By Mark Saltveit
Did Chip Kelly make a rookie coaching mistake by letting Washington get back into game 1 after halftime? The Eagles still won, but only by six points, and fans were understandably nervous with 1:14 left in the game when the Redskins’ onside kick was on the ground, in play, for anyone to grab.
The consensus seems to be that Chip messed up, and he acknowledged after the game that he might have let his “foot up off the gas pedal too early.” The Eagles ran 53 plays before halftime, on a pace for well over a hundred plays in the game, but slowed to only 24 after. There is also an argument to be made, though, that Chip foresaw the whole course of events, in broad terms anyway, and planned to do exactly this.
What? Am I crazy, or some kind of koolaid-drinking homer? Why would a first-time NFL coach PLAN on building a 20-something point lead, then fritter it away in the second half?
We can speculate about the why, but there is some solid evidence that this plan is the “what.” The smoking gun is an article that the Inquirer’s Zach Berman wrote back on July 16th. Coach Kelly was asked about the importance of running a lot of plays in a game. See if any part of this answer sounds familiar. Speaking about his years at Oregon, he said:
“We were up a lot at halftime, so we took our foot off the gas. We could have run a hundred plays, we could have run a hundred plays in a lot of games, but there was no reason to run a hundred plays.”
Besides keeping the playbook hidden, Kelly mentioned another motive very important to his football programs: developing depth.
“We played our first game last year, we were up 50-3 at halftime, we won 57-34, but we still won. Our ‘threes’ got a ton of reps, we emptied our bench, and we got a lot of guys valuable playing time. Where other people were like, ‘the other team was coming back in it,’ but look at the value of us getting to play our entire roster … did we end up running more plays than them? I think they actually ran more plays than us, and we were up 50-3 at the half.”
In case you were wondering, 44 of the 46 men on the Eagles’ active roster played against Washington. One of the Redskins’ late touchdowns came at the expense of rookie CB Jordan Poyer. Given the Eagles extreme thinness at that position, it’s an interesting question — is it worth giving up part of your lead to give younger cornerbacks some reps against top level competition? How many future points might the Eagles save by giving up some now, when they have a cushion?
Believe or not, Chip Kelly’s system at Oregon factored in large halftime leads and the use of the second half as development time for greener players. Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s Heisman chances were diminished because he rarely played in the second half. The Ducks average halftime lead last year was 22 points. It’s not that he wants the lead to go down (though that probably didn’t hurt TV ratings in his biggest media appearance all year); half the time the Ducks’s subs kept widening the lead against their exhausted opponents. But developing his bench was more important to him that maintaining a 20-something point lead. He’s already thinking ahead to his next game, and the ones after that.
Now, it may be absurdly cocky for Chip Kelly to think he can play that way in the NFL too. And there were several close games at Oregon where this strategy couldn’t be used. But at least at halftime, Monday’s game looked like a standard Oregon blowout. The Eagles led 26-7, and Washington only got that one score on a highly disputed defensive play; it could easily have been 33-0. The Eagles had as many first downs (21) as Washington had total plays from scrimmage. So what part of that scenario would tell Chip Kelly that he had to change his strategy, because it won’t work in the NFL?
Furthermore, an analysis by the website Advanced NFL Stats — which measures the odds of each team winning throughout each game — shows that the Eagles’ likelihood of victory never fell below 90% in the second half, even as the lead was cut to 6. Yes, Washington closed to within one score, but by the time they did, only 74 seconds remained, and the Redskins had no time outs left. Even if they had recovered that onside kick, a lot of things would have had to go right for them to win, and they had been pretty lucky already just to get to that point.
Think of it in terms of poker. Almost anything is possible. You could hit 5 inside straights in a row on 5 consecutive hands on any given night. But the odds of that are very slim, and the smart player will bet against it happening. They may lose on the occasional amazing night, but over the years that is a very good bet to make. And the Advanced NFL Stats people are saying the same thing about the way Chip played Monday night’s game.
If I were in his shoes, I might have gone deeper into the bench, giving Bryce Brown, James Casey and Nick Foles some extended minutes while resting Shady and Vick. And ultimately, the conventional wisdom and the scenario I paint are not mutually exclusive. It seems likely that Chip reverted to his Oregon plan for making use of a big lead, and found that leads are a bit more vulnerable in the NFL. But despite the nervousness of Eagles fans — still suffering PTSD symptoms from last year’s sudden collapse — the best evidence says that he developed his depth admirably while keeping a firm thumb on the Redskins.
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About the author - Mark Saltveit writes the “Chip Kelly Update” column for FishDuck.com every Friday, and tweets about the Eagles at @taoish. He is the editor of Taoish.org.
His best-selling book “The Tao of Chip Kelly” has received rave reviews from coaches, players and sportswriters since its release in June. You can find it at Joseph Fox Books and the Spiral Bookcase in Philadelphia; MainPoint Books in Bryn Mawr; the Doylestown Bookshop, onAmazon.com and online at http://www.chipkelly.tv/