The Kaepernick Effect

The 49ers are all-in on new head coach Chip Kelly thanks to his handling of Colin Kaepernick's protest. But for how long?

By Tyler Dunne

October 6, 2016

Bleacher Report

Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — He's in his natural habitat. Surrounded by brilliance, Chip Kelly is right where he believes he belongs.

There's Intel. And Cisco. And Facebook. And Apple. Silicon Valley is the hub of innovation in our country.

Follow Tasman Drive through the heart of the Valley and on to Levi's Stadium, and there's football mastermind Chip Kelly.

The anointed savior of the 49ers refuses to give one-on-one interviews. Always has, likely always will. He's the NFL's Oz, mysterious as ever. But his current players—or are they disciples?—glow in awe. In every pocket of the 49ers locker room, players insist they believe.

Veteran safety Antoine Bethea is on board.

"He's on point with everything."

Receiver Quinton Patton, across the room, is all-in.

"Great person. Great coach. He knows what he wants, and he's going to get what he wants. He knows how to win, so we have to buy in."

Next to him is Torrey Smith. Don't tell him communication was an issue for Kelly in Philadelphia. His eyebrows slant in "Really!?" shock, and the receiver explains how Kelly is "direct" and "a great teacher" and quick to drop a Winston Churchill quote at any moment.

"I'm telling you, he can quote some guys," Smith says. "I don't know how he remembers it all."

Ripsnorting defensive end Quinton Dial is more searing, sniping the 49ers "aren't worried about s--t that happened in the past." Jeremy Kerley? His mind is blown three weeks into his first season with Kelly. He calls Kelly a "guru" who turns route concepts into quantum physics. On the field, Kelly will detail exactly how Kerley should run a route in every situation.

"And nine times out of 10," Kerley says, "it's exactly the right thing!"

No doubt, Kelly nailed his first impression in the Bay Area.

His past players, however, know there are second, third and fourth impressions.

To so many of them, Kelly is more Santa Claus than savant and it’s only a matter of time before everyone discovers that Santa Claus isn't real.

Some of those players did agree to chat for this story. Many others treated an innocuous "Chip Kelly" inquiry as napalm oozing through their cellphones.

The trail of silence is telling.

LaMichael James, that human bullet who rushed for 5,082 yards and 53 touchdowns in three seasons at Oregon, refuses to reminisce. He ignores calls and texts a curt "No comment" moments after Kelly's name is brought up.

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Steve Dykes / Getty Images

Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli took the Ducks to a Rose Bowl and was later kicked off the team. Now in the CFL, he doesn't answer calls or texts, only telling a Hamilton Tiger-Cats public relations official he doesn't appreciate a reporter contacting him directly. Quarterback Darron Thomas propelled the Ducks to the national title game and now plays in the Arena Football League. A Portland Steel PR official indicates that Thomas is going to call. He never does.

Quarterback Bryan Bennett, who transferred from Oregon, ignores direct messages on Twitter. Embattled tight end Colt Lyerla is open to chatting, then vanishes.

Reach back to Kelly's New Hampshire days. Ricky Santos, his first juggernaut of a triggerman, who now is the quarterbacks coach at Columbia, doesn't respond to several messages.

Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, the one who told local media in July that Kelly dumped "any vet that stood up and had something to say," won't chat. After a call, a text and one "Who is this" reply, Peters disappears. Nick Foles had a Madden-like 27-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio under Kelly in Philadelphia in 2013, living 'n' breathing proof the coach's overly caffeinated no-huddle attack can work in the NFL. The Chiefs indicate their backup quarterback doesn't have time to chat.

Dozens of others ignore calls.

The final cast into such nuclear-infested waters is arguably Kelly's most talented player ever, who is still tearing it up with the Bills and sniped last season before a game against Kelly that "Chip can't shake s--t."

Hello, LeSean McCoy. Hope all is well. Let's talk about Chip Kelly.

McCoy smirks as if about to drop another bomb.

"What I want you to say about Chip is…"

McCoy pauses for effect, then turns around and starts thumbing through a cellphone in his locker.

"…no comment. I'm not talking about that."

He is told this is a theme.

"That's all I have to say about him."

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Mitchell Leff / Getty Images

This divide is no coincidence. Chip Kelly is a coach at a crossroads.

His greatest strength is his greatest curse. For so long, Kelly has convinced players to conform to a system. Because when his storm of a system revs to 150 mph, by God, it's a hurricane of destruction. He warped college football forever. Yet the system and all of its obsessive quirks has been self-destructive, too. It lost McCoy, Peters, DeSean many vets.

