Calling Oregon head football coach Chip Kelly reckless is no different than calling Copernicus, Abraham Lincoln or Joseph Lister reckless. During Copernicus’ time, conventional wisdom was that the Earth was at the center of the Solar System. Copernicus, rather than accepting that common belief, decided to look into other possibilities and eventually proved that in fact the Sun was at the center of the Solar System.
Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation, which led to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States constitution which abolished slavery, was driven by his belief that all people are created equal, despite the previously long held belief that this was not true. Joseph Lister saved innumerable lives when he bucked the system and became the father of antiseptic surgery.
Now I’m not saying Chip Kelly’s work in football compares in the grand scheme of things to any of those men’s work, but it does share a key essential element with each one of them. The belief that the way things are done right now are not necessarily the optimal way of doing things. It takes someone willing to look outside the norms of whatever field they are in to truly make a transformational difference. It is in human nature to become complacent when comfortable. Thank God there are people around us, like the late Steve Jobs, who are able to overcome their wiring for complacency to challenge the status quo and help us move forward.
A vast majority of people tend to operate in two modes when norms are challenged, they either become dismissive of what’s new or different, or they overreact and call the new behavior reckless or silly. In the case of all the people mentioned thus far, I see anything but recklessness behind their behavior. All of them used empirical evidence and experimentation on the road to their conclusions. None of the above mentioned people were seen to be acting on whims, so how could their work be considered reckless? In fact, in all four cases I would suspect they took methodical routes to where they ended up.
Just like it is hard to imagine the Earth at the center of our Solar System, having slaves in our country or a high percentage of people dying during minor surgical procedures today. I imagine a few years from now, a lot of the behaviors that Chip Kelly is being called reckless for employing, will be the new accepted norms in football and those who are not practicing those methods will be the ones called reckless.
One of the things Chip Kelly has been accused of being reckless with is his propensity for going for it on fourth down which has earned him the nickname “Big Balls Chip.” But not only is he not the first coach to employ this strategy, even that nickname was stolen from Pete Carroll whose USC student body originated “Big Balls Pete” complete with juggling hand motions, for his propensity to go for it on fourth down years ago.
I would argue that Chip Kelly is still too conservative and still has more growth ahead of him. Going for it on fourth down is hardly reckless as UC Berkeley professor David Romer showed in his exhaustive study of the subject. In fact there is a high school coach (ironically also named Kelley but with an extra e) who since 2007 not only goes for it on EVERY fourth down regardless of field position, down or distance, but also always goes for two point conversions and onside kicks nearly as often as well. His record by the way, is 90-19-1 with two state championships and his team is currently ranked #1 in the state this season.
Despite all the overwhelming evidence about the soundness of these strategies, coaches not surprisingly (remember human nature; we are wired for comfort) have been slow to adopt them. On top of all the hard data supporting these strategies, there is a strong mental edge as well. When you know you are going to be using all four downs, it changes how your team perceives down and distance, and empowers them to open up the playbook even more (to the consternation of defensive coordinators). Success on fourth down is also a momentum changer, as teams who convert a fourth down tend to score on over 75% of those drives.
So the next time you hear a commentator question the logic of Chip Kelly’s play calling or call him reckless, remember at one time the conventional wisdom was that three yards and a cloud of dust was the best strategy for winning in football.
You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc