Lowell Cohn: Buzz about 49ers' Chip Kelly and Oregon could be his exit plan

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SANTA CLARA - Fact. Billionaire Phil Knight was Chip Kelly’s guest at Sunday’s 49ers game. You know, the one the Niners were leading 14-0, but lost 34-17.

Fact: Knight is a massive donor to the University of Oregon, including the football program.

Fact: Knight attended Oregon’s loss to Cal on Saturday and told one Oregon reporter things were “not pretty” for the Ducks.

Fact: The Ducks are in last place in the Pac-12 North and have not won a game in the conference.

Fact: Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich could be a dead duck in Eugene.

Fact: Knight and Chip are pals, and when Chip coached Oregon, the Ducks were mighty good.

Pure speculation: After this horrendous season with the 49ers, his first in Santa Clara, Chip might go back to Oregon.

This is not my idea, not a speculation I started. The Oregonian ran an article wondering about the possibility of Chip going back to college. Me, I find the idea intriguing and incredibly appropriate. A source told me a Chip-back-to-Oregon rumor is running wild through the NFL. According to this notion, Knight, in his desperation to get the Ducks quacking again, will pay the buyout on Chip’s Niners’ contract.

At his Monday news conference, Chip and I had this dialog:

Me: Over the weekend, The Oregonian ran an article speculating if there were an opening at Oregon you might go back. Would you? A head coaching gig?

Chip: “No. I’m the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. So, not looking at anything else.”

Me: Past this season, you would stay here?

Chip: “Yeah, I’m here.”

OK, Chip pledged his allegiance to the 49ers. He has to. He’s coaching the team and Helfrich is his pal. But that doesn’t mean Kelly was telling the truth forever.

Look at things from his point of view. The 49ers won’t get better this season. They won’t be good — a contender — for years to come. Not with that lack of talent. Not with those quarterbacks. Not with that general manager. Not with that ownership.

It will be hard for Kelly to lose year after year and keep his self-respect. And all that losing will hurt his brand. Remember they ran him out of Philly for losing. This may be his only chance to get the Oregon job. He should take it before he gets labeled a career loser and a has-been.

He may not be an NFL coach. Some people aren’t. Nick Saban came out of college, flopped at the Miami Dolphins, went back to college and is a god at the University of Alabama. His self-esteem seems intact. Chip may be another Saban.

On Monday, Chip and I had another discussion:

Me: Do you have enough talented players on your roster to compete in this league?

Chip: Yeah, we do. We do.

Me: Then why has the coaching staff not brought out that talent to win more games?

Chip: That’s on us. I agree 100 percent in terms of what you’re saying. But, our job is to put our players in position to make plays and we’re not doing a good enough job of that.

Let’s pause before continuing the Chip-Lowell dialog and notice a few things. Chip did not hesitate saying the Niners have enough talent to compete. He should have been more circumspect. Because the Niners do not have enough talent to compete. And he should know it.

By answering so glibly, he left himself open for my second question, that one about why the coaches aren’t producing with such a talent-laden squad. Then, of course, he said the onus is on him and his coaches.

Everyone agrees with that, although we’ll throw some onus at Jed York and Trent Baalke.

Chip and I continued.

Me: To stay with that topic, I noticed in the game yesterday they really ran against you well and a lot of running plays their offensive linemen were pushing defensive lineman Arik Armstead and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner just out of the way and creating big gaps. Is there anything you can do to improve those two guys or help them or do something different?

Chip: Yeah, there’s a lot of different things you can do. Some of those things, if you’re watching the game from the side, are they getting double-teamed? If they are getting double-teamed, are we doing a good enough job of filling the gaps to peel the double team off of them to make sure that it’s a single block on those guys? So, there’s a lot of fits that we can get from our linebackers or from the secondary that we can do to help those guys.”

I have noticed one thing about Chip. He is the best coach in the NFL when he’s at the news-conference podium. No one, not even Bill Belichick, can compete with Chip coaching a game from behind the podium. Chip has every answer, has every situation covered. Nothing is a problem because he has the solution. Behind the podium, that is. On the field, not so much.

His answer to his linemen getting mauled — the mauling was why the Niners lost, not because Colin Kaepernick was no good — well, his answer was something about peeling the double team off his two inadequate linemen, although sometimes one offensive lineman controlled Buckner or Armstead. But back to peeling the double-team. We ask: What prevented Chip from peeling during the game? In Brooklyn in 1959, we would have told him, “Yeah, Chip, you’re a peeler.”

And we say this. Chip, you are a born college coach. You are rational and controlled. You like to teach. You can motivate teenagers and young men. Student athletes look up to you.

Your speed-up offense is useless in the NFL, but it once worked in college and probably could work again. Same goes for your gimmicky read-option or zone-read or whatever you call it. Your rinky-dink playbook, more like a brochure, might work in the Pac-12, although the conference has evolved since you left. And that awful defense of yours, oh my God, wouldn’t get humiliated in college. Probably not.

So, Chip, if Phil Knight makes you a good offer, thank the Yorks for all the good times and the wonderful memories, and flee to Eugene.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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