The Chip Kelly Era began pleasantly enough.
In his first news conference Wednesday as 49ers coach, Kelly introduced himself as “a football guy,” and he came across as one with a sense of humor and an extreme measure of self-confidence – tempered recently by the humility of his dismissal as football-guy-in-chief for the Philadelphia Eagles.
He talked about how he used to “self-scout” himself and his team after every game, after every season. This season, he was able to begin his postseason analysis early when the Eagles dispatched him after 15 games. The NFL regular season, as you know, consists of 16, and Kelly’s critical self-review turned into something far more drastic.
“I don’t think it was a self-scout,” Kelly said. “I look at it more as an autopsy. So, I’m in the middle of the autopsy right now. I’ve sent some toxicology reports out, and when they come back, I’ll give you a full answer in terms of what went wrong.”
The report will likely show Kelly’s cause of demise in Philly was winning only six of 15 games he coached this season. That is a bad record for any football guy, even if the Eagles won 10 games in each of Kelly’s two previous seasons in Philadelphia and even if the Eagles qualified for the playoffs in one of them.
A contributing factor in Philly may have been how he managed talent out of the organization, in the personages of exceptional athletes such as quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. There also was the issue of his lack of “emotional intelligence,” as articulated by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.
Dismissed on Dec. 29, Kelly retired to his native New Hampshire to recover while his name was inserted into every football head-coaching vacancy in America. While presidential candidates scoured the state, Kelly stayed home and took calls from football royalty. Bill Belichick checked in. The Patriots’ championship coach and fellow football guy exchanged notes with Kelly from back when Chip was an assistant at New Hampshire, one of which may have included instruction on how to hold the media in suspicion, if not contempt.
“I’m not governed by the fear of what other people say,” Kelly said.
Niners fans hope Belichick also taught Kelly something about winning Super Bowls, and that maybe some of the other coaches imparted championship advice when they called during those dark days. Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Bill Parcells all phoned Kelly with support. Even Nick Saban dialed in from Alabama and invited Kelly down for a chat while the Crimson Tide prepared for Clemson.
Kelly’s job with the 49ers will be only his third as boss. He’d been a career assistant who traveled from Columbia to Johns Hopkins to his alma mater at New Hampshire before Mike Bellotti discovered him and brought him to Oregon. Kelly replaced Bellotti in 2009 and took the Ducks to four consecutive bowl games.
Then, Philadelphia. And now, Santa Clara.
“I always have kind of a quest and a thirst for just trying to improve,” Kelly said in the Levi’s Stadium auditorium. “One of the things that attracted me to this part of the country, it’s probably the most fertile, creative ground around here, when you look at the companies in Silicon Valley and the whole Bay Area itself. I’m excited to be a part of it. I mean, you walk to work this morning and you smell the air around here and you get smarter.”
After the player-personnel controversies in Philadelphia, Kelly willingly will leave those decisions in Santa Clara to his immediate supervisor, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. A reader of books on business and management, Kelly reportedly has quoted noted authors and ethicists at his news conferences, although when asked Wednesday to elaborate on his style as the man in charge, he boiled it down to, “I’m not a micromanager.”
Kelly was asked about his practice in Philadelphia of “sports-science testing” his players. This is another way of saying he had them urinating into a cup. Kelly answered it wasn’t necessarily a matter of finding out who on the club might be drinking or smoking or sniffing things they would probably want to avoid, but rather a process to improve their athletic performance.
“First off, it’s not a test,” Kelly said. “It’s just to tell you, ‘Are you properly hydrated enough to go out on the practice field so you don’t pull a muscle?’ You’re just trying to put players in a position where they don’t get injured.”
Kelly is divorced with no children and a few close friends in the football community and from his Granite State roots. He flew high with the Ducks in Oregon but ultimately quacked with the Eagles in Philadelphia. He talked Wednesday of being humbled by the 49ers’ trophy room and being named to restore a franchise legacy established by Bill Walsh. As a football guy with the 49ers, Kelly’s own stature for the ages is now on the line.