- Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
When Chip Kelly first came to the NFL, his radical – for the NFL – offense was either “genius” and was going to revolutionize the pro game, or it was a “gimmick” and the rest of the NFL would expose its flaws, depending on who you talked to.
After two seasons in which it looked like the needle was trending toward “genius,” the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense has been terrible in the first two weeks of this season, and it looks like the revolutionary system has at least one flaw.
Kelly runs the same plays, and now the Eagles’ offense is getting its butt kicked.
Consider these numbers:
- After averaging 142 yards rushing per game in Kelly’s first two seasons, the Eagles are averaging just 35 yards per game this season. Their big offseason free-agent addition, running back DeMarco Murray, has 11 yards on 21 carries in two games after leading the NFL with 1,845 yards last year. In the first halves of their two games combined, the Eagles have just 146 yards of offense, including just five yards rushing and five first downs. Their only first-half first down in Week 2 came on a penalty. Of their 23 third-down plays this season, the Eagles’ average yards-to-gain is 8.1. The Eagles have no first downs this season on third downs with four or more yards to go to gain a first down.
Now some are starting to think that Kelly’s unconventional, up-tempo offense is too simple.
Eagles offense: H-back off the line, inside zone away; tight-end on the line, sweep towards the TE. WRs adjust splits, pass. Rinse, repeat.
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 20, 2015
Right tackle Lane Johnson seemed to echo this after the Week 2 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, calling the offense “one-dimensional.”
“Maybe from a scheme-wise, we need to switch some things up,” Johnson told the media, via Philly.com. “Maybe they are catching up to us … We were just … one-dimensional.”
This actually shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who know Kelly’s system well. While a coach at the University of Oregon, Kelly gave a talk on his offense at a coaching clinic and explained that his running game – the key to his offense – has just four plays.
“This past season, we finished second in the country in rushing the football,” Kelly said. “We average 6.2 yards per carry. We have four running plays. We run the inside zone, outside zone, counter, and draw.”
These are the four plays he’s talking about:
The draw is a run up the middle.The inside-zone runs are simply runs to the right or left that have the running back targeting a spot between two linemen. On these plays, the linemen typically just block whomever is in front of them.The outside-zone runs are similar to the inside-zone runs, but the back runs outside of the linemen and toward the sideline. Linemen shift outside, trying to stay between the defender and the sideline, but still block whomever is in front of them. The counter is a run play that looks like a zone run to one side, but the back runs to the opposite, typically following a guard who is “pulling” from the original side to the intended target area for the back.
This last one is the only tricky run play in Kelly’s offense. Here’s an example from his days at Oregon, via YouTube user Charles Fischer. In this case, it looks like a standard inside-zone run to the (their) right, but the right guard pulls into the open hole on the left and the back follows:
Kelly went on to explain that the reason for so few plays is that it gives the players a better chance to perfect them.
“If your players have not run that play in a critical situation over a thousand times in practice, you will not have a chance to be successful,” Kelly added. “With our inside-zone play, we get so much practice time and so many reps that we can handle all the other scenarios that come about. Instead of trying to outscheme your opponent, put your players in an environment where they can be successful because they understand exactly what they have to do.”
It’s the classic thinking of many great coaches, including Vince Lombardi and John Wooden. As long as their teams did their jobs, it didn’t matter what the opponent did.
But that’s not working with the Eagles.
Part of the problem could be the talent gap, the one that exists in college but disappears in the modern NFL. The number of advantages an offense has over a defense is minimal, and it doesn’t help when Kelly decides to do things like cut All-Pro guard Evan Mathis this past offseason.
The opportunities for an offensive line to simply overpower the defensive line is minimized at the NFL level, as was evidenced Sunday with Murray.
Also notice on that play that the Cowboys linebackers’ first move is toward the line of scrimmage. One reason Kelly is so adamant about his running game is that he believes his plays set up situations where there are more blockers than defenders.
“The inside-zone play is a great equalizer,” Kelly explained at the coaching clinic. “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.”
But when the linebackers are keyed to the run from the start, that advantage no longer exists, linebackers run free, and Murray is getting blown up in the backfield.
Kelly insists that the problem is still just “execution” and “coaching,” but the Eagles are 0-2 and have looked completely outmatched in both games. If things don’t turn around this season, the grumblings will get louder from those who feel Kelly’s style won’t work in the NFL.