Chip Kelly, Chris Borland and the forces of change coming for the NFL

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Two of the least popular figures amongst the NFL’s power brokers right now are Chris Borland, the star rookie linebacker for the San Francisco 49er’s who retired to avoid health problems, and Chip Kelly who has overturned popular NFL narratives with his spread offense in Philadelphia.

Borland’s decision to pass up big future NFL earnings was an implicit rebuke of how the league protects and compensates its players. Borland did the math and said, “nah, you can give those millions to someone else, I’m going to protect my long term health.”

That led to responses that Borland was a “quitter,” a “wimp,” or somehow foolish for passing up so much money, as NFL writer Adam Schefter implied with this tweet:

Chip Kelly has also drawn the ire of people around the league with his refusal to follow the conventional wisdom of how to build a football roster. While his decision to trade LeSean McCoy only to replace him by handing a big contract to DeMarco Murray, or his move to acquire struggling veteran Sam Bradford confused NFL insiders, the real crime Kelly committed occurred last year in the regular season.

When Kelly went 10-6 in consecutive seasons while starting Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez as his QBs he offered an implicit rebuke of the rest of the league, who had failed to achieve similar results with such players.

After everyone was eager to pile on Sanchez as a hopeless cause after the “butt-fumble,” he ended up having a stronger performance in Philadelphia then he ever had in the New York Jet’s pro-style, power-run game oriented system.

When Kelly showed up all these coaches by demonstrating that his “gimmicky” college spread-option system could yield big time results in the NFL with cast-off quarterbacks it put the fear of God into the rest of the league.

Or maybe more accurately, the fear of loss. Coaching the pro-style systems that litter the NFL is totally different than coaching a spread system like Chip Kelly’s.

The thinking is different, some of the techniques are different, and the more jobs that open up in the NFL for spread coaches the fewer there are available for coaches that use pro-style systems.

The NFL coaches, executives, and allies in the media who are keen to disparage Borland’s decision and cast aspersions on Chip Kelly’s ability to have success at this level have a lot to lose from losing the narrative.

Their narrative is one of the NFL maintaining the shape and feel it has always had, but that vision for America’s new favorite pastime may not be sustainable in light of the forces of change that are brewing.

Game-changer #1: Heightened awareness of injury issues

The NFL’s response to injury issues has been appalling, arguably even worse than their inconsistent attempts to police the off-field behavior of their players. For years they denied the negative long-term consequences of concussions and avoided providing for retired vets.

Now they are still hoping to keep things under wrap while more concussion concerns arise along with other health issues such as the frequency of pain-killer addiction from players.

The league’s culture emphasizes toughness and getting out on the field at all costs, which encourages the heavy usage of painkillers, which is a dangerous practice that easily leads to abuse.

In the midst of this, the NFL maintains a 53-man roster limit and has suggested expanding both the regular season as well as the playoffs. While these policies may allow the league’s owners to collect more money, they exacerbate the injury and long-term wear and tear issues by increasing the number of snaps players must play while ensuring that top players feel pressured to stay on the field due to lack of depth.

The history of human societies and America’s own culture, one of celebration of blood sports far more extreme than football, suggests that NFL viewership is probably not going to decrease too much even if people learn that it’s wildly unhealthy for everyone involved. However, if the league’s pool of talent shrinks because athletes are less willing to play then the product could be diminished.

Chris Borland felt that he had options in life that were appealing enough to keep him from sacrificing his body to play years of professional football, undoubtedly there will be increasing numbers of athletes who feel the same if there are increasingly more convincing revelations of how damaging the profession is for its veterans.

This is where the NFL’s reliance on the University system to serve as a minor league system to develop their prospects, which is another of its cost cutting moves, potentially backfires. If your prospects all have a chance to get a college degree and get connected to powerful alumni networks than a great many of them will have some appealing alternatives to playing in the NFL if they feel that going pro will result in their personal destruction.

