The 49ers’ bold move to hire Chip Kelly leads to questions about how much the ex-Eagles coach learned in his first NFL job. Plus a look at divisional-round games, including one with two teams that are mirror images

By Jenny Vrentas
January 15, 2016

Earlier this month, two NFL franchises did the unexpected: They kept their head coaches. With the entire league watching, and expecting a move, the Colts made it work with Chuck Pagano, and the Saints found a way to keep Sean Payton.

So why couldn’t the 49ers do that last year with Jim Harbaugh? That’s a complicated question to which there isn’t a single answer, but it brought us to where we were Thursday afternoon—when the 49ers hired Chip Kelly.

They wanted a bold move, after a safe move (Jim Tomsula) that followed their last bold move (Harbaugh), and this is it. In the quest for a difference-making head coach, San Francisco took a gamble on Kelly. You could also ask the question, why will it be different this time—for Kelly, after his failed Eagles tenure, and for the 49ers, partnering with another offensive whiz who does not endear himself to people with his personality?

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Practically speaking, whether this works depends on two things:

1) Can Kelly rehabilitate Colin Kaepernick?

2) Will he learn from the mistakes he made as a first-time NFL head coach, with no time in between to reflect?

There are reasons to be optimistic about the first point. Many coaches around the league harbor some annoyance about Kelly’s reputation as an innovator for elements of the game that they believe other coaches are also doing. But most will acknowledge his potential to bring out the best in Kaepernick with his quarterback-friendly system. The sixth-year quarterback has many physical hurdles to overcome this offseason—he’s had surgeries on his (non-throwing) shoulder, thumb and knee since his season ended in November—but he has the most physical talent and versatility of any quarterback Kelly has coached in the NFL (if you’re keeping score: Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford). Hearing a plan to salvage Kaepernick, who is signed by San Francisco through 2020 (albeit on a flexible contract that gives the team off-ramps each year) was no doubt top of the conversation during the 49ers’ interviews with coaching candidates.

The second point may be more uncertain, and more important. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s decree that he needed a coach with “emotional intelligence” after Kelly’s reign will shadow Kelly to his next job and could be a hurdle to winning over the San Francisco locker room. After three seasons in Philadelphia, Kelly still needs to prove he can adapt his collegiate approach to the pros, whether it be in how he deals with grown men versus college kids, or the fact that his breakneck-speed, perpetual-motion practices may not work as well in the NFL, where seasons are longer, rosters are smaller and players are older. His sports science methods kept his teams very healthy, but players, including tackle Lane Johnson, have spoken of the workload taking a toll by season’s end. And while Kelly will reunite with his trusted personnel exec Tom Gamble, he will have to work in harmony with 49ers GM Trent Baalke, something Baalke and Harbaugh were unable to do. The positive for Kelly is that Baalke having the personnel power could insulate Kelly from the fate he suffered in Philly, where he took over roster control and was held accountable for it by Lurie when the 2015 season went awry.

But when it comes to learning from mistakes, there’s something to be said for reflecting on what went wrong and how you can avoid those mistakes in the future. By getting another gig right away, Kelly may not have that chance. The two best, most recent examples of NFL coaches who found success in their second go-around are Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick, who were fired from their first gigs and won multiple Super Bowls in their second. Neither went straight from his first job to his second. Coughlin was out of football for a year after being fired by the Jaguars, before the Giants hired him. Belichick spent three seasons as an assistant head coach and secondary coach after being fired by the Browns. 

Of course, there are examples both ways. Jon Gruden led the Bucs to a Super Bowl championship the season after Oakland let him go, though he was traded and not fired. And Andy Reid went straight from Philadelphia to Kansas City, and has taken the Chiefs to the playoffs in two of his first three years. But oftentimes, when you are being immediately courted by another team after being fired, there isn’t the time or the necessity to learn from past mistakes. 

“Sometimes when you are involved in a whirlwind business like the NFL is, there is no offseason—there is just a non-game-playing season,” former Falcons coach Mike Smith said in December, after taking a year off from coaching, during which he wrote a book on leadership. “You get so caught up and so busy that you don’t necessarily do the evaluation at the depth that you need to do it to become a better coach, a better person. I think it is therapeutic to have an opportunity to sit back and do that evaluation.”

That’s not to say that Kelly hasn’t done that, or won’t. But nothing forces you to learn those lessons like you do when you’re humbled.

* * *

Luke Kuechly and the Panthers got the best of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks earlier this season.
David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images

The most intriguing matchup of the weekend

Sunday afternoon, when the two teams playing at Bank of America Stadium look across the line of scrimmage, they’ll see a mirror image of themselves.

Panthers veteran linebacker Thomas Davis considers the Seahawks almost like a division opponent because of how often the two teams have played in big spots of late—this will be their fourth head-to-head in the past 15 months—but there’s more than just familiarity. There may not be two teams in the NFL built more alike than the Panthers and Seahawks.

