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Coaching Carousel 2016: San Francisco 49ers

A detailed look at the impact of of Chip Kelly and his staff's hiring. 

Pace Yourself...or Brace Yourself?

No hiring in the offseason garnered more interest and debate than Chip Kelly's return to the Pacific Coast to coach the San Francisco 49ers. The reaction to the hiring has ranged from exuberance from those who see Kelly as the answer for the 49ers' recent miasma to downright skepticism from those who see Kelly's 'unique' approach as a gimmick that went supernova and exploded after three seasons in Philadelphia. The truth likely lies somewhere in between, although fantasy owners need/want more clarity on what the 49ers offense will look like and whether they should allocate draft day resources to the likes of Torrey Smith and Carlos Hyde.

Playing Faster = A Reality

Plays Per Game (2013-2015)

RankTeam201520142013AverageDifferential
1 Philadelphia 68.9 70.7 65.4 68.3 0.0%
2 Denver 65.7 66.8 72.1 68.2 -0.2%
3 New Orleans 68.5 68.4 67.6 68.2 -0.2%
4 Houston 69.9 66.4 68.1 68.1 -0.3%
5 New England 65.7 67.7 70.4 67.9 -0.6%
6 Baltimore 67.7 63.9 68.1 66.6 -2.6%
7 Detroit 64.4 65.4 68.9 66.2 -3.1%
8 Indianapolis 65.8 68.3 64.1 66.1 -3.3%
9 Buffalo 63.5 63.8 69.8 65.7 -3.9%
10 NY Jets 67.1 65.8 63.8 65.6 -4.0%
11 San Diego 68.8 63.1 64.8 65.6 -4.0%
12 Green Bay 66.2 62.9 66.8 65.3 -4.4%
13 Atlanta 67.1 64.7 64.0 65.3 -4.5%
14 Cincinnati 63.1 63.4 69.2 65.2 -4.5%
15 Washington 63.6 62.9 69.2 65.2 -4.5%
16 Cleveland 65.1 63.1 67.4 65.2 -4.6%
17 NY Giants 65.8 67.9 61.8 65.2 -4.6%
18 Carolina 66.6 66.8 62.0 65.1 -4.7%
19 Pittsburgh 63.3 67.1 63.9 64.8 -5.2%
20 Arizona 64.7 61.2 64.8 63.6 -7.0%
21 Chicago 64.0 62.8 63.3 63.4 -7.3%
22 Jacksonville 63.2 61.8 63.8 62.9 -7.9%
23 Miami 61.1 65.0 62.5 62.9 -8.0%
24 Oakland 63.1 62.1 62.6 62.6 -8.4%
25 Seattle 64.2 62.9 60.4 62.5 -8.5%
26 Kansas City 61.1 60.1 65.2 62.1 -9.1%
27 Minnesota 60.5 61.3 63.3 61.7 -9.7%
28 San Francisco 60.6 63.1 60.2 61.3 -10.3%
29 Tampa Bay 63.5 58.6 61.3 61.1 -10.5%
30 Tennessee 61.0 57.4 64.5 61.0 -10.8%
31 Dallas 60.6 62.4 59.8 60.9 -10.8%
32 St Louis 57.5 59.8 60.5 59.3 -13.3%

Chip Kelly's Eagles led the NFL in plays per game over his three seasons while the 49ers ranked 28th. On average, the 49ers ran 10% fewer plays than the Eagles. While it's tempting to assume the 49ers will vault to the top of the NFL's plays-per-game rankings, we must consider context. For as much as Kelly's Eagles were known for their tempo, let's remember that Andy Reid's Eagles were ALREADY a high-paced team.

Top 10 Teams, Players Per Game, 2012

RankTeamPlaysperGame
1 New England 74.3
2 Detroit 72.5
3 Indianapolis 70.4
4 Denver 69.2
5 Houston 69.0
6 Philadelphia 67.4
7 New Orleans 66.7
8 Dallas 65.6
9 Baltimore 65.4
10 Green Bay 64.7

The Eagles ranked 6th in the NFL with 67.4 plays per game in Andy Reid's final season. What that means is Chip Kelly's teams only ran 1.4% more plays per game than his predecessor.

Points per Play

Running more plays is beneficial, but ultimately it's about scoring points. Where things get interesting is examining how Chip Kelly improved the Eagles points per play (how many points did they average for every play run?).

