NFL: Why the 49ers Were Right to Hire Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly looks on before a game against the Cowboys

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Would Chip Kelly be better off coaching at the collegiate level? Perhaps. Maybe one day we’ll find out. But that day won’t come next season. The Chipper’s already got a new job — in San Francisco. On Thursday, in one of the more surprising turn of events to happen since this latest game of NFL coaching musical chairs unfolded, the San Francisco 49ers hired Kelly to be the 20th coach in franchise history.

“We are thrilled to announce Chip Kelly as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers,” CEO Jed York said. “Chip has a proven track record at both the college and NFL levels that speaks for itself. We believe strongly that he is the right man to get this team back to competing for championships. I look forward to watching Trent and Chip work closely to build a team that will make us all proud.”

Given the way Kelly’s 2015 ended — the Philadelphia Eagles fired the head coach with one game to go in his third season and the team sitting with a 6-9 record — it might seem foolish to believe that he is the right person to correct the floundering 49ers, who finished this past season with a 5-11 mark in Jim Tomsula’s first (and only) year running the show. And yet, when you really take the time to think about it, this hiring actually makes complete sense. In fact, not only that, it was the smart play.

Quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert #2 and Colin Kaepernick take the field prior to the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals

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The San Francisco 49ers were an absolute mess last year. Most of it by their own fruition. But a mess just the same. Pushing former coach Jim Harbaugh out the door and promoting Tomsula to head coach was a safe, shortsighted, and, ultimately, poor decision. And it’s clear the organization recognized this. At least that’s the impression we got from the statement made by Niners general manager Trent Baalke following the announcement of Kelly’s hiring:

Chip possesses all the qualities we were looking for in our next head coach. He has demonstrated the ability to be innovative everywhere he has coached and has had great success throughout his career. Chip’s passion for the game and vision for the future of this team clearly stood out to us during the search process. He is an extremely driven individual that I look forward to working with.

In his three seasons in the NFL, Kelly has amassed a 26-21 record, incorporated an uptempo offense like nothing else the league has ever seen (so long time of possession), and shown that he knows how to get the most out of his quarterbacks. This final point is why we honestly believe he can thrive in San Francisco. With that, here’s two words for you: Colin Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick throws the ball against Seattle

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For the first time since he had the opportunity to coach Michael Vick in 2013, Kelly will find himself with the kind of mobile quarterback who’s best suited for his system. Kaepernick is big, strong, athletic, has a cannon for an arm, and is actually a threat to beat the defense with his legs. And while we understand that the Niners benched him this season in favor of Blaine Gabbert (yikes), we think Kelly is the perfect coach to unlock the 28-year-old’s vast potential. And we’re not the only ones.

During his time with the Eagles, Kelly proved that he has the X’s and O’s of the game down pat. However, his lack of people skills and the poor decisions he made when given control over the team’s personnel department ultimately led to his downfall. With Baalke calling the shots in San Francisco, Kelly shouldn’t feel overwhelmed on the account of having too much on his plate. All he’ll have to do is coach, which is something that he does quite well.

“As one of the most historic franchises in the National Football League, I realize the high standards and expectations that this position demands and I embrace the challenges ahead,” Kelly said in a statement. “My immediate focus is to build the best coaching staff possible, one that will maximize the abilities of each of our players and put us in the best position to win football games.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this could be Kelly’s last opportunity to coach at the game’s highest level. The San Francisco 49ers are taking a major risk by giving it to him. Only time will tell if the reward will be worth the risk.

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN.go.com, and 49ers.com.