Prior to 2013, critics doubted whether Chip Kelly could succeed in the NFL. Many tagged him with the dreaded “college coach” label. Kelly – along with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll – are quickly turning that label into a positive. Harbaugh has done so with his power schemes and manic enthusiasm, Carroll with his passion and smothering defense. Chip Kelly has done so with an emphasis on simplicity and execution, two qualities that are often overlooked in what has largely become a complex, matchup based league.
Kelly’s devotion to the hurry up no huddle is well known, with the extra repetitions gained in practice and games combining with a comparably simple playbook to improve execution. His offense is no gimmick – it is based on sound football principles. At his core, Kelly wants to run the ball. The basis of this running game are his zone concepts.
Kelly teaches a counting system to his offensive line on zone running plays. This simplifies their reads, as the line merely needs to count the defense in the box and block it accordingly. The center identifies 0, the first in-box defender to the playside. The playside guard blocks number 1 (the next defender to the playside), and the tackle blocks number 2. The backside guard blocks number 1 backside, and the backside tackle blocks number 2 backside. A tight end or extra blocker would block number 3. Kelly’s famous “read option” (as it has become known) assigns the quarterback to “block” any extra backside defender with his eyes, if there is one. If that player is aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback keeps the ball to the space he vacated. If that player is not aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback has successfully “blocked” him from tackling the ball carrier. If no such “extra” defender is in the box, the quarterback hands the ball off every time. Thus, what has become known as a “read option” is nothing more than a zone run that gives the quarterback the ability to keep the ball if the defense brings more defenders than the offensive line can block.
The simplicity and execution of this counting system can be seen in LeSean McCoy’s 2013 week 1 touchdown against the Washington Redskins.
Before the snap, we see the Eagles in an unbalanced formation, with three offensive linemen to their left. The play will be run to their right. As one can see below, their counting system allows them to adjust to the defensive front with ease – a necessity in the NFL, where defenses are ever changing and complex. Note that the stacked defensive lineman and linebacker to the playside are both considered player 1 and player 2, necessitating a combo block from the right guard and right tackle (who in this case is a tight end). This complex blocking takes time and communication to master, another reason why the simplicity of Kelly’s offense is a benefit to their team.
As the play unfolds, we can see the linemen taking great angles to “cover up” their men. This is a hallmark of zone blocking – it is more important to get a body on a defensive player and wash him towards the direction he wants to go than it is to attempt to blow them up off the ball. We can also see Michael Vick “blocking” the extra defender in the box (#4). Additionally, McCoy’s momentum begins parallel to the line of scrimmage, towards the sideline, influencing Redskins defenders to fight towards the outside.
McCoy has the ball now, and has made his hard cut down the field. We can see that some of the Redskins are still moving towards the sideline, as their momentum – and the Eagles blockers – are taking them there. The hole is large for McCoy, and not because any of his linemen have made a devastating knockout block. None of the linemen have driven a Redskins player off the ball. But they have put bodies on bodies, allowing a back with great vision and talent such as McCoy to find and exploit the opening seam of the defense.
This allows McCoy to get into the open field with a head of steam. He is among the hardest runners in the NFL to tackle when given such space.
Kelly’s offense has always thrived on letting his athletes perform in space. Here we get an example: McCoy hurdling a defender as he winds back towards the opposite sideline.
And we see the final element of what makes Kelly’s offense tick: downfield blocking by receivers. As in all “big play” running offenses, Kelly depends on his receivers to help turn long runs into touchdown runs. Here we get a great example of McCoy reading Riley Cooper’s butt to cut inside, aided by the terrific cut block by Jason Avant to form a clear running lane.
McCoy gives Eagles fans an example of what Oregon fans grew to know well – a runner in the clear with enough space to celebrate before reaching the end zone.
Chip Kelly has done a tremendous job of creating a system that can take advantage of the talent he has on his teams. The beauty of the system is that it is based on sound football principles. Though it has been labeled a “space age” offense, perhaps the biggest innovation of the system is the return of simplicity to the NFL. This simplicity also means that his system is duplicable at all levels of play. Even if one doesn’t want to run the hurry up or the spread, teaching such a counting system to the offensive line is an easy way to improve their communication. No matter how complex the defensive front is, it can always be boiled down to a simple count. Much like Kelly’s offense, the beauty lies in the simplicity.