I apologize for what was a very quiet 2015 NFL season at the Chipwagon this past year. There are a couple reasons for that. 1) I started a new job in September and it has been pretty demanding of my time and balancing that with the family life didn't leave a lot of time left to put blog posts together. 2) Watching the 2015 season was one of the worst and most frustrating seasons I can recall watching. I realize that this was far from one of the worst seasons in Eagles history, but from beginning to end it was just so frustrating and aggravating to watch. We had lapses in execution all season long and Chip's offense that I loved so much in 2013 and 2014 just went completely stale. The truth is, there is no one reason why things didn't work out in Philadelphia. Certainly, Chip the GM, Chip's personality, the power struggle with Howie Roseman and his apparent fractured relationship with Jeff Lurie will lead the way in the headlines. Our old friend @sheilkapadia was spot on this assessment which really nicely summarized the downfall of the Kelly regime. However, to look at it from another angle, one really needs to understand that Lurie's decision was not exclusively a non-footbal decision. To put it bluntly, the Chip Kelly we fell in love with just stopped showing up on the chalkboard in 2015. The offense we saw in 2015 was a stripped down version of what we saw in 2013 and 2014 and lacked any imagination, creativity or evolution as defenses around the league continued to adjust and catch up. Furthermore, it seemed in 3 years Chip Kelly's offense lacked some of the fundamental concepts and philosophies that need to be considered and applied in the pro game. Here is my post-mortem and likely final chapter on Chip Kelly's offense.
If there is one theme that defined the 2015 season more than anything else, this was probably it. It was the constant debate over Scheme vs. Execution. Following every regular season loss, the narrative circling around post-game press conferences and interviews was execution, execution, execution. I'll get to scheme in a little bit, but I first want to talk about execution. About halfway through the season this year I was listening to Fran Duffy (@fduffy) and Greg Cosell's (@gregcosell) weekly podcast on PE.com. Greg pointed out the difference between an execution offense and a matchup offense. Essentially an "execution" offense is an offense that relies heavily on very consistent execution of the plays called. It is a scheme-based attack where you rely on strong execution from your players. Chip Kelly's offense in the NFL was an execution offense. Largely because of the tempo Chip wanted to play, his philosophy was to have a pretty constricted playbook with a gameday attack that was not really personnel-driven. If you've read this blog over the years you'll note that we covered the same concepts over and over again. In the run game, it was inside and outside zone, it was the sweep and the occasional power play. That was it. In the passing offense, we ran a lot of crossing routes, mesh concepts, levels, snag concepts, switch concepts and towards the end of the season we started to see more 3-level stretch concepts. This certainly was not one of the more complex offenses in the league. As a result, from the very beginning of Chip's tenure we saw a heavy emphasis on repetitions in training camp and practice. Essentially Chip believed, like many other old school coaches, that it doesn't matter if the defense knows what is coming, if 11 of your guys execute the play as called, it will be a positive play. Sounds great in theory, but in reality...the 11 players on the field rarely executed on a consistent basis in 2015.
One of the obvious signals for a head coach when he gets fired is when you see a lack of execution at multiple positions or levels of the team. For the 2015 Eagles, that was the issue. You couldn't pin their execution problems on one area and therefore it because harder to use the lack of talent excuse. The Eagles finished the 2015 season as the 3rd most penalized team in the NFL. The offensive line was particularly damning. Furthermore, the offense was tied for 2nd in the NFL with 31 turnovers on offense. They lead the league in drop %. Being top of the list in one or 2 of these categories can sometimes be explained, but if you review all the statistics that generally make a team "bad" you'll find the Eagles were near the top of many of those lists. This was a mistake-prone team and that falls on the head coach especially if his whole offensive attack is built around "execution"
Let's look back at a couple of examples that showed up too much on the tape in 2015
Here they introduce a nice wrinkle on a packaged concept. They motion Sproles into the backfield with Ryan Mathews. Here Mathews will be used as an H-back or lead blocker along with a few pulling OL. There are a couple of huge problems on this play. Watch Jason Kelce and and Brent Celek specifically below. Kelce stumbles off the line and as a result can't get to Sean Lee. However, Brent Celek, who is supposed to execute the "pin" block on this pin and pull completely whiffs on his man:
A few other ugly plays from Celek who prior to this season had been a very reliable blocker for Chip Kelly. Here he struggles again on the pin block on the sweep play:
And one more for good measure:
And while we really go after Celek on that series, the problem was that lapses in execution happened all along the offensive line all season long. Take for example Andrew Gardner here. His hesitation on the sweep play completely blows up the running play:
And what about the Eagles bread and butter standard inside zone play that they rep a 1000 times a season in practice? Here's Allen Barbre with a very simple assignment, yet he completely blows it. The yellow lines in the gif below show the blocking assignments on the inside zone read. Basic rule of thumb, you block to the play side if you are uncovered. #55 blitzes the A gap and is absolutely Allen Barbre's responsibility, after some initial hesitation he just lets him go free into the backfield:
That last highlight and a few of the others leads us to a discussion around the offensive scheme. I can probably post 100 illustrative examples from 2015 which show poor execution by the personnel. But there's also the old adage that you need to put your players in the best position to make plays. Chip did not always do this with his scheme philosophies. Perhaps the biggest criticism I can make of Chip in 2015 was his stubborn attitude of running out of the shotgun formation. Back in the summer I extensively covered the schematic benefits of running out of the shotgun formation and why so many teams do it. I won't re-hash that here, but in a nutshell Ross Fulton and Chris Brown summarize it best here:
For my purposes, I will define spread as any offense that is based out of shotgun to run the football.