“We go about business the same way,” says Davis. “We play physical football; a run-first mentality; don’t create big mistakes on offense to put your defense in bad situations; go out and let your defense play tough football. And I don’t think there’s another quarterback in the league, besides Cam Newton, who’s able to do the kinds of things he and Russell Wilson do.”

“How these games go down,” adds Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett, “it comes to playing a team that looks just like you every week, and that’s what makes it fun.”

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It’s no wonder, then, that in the five times these teams have played since October 2012, all but one of those games has been decided by five points or fewer. The first four were Seahawks wins, including one in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs, and each time the story was the same: Seattle put the clamps down in the fourth quarter. But earlier this season, during the Panthers’ 15-1 regular-season roll, they flipped the script. In the echo chamber of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, Newton led two 80-yard TD drives in the fourth quarter to beat Seattle for the first time in his career.

Bennett, who has been chasing Newton on the field dating back to Bennett’s days in the NFC South with Tampa Bay, makes an interesting point: that the familiarity with Newton doesn’t help all that much because he’s a “constantly developing” young player. Never has that been the case more than this season when he’s improved his precision as a passer and taken more ownership at the line of scrimmage.

The Seahawks have changed, too, particularly on defense, since the teams’ first meeting this season. Seattle’s Week 6 loss to Carolina was one of Seattle’s five blown fourth-quarter leads before Thanksgiving. But by the end of the season, the Seahawks ended up back near the top, with the No. 2 defense in the league in yards allowed. Bennett doesn’t mince words about what sparked the turnaround: In Week 12, DeShawn Shead replaced Cary Williams at starting right cornerback and Jeremy Lane returned to the lineup after recovering from the torn ACL and broken arm he suffered in Super Bowl XLIX. Williams was cut two weeks later.

“Losing Cary and adding J. Lane and D. Shead in the game has really turned our season around a lot,” Bennett says. “No offense to Cary, but these guys have been in the defense a lot longer than Cary, so they kind of understand where the holes are and what you have to do, and I think they have done a great job of taking us back to that level where we are used to playing.”

“It gives us more time [on the line],” Bennett adds. “We were beating guys fast, and sometimes [the quarterbacks] were getting the ball out, but now we are getting the quarterback to hold the ball. And that starts with everybody playing football together. We’ve got a lot of great players playing in one accord.”

Another thing both teams have in common: It’s hard to pressure their quarterback. Newton, all 6-5, 245 pounds, will run over defenders without regard for who is in his way. Wilson will scoot around like a wind-up toy, while keeping his eyes downfield to make a big throw. That was the difference in the Seahawks’ wild-card win against Minnesota—the game turned when Wilson converted an errant high snap that flew back 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage into a 35-yard completion to rookie receiver Tyler Lockett.

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“If you look at that play, the whole time, when he’s kneeling on the ground, he actually scoops the ball up without looking at it,” Davis says. “He had his eyes downfield the whole way.”

Two plays later the Seahawks scored the only touchdown of the game. They outscored the Vikings 10-0 in the fourth quarter, demonstrating that killer instinct of which the Panthers have too often been on the receiving end.

Earlier this year former Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson recalled the team’s mindset against the Panthers in the past: There would always be three or four plays that would ultimately determine the outcome, and “we knew on those three or four plays, the Panthers and Cam Newton were going to mess up.” That’s why this year’s Week 6 meeting was significant for Carolina and Newton.

“In prior games it was hard for him to finish, but I think now he is finishing in the big game,” Bennett says. “That’s what makes him the caliber of player he is now. Because a lot of guys can get points or get close to winning, but he is finishing, and that’s what made him special. Who can stay tough the whole game—that’s what these games between us come down to.”

Davis said the Panthers’ win in Seattle earlier this season was important for their confidence, but as odd as it sounds, so is something else—the Seahawks’ runs to the Super Bowl each of the past two seasons. If the team they’re a spitting image of can make it all the way, why can’t the Panthers?

“When you look at what those guys have been able to do, they are built a lot like we are, and I feel like we have the capability of going and doing the same things they’ve been able to do,” Davis says. “We’re two mirror teams, and the only thing that’s different is they have a Super Bowl ring, and they’ve played in the last two Super Bowls. It’s just all about us executing when the time comes. We can’t have lulls, because that gets you sent home. We won 15 games this season out of 16 and all of that will mean nothing if we don’t go out and win this weekend.”

* * *

Two more coaching notes

• I had two main takeaways from the Tom Coughlin/Eagles courtship: 1) Coughlin’s extended talks with his former division rival show how much the man wants to keep coaching; 2) the fact that he pulled his name from consideration should raise some eyebrows about the Eagles’ power structure and how much success the team can have with the current set-up.

