What if Chip Kelly had accepted the Bucs coaching job in January 2012?
Maybe Tampa Bay would have won a few more games. Maybe Marcus Mariota would be the quarterback, not Jameis Winston. Maybe Kelly would have tried to trade everyone, including Captain Fear.
All we know for sure is that the Bucs would have had to endure what has become an annual tradition: Chip-Kelly-is-going-back-to-college rumors.
With the 49ers off to a 1-5 start in Kelly's first season in San Francisco, his detractors are once again seizing the opportunity to ridicule him and suggest he doesn't belong in the NFL.
"He just keeps running the same s---, and it isn't fooling anybody," an unnamed league executive said in a CBS Sports story this week.
The easy take is that Kelly's schemes and smoothies don't translate to the NFL. His influence, however, is undeniable. Take note of the proliferation of no-huddle and read-option offenses. First, teams ignore. Then they copy.
That's not to say Kelly is flawless. Philadelphia spent its offseason trying to undo nearly every personnel decision he made. Players and analysts also called his offense predictable and repetitive.
In San Francisco, the criticism of his play calls has persisted. On this point, the NFL executive quoted above is correct.
A caveat before we go to the All-22 coaches film: One could blame the 49ers' offensive struggles on a barren roster and the players' lack of execution. While Kelly managed in the past to extract meaningful contributions from Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick have been even steeper challenges.
Among the 31 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 90 passes, Gabbert has the third-worst completion percentage, second-worst interception rate, second-worst passer rating and fewest yards per pass attempt. Kaepernick didn't fare much better Sunday, his first start of the season. While he didn't turn the ball over in the 45-16 loss to the Bills, he was just as ineffective as Gabbert, overthrowing and underthrowing receivers all afternoon.
Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, coaching, as Kelly has said, is about one thing: creating an environment in which a player has the opportunity to be successful. A series of play calls against the Cardinals two weeks ago raises doubts about whether Kelly is succeeding in creating that environment.
The first play we'll review is from early in the second quarter. On first and 10, the 49ers came to the line in the pistol formation. Three receivers lined up on the right.
The two outermost receivers ran deep vertical routes while Jeremy Kerley ran an out route 12 yards downfield. It wasn't an easy pass — a long throw outside the numbers — but Gabbert hit Kerley as he came out of his break, and San Francisco picked up a first down.
On the third play of their next possession, the 49ers called the same play. Gabbert hit Kerley for another first down.
At the start of the fourth quarter, San Francisco, trailing by a touchdown, pressed its luck. The 49ers flipped the formation, but the routes were the same.
Initially, it looked as though Kerley would be open again.
Cornerback Marcus Cooper, however, anticipated the throw and undercut Kerley's route to intercept the pass. Gabbert's throw wasn't perfect — he could have thrown it farther in front of Kerley — but Cooper's anticipation put him in position to make a play on the ball.
Kelly won't hesitate to repeat concepts. Late in the fourth quarter against the Cardinals, the 49ers called the same play seconds apart from one another.
The first time San Francisco ran the play, it bunched three receivers on the left side of the field. The outside receiver (Quinton Patton) ran a deep vertical route, the middle receiver (Torrey Smith) ran a crossing route over the middle and the inside receiver (Kerley) broke toward the left sideline.
Kerley caught the pass at the line of scrimmage and proceeded to execute one of the sickest juke moves you'll see all season. Bucs cornerbacks: You've been warned.
Thirty seconds later, the 49ers called the same play but flipped the formation. Kerley caught his eighth pass of the game, but instead of breaking more ankles, he mercifully ran out of bounds.
Kerley gained a first down on each of the passes, but when the 49ers ran the concept the next week against the Bills, they scored their only touchdown of the game.
After the snap, two Bills defensive backs immediately converged on Kerley as he ran to the right sideline. One of them was supposed to cover Smith, who ran straight downfield. Kaepernick's pass was underthrown, but Smith was so wide open that it didn't matter. He broke off his route to make the catch and then went untouched as he cut across the field toward the end zone.
For the Bucs, blown coverages have been a regular occurrence. Through the first five weeks, they allowed six pass gains of 30 or more yards, the third-most in the league. They allowed five such gains all last season.
Because of Kelly's predictable play-calling and the 49ers' limitations at quarterback, the Bucs shouldn't be so easily fooled this Sunday.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.