Sunday afternoon, the Washington Redskins will face a team no longer in crisis, but still facing no shortage of doubt from the NFL. The Eagles’ victory over the Jets tamed the ire directed at Kelly, at least for now, but the season remains a referendum on both his system and style and a larger question that has lingered around football for decades: Can an innovative offensive system born on the college level translate to the NFL?
More often than not, the rigidity of the NFL has won. Radical tactics that work against less sophisticated and less smart college defenses tend to run aground against savvy, speedy professionals. Those within the league are quick to mock. “Chip Kelly is finding out the hard way, it’s a ‘Players League,’ ” former Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora tweeted last week. “Those little schemes will only get you so far.” Seemingly revolutionary tactics – remember the Wildcat? – become easily defeated fads.
“The innovation of offenses generally comes with the ball in the quarterback’s hand,” Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said. “In the NFL, that quarterback is getting hit, and he’s not very innovative anymore. And I think that’s the big difference.”
The popular reason college-created offenses fade in the NFL is typically that defensive players are too big and too fast. Really, they may be too smart. At Oregon, Kelly could have fooled the opposing defense with tempo and an array of formations. In the NFL, players are more prepared and quicker to react.
“Guys at this level, they know what they’re doing,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosely said. “You get a young college player in open space, come out in a crazy formation, guys freak out and don’t know what to do.”
UCLA Coach Jim Mora, formerly a longtime NFL assistant and head coach, said college schemes are actually more diverse than in the NFL. The difference is, the tactics and concepts within those schemes are far more intricate in the NFL. Innovative college offenses often confuse defenses with radical pre-snap appearance, whether it’s spreading out receivers or changing formations. In the NFL, players and coaches aren’t fooled by what is essentially window dressing.
“In college, they try to fool you with smoke and mirrors,” Mora said. “In the NFL, the route concepts and the run-game concepts are more complex. There’s certain things you can’t do in the NFL that you can get away with in college. You have to be willing to play the game a certain way: less trickery, and more solid, sound, fundamental scheme football.”
Still, traces of college-born offense trickles up to the NFL. Last week, 11-year NFL defensive end Chris Canty was asked why college offenses tended not to succeed long term in the NFL. Canty replied, “Are you sure about that?” The NFL, he said, has incorporated many concepts from college.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any team in the National Football League that doesn’t have elements of the spread offense in their system to date,” Canty said. “If you look at the all-22 tape, everybody pretty much has the zone read open element. If they’ve got that, they’ve got the QB pull. And if they’ve got that, they’ve got the bubble screen off that. They’ve got these different elements that you’ll see. Every team has that. Now, it wasn’t like that five years ago.”
The difference is, few teams use spread or read option as their entire offense. The Redskins under Robert Griffin III showed the peril in allowing a quarterback to be so exposed. But several teams, such as the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson and the Miami Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill, have proven the read option can be an effective wrinkle in a larger scheme.
The system itself might not be the problem so much as a coach’s absolute devotion to it. In college, even if defensive coaches can solve the problems an offense presents, the defensive players might not be able to execute the plan at game speed. At the NFL level, eventually coaches and players will contain it.
“It’s how the players react to it,” said Ravens defensive end Lawrence Guy, who played against Kelly’s Oregon teams at Arizona State. “Sometimes, it gets a little too frustrating for players – I don’t know what to do. At this level, we’re going to work together. We see this, we’re going to talk and work it out and beat the scheme. Anybody can find a scheme. Anybody can find a scheme beater. It all depends on who’s coaching you and how the players react to it.”
“In the NFL, you got grown men,” Ravens safety Will Hill said. “Everybody is disciplined. Everybody is basically on the same level. Here, it’s your job. In college, you’re on scholarship.”
Another reason college systems fail, perhaps, is that they are not given time to succeed. Mouse Davis, the progenitor of the Run and Shoot, compared the reaction to the struggles of the Indianapolis Colts and Eagles through the first two weeks. The prevailing sentiment in Indy: What’s wrong with Colts? And in Philly: Chip Kelly’s system will never work (no matter that he won 10 games with it in each of his first two seasons).
“Because you have a bad ballgame, everybody jumps on the other side of the fence – that’s just a college offense!” Davis said. “The truth is, that stuff he was running has had an impact on the game. That impact is seen in so many different offenses.
“What happens so often when an offense comes into the NFL, and they do extremely well, and then it’s not as good as it was, defenses catch up to what people are doing. Then you’re ‘getting outcoached.’ Not necessarily. Those that panic get worse and worse. If you stay with a system that’s sound, you’re going to be successful.”
Kelly has full authority in Philadelphia, and his initial success should provide him enough time to implement his system in its entirety. And that will provide another answer as to whether his kind of offense will work in the NFL.
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