He was fired. Embarrassed.

On to his second chance, Kelly must strike a balance or he'll be fired again. Somehow, he must stay true to himself while letting players be themselves.

His first test came immediately.

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Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in August and continues to do so, lighting the fuse of a protest that exploded. Soon, fans burned Kaepernick's jersey, 49ers teammates raised their fists, other athletes joined in, Kaepernick was plastered on the cover of Time magazine and, yes, even the president of the United States weighed in.

Kelly's response in these halls? Silence.

He didn't utter a word to the team about it then and still hasn't.

He passed his first test. Players like him.

"Chip is Chip," Patton says. "We're still growing right now. It's still early. He's the coach. I respect him."

Still early, indeed.


Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

A man of science

Here is your brain. Here is your brain on a bender.

College students will play beer pong. Flip cup. Party. Kelly was no naive, mustached, overprotective father. He's driven by science. And if his teams at Oregon were going to operate at full throttle—85 plays, seven touchdowns, one sore scoreboard operator per game—his players needed to grasp the full effects of alcohol.

So Kelly had a scientist who trained Olympians break it down. Brain scans projected onto a screen for all to see, the scientist explained that it took two weeks to fully recover from a bender.

"He did it more from the physiological perspective of science versus the moral," says Jeff Hawkins, Oregon's longtime senior associate athletic director. "You can't question science. There wouldn't be rules. He'd leave the players alone to make their own decisions.

"Why can't you not drink for a season? They'd figure it out themselves."

More players bought in than didn't.

Countless coaches operate in the abstract. They cite ideals, coin catchphrases, regurgitate philosophy. Chip Kelly Football, on the contrary, is rooted in science. For his breakneck-fast offense to work, he needs 11 bodies operating at peak performance. So his methods will seem maniacal.

No, Herb Brooks-fueled "Again!" wind sprints didn't fuel Oregon's unprecedented pace. But Kelly did make players sprint full-speed on and off the field during practice. If you walked, you were exposed. Kelly videotaped all practices and would replay any lollygagging for all to see.

He wouldn't even say that player's name, letting any embarrassment fill the room naturally.

Here in the pros, a sleep specialist already spoke to the 49ers. Patton promptly ditched the TV in his bedroom and now goes to bed at 10 p.m. He doesn't even read to tire his eyes, instead hitting the lights, staring at the ceiling and dozing off for eight-and-a-half hours per night instead of five.

Says Patton, "I'm in the best shape of my life."

So many coaches, he adds, demand 100 percent when you only have 70 percent to give. When Kelly demands 100, players have 100.

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Steve Dykes / Getty Images

One Kellyism? He'd tell players and coaches to make their beds every morning. Hawkins is convinced that Marcus Mariota is still doing so in Nashville. Another Kellyism? Each year at Oregon, he'd bring in a military group to train players. It could be the Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces or Army Rangers. Once, his 100-plus players were taught how to complete a jumping jack.

A jumping jack.

It took a full hour.

Everyone in San Francisco now follows the 48-hour rule. Whereas it's customary for NFL teams to give players time off early in the week, Kelly's teams unwind a full two days before kickoff. In camp, Kelly brought in more than 15 massage therapists one day to work on players. Protein shakes await everyone after every practice—Kelly wants them consumed within 10-15 minutes.

Heart-rate monitors track how much energy each player exerts during practice, statistics that are logged and tracked.

"If your heart rate goes off a day, maybe it's something we can look at—'What's going on? Did you get enough rest?'" Bethea says. "We have assessments every morning. How do you feel? How many hours of sleep did you get?"

Players then receive emails each day packed with personal health information.

No, Kelly's players don't have to pee in a cup anymore. That was the case in Philadelphia, where, by 8:30 a.m., players were required to urinate in a cup, test their heart rate and step on a scale. A flat-screen TV at the facility then displayed each player's mug shot with a number attached that let them know exactly how hydrated they were.

"So if you were under 20 on the little board," says Jeff Maehl, who played for Kelly at Oregon and Philadelphia, "with your picture and the four things you had to do, it would be green and say the number. If you were over 20, it'd be red."

Some, like Maehl, loved such precision. Some hated it.

Habit. Discipline. Structure.

Win the Day.

These are the words Kelly repeats. Constantly. Show up 10 minutes before a scheduled meeting, Hawkins says, and that meeting could be over. Even Hawkins, who went to high school with Kelly's college roommate and calls the coach "brilliant" five times, admits that "he's not easy to work for." In the pros, 49ers corner Jimmie Ward adds that "if there's a team meeting at 5:10, you've got to be there at 5:05 ready."

