Kelly's package plays give Eagles a different look
Chip Kelly is not an innovator.
He'd be the first person to say so. But what he has done most effectively as a coach is take offensive principles and make them his own, often improving upon his predecessors.
The up-tempo pace and the zone-read have been around for a long time, but Kelly has taken each concept to sometimes dizzying new heights. The same could be said of package plays - run-pass option plays that have been in the college game for years that Kelly brought with him from Oregon.
"We're not doing anything new," the first-year Eagles coach said last week.
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Indeed, there have been previous versions in the NFL, but never with three, sometimes four, options for the quarterback post-snap. On certain plays, he can hand the ball off or run himself or throw a quick bubble screen or toss a pop pass downfield.
Package plays are ideally suited to up-tempo offenses. They simplify the pre-snap responsibilities for the quarterback, but require quick decision-makers. And they've become a bear for some teams to defend because they never quite know what is coming.
To no surprise, other teams around the NFL are copying Kelly, according to Chris Brown, an X's and O's guru who has done some of the most extensive writing on package plays.
"I don't want to oversell it like it's changing the game, but it's interesting to see how these different concepts are spreading around the NFL," Brown said. "From the Eagles' perspective, isn't it cool people are copying Chip? But on the other hand, 'We hired this smart college coach with this innovative scheme, but teams are already doing what we're doing.'
"So how long can you stay ahead of the curve? That's the real challenge."
Kelly's package plays are just one facet of his offense, his offense just one part of the overall picture. He had great success in college, mostly because of his schemes. While there have been moments in the NFL when it has looked as if his offense couldn't be stopped, there is more involved in winning in the pros.
Kelly has hit various speed bumps in his first season, but progress has been made. Brown, who writes for Grantland.com and authored The Essential Smart Football, believes that Kelly hasn't come close to exhausting all the possibilities with package plays.
"Innovative may be the wrong word," Brown said, "but he sort of has a willingness to experiment and a willingness to adapt."
Kelly rarely goes into much detail about his offense. He'll dismiss talk about the intricacies of his scheme by saying that if you weren't in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg or Knute Rockne you've cribbed from someone else.
But the general premise behind the package plays - and essentially his entire offense - is to take advantage of the defense. If that means going up-tempo when the defense is huffing and puffing, then go up-tempo. If that means you have numbers outside, throw the screen; numbers inside, hand the ball off.
"It's just, you're trying to make a bad play not be as bad. Can we get something out of it?" Kelly said. "You're obviously not going to throw a touchdown or a home run, but you're going to put yourself in an advantageous situation where you can gain positive yards. It's something that's gone on in this league for a long time."
Brown said there's been a version of the package play in the NFL for about 15 years. It's a run play in which the quarterback has the option to throw a "smoke" pass - a one-step hitch route - to a receiver facing soft coverage.
But it was much more prevalent at the college and high schools ranks, where many teams were adopting spread-offense concepts and running the zone-read - run-option plays that involve the quarterback. Nick Foles and Matt Barkley said they ran package plays in college, but there wasn't a run-option like they now have with the Eagles.
The Packers' Mike McCarthy was one of the first NFL coaches to dabble in the next generation of package plays. This year, the Bills, Bears, Lions, Broncos, and Cowboys have installed some variant.
Quickly and decisively
When Kelly said the package plays were designed to get out of a "bad play," what he meant was a play the defense was prepared to stop. With increasing regularity teams are trying to stop Kelly's bread and butter - the inside zone-read.
"You take your base play, and how do you protect that play? Like inside zone, what can they do to take that away?" Brown said. "Well, if you can build the protections into the play, with the screens and pop passes, then you can run it at a fast tempo without having to be like, 'OK, we chuck the whole play.' "
In other words, the quarterback doesn't have to audible to check out of the play, which often takes movement and time. And when the Eagles are going up-tempo, Kelly doesn't want to waste a second.
"You can run a fewer set of plays at a fast tempo and then hope the defense is out of position or your quarterback makes the right read," Brown said.
The pre-snap reads, in their simplest form, require only basic arithmetic skills. If the defense has six defenders in the box, as long as the quarterback reads an unblocked defender, the offense should have hat-on-hat blocking for a handoff or a keeper.
If the defense has seven in the box there should be an easy quick screen.
"You're just trying to get numbers," Foles said. "And if I run they have to honor that. It's a hard thing to defend if you can execute it."
But most of Kelly's package plays require the quarterback to make the read post-snap. And that is why it is imperative to have someone who can make quick decisions.
"It's one of the reasons they work very well in college. If you can get the guy to make the decision quickly and decisively, you're not asking him to make really complicated decisions," Brown said. "You're not asking him to really analyze the world's most complicated Rex Ryan defense."
In recent years, defensive coordinators have become adept at disguising their schemes and knowing the appropriate call to make based on percentages. Package plays counter disguises because the quarterback often reads the defense after the snap.
"You may show something, and they can actually make the read post-snap when you show your hand," Brown said. "You just have to play good old-fashioned fundamental defense."
This worked, this didn't
Brown believes the majority of NFL teams will eventually package some of their run plays with quick screens, especially if they have good receivers. Up-tempo offenses should also gravitate to package plays.
But the Eagles may have to show consistent success if other coaches are to copy from Kelly. And even then, can they implement it as well?
"I think a lot of it depends on how well you know what you're doing," Eagles center Jason Kelce. "You can look at it on film and pick it out, but if you don't truly know what the nuances are - that's a much bigger question to answer."
Brown said he actually saw Kelly experiment more at Oregon and thinks he hasn't even scratched the surface here.
"They used to describe Bill Walsh as a doodler, for the rest of his life just drawing up plays. Chip strikes me that way," Brown said. "I think you'll keep seeing new stuff, especially once he has an offseason to say, 'This worked, this didn't.' . . . I'm almost more interested to see what their offense looks like next year."