Chip Kelly’s greatest accomplishment during his 352-day tenure as the 49ers’ coach may be that he vanquished the Chip Kelly who left the Philadelphia Eagles at the end of the 2015 season.
You remember that guy, right? Brash, power-hungry, inflexible, had no patience for NFL-size egos, appeared as being a teensy bit racist. That was the perception after running back LeSean McCoy complained Kelly “got rid of all the good players, especially the good black players” following his trade from Philadelphia to the Buffalo Bills.
That kind of allegation zips through locker rooms and was discussed among 49ers players when Kelly was hired a year ago. There’s not even a faint echo of that today, hasn’t been for months.
No 49ers players were knocking over trash bins and smashing their fists into lockers when they learned Kelly had been fired. There was an acceptance that major changes are expected after a two-win season and no one’s job is safe.
But players expressed fondness and admiration for Kelly for how he handled a difficult season. As left tackle Joe Staley said, “This whole season’s kind of been a bummer.”
“He could have really, really, really lost this football team,” he said. “I thought he did a great job of just kind of keeping everybody focused throughout this kind of crappy season.”
One of the biggest hurdles, Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, sprung up just as the preseason ended. The debate drew tough talk from coaches around the league. Kelly, criticized for being too controlling in Philadelphia, played it perfectly by merely stepping out of the way and allowing his players to handle it internally. They decided it wasn’t going to be an issue among them, and it wasn’t.
Kelly also dispatched the perception he was autocratic and desperate for control. That impression emerged after a struggle early in 2015 left him in charge of the Eagles’ personnel department.
With San Francisco, he almost went out of his way to avoid being involved in personnel. The farthest he traveled to watch a player during the predraft process was Berkeley. He always was careful to yield to general manager Trent Baalke whenever he was asked personnel questions.
And perhaps that was Kelly’s biggest miscalculation as he went from Philadelphia to the Bay Area: He over-corrected and became too hands-off.
Baalke had a typical, Baalke-like draft. Which is to say, it was heavy on cornerbacks, ACL patients and defensive players with long arms and hardly touched on the skill positions Kelly needed to run his offense.
The 49ers finished the season with Jeremy Kerley, Chris Harper and Rod Streater at wideout, Garrett Celek and Jim Dray at tight end and Shaun Draughn at running back, a veritable “who’s that?” of skill-position players.
In the locker room, meanwhile, the 49ers also could have used an appearance or two by the exacting and inflexible Chip Kelly some Eagles came to know and loathe.
Missed assignments were blamed after the flop against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 and remained a problem the rest of the season. On Monday, several veteran players said “accountability” was an issue in 2016, with quarterback Christian Ponder going so far as to say some of his younger teammates didn’t spend enough time studying their playbook.
In Kelly’s past, that kind of behavior might have resulted in someone being dealt to Buffalo.
Said Staley: “This is a results business. If we were 13-3 and a terribly divided football team, I think it would be much more fun for me than being a close football team and going 2-14.”