All loose furniture in Oregon's locker room was removed—Kelly loathes clutter. He had benches built into lockers. In Santa Clara, a "No jersey exchange!" warning is written on white boards. Apparently, swapping jerseys with a friend from college is an inconvenience, and this is a head coach who loathes inconveniences.

Every second needs to be maximized.

"If there's a team meeting at 5:10, you've got to be there at 5:05 ready."

— 49ers corner Jimmie Ward

From the moment he put whistle to mouth, Kelly was a man with a damn plan. Midway through his first college coaching interview, to serve as Columbia's defensive backs and special teams coach in 1990, Ray Tellier and Sean McDonnell realized they weren't "choosing" Kelly. They were "recruiting" Kelly. He has that effect, that aura, that Silicon brilliance. Nine years later, Kelly was McDonnell's offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, and whenever McDonnell was "in a panic" over the pace of Kelly's offense, he says Kelly blankly replied, "Just get us the ball back."

Ten years after that, Mike Bellotti resigned as Oregon's head coach. Hawkins remembers the scene like it was yesterday.

Bellotti exited, and Kelly stood up.

"Immediately it was instilled in your mind who the head football coach was," Hawkins says. "It was that abrupt. Not in a bad way. But there was no doubt. He had a plan from the beginning. I thought I was going to have to hold his hand. And, quite honestly, from the very beginning I was just holding on.

"He had it already planned out. It was unbelievable."

His zany methodology worked. Kelly took a sledgehammer to college football.

He had a plan for the Eagles, too.


Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

He can inspire

The perception that Kelly is an emotionless drone, that he's essentially the Gamemaker from The Hunger Games manipulating his team's universe from afar, is not accurate.

Far from it.

He can connect with players. He can, get this, feel.

Look no further than the flight that changed his life. Flying home from a recruiting trip in early 2010, Kelly was seated next to a serviceman who was headed to a funeral in Roseburg, Oregon. Army Sergeant Joshua Lengstorf, a 24-year-old who had a daughter and loved the Ducks so much he had an Oregon tattoo, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan.

When Kelly returned to the facility, he told Hawkins to clear his schedule. They were heading to this funeral. Kelly sat next to Lengstorf's commander and presented the soldier's family with an autographed football. Says Hawkins, a vet himself, "It was one of the most emotional things I've ever been through." From that point forward, the military was incorporated into countless tentacles of the Oregon program. Soldiers spoke to and trained his players. The spring game at Oregon is now dedicated to the military.

And why not wake up players at 4 a.m., throw them into the deep end of a pool and tell them to hand their shirts to each other while treading water?

Kelly knew a soldier's sacrifice could resonate with kids more than anything he'd say.

So, no, Kelly doesn't burn red in the face and inspire a player to run through a wall with raw emotion. Rather, he inspired his Oregon teams through the gripping stories of…others.

Before a 2010 Rose Bowl loss, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger spoke to the team. Jeff Maehl gets chills just thinking about it. Sully told the Ducks that when his US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to make an emergency water landing—the one that'd later spark a major motion picture—he acted out of impulse. He "reverted to his training."

Players gasped. Nobody spoke. The dude had a borderline arrogance that resonated.

"It was pure reaction," Maehl says. "Click this, click that, you do that. Boom. In the water. In New York, in the Hudson River. Holy s--t."

Kelly, too, wanted his players operating on "pure reaction." Kelly, too, wanted that swagger to spread.

On the night of a 60-13 win over UCLA, Kelly played the ninth round of Micky Ward's epic fight against Arturo Gatti for the entire team—the Irishman was set to be played by Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter. Players watched this "Round of the Century," and then Kelly paused.

"I want to tell you what Micky was probably thinking during this fight," he told them, "but why don't I let Micky tell you?"

Ward emerged from a back room and explained what it took to be a champion.

Says Hawkins, "None of us knew he was there. Not even the coaches."

The boxer grew up 20 miles from Kelly. They're close friends.

Then, there was Chris Herren. Those are the goosebumps Arik Armstead remembers. The former NBA player told the Ducks he once overdosed on heroin and was clinically dead for 30 seconds.

"His story is crazy," Armstead says. "I think everyone will remember that one."

Friday nights—when these visitors, movies and activities usually took place—struck emotional chords players never knew they had. Kelly could be serious. He has shown videos of Steve Prefontaine and Secretariat, too. He could be funny. Kelly would dub Oregon-themed dialogue into movies like Thunderdome or show clips of a player celebrating in the end zone to the backdrop of "Look at me"-themed music.