The definition itself somewhat belies the answer to my question. The short answer to why a team wants their quarterback in the shotgun is arithmetic. As Chris Brown of Smart Football succinctly describes, both the offense and defense have eleven players. The defense will always outnumber the offense, however, because the defense has a counterpart to the offense's ball carrier, and thus an unblocked defender.
A pro-style offense handles this by using the passing game as a threat. That unblocked defender generally has to play deep as a free safety to defend against the pass. However, from a pro-style system, once the quarterback hands off the defense now has two unblocked players, because the quarterback becomes a spectator, leaving the defense's counterpart to the running back and quarterback both free. As a result, the defense not only has an unblocked free safety, but also a defender closer to the line of scrimmage, generally in the form of the unblocked edge player away from the called run.
My Why Shotgun post goes into a bunch of Eagles related examples to illustrate the point, but in short, this can work really well if your QB is a mobile running threat. What happens if you have one of those?
and this is what happens when you don't:
Even though a guy like Nick Foles pulled and ran a few times, the Eagles kept running out of shotgun like the above and Sam Bradford didn't bother to keep even once all year long. In other words, you were completely wasting away the advantage you are trying to gain by running out of shotgun!
Where Chip ultimately failed in 2015 was his insistence to embrace the core philosophy of running predominantly out of shotgun by continuing to run a scheme without building in the necessary constraints. If you aren't going to use the threat of a running QB (which makes sense given it was Sam Bradford) you can still run that scheme if you build in other necessary components, many of which we saw from Chip before. The shotgun formation works great with built-in packaged plays where the QB is able to read a defender through the mesh point and chooses at that critical moment whether to hand it off or pass based on how that defender reacts. If the defender (often a LB) plays the run, the QB keeps and throws into a passing lane that was vacated by the run-greedy LB. If he drops into a zone or man coverage, it's one more defender out of the box and thus one less defender to stop the run. In theory, the beauty of packaged plays is that the defender can never be right as long as the QB makes the right read. I've written extensively about packaged plays over the years and if you are a 49ers fan looking to learn more about Chip's offense this is certainly one of the more fun aspects about it (More here, here and here). The advantage this has for the running game is as opposed to traditional play-action under center where the QB has to turn his back to the defense, lining up in Shotgun allows the QB to focus on the defense from pre-snap all the way through to his decision to handoff or throw. For that reason, I've referred to packaged plays as play-action on steroids because of the embedded decision-making it allows for. Sadly, while more and more teams were embracing packaged plays in 2015, Chip almost completely abandoned it with Sam Bradford thus disabling yet another advantage of running out of the shotgun. Seeing the struggles we were having early in 2015 I opined that Chip might build in other constraints. Using pre-snap motion and threatening with misdirection to stretch defenses horizontally. In 2013 and 2014 Chip would use orbit motions for this. In the example below, in the absence of a running QB threat on the backside of inside zone, he'd motion a third threat on the defense:
At the mesh point you can see that this is actually a triple option, Sanchez can hand-off to the running back, he has the option to keep, or he can pitch it out to the motioning Jeremy Maclin all dependent on what the defense does:
As the play develops you can see based on the fact that the defense has to account for all the options how much it stretches the defense out and gives McCoy a huge running lane up the middle. One things to note is while this does work, it is a compromise because instead of using your QB to "block" that unblocked defender, you have to use another player (in this case Maclin) which evens out the numbers advantages you were trying to gain:
One other aspect I really expected to see in 2015 was the use of jet or fly motion. Bradford did this with Tavon Austin in St. Louis and it seemed a natural fit for this offense. Here's an example. In the image below you will see that Tavon Austin is going to come in jet motion across the field. Note the defender in red who will be left unblocked. This is important because it means that neither the RT or the TE is responsible for blocking that red defender. Instead, they can release downfield for double teams or go after another player:
In the next shot, you'll see that unblocked defender in red. There is the threat that Bradford holds the ball and hands it off tackle to the left side to the running back. However, that unblocked defender is caught in a bind because of the jet motion. Eventhough he is unblocked he ends up paralyzed trying to play both aspects:
Ultimately, he gets burned as Austin beats him to the edge (thanks to his hesitation) and rips off a big play thanks also to downfield blocks by the RT and TE who were allowed to ignore that unblocked edge defender in red (who happens to be left in no man's land):
I talked more back in the preseason about how I thought Chip might use these constraints based on not having a running threat with Bradford. Unfortunately, we never really saw them with any regularity.