• Rob Ryan’s hiring in Buffalo makes for plenty of jolly Hard Knocks speculation, but I’ll say this, even if I know no one will believe it: Those who know Rob say he’s actually the more level-headed of the Ryan twins, and can help Rex figure out the right notes to strike as he tries to turn Buffalo into a winner. By bringing in Rob, and Ed Reed, Rex is accumulating more ambassadors for his defense at One Bills Drive, something he needed more of in Year One. The Pegulas are willing to give Rex what he wants, but they’re expecting results.

* * *

Five things I’ll be watching for this weekend

1) The line of scrimmage in Foxboro. It’s no secret that the Patriots’ offensive line has been an Achilles heel this season.’s Gregg Rosenthal tweeted this stunning statistic earlier this week: The Patriots have started 13 offensive line combinations this season, three more than any other team since 1993, as far back as STATS could check. And even though Justin Houston (knee) and Tamba Hali (knee, thumb) have been banged up, the Chiefs have one of the best pass rushes in the league, ranking fourth in sacks. We all remember the Patriots’ 2014 nightmare in Kansas City, which sparked Belichick’s infamous “We’re on to Cincinnati” press conference, and the root of that early-season blowout was a breakdown on the Patriots’ front. Their offensive line will get a boost this weekend with the return of Sebastian Vollmer, and it will help them if Houston is not at full strength. But Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will have a plan centered on exploiting that weakness—just like his old boss at the Jets, Rex Ryan, did when Ryan’s Bills rattled Tom Brady in a tight Week 11 loss by crowding defenders over the line of scrimmage before the snap so Brady didn’t know who was coming, or from where. The best way to beat Brady has always been to have him hearing defenders’ footsteps, whether they’re coming or not, and if a defense can push him to that brink, there’s a secondary advantage for the opponent. When Brady is feeling rattled, he more often keeps Rob Gronkowski in to block, limiting the damage the All-Pro tight end can do as a pass-catcher sent out on routes. Which brings us to the second item…

2) Rob Gronkowski’s health. The All-Pro tight end did not practice Thursday, listed with knee and back injuries, and ESPN reported that Gronkowski got a pain injection in his knee at a local hospital. The Patriots’ offense, riddled with injuries, has not looked like itself for weeks. Even with Brady under center, Belichick had so little confidence in the players he was fielding on offense in the Week 16 loss to the Jets that New England didn’t try to score in the two-minute situation at the end of either half, and deferred the overtime coin toss. Not having Gronkowski at full strength, even with the boost of getting Julian Edelman back from his broken foot, could be too much for even Brady to bear. Or, it could become Brady’s best lift-all-boats performance yet.

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3) The Chiefs offense wouldn’t be the same without Jeremy Maclin. You can’t overestimate the impact Maclin has had on an offense that threw zero touchdowns to receivers in 2014. “In these games, at this level, you have to take shots,” Chiefs OC Doug Pederson said recently. “And we didn’t have the guy to stretch the defense the first couple years. But you bring in a guy like Jeremy who can do that, and then it opens up a guy like Chris Conley, Albert Wilson, Travis Kelce.” (The irony, of course, is that by stealing Maclin away from the Eagles in free agency, Pederson will now have one less weapon when he returns to Philly as its new head coach.) The Chiefs’ offense, a West Coast system with Alex Smith at the helm, is known for not throwing deep more than throwing deep. But there’s been an effort this season to get Smith to push the ball downfield more, and the reason that could happen is Maclin, who accounted for about one-third of the Chiefs’ catches of 20-plus yards, and 40-plus yards, this season. Usually high ankle sprains sideline players for about a month, but Maclin’s has been classified as “mild” and he did some light individual work before practice Thursday.

4) Eddie Lacy and James Starks. A big key to the Packers’ wild-card win against Washington last week was their 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. It won’t be easy to run on the Cardinals’ front—they had the sixth-best run defense in the NFL this season—but the Packers will need to do that to avoid a repeat of the Week 16 horror show in Glendale, Ariz. In that 38-8 Packers loss, turnovers put them in such a hole that they were forced to pass, and Arizona’s rushers spent the afternoon teeing off on Rodgers, sacking him eight times. A good run game will keep the heat off Rodgers and keep the ball away from Carson Palmer and the thrill-a-minute Cardinals offense. 

5) The Broncos DBs have something to prove against the Steelers receivers. Round 2 between the teams this season promises to look a lot different from Round 1, with QB Ben Roethlisberger trying to throw with a sprained shoulder and torn ligaments, and wide receiver Antonio Brown potentially sidelined in the concussion protocol. But the first meeting, a 34-27 Steelers win in Pittsburgh last month, wasn’t pretty for Denver. The Steelers were the only team to score 30-plus points on the No. 1-ranked Broncos defense this season; Roethlisberger was the only 300-yard passer they’ve allowed; and Brown’s two touchdowns were the first scores Denver CB Chris Harris Jr., had given up since 2013. If Brown is out, the matchups will be different; it’s possible the Broncos’ cornerbacks will play sides, with Harris at right cornerback and Aqib Talib at left, as they’ve done this season when there isn’t a big and a little receiver. But the goal will be the same: redemption.

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