Eventually, the game is going to need to become safer or else adopt practices that provide better compensation and long-term financial protection for their players.

Game-changer #2: Changes at the high school level

When you’re a high school football coach who can’t do much to shape his roster and is drawing his salary directly from the parents/guardians of his players, you tend to handle things differently than a billionaire owner who’s surrounded by layers of bureaucracy, friendly coverage, and pure cash.

Many high school programs have been better about adopting new concussion-reducing helmet designs than the NFL as they are under greater scrutiny to protect players. They’ve also been faster to adapt to modern strategies than has the professional ranks, which are allergic to change.

Charlie Strong came to Texas from Louisville where he saw his personal stock rise while coaching future pro QB Teddy Bridgewater in a pro-style system. In Austin he realized he’d have to change his approach when he noticed “probably 98 percent of this state is a spread offense.”

Run/pass option plays, up-tempo pace, and spread formations define most of what’s going on at the highly adaptable high school level where coaches have to find solutions with the talent they have on hand rather than talent they can cull through recruiting, drafting, or contracts.

Their approach is trickling up to the college ranks where former high school coaches and modern spread-option tactics are dominating.

Both the NFL Super Bowl and the inaugural College Football Playoff were both demonstrative of where the game of football is heading.

The college system started by pairing spread-option squads Oregon and Ohio State against pro-style attacks at Florida State and Alabama. In each semi-final the spread-option dominated, setting up a Buckeye-Duck final that demonstrated the supremacy of the more recent flavors of spread-option attack when Ohio St’s 3rd string QB proved capable of executing the offense at a high level against Oregon’s defense.

In everyone’s excitement about what the Super Bowl mean for Brady’s legacy, Belichick’s legacy, the Patriots’ legacy, the Seahawks defensive legacy, and Pete Carroll’s legacy, they missed a bigger point.

Seattle’s defense is designed to put specialized athletes in simple schemes that allow them to play fast and smart while forcing the offense to work their way down the field throwing short passes to the flats.

In theory, that kind of quick passing game is too inefficient to allow an offense to drive the length of the field by throwing short. Traditionally incompletions, short gains, and inevitable mistakes would kill drives that relied on these throws.

But New England went down the field on Seattle doing exactly this, they took the Seahawks dare and demonstrated enough skill and efficiency to score anyways.

What New England’s victory meant wasn’t that Brady is an untouchable legend but that combining a strong QB with evolving tactics meant that new things are possible on the gridiron. Their spread alignments and tempo tactics have been a big reason for Brady’s brilliance and longevity just as Joe Montana thrived as a result of getting to play in Walsh’s then revolutionary West Coast offense.

Despite the NFL’s failure to do much to foster development at the youth levels, football skills development is taking off at the high school level and when combined with the stresses of a spread offense are resulting in quarterbacks that are capable of dissecting defenses with the passing game at a high level while only teenagers.

However, they’re learning to do this in the various spread systems, not in the traditional pro-style systems that many in the NFL are eager to protect. What’s more, the players who are learning to do it are often the kids in suburban football programs where resources and coaching are better.

These are the types of players that are less likely to look at long-term risks associated with playing professional football and say “this is the best option I have for my life.” The NFL needs to be willing to adopt in order to benefit from the infusion of the next generation of star players.

The future of football

You get the sense that many in the NFL would like the league to be even more gladiatorial, relying on players that are less effective in collective bargaining and desperate to do all they can to get on the field and shine before their bodies give out and force them to move on from the game.

There can be no doubt that the people in front offices and coaching staffs now are not eager to see football’s strategies dramatically overhauled from the areas where they have marketable experience to new systems and styles of play.

However, the younger generations are playing a different game that is more skills-based, less violent, and played by kids who are more informed of their options and less likely to go along with NFL management’s idea of proper compensation.

Chip Kelly and Chris Borland are just foreshadowing major changes that are facing the league and will slowly take root over the next decade. It’ll be interesting to see how the narrative changes when the next generation of football stars take over.

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