So what's the big deal? Lots of college teams and pro teams run successfully with a run-based spread shotgun offense with and without a mobile QB. One main difference is how Chip likes to offset the running back that can generally tip off the defense pre-snap the direction of the playside. Other teams do this too, but not to the extent that Chip does. This is one of the aspects that lead to the many accusations from opposing teams that Kelly's offense was very predictable. The regularity to which Chip runs inside zone with an offset back led to team predominantly attacking the A gaps in different ways. one of the most common was this:
In this post I went much deeper into the ways Chip experimented and adjusted with alignments, formations and motions to mix things up. But again, as was a common theme for 2015 he didn't employ those tactics nearly enough and the inside zone game struggled all season long. One of the painfully ironic moments of the season came in week 17. Demarco Murray was a massive bust for the Eagles in 2015. While there is no question he did not look nearly as explosive in 2015, the supporting cast and scheme didn't help. So a few days after Chip Kelly was released, Demarco Murray's first carry in the post Chip Kelly era was this:
It's worth comparing the middle linebacker in those last 2 gifs. In gif #1, the Eagles are dictating the playside of inside zone and the LB immediately fills that gap and makes the stop. With Bradford under center and Murray aligned directly behind him, the defense has know way of knowing which direction the run will go. Based on inside zone motion off the snap watch the Giants MLB completely take himself out of the play and Murray gets a quick cutback for his longest run of the season. With this reasoning in mind, I certainly wasn't the only Eagles fan clamoring for the pistol. With Chip now in San Francisco it will be a damn shame if he doesn't employ the pistol more with Colin Kaepernick given his experience in that formation. Should be one of the early signs in 2016 of whether Chip is willing to open his mind a bit more on some of his core philosophies in Philly.
The Matchup Offense:
One thing I mentioned briefly in the introduction to this post was Greg Cosell's reference to Chip Kelly's offense being an execution offense vs. a scheme or matchup offense. Now that we've covered execution and scheme I want to finish this piece off with a couple of notes on Chip Kelly's philosophy on match-ups. Quite bluntly, he doesn't appreciate them as much as he should at the NFL level. There is the whole conversation of him effectively letting go of premier playmakers Desean Jackson, Lesean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin in his 3 year stint. Those developments occurred for a number of different personal, philosophical and financial reasons that I won't dive deep into. However, regardless of the reasoning behind the departures of these players, it would be difficult to argue that Chip Kelly values elite talent at the NFL level. Why else can one justify the ridiculous number of snaps and targets guys like Riley Cooper, Miles Austin and Nelson Agholor received despite terrible production in 2016. You see Chip values interchangeable skills sets and likes to rotate 4, 5 even 6 different receivers on a regular basis in his offense. Sounds great in theory, but those guys need to win those matchups and guys like Cooper, Austin and Agholor consistently did not. As an example, let's look at the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving day game against the Eagles this year. The Eagles lost Nolan Carrol for the season in that game and had to bring in rookie Eric Rowe to cover the likes of Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson. As a result, the Lions attacked the Eagles with their elite WR to the tune of 14 targets for 8 catches, 93 yards and 3 TDs. That's exposing a matchup. The Eagles aren't the most talented team in the NFL at the skill positions and certainly do not have an elite Calvin Johnson but they do have a couple of players who presented difficult matchups. Take for example Jordan Matthews. Playing exclusively as a slot receiver in the offense, at 6'3 he will often present a mismatch over smaller slot DBs. In fact, leading into a game against the Dolphins this past year, Jimmy Kempski pointed out Jordan Matthews against the small Dolphins DBs as a key matchup to watch. Outside of one DB, all of the Dolphins DBs fell under 6 feet tall. Clearly a matchup to exploit? Instead Jordan Matthews was targeted only 5 times for a total of 3 catches and 21 yards. The other mismatch the Eagles have is Zach Ertz. Another guy who was vastly under utilized especially in the first half of 2015.
