September 13, 2013

Kelly's Pro Debut Impressive, But Not Uncommon

By - Keith Smith

I don't want to be a killjoy for all the Philadelphia Eagle fans basking in the glow of Chip Kelly's impressive pro debut, but I would send a word of caution; this isn't the first time it's happened to a former college head coach.

Photo by: Alex Brandon
There have been others who wooed the hometown faithful with mountains of hope for the future, only to be figured out sooner rather than later, and then out of the National Football League in just a few short years.

There was another "offensive genius" who everyone thought was a cinch to make it big in the NFL just a few years ago, and his first game didn't disappoint. Steve Spurrier's Washington Redskin team ran 73 plays (four less than the Eagles on Monday night), posted 442 yards of total offense (only one less than Philly), and scored 31 points (two less than Kelly's Eagles) in his professional debut.

The next week, they lost 37-7, and finished the year 7-9. The following season, they started 2-0, only to finish 5-11. That ended his NFL career, and he's now successful back in the college ranks at South Carolina.

How about Barry Switzer? In 1994, his Dallas Cowboys defeated Pittsburgh 26-9 in their opener. Not quite as many points as Kelly and Spurrier, but the other totals were almost identical: 73 plays and 442 yards, same as the Ol' Ball Coach.

Switzer's first two years with the Cowboys were successful, taking them to the NFC Championship in '94 and winning the Super Bowl the following year. Out of fairness, Dallas had won the Super Bowl in 1992 and 1993 under Jimmy Johnson, so it's not like Switzer had to overhaul a bad system or anything. In his third year they dropped to 10-6 and exited the playoffs early, and in his fourth season they fell to 6-10 and Switzer was shown the door.

Then, there is who most currently consider the best coach in college football, Nick Saban. His debut in Miami was a hot start, too. Saban's team only ran 69 plays, but steamrolled 426 total yards and 34 points on Denver. In Week 2, they lost 17-7 to the Jets, and then dropped to 3-7 before winning their final 6 games and narrowly missing the playoffs at 9-7. In year two, after everyone expected them to contend for the playoffs, the Dolphins limped home to a 6-10 record, Saban's only losing campaign as a head coach. He took the Alabama job as soon as the season ended.

So where does that leave Kelly? It's too early to say. He has a better personnel fit at quarterback with Michael Vick than the others did with their particular offenses. But Vick was hit a lot in Monday's contest, and has been somewhat of a delicate flower in the past, so how long can he stay healthy?

There are a few promising things about Kelly's win that stand out, though. They did the majority of the damage running the football, which is still a necessity, even in the now pass-happy NFL. LeSean McCoy lit it up for 184 yards on 31 carries. Vick added 54 rushing yards and another 203 through the air, a pretty balanced attack all-around. That is the key to this offense. You can rack up a ton of rushing yards, as long as you have the threat of a decent passing game. You don't have to pass for 400 yards for this system to thrive, which is a fairly common misconception.

Likewise, you can't just run from that formation, either. You have to hit a few passes to open up running lanes, and vice versa.

We'll see what the future holds for Kelly. Does he go the way of Spurrier and Saban and head back to college, or will he turn out more like Pete Carroll and find success at the next level? Only time (and wins) will tell.


  1. He's almost destined to fail. College coaches always do at the pro level.

  2. Week 1 was a fluke. They'll come back down to earth soon enough.

  3. He's got a chance at having prolonged success. Harbaugh and Carroll made the adjustment from college to pros, so it can be done.