NFL 2015: The Rise of the Running Game Part III

Running Keeps Your Own Defense Fresh

Here's where I can give you a straight-up comparison that isn't very favorable to a particular "hot commodity" head coach in Chip Kelly: He's doing it all wrong for the NFL's style and is doomed to mediocrity.

Strong declarative there I realize, but I have seen Philly's team wilt down the stretch, and I think I know why. Hear me out:

Chip Kelly loves to run the ball, and he has the right idea as far as that goes. He just is rigid about the implementation of it. 

We're all aware of Kelly's fast-paced hurry-up rushing attack. He made a name for himself at Oregon in college and rode that to a ticket to an NFL head coaching gig. Good for him, but the problem is that the difference in the best and worst NFL teams is tiny compared with, say, Oregon vs. Washington State or even whatever the new-PC version of "Division III" is these days. Kelly could "wear down" those defenses in college and he can do the same thing in the NFL, but in the exact wrong way: He does it to his own defense!

The NFL's most gifted runner whose initials are NOT "AP" is LeSean McCoy. He never got going much last year, and that's saying a LOT considering his talent, drive, work ethic, and personality. Kelly's reaction was not to change his offense to fit his people but to get rid of McCoy and bring in the very same DeMarco Murray that had 390 touches and led the NFL in rushing last season.

Although the "experts" on TV give him the benefit of the doubt by saying that Murray fits the "scheme" better, it sounded like they were making excuses for him. After all, it's not like Shady McCoy is an average running back and Murray's only full season without injury was last season as he led the NFL in both rushing yards and in work load.

History says those guys fall off the following year - hard to go "up" from #1, after all - and I think Kelly is going to have to face reality after next season. Going with the hurry-up is what the problem is. Using this approach is truly a double-edged sword because if your offense keeps going 3-and-out, your defense doesn't have time to catch their breath from just having run off the field, let alone from a long drive by the opposing team. By the end of the season last year, Philly's defense was completely exhausted and couldn't stop a drunken anorexic actress from stumbling through; how are they supposed to stop an NFL offense?

Stark contrast to the Cowboys' approach last season. Same division, diametrically opposed results. The Dallas running game protected a defense that is thin on talent by keeping them off the field in the first place.

The Chip Kelly Approach

Chip Kelly may be the outside-the-box-thinker, but I'm sorry....what was it I said in the opening paragraph of Part I? "The NFL is a copy-cat league?" Jason Garrett patterned his offense after those of the 1990's under Jimmy Johnson when names like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith were on the roster...and Garrett himself was backing up Aikman so he's intimately familiar with the scheme.

Garrett changed his style to fit his team's strengths and is flexible enough to be both willing and able to do so. The results speak for themselves.

Kelly wasn't on those Cowboys championship teams, nor did he take a tried-and-true approach. The results are history: 28th-ranked defense, 31st against the run, and a hurry-up rushing offense that held the ball a mere 26 minutes per game, leaving their defense out there for 34. That's an eight-minute differential or the equivalent of one long, New York Giants-under-Parcells-style scoring drive PER GAME! 

What Chip is doing is trying now to emulate the three-headed Hydra that the Dolphins of the early 70's had with a aging but still dangerous Darren Sproles, Ryan Matthews, and DeMarco Murray. Sproles is on the downslope of a fairly nice career, Murray was only in all 16 games once in his career - last season - and history suggests he won't be as effective this coming year as I've pointed out, and Ryan Matthews never has lived up to his billing coming out of college and has his own injury history. This Eagles team will be broken down by week ten and should finish weakly once again. If it does, it really will prove to me that Chip Kelly's collegiate system won't translate to the NFL.

Frankly speaking, Kelly didn't say it; he just did it - he implicitly "blamed" the failure of his offense on Shady McCoy by trading him. To his credit, he has made sure he has several capable backs behind "star" DeMarco Murray and if they stay healthy, Ryan Matthews might actually be a nice "sleeper" for you fantasy gurus out there thinking ahead. 

I just don't think Kelly's innovations will stick and spread.

