Chip Kelly’s reputation precedes him. He’s not a players’ coach. He doesn’t get along with the media. His MO includes a “it’s my way or the highway” mentality. At least, this is what those in Philadelphia would like us to believe.
Fans. Players. The team’s front office. The media. All of them.
Just two games into his coaching career with the San Francisco 49ers, it’s too early too tell whether this reputation is justified. In three months, when San Francisco’s season comes to an end, it will likely also be too early to tell whether Kelly has changed his ways, or whether those ways were exaggerated in Philly.
What we do know is that Kelly is off to a good start with his new team. It’s evident on the field with a 1-1 record and coming off a somewhat competitive game against the defending conference champion Panthers in Carolina.
That’s fine. San Francisco likely won’t contend for a playoff spot this season. In fact, the team will be lucky to match its win total from last season. On the field, it’s a reclamation project few in the NFL are currently tasked with.
It’s off the field where Kelly has earned his chops. It’s in his relationship with his players. It’s in his support of backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Faced with the obvious protest-related questions during his press conference on Thursday, Kelly took this support one step further. Support for a quarterback that was seen as an enigma in the Bay Area long before he decided to protest inequality in the United States.
— Ryan Sakamoto (@SakamotoRyan) September 22, 2016
Some background here. Kelly’s give-and-take was with Lowell Cohn, a long-time 49ers beat writer with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. While respected by some, Cohn and his son, Grant, are seen in a negative light within the construct of the Bay Area sports scene.
Lowell for his stick-in-the-mud mentality, and Grant for the perception that he’s been fed everything with a silver spoon.
Fair or not, it’s a perception that stands within the mainstream in Northern California. It’s also a perception that took hold on a national level, at least with Lowell, when Kelly’s spat with him made waves.
It’s an interesting dynamic, to be sure. This comes just a year after current Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy claimed Kelly treated African-American players differently than he treated Caucasian players during his stint in Philadelphia (more on that here).
Without getting too much into detail here, Kelly is the first coach in the NFL to speak out in detail regarding the situation in America’s streets, giving a strong opinion of what he sees happening in the process.
“I think it’s an issue — you look at what’s gone on in Tulsa and in Charlotte the last two nights — it’s an issue that’s at the forefront of our country,” Kelly said, via the San Francisco Chronicle. “And it needs to be addressed and be taken care of because what’s going on is not right.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed within San Francisco’s locker room.
That's my coach 💪🏿 https://t.co/PMrBXNOfZX
— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) September 22, 2016
Heck, it hasn’t gone unnoticed in Philadlephia itself.
“I got a lot of respect for Chip, and I know how he is with his players,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said Friday, via ESPN.com. “I appreciate him obviously having Kaepernick’s back and then actually speaking on the fact that Kaepernick’s message is legitimate and that [the injustice] needs to stop,” Jenkins said. “Hopefully, coming from somebody like him, when you’re a head coach in the National Football League and you’re also a white man, to say that means volumes. So hopefully more people who actually feel that way who will speak up.”
Born and raised in New Hamphsire, Kelly began his coaching career at the University of Nevada before stops at Columbia, New Hampshire and Johns Hopkins. Then in 2008, he started what ended up being a largely successful six-year tenure in Eugene with the Oregon Ducks.
Needless to say, Kelly himself has been somewhat removed from the racial issues that have continued to exist in American society over the years. This isn’t to say he’s not qualified. Much like those who conclude Kaepernick himself isn’t qualified because he was raised by Caucasian parents in Northern California, that’s an ignorant statement to make.
It does, however, beg the question. Being removed from the issues himself, Kelly has an outside perspective those deeply involved in the issue don’t possess. That speaks to what Jenkins said on Friday.
It adds credence, not only because of Kelly’s skin color, but because of his previous perception around the National Football League. A perception that now seems like it was overblown in the first place.
When Kelly was hired by San Francisco, the narrative was that he wouldn’t get along with a front office that couldn’t coexist with former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Too many strong personalities within one organization. Too much of a split in philosophies. That’s what “they” said, and it become a somewhat legitimate point early on in Kelly’s tenure.
Remember, it was just a few short weeks ago that reports surfaced there was a split between Kelly and the front office about Kaepernick (more on that here).
General manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York reportedly wanted Kap thrown out the door. Meanwhile, Kelly himself seemed to back his quarterback in that situation as well.
Now, weeks later and with Kap potentially one bad Blaine Gabbert game away from starting, it’s rather clear who won that battle. It’s also rather clear who has control over the 53-man roster.
That was yet another potential issue skeptics focused on when the 49ers hired Kelly. This can also be thrown out as a false narrative now that the season has started and Kap remains very much a member of the 53-man roster.
No one is sitting here saying that the Kelly era is going to go swimmingly. There will be hiccups along the way. That’s magnified when looking at the rebuilding nature of the organization.
Though, less than a handful of games into his first season in San Francisco, it appears that Kelly has earned the respect of his players. That’s no small accomplishment considering how his days in Philadelphia ended.
Also no small accomplishment, Kelly has his 49ers playing competitive football for the first time in nearly two years. Should that include Kaepernick under center here soon, we’d then be able to add another accomplishment to Kelly’s short but rather intriguing resume by the Bay.