Philadelphia Points per Play (2013-2015)

 
  • 2013 -- 0.42
  • 2014 -- 0.42
  • 2015 -- 0.34
  • 3-Year Average -- 0.39

San Francisco Points per Play (2013-2015)

 
  • 2013 -- 0.42
  • 2014 -- 0.30
  • 2015 -- 0.25
  • 3-Year Average -- 0.32
The 49ers had a potent offense in 2013, but fell off the cliff over the last two seasons. The Eagles were productive under Kelly, although it's worth noting the 2015 team (which cost Kelly his job) took a big step back. Can Kelly get the 49ers to the level of his Eagles teams?
 

Matrix of the Outcomes

 Plays/Gm   
PT/PLAY 61 plays (SF'15) 64 (Modest Improvement) 67 (Significant Improvement) 70 (Elite Pace)
0.25 (SF'15) 15.3 16.0 16.8 17.5
0.32 (SF 3yrAvg) 19.5 20.5 21.4 22.4
0.39 (PHI 3yrAvg) 23.8 25.0 26.1 27.3
0.42 (Elite) 25.6 26.9 28.1 29.4

This chart represents a matrix of potential outcomes based on the 49ers plays per game mutliplied by the points per play. For example, if the 49ers averaged the same points per play as last season (0.25) and plays per game (61), they would average 15.3 points per game. Now, if Kelly can get the 49ers to play at the same pace as the Eagles and score as many points per play, the team would average 26.1 points per game (a MASSIVE improvement).

Meeting in the Middle -- The Personnel Doesn't Line Up

The good news for 49ers fans is pace and efficiency are both likely to improve under Kelly. Which means last year's 14.9 points per game will be a distant memory. The bad news is the 49ers roster isn't imposing:

It's unfair to expect Chip Kelly to morph this unit into an elite point producer in Year One. The personnel simply isn't up to the task. Improve? Yes. Become fantasy viable? Possibly. But produce high level fantasy stats? Unlikely.

Did Kelly make the same mistake again at Defensive Coordinator?

Chip Kelly's Achilles heel in Philadelphia was his complete lack of focus on the defensive side of the ball. Hiring Bill Davis was met with sideways glances by most (myself included), and Davis' defenses did nothing to disprove our skepticism. NFL analysts widely believe that Billy Davis found ways to get less with more. The Eagles defensive personnel was impressive, yet the results never materialized. Is Chip Kelly ready to make that same mistake in San Francisco? Kelly hired Jim O'Neil as defensive coordinator in spite of a limited resume and mixed success in his prior stop (as the Browns defensive coordinator).
 
O'Neil is a Rex Ryan protégé. He was an assistant defensive backs coach for the Ryan-led Jets from 2009-2012 and then coached linebackers in Buffalo in 2013. He joined the Browns as defensive coordinator in 2014-2015 and has mixed results. In 2014 the Browns ranked a respectable 9th in points allowed but gave up plenty of yards (23rd). The wheels came COMPLETELY off in 2015 though as the Browns gave up 432 points (29th) and 6,067 yards (27th).
 

Keeping the 3-4, But With Tweaks

O'Neil runs a 3-4 defensive front much like his predecessors (Vin Fangio and Eric Mangini), but O'Neil's system is thought to be more complex. He expects his players to make more adjustments pre-snap, and in particular wants his linebackers to line up all over the field and be prepared to cover, drive runners inside and/or rush the passer on any given play. It's the complexities of O'Neil's offense that came under scrutiny in Cleveland. So far the players are saying all the right things, but we haven't had any game situations yet.

Conclusion: Kelly & COMPANY Aren't Miracle Workers

Chip Kelly is certainly unique. Objectively he had success in Philadelphia as a coach (his downfall was more tied to his personnel decisions -- but that's for another article) and lived up to the promise of making the team play fast and efficiently. Yet, he inherited a fast-paced offense in Philadelphia. The truth is Kelly's teams only averaged 1.4% more plays per game than Andy Reid's 2012 squad. With that in mind, it's unreasonable to expect the 49ers to vault to the top of the league's plays-per-game standings. They should improve from the bottom where they ranked the last few seasons, but expect a middle-of-the-road finish versus a top-tier finish. The larger question is whether the 49ers have the personnel to execute Kelly's system. If they do, improved pace along with improved points-per-play could make the 49ers a surprisingly viable fantasy offense. That's a BIG IF. On defense, there's even more cause for concern because Jim O'Neil hasn't shown an ability to consistently field an above average unit. 49ers fans and fantasy owners should expect improvement but don't expect miracles.