Kelly is no Lombardi or Landry

Tom Landry invented the shotgun and the Flex defense that he also invented was the defense used by none other than Vince Lombardi's Packers in their glory years. Both concepts held a long time because they worked, and the shotgun is more popular ever.

Kelly's mad-scientist work hasn't panned out and unless it truly is because he has the wrong styles of players to fit his scheme, it never will work. Those darned Dolphins and their resurrection of the single-wing offense - the "Wildcat" in modern NFL parlance - petered out because there's only so much you can do with a single formation. Once teams had enough game film on it, they were able to prepare for it and largely render it ineffective which is why you don't see it much today.

There are just too many moving parts to Kelly's scheme that all have to fit together and run smoothly for that scheme to work. First, you have to have not a good defense but a very good to a great one. You also must be able to go two-deep at pretty much every defensive position due to the fast pace. He does have the trio of runners he wants, but still lacks a proven long-term good starting quarterback even though Mark Sanchez is probably better than he played under Rex Ryan.

The upshot is that if any of these components fails, the entire operation unravels. The main thing is the ability of the fast-paced running game Kelly loves to stay on the field. Last year, they couldn't do it. They also didn't have a good defense and that's not something you repair in a single off-season. Sure, he got Kiko Alonso in the McCoy trade, but that has another set of issues: Alonso has only one year of data to go from himself and the Eagles need help almost everywhere.

I just think it isn't an offense that "just any" team can run and frankly, the Carolina Panthers are probably the team best-suited to run it in the entire NFL considering Cam Newton's running ability and even then, the Panthers would probably need to add two high-quality runners for it to function as designed. Kelly at least has stocked up on quality runners, so I follow the logic there - need one set of fresh legs at any given time off the bench - so who knows....maybe he'll get this thing right yet. 

Lots of Moving Parts is Never a Good Thing

I'm not trying to write some "hit piece" on Chip Kelly but I have seen a similar song and dance before when Josh McDaniels took over the Denver Broncos, gutted the team of both Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and left them with a lot of rebuilding to do. Kelly is exercising similar control in ditching Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, and LeSean McCoy. That's a lot of production to replace.

Too many moving parts to break, and too many positions to have filled with quality players for an NFL franchise to do this consistently. Time will tell, but the Eagles finished the season losing three of their last four games, winning only the week 17 match-up against a reeling New York Giants squad.

They also allowed 24 points or more in 11 of their 16 games. Ironically, they won huge at Dallas in week 13, 33-10, but I blame Dallas' lack of defense for that as much as anything. For Kelly and any given coach for that matter, It's hard enough to win in the NFL, but when your scheme is designed so that in those games where it isn't working well, the issue is doubly bad because of the time of possession problems it causes for his own defense.

The "tweak" I might make if I were in his shoes is to quicken the pace more as the game progresses. The reason being that often, even good running teams find the running tougher in the first half than in the second as the pounding the defense takes in the first half starts to show up in the second as they are a step slower in pursuit and/or don't react as quickly as when fresh.

When you run a hurry-up run offense that doesn't work as well early as it does late, it becomes self-defeating as it means your own defense will be the one being worn out in the first half. At least if you (or Kelly) ran a "normal" offense in the first half to feel out where the cracks in the defense are likely to develop in the second half, the added tempo would then become a benefit for Kelly as it's one more thing the other team has to adjust to in the second half. 

Devastating...When it Works

For any teams having played them unsuccessfully, it would also be a morale-killer at halftime since they'd know what they're in for and likely NOT be looking forward to it. 

That's the change I'd make in base offensive philosophy from college to the NFL that Chip hasn't made...speed the offense up as the game goes along while having my offensive coaches pay attention to what the weak spots appear to be. Mix in some good play-action passes and some "slip" screens and flares and I think he might have something. Obviously, he's the much smarter man as far as football goes, but I have the luxury of looking at things dispassionately and I have always called things like I see them with my readers and followers. I've even been called "blunt" upon occasion but in today's world of passing the buck, I think my own approach is refreshing to some and making no bones about how you feel clearly puts you on one side or the other of an issue, stand up to be counted, and say what you have to say without having to hold back or dance around hurt feelings.

This is the NFL and if you can't take the heat, prove me wrong where it counts - right out there on the field.

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