Perhaps to make one final point on this "matchup" argument was the way Pat Shurmur chose to attack the New York Giants in week 17. Certainly seemed like he made a conscious effort to get his best players the ball:
Zach Ertz, 9 receptions on 9 targets for 152 yards
Jordan Matthews, 7 receptions on 9 attempts for 54 yards and 2 TDs.
Where Do We Go From Here?:
Since I began writing this piece several weeks ago, a lot has happened. Chip Kelly is now the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers. One of the immediate observations from that is the questionable front office management structure. Chip Kelly came to the Philadelphia Eagles into what appeared to be a very solid front office structure. Lurie talked about the collaborative nature in which Kelly, Roseman and Co. would work. Obviously that didn't work out and as a result, the Eagles FO structure looks weaker than ever. Risky move by the 49ers. That said, many of the issues I described throughout this post have the potential to be overcome with an athletically gifted QB in Colin Kaepernick at the helm in San Francisco. However, I anticipate that one of the first comments coming out of Chip Kelly in his early press conferences will be about how he is looking for a passer first, runner second at the QB position. I suspect he will welcome a QB competition and we'll see how Kaepernick handles that. Perhaps Chip had no other options as it appears the 49ers were the only NFL team with a vacancy that appeared to pursue him, but this is a very risky move for Chip Kelly. He is going to have to go into this second opportunity with a more open mind and really re-evaluate his approach to player relationships, executive relationships and yes, scheme. I believe Chip can overcome this, however if he can't turn Colin Kaepernick's career around (and note the 49ers brass seemed ready to give up on him) it might be the final death knell in Chip Kelly's head coaching career in the NFL.
As for the Eagles, they have hired Doug Pederson as their new head football coach. Rumors are swirling that Frank Reich will be named the offensive coordinator and Jim Scwartz defensive coordinator. There are definitely interesting times ahead for the Philadelphia Eagles franchise. As much as I think this is an opportunity to turn a new page on the franchise it's worth reflecting back on the last 3 years and look for the positives. Chip's career in Philly was so interesting in that he appeared to be opening eyes around the league in his first 2 years. It was surprising to see it all fall apart so quickly. Whenever things get as ugly as they clearly have, it's easy to just throw everything away and start anew. However Chip did bring some interesting ideas to the league which have been rapidly adopted and implemented by others. I think the sports science methodology, while probably overrated, was a good approach worth considering keeping around. In addition, there were times where the tempo really helped. Lots of teams use tempo and I think it's an important element to have in your offensive attack outside of the 2 minute drill.
I've already started diving into the tape of the Kansas City Chiefs offense over the last 3 seasons. You can obviously still see Andy Reid's influence in that offense but one of the more interesting elements of the evolution of Reid's offense is the implementation of a lot spread concepts. They compliment their west coast offense attack with tons of misdirection, jet motion, orbit motion, etc. They run a lot of zone read and packaged plays. In many ways, watching the Chiefs offense from last year it looked a lot like the offense I was hoping Chip's would evolve into. Of course it helps to have a mobile QB in Alex Smith.
As far as the ChipWagon is concerned, we're clearly at a crossroads. Not sure what the future holds, as I mentioned at the top, life has gotten really busy and I wasn't able to keep up with regular posts on the blog. I don't anticipate that changing any time soon. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of the loyal readers and commenters over the years for adding to the discussions on here and for spreading the word of the blog through twitter, reddit and other forms of social media. It's pretty amazing to see the community of readers and followers who have stopped by over the years. But with that, the ChipWagon is likely coming to an end. It's been a lot of fun and I only wish the ending could have been nearly as exciting as the beginning. Thanks again.