The end result was a machine. An unstoppable machine. Oregon went 46-7 under Kelly, narrowly losing to Cam Newton's Auburn Tigers in the 2011 national title game with a team that had only one player drafted in the spring. Buy-in and a cast of no-names can dizzy anybody.

But this machine can also spontaneously combust into a pile of ashes.

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When Kelly took all of his idiosyncrasies to the NFL, his best player implied that he was racist, his owner implied that he was smug and one source close to the situation labeled him a "dictator."

After three years, poof, he was fired.


Rob Carr / Getty Images


Simply put, the leverage flipped when Kelly arrived in the NFL.  

Suddenly, the players he oversaw were making twice, even three times as much money as him. If a player wanted to tune him out, well, he could without fear. It's a lot easier for a coach to bench, to suspend, to cleanse his roster of a headache in college when 5-star recruits are itching for a practice rep.

The NFL, with half as many players, is a different beast.

Dissent was inevitable.

One time, the source says, Kelly was peeved that McCoy threw his personalized post-practice shake into the garbage. Another time, he was ticked DeSean Jackson wouldn't wear a sleep monitor. And if Kelly was livid with McCoy over a comment in the media or an elaborate touchdown celebration? No, he wouldn't address McCoy himself. He would instruct someone else on staff to scold his running back.

Even though the two passed each other every day in the hallway.

Many vets viewed Kelly as a distant czar.

"In the NFL, you're dealing with grown men and different personalities—they're not all conformists," the source says. "I think that rubbed him the wrong way, and in turn, he rubbed the players the wrong way. The personnel changes he made went right along with that whole mindset. Doing it his way.

"He didn't let guys like LeSean and DeSean be themselves. He wanted them to conform their personalities and not be who they are as people."

A lack of accountability irked vets, too. Multiple players were told they'd be around long term, only to be dangled on the trading block. The team cut off negotiations with Jeremy Maclin, the source says, making the receiver feel "disrespected" when Kelly finally warmed up at the 11th hour. And when Kelly wrestled personnel control away from general manager Howie Roseman, a bizarre coup that gave Roseman a "promotion," he cut ties with those who revolted. McCoy was railroaded by news of his trade.

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Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Maehl has lived in both worlds. He has seen college players buy into Kelly's system and pros scoff at his tactics.

He's quick to note that Jackson and Co. did buy in for stretches. After a sizzling Monday Night Football debut against the Redskins, Maehl remembers Jackson shouting in the locker room, "It's only Period 9! We have plenty of juice in the tank!"

"When it's going good, it's going good," Maehl says. "When it's going bad, guys start to think about themselves because it's a business. Guys are thinking about their next contract, their next year.

"At the college level, you really don't have leverage to give angst to the coach no matter how talented you are. … And that's where I think the little things—like the sleep cycles, the peeing in a cup—that's where he'd see more resistance, because in college, he could discipline us. You've got to do it. You follow what he does, you do it, everyone's on board, it wins successfully."

In the pros, the system was too suffocating. Players would not all conform.

"In the NFL, you're dealing with grown men and different personalities—they're not all conformists. I think that rubbed him the wrong way, and in turn, he rubbed the players the wrong way."

— Source close to the Eagles situation

Further, Kelly wasn't the type to hit pause and chat with players at random for 10-15 minutes. Everything is fast in his world: the way he speaks, the way he calls plays, the way he migrates through the facility. He's more apt to quote Nelson Mandela or have a joke in the holster and move along. Andy Reid, the coach before Kelly in Philly? The exact opposite. Reid cherished player-to-player interaction.

Former Eagle receiver Jason Avant provides the broader context.

There are essentially two different types of coaches in football, he says.

There are Kellys, who trust in a system and want all to buy in. Then, there are coaches on a 24/7 mission to figure out which buttons to push. This coach learns every detail of a player's background—Did he grow up in the suburbs or the ghetto? What's his favorite TV show? Who's his idol? Does he respond to vulgar tough love or coddling praise?—then tailors his coaching to fit that specific player.

Both can work.

Bill Belichick's militant "Patriot Way" has produced four Super Bowls and a .731 winning percentage. And those Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, the ones snorting cocaine, cheating on their wives and showing up to practice hungover, won three titles in four years.

Over his 14 seasons in Philly, Reid built a family atmosphere. Everyone knew the janitors, Avant says. "Everyone knew everyone." Kelly arrived, zapped that culture into his culture and his pee-in-a-cup autocracy didn't fly.

Says Avant, "The NFL is men instead of young men. There's more expected out of the head coach."

