When Chip Kelly left college football for the NFL in 2013, he provided a measure of mystique.
He ran an offense that would speed pace by NFL standards. It was different, which always draws attention. It looked fun.
So far, it’s played to mixed results.
Kelly started out with back-to-back 10-6 seasons as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, the first of those seasons resulting in a playoff appearance. Then, last season, the Eagles slipped to 6-10 and he was fired.
Now the former Oregon coach is back on the West Coast with the San Francisco 49ers. In his debut as their coach, the 49ers trampled the Los Angeles Rams 28-0 Monday night. The 49ers will play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Is Kelly’s offense still a mystery of sorts to the NFL?
“Familiarity is important,” said Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. “Having gone against coach Kelly multiple times now, I think that helps us as a staff and with the players who have gone against him before.
“He’s got a great system. He’s a darn good football coach. We have a lot of respect for how he does things there.”
The Panthers are 1-1 in regular-season matchups with Kelly. They were blown out by the Eagles in 2014, 45-21, then beat the Eagles in 2015, 27-16. In that first game, the Panthers’ offense was the bigger problem, committing five turnovers. In the rematch, the Panthers’ defense sacked then-Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford five times.
The Panthers lost their first game this season to the Denver Broncos 21-20. A first-time starter at quarterback, Trevor Siemian, had success in that game with short-to-intermediate patterns and three-step drops.
The Panthers figure to see a similar pattern with 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who completed 22 of 35 passes against the Rams for 170 yards. Gabbert also rushed nine times for 43 yards.
“They get the ball out fast, so we need to do everything as a defensive line to get him off his spot and get our hands up,” said Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short.
“He’s going to hold it sometime and we’ve got to be in position. And even if he throws it fast, we need to be in his face and let him know we’re here. We’ve got to knock these guys back on first and second down, so that he has to hold it (attempting longer routes) on third down.”
Gabbert’s yards per pass against the Rams – 4.9 – might seem meager, but he never threw an interception, and that was more important to Kelly.
“He did a great job of protecting the football. For us to win, we’ve got to win the turnover battle,” Kelly said in a conference call with Charlotte media.
Gabbert buys Kelly’s reasoning on this, but he doesn’t want to just be a game-manager going forward.
“You’ve got to be cognizant of turnovers – you can’t put the ball in harm’s way,” Gabbert said. “But there are also times when you have to take your shot and let your receivers go make plays.”
Then Gabbert addressed the idea of executing precisely at the fast pace Kelly always expects.
“You need to have a singular focus play-in and play-out. If you’re not on it, bad plays can stack up,” Gabbert said. “For the most part, it’s getting conditioned to the offense – learning how to operate it. Then it becomes routine and it runs smoothly.”
To which Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson replied, “We’ve just got to practice (against) it. Hopefully we can get adjusted to it.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said his team has gotten pretty good at that, based on previous matchups with the Eagles.
"We’ve tried to do it the last two seasons, and now in our third season. I think we do a pretty good job," Rivera said of replicating Kelly’s pace. "I think (backup quarterback) Derek Anderson has a feel for it and seems to get that tempo going pretty good.
"But at the at the end of the day, it’s not (just) about assimilating the tempo as much as running (the other team’s) plays properly, too."
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell