It’s hard to imagine 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh ever inviting Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to watch a practice and to peruse his playbook. But that’s what he did two years ago with the man with whom he’ll match wits Sunday, Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly.
Kelly still was coaching at Oregon at the time, and Harbaugh had earlier sent one of his top envoys, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, to Eugene, Ore., to find out more about the Ducks’ offense. The two head coaches have a mutual admiration – they split their two matchups when Harbaugh was at Stanford – and Wednesday they took turns lobbing compliments at each other.
“Just two guys I’ve got great, great respect for, two really good football coaches,” Kelly said of Harbaugh and Roman during a conference call.
Said Harbaugh of Kelly: “Great guy to talk to. Great coach to talk football with. Just find him to be, like all the coaches I really like, a football guy.”
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Harbaugh has invited other college coaches to sit in on his sessions, but there hasn’t been one who joined the NFL ranks so quickly after his visit.
A few months after he was in Santa Clara, Kelly was hired by Philadelphia. Now he heads back to Santa Clara leading an Eagles squad that at 3-0 is one of the NFL’s three undefeated teams.
Still, plenty has changed since Kelly’s last visit.
The 49ers have a different starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, and an offense that for stretches of Sunday’s game in Arizona used five receivers and no huddle, features more consistent with Kelly’s hyper-tempo offenses than Harbaugh’s usual deliberate, ground-and-pound approach.
One of Harbaugh’s former pupils admitted he was surprised to see so many wide receivers on the field at one time.
“At Stanford, we ran a lot of three-tight-end sets,” said Zach Ertz, who now plays for Kelly’s Eagles. “... I know coach Harbaugh likes to grind out the game and hit people in the mouth from an offensive standpoint. So I guess it was kind of a shock to see it.”
Kelly, however, said that while a wide receiver-heavy offense is unusual for Harbaugh, innovation was not.
“I don’t think anything’s surprising when you go against a Jim Harbaugh or Greg Roman team,” he said. “I think they’re going to use every weapon available to them. They’re always working to gain an advantage, so I wasn’t surprised they did it. It’s just one of those things you chalk up to yourself that they’ve got another wrinkle now. They’re always going to have a wrinkle, and they’re always going to find a way to be successful on the offensive side of the ball.”
Kelly said he thought some of the notes Roman took back to California with him after his visit to Oregon could be seen in the read-option packages the 49ers run with Kaepernick, albeit with their own twist.
“I don’t think when anybody visits anybody they say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take this exactly from them.’ ” he said. “I think you learn and think, ‘How can I apply it to the personnel I have?’ And I think that’s one of the strengths of Jim and Greg – they adapt their offense to their personnel.”
Asked if Kelly and the Eagles are using ideas and concepts borrowed from Harbaugh, Roman and the 49ers, Kelly said, “Yes, I’m an information gatherer.”
But the two head coaches are no longer in a giving mood, and Kelly wasn’t interested in revealing any specifics of what he took from Harbaugh.
“Not off the top of my head,” he said.