Grant Cohn: Sizing up Chip Kelly and his 49ers experiments

Unlike his predecessor, the 49ers’ new coach brought a thinking man’s approach to preparing for the 2016 season.|

The 49ers have a serious coach again.

The previous coach — we don't need to refer to him by name — ran a football team like it was P.E. class. The current coach, Chip Kelly, runs a football team like it is science class.

We're still learning about Kelly the science teacher, and will learn much more when training camp begins at the end of July. For now, here's what we know. This is the Chip Kelly scouting report.


1. Kelly's offense probably will improve the 49ers' running game.

For two years, the 49ers have misused Carlos Hyde.

Hyde rushed for 1,521 yards at Ohio State in 2013, and gained almost all of those yards from shotgun or pistol formations. Not I formations. Not under center.

Then the Niners drafted Hyde in 2014 and tried to change him. Tried to make him a traditional running back who carried the ball mostly when the quarterback was under center. Mistake.

Through two seasons with the Niners, Hyde averaged just 3.1 yards per carry when the quarterback was under center. Terrible. But when the quarterback was in the shotgun, Hyde averaged a whopping 5.3 yards per carry.

This season, Hyde will line up in shotgun formations 99 percent of the time he carries the ball. He should have a major breakout season as long as he stays healthy.

And Kelly's offense should improve Hyde's chances of staying healthy. Most of the time, Hyde will run the zone-read, preventing opposing defenses from swarming Hyde and hurting him because they'll have to defend two potential runners — Hyde and the quarterback.

2. Kelly's offense probably will improve the 49ers' third-down efficiency.

Even with Anquan Boldin, one of the greatest third-down receivers of all time, the 49ers last season had the second-worst third-down offense in the NFL, converting just 30.4 percent of their third downs into first downs.

The problem was the play designs of the offensive coordinator, Geep Chryst. Even on third-and-medium (third-and-less-than-7), Chryst would call plays which included a 'check-down' option – usually a tailback running a shallow swing route along the line of scrimmage, nowhere near the first-down marker. Of course, Blaine Gabbert would choose the check-down option almost every time. He couldn't help himself. He loves checking down.

Kelly won't give him or any quarterback that option on third-and-medium next season. In those situations, Kelly almost always sends three receivers deep and two receivers to 'the sticks,' forcing the quarterback to throw no shorter than the first-down marker. The result: Kelly's third-down offense never ranked lower than 16th when he coached the Eagles. That's probably close to where the Niners' third-down offense will rank next season.


1. Kelly's offense probably will commit a lot of turnovers.

The past two seasons under Kelly, the Eagles committed 67 turnovers — more than two turnovers per game, and more than any other NFL team committed during this period.

Why do Kelly's teams seem to cough up the ball so frequently?

One reason: Kelly uses a no-huddle offense and runs more plays than most teams. More plays mean more opportunities to score, but also mean more opportunities to fumble and throw interceptions.

Kelly's no-huddle offense confuses both the opposing defense and his own team. Every player is in such a rush to get lined up, Kelly's center sometimes snaps the ball before the quarterback even is ready to receive it. Fumble. Or the quarterback sometimes hands the ball to the running back when running back thinks the quarterback will keep it and run with it himself. Fumble.

Kelly also uses lots of 'option,' 'choice' and 'dodge' routes, all of which require the receiver to adjust his path depending on the coverage, and the quarterback to read the coverage the same way the receiver does.

Bad things happen when the quarterback and receiver read the coverage differently. The receiver breaks one way, the quarterback throws another way and boom, interception.

What will Kelly do to fix this problem? I bet he's working on a solution right now.

2. Kelly's offense probably will hurt Kelly's defense.

The question is how much?

The three seasons Kelly coached the Eagles, his defense ranked 28th, 29th and 30th simply because it was on the field too much. Kelly's offense would complete a lightning-quick drive or an even quicker three-and-out, or it would commit a turnover. And the defense would have to run right back out there, mouths gaping, gasping for air.

Last season, the 49ers had a promising, young defense that gave up lots of yards but not many points, ranking a respectable 18th in points allowed. The defense seems a year or two away from being special.

Will Kelly sabotage the defense's potential? Will the improvements he makes to the Niners' offense come at the expense of the Niners' young defense? Or will Kelly figure out a way to improve both?

We eagerly await Kelly's next experiment.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at

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