San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: A Chip Kelly his ex-players might not recognize

Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly talks with running back LeSean McCoy during a game on Sept. 9, 2013. After McCoy left for Buffalo following the 2014 season, he had some less-than-friendly words about his former coach. They’ll meet again Sunday, when Kelly’s 49ers travel to face McCoy’s Bills.
Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly talks with running back LeSean McCoy during a game on Sept. 9, 2013. After McCoy left for Buffalo following the 2014 season, he had some less-than-friendly words about his former coach. They’ll meet again Sunday, when Kelly’s 49ers travel to face McCoy’s Bills. Associated Press file

LeSean McCoy says his beef with Chip Kelly is “way behind me.”

“I never really had a real issue,” the Bills running back told Buffalo area reporters this week. “Some things we didn’t see eye to eye.”

A year and a half ago, however, McCoy had an enormous issue with his former head coach in Philadelphia, which became a real problem for Kelly. After Kelly traded him from the Eagles to Buffalo, McCoy asserted that the coach “got rid of all the good players. Especially the good black players.”

Before the Eagles and Bills played last year, McCoy said he wouldn’t shake Kelly’s hand.

Was Kelly a racist in a league in which nearly 70 percent of the players are African American? That question was discussed among 49ers players soon after Kelly was hired in January.

There isn’t even a whiff of that now.

Kelly somehow has become the reverse of who he was – or at least how he was portrayed – in Philadelphia. He’s Bizarro Chip, if you will.

He’s been at his best this season not from an Xs and Os standpoint, which was celebrated during his first two seasons with the Eagles, but for his player-relation skills, something for which he was excoriated in Philadelphia.

After Kelly was let go, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie seemed to take a swipe at Kelly when he said he was looking for “emotional intelligence” as a trait in his next head coach. Translation: Kelly was too distant, too icy, too rigid, too analytical and not human enough.

In San Francisco, by contrast, Kelly has looked like an emotional Einstein.

When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest first came to light, the gut reaction from nearly everyone was that the then-backup quarterback would be ostracized. Kelly didn’t jump to that conclusion. He let the 49ers’ locker room handle it, and the players decided Kaepernick had a point.

So did Kelly.

At a time when the league issued a bland statement about balancing the right to protest with respect for the flag, Kelly’s words were more forceful and attention-grabbing, including inside the 49ers’ locker room. He called the police-and-minorities issues at the root of Kaepernick’s protest “heinous.”

He doubled down on that Thursday.

“There are people that are dying senselessly – both police officers and citizens of this country,” Kelly said. “If you don’t see that, I think you’re either blind or ignorant. I mean, there’s a huge issue going on in this country. I don’t think anybody can say that they think it’s OK. I don’t think you’re going to get that from anybody, and that’s just what I mean, that there’s a lot of senseless things that are going on in this nation that need to be addressed. So I support his take on that.”

Kelly also has navigated the 49ers’ quarterback decisions – another issue that can roil a locker room – as adroitly as possible, although that story line is still playing out.

Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert split snaps in training camp as they competed to be the team’s Week 1 starter. In reality, the competition wasn’t close. Gabbert was the better – and healthier – quarterback entering the season. No one could have argued differently.

After four consecutive losses, it’s become equally obvious that the 49ers aren’t going to flourish with Gabbert and that the team needs a jolt.

Which further ties Kelly to Kaepernick.

It’s the only move Kelly has right now, and one that may not make much difference. Kaepernick, after all, hasn’t played well in a while. Since the team’s NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle at the end of the 2013 season, he’s 10-14 as the 49ers’ starter. And whenever Kelly was asked in recent weeks about the possibility of starting Kaepernick, he’s said the quarterback, still coming back from recent surgeries, was not yet the 2013 version of himself.

Why not the 2014 or 2015 version? Kaepernick was healthy at the start of last season and played eight games. Because 2013 was the last time Kaepernick was on top of the football world, and no one has seen that version since.

Can Kelly get him back to that point?

Both of their NFL futures may depend on it.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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