While McCoy told ESPN's Mike Rodak last year that Kelly "got rid of all the black players," Avant doesn't necessarily think what happened was about race.

Kelly was trying to establish the Eagles as his team, Avant says, "and the players we had, yeah, they were black players, but [Kelly's view was], 'These players are against me having the control I need to be successful. Not saying that's a bad thing, but maybe they will influence the people around me and rebel against me.'"

The source close to the Eagles has an even simpler explanation: "A lot of players didn't like how his system was run."

Avant wants Kelly to last. He believes the coach will learn from the culture clash in Philadelphia. No doubt, all of those other geniuses in Silicon Valley were frowned upon at some point, just like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison long before them.

All trendsetters, Avant says, seem a little insane at first.

"But they kept doing it and created something new," Avant adds. "He has the work ethic. He has the want-to. He has the, for a lack of a better word, the nuts, the balls to try new things rather than doing it like everyone else and hoping to succeed when you really want to put your own staple on it.

"At least he's trying to do it his way."

Not surprisingly, Kelly and Belichick are close.

Belichick may be the best coach ever, but Belichick also has arguably the best quarterback ever.

Kelly? He has Blaine Gabbert.

And, of course, a backup quarterback who has turned himself into the face of nationwide protesting.


Dustin Bradford / Getty Images

The Kaepernick dilemma

His locker room these days is a collection of nameless, faceless, introverted, yes-sir, no-sir, 9-to-5 lemmings.

Kelly must be in heaven.

Then, like so many other days, Colin Kaepernick emerges from a corner of the room and a casual conversation with reporters turns into another PSA on race relations. Kaepernick says that, yes, he has received death threats. Through "a couple different avenues," actually. Kaepernick adds, "If something like that were to happen, you've proved my point. It'll be loud and clear why it happened."

Multiple times, Kaepernick says "racism is disguised as patriotism" in this country.

Kaepernick is a failing player. The magic of postseasons past has worn off. One-read, tuck-and-run athletes, it turns out, aren't the future of the NFL. For a coach who has abhorred individual expression—let alone from a coach with Kelly's love for the military—Kaepernick appeared to be the easiest cut in the history of cuts.

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Tony Avelar / AP Images

Yet here's Kelly publicly, repeatedly, unflinchingly supporting his quarterback's protest.

Both Hawkins and Maehl speculate that Kelly's love for the military leads him to understand that their sacrifice is given to ensure Kaepernick of the rights he is exercising. And he's the son of a lawyer who relies on due process. He's navigated teams through drama before.

When LeGarrette Blount clocked Boise State's Byron Hout in the jaw with a right cross after Oregon's 2009 season opener, Kelly didn't instantly boot him off the team. He was suspended, then reinstated. Kelly spoke to sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, a longtime 49ers consultant. Now, a troubled kid who could've been ejected from the football world forever is still rampaging through defenses.

"How he handled that, looking back on it, was fantastic," Maehl says. "Too many times when things like that happen, the person's gone. They say, 'Get rid of him. Clean slate.' Maybe that straightened him out. I don't think Chip has ever made a decision based on the emotion he felt right there."

When Riley Cooper was caught on camera shouting the N-word, Kelly again didn't jump to hysterics. He contacted Edwards, kept Cooper around and eventually inked him to a contract extension. Maehl, signed two weeks after the video went viral, sensed zero racial tension. Aside from one skirmish between Cooper and corner Cary Williams—and Williams was "liable to fight anyone on any given day," Maehl half-jokes—Cooper got along with black teammates as if nothing ever happened.

So now, Kaepernick takes a knee.

Kelly's immediate "handling"? Silence. Torrey Smith's eyes widen in disbelief.

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Joe Mahoney / AP Photo

"He still has yet to say anything about it," he says. "I don't think there's too many people who would do that."

Adds Ward, "It must not be too big of a distraction if he hasn't addressed it."

All from a coach who allegedly had other staff members scold McCoy over an end-zone celebration.

Sometimes, he's handled controversy flawlessly. Other times, not so much. In a roundabout way, Kaepernick's protest gave Kelly a chance to reroute the narrative that he despises individual expression, that each of his players is on a short leash.

Inaction led to cred in the locker room.

Hell yes, Bethea had doubts. Plenty of doubts. He heard what Eagles players said. But then he spoke to Kelly over the phone when the coach was hired, then the two met in person and then all preconceived notions "went out the window." How Kelly has handled the protests, he says, assures players here they don't need to worry about internal backlash, nor wonder "Am I going to lