn’t had a losing season as a head football coach -- ever. The Eagles won 10 games in 2013 and 2014, while Kelly never won less than 10 games in a season in Eugene.
At Oregon, Kelly was 46-7, going 3-2 in bowl games. He coached in one national championship game, losing to Auburn 22-19. Kelly isn’t the type to walk away from a challenge, and after garnering influence in personnel decisions with the Eagles, several sources have a hard time seeing him returning to college willingly.
But the City of Brotherly Love may be the stage for a battle of wills. Tuesday, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said, “The momentum and signs seem to be piling up against a Chip return to Philadelphia. I think both sides are sick of each other.”
That comment can be construed as more opinion than news. But the same sources that see Kelly staying in Philadelphia also say, if there is a college job he has coveted, it’s the head coaching position at USC. There are very few potential coaching candidates for USC that have proven to be more successful at the college level than Kelly.
Like most ultra successful head coaches, Kelly has philosophical beliefs that extend beyond the football field. Pete Carroll coined the mantra, “Win Forever,” while Kelly embraced “Winning The Day.”
Kelly was 3-1 as a head coach versus USC at Oregon, outscoring the Trojans 197-141 on those days. Kelly believes culture wins football games, and there are those inside and outside of the football program that believe a change of culture is necessary at USC.
“Culture will beat scheme every day.”— Chip Kelly, Forbes Magazine
To win forever is to view success long term, while to win the day is to focus on short term goals. Two mottoes that could not be different at face value, yet both really speak to the importance of consistency on and off the football field.
Outsiders often describe the 51-year-old head coach as an introvert and reclusive. Those closer to Kelly on a day-to-day basis describe him as laid back, but full of energy and enthusiasm. While opinions vary on the enigma of Kelly, his coaching style is analytical and detail oriented.
Kelly is a coach who embraces details and dives head first into the process of building a successful football program step-by-step.
“I think too many people see too far down the road. You can talk about championships all you want. But if you don’t take care of what you are supposed to take care of today, it really doesn’t matter what your long-term goal is.
“Everybody talks about the big picture and they neglect to look at what the small picture is. It’s an accumulation of things on a daily basis that gets you to where you are a year from now.” — Chip Kelly, SJ Magazine
Kelly has been criticized in Philadelphia for choosing his system over his players. But Kelly’s system is more than just X’s and O’s, terminology and weight room mottoes. Kelly empowers his players by building trust in the simple process of improving each day, ignoring the the negative connotation that comes along with being a micromanager.
From nutrition to the relationship between veteran players and newcomers, Kelly constantly contrasts and compares results in order to streamline expectations and accountability within the locker room. In this respect, Kelly leads his teams by holding true to the process his players have a part in developing. There are no four letter laden tirades or emotional outburst meant to keep his players and staff on edge.
Kelly is positive, upbeat and hands on with his players in practice, always aware of the minutia overlooked from drill to drill. “Play the game within the game,” he says. Quarterbacks don’t just complete passes in practice, they aim to place the football directly in the wide receiver’s face mask. Kelly leads by encouraging small victories and allowing those victories to accumulate like a snowflakes on a cliff’s edge. A simple nudge in the right direction sets course an avalanche that discards detractors and buries distractions.
Kelly is a tactician, and a candidate who is truly system driven by reputation. As noted, his system goes beyond X’s and O’s, but that’s not to say Kelly does not relish strategy. Kelly’s system is the no huddle, run-spread offense. At Oregon, the offense was designed around the read option game. In Philadelphia, his system is similar to the one USC uses now.
The offense is built on running the football out of the shotgun. However, while play action fakes have the element of a zone read, the quarterback rarely runs the ball by design. The option elements of the offense are usually check down passes based on the defense’s reaction to the run fake. The Eagles haven’t had a running threat at quarterback since Nick Foles replaced Michael Vick as a starter in 2013.
Thus, it would be presumptuous to assume USC freshman quarterback Sam Darnold would start over redshirt sophomore Max Browne with Kelly as head coach. What is safe to assume is that players like Adoree Jackson, Ronald Jones and Dominic Davis would be focal points to its success.
Kelly has also made the tight end a key part of the offense, both in the screen game and vertically. Philadelphia’s favorite personnel grouping is 11 personnel. The Eagles will use some two-by-two formations, but again, Kelly will mask his personnel by using dual running backs and tight ends in the slot or even outside the hashmarks. Kelly also uses a lot of tackle over formations to disguise personnel groupings. Kelly’s offensive playbook has evolved quite a bit since his days at Oregon.
Of course, his play design is still built on the concept of forcing the defense to play 53-yards wide in space. He wants to spread the defense out and gash them with the running game. But in terms of personnel use and play calling concepts, Kelly is not married to any one way of doing things.
“We run the See Coast offense. If we see something and we like it and we think it fits, we’re going to run it. The Philadelphia Eagles run the See Coast offense. Let’s run that today and we’ll go from there.” — Chip Kelly
In his four seasons at Oregon, the Ducks scored 44.7 points per game. The Eagles are currently ranked No. 8 in yards per game; finishing No. 5 in 2014 and No. 2 in 2013. This is the first year under Kelly the Eagles are not top five in scoring.
Kelly’s exploits in the offensive side of the ball are well noted. Defensively, Oregon, like Philadelphia, has struggled to keep up. On average, Oregon ranked top five in the Pac-12 under Kelly in total defense, but often had trouble matching the physicality of teams with power run games.
To play offense at a break neck pace, Oregon’s defense was sometimes sacrificed along the way. On the field for an exorbitant amount of possessions, the Ducks would often rotate in 20-30 defenders per game. Depth, along with scheme, painted Kelly’s defense as soft. One could argue Kelly’s offense is his best defense.
Opposing teams are often forced to abandoned their offensive gameplans to keep up with the scoring barrage Kelly led teams mount. The pressure to score each possession leads to turnovers, digging the opposing team’s offense an even bigger hole.
Kelly’s teams predominately run a variety of three man defensive fonts, although the physical profile of his players on defense is more intriguing than the scheme. Oregon — then and now — recruit tall, lanky defensive lineman. While most defenses covet 300-pound plus interior defensive tackles, Kelly would often field linemen in the 6-foot-6 range at around 270-pounds. Even on offense, Oregon rarely carried more than three or four 300-pound linemen on their roster. This also played toward the perception of Kelly valuing finesse over power.
On April 16, 2013, the Oregonian reported Kelly received an 18-month show-cause penalty by the NCAA Infractions Committee.
That ruling, which would potentially limit Kelly in a recruiting capacity, expired Dec. 25, 2014 according to CBS Sports Dennis Dodd. Kelly would still have to show before the COI if he returned to college to coach, but his "failure to monitor" violation would not be considered serious enough to inhibit him as a recruiter.
Kelly seeks out a specifically kind of athlete for each position. While he may not be the gregarious salesman Steve Sarkisian was, Kelly brings his eye for detail with him in evaluating talent. Oregon could not recruit step-for-step with USC, UCLA or even Cal most years when Kelly arrived as an offensive coordinator from New Hampshire. However, he helped find players like Kiko Alonzo, Taylor Hart, Marcus Mariota, Kenyon Barner, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu etc. and plugged them into his system with great success.
One can only imagine the juggernaut Kelly could have with USC’s talent level at his disposal. And in terms of recruiting offensive skill players, Kelly’s adoption of pro-style passing concepts since entering the NFL would only help to attract more high profile players. Preparation for the league is a deciding factor among many blue chip athletes. If there was a coach that could execute the type of offense Steve Sarkisian attempted to implement at USC, it’s Chip Kelly.
Of course, that is to assume better athletes would automatically make Kelly’s offense that much more unstoppable. Kelly may very well steer away from the plethora of four and five-star recruits USC can accumulate. Kelly has strong strategic philosophies, and the best players from a rankings standpoint may not be the best players for a particular system. Just because Kelly could recruit superior talent at USC doesn’t mean he would.
Having said that, with consecutive top recruiting classes lined up, Kelly could field much deeper teams at USC. That depth, particularly on defense, could change the dynamic of his scheme. Kelly also has six coaches on his current staff that coached or played for him in college. That does not include linebacker coach Rick Minter, quarterback coach Ryan Day and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, who all have experience recruiting at major college programs in the last five years. Kelly is the only NFL coaching candidate with a staff that could transition to college immediately.
Kelly would want total control over the USC football program. The “country club atmosphere” that some Trojan football alums have been openly critical of may clash with Kelly’s attempts to establish a winning culture. USC athletic director Pat Haden, who involves himself in almost every aspect of the football team, would not be hiring Kelly to coach the team, he would be hiring him to help manage the entire program.
“I had never been a head coach before Oregon, and so when I became a head coach I asked a million questions: ‘How do you do this? How does the training room operate?’
“That wasn’t under my domain when I was the offensive coordinator. I just wanted it to be explained to me – what the protocol is for anything that can touch the football team. From there, you develop what you want and what your philosophies are going to be.” — Chip Kelly, SJ Magazine
Kelly wants accountability, and that is not limited to his football players and assistant coaches. At the same time, with Kelly’s recruiting transgressions at Oregon, USC may be hesitant to give him free reign over all football operations.
And then there is the issue of money. Kelly currently makes $6.5 million annually with the Eagles. Unless Philadelphia fires him after the season, which most sources still feel is unlikely, Kelly will require a buyout plus roughly $8 million a year to walk away from the pro game. That’s more than double what USC was paying Steve Sarkisian. USC has that money to shell out, but the Trojans haven’t come close to paying top dollar for a head coach in a major sport since Pete Carroll won back-to-back national championships.
True, USC may have to compete with the NFL for ticket sales in the near future, and eight win seasons aren’t going to pay for the Trojans’ $270 million renovations to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Defense wins championships, but a Chip Kelly led offense at USC would be draw interest from even the most passive L.A. sports fan.
Kelly did reportedly purchase a house in New Jersey a few doors down from Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford over the summer. Bradford, however, is renting and it’s doubtful he will be in Philadelphia next season. But that may be another reason why Kelly feels he can turn things around for the Eagles. With Bradford out of the picture, Kelly can pursue Colin Kaepernick, who the 49ers will trade or cut this off season. If Kaepernick isn’t appealing as a dual-threat quarterback, Robert Griffin III is languishing in Washington.
As stated before, Kelly isn’t one to run from a challenge. Even with Eagles fans calling for his resignation, he hasn’t flinched. But while challenges mount in Philadelphia, they also remain unresolved in college. Kelly fell short of winning a national championship at Oregon before going to the NFL, so unlike Pete Carroll, the college game still holds unattained goals and accomplishments.
For Kelly, it may simply come down to fit. He can give the NFL the good ole college try next season, or he can return to the college game and try to revive a familiar foe that much of the country fears as a sleeping giant. As Ken Goe, who covered Kelly’s Ducks for the Oregonian, stated before USC fired Steve Sarkisian, “I know this: Kelly becoming USC's coach is a nightmare scenario for the rest of the Pac-12.” The move would be a nightmare for USC opponents, but perhaps it's also just a dream for USC fans.