The Oregon engine has kept running despite losing star players. Now can it do the same while losing its star coach?
WAIT WHAA--- Yup. Weeks after Chip Kelly effectively ended his flirtation with no fewer than three NFL teams, Chip Kelly has left Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles. Remember when every NFL INSIDER said that Chip had ruined his chance to become an NFL coach by turning teams down? Ah, that was fun being right for 10 days or so, wasn't it?
But he said he was staying and-- Evidently not. Maybe the delays came down to negotiations over his powers in Philadelphia, or Kelly's indecision, or the fickle demands of attorneys hammering out the details in a darkened conference room. Whatever the delay between Kelly's initial interview and today's announcement was, it's done. The era of the Blur offense at Oregon under Kelly is over.
This is making me sad. It should. As much as the spread option offense has been replicated at the college level and beyond, Kelly's brand was its most aggressive, creative, and entertaining, a machine in the truest sense in that its parts were interchangeable, its production was constant and its pace was simply inhuman. Names came and went--LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount, Dennis Dixon, Marcus Mariota, De'Anthony Thomas, Colt Lyerla, Kenjon Barner--but the beast breathed on no matter who filled the roster slots. Kelly went for it on fourth down, popped early fourth down conversions without breaking a sweat and pressed the game to its limits.
Will it work in the NFL? The official college perspective is: "Who cares." Your guess is as good as ours, though, "up-tempo offense that relies on a zone run game and utilizes a running quarterback judiciously," sounds a lot like a good quarter of the teams that made the final eight in the 2012-13 NFL Playoffs. Chip Kelly is not an avant-garde hiring, at least not in this respect. Whether or not he can get used to working with pro athletes versus underpaid amateurs is a far bigger question than the issue of his playcalling or strategies. (See: current college overlord and NFL washout Nick Saban.)
And for Oregon? The plan of succession all along was to promote offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to the position, so the overall disruption to Oregon's immediate power structure is as minimal as a head coach leaving can be. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti predates Kelly, and Helfrich has been on staff since 2009. The program falls into the hands of those who have been running it under the departed Kelly.
Will that change things? Of course. Kelly's attitude, as much as his playbook, permeated the way Oregon did business. Helfrich will change little of what they do offensively, but with Kelly's playcalling gone the Ducks can't possibly be as aggressive, since no coach in the recent history of college football was as nakedly aggressive as Chip Kelly. Helfrich can't replace Kelly, he can only be himself, a coach with a genial attitude, relatively wide open offense, and a veteran staff to carry Oregon forward.
That staff includes the massive support of Phil Knight and luminaries like Mike Bellotti, two of the forces that turned Oregon from a backwater into a national power. Oregon has lost a piece of the machine, and an important one at that. But let's be clear on this, too: Chip Kelly was a piece of a larger machine at Oregon, and is himself a replaceable part among many in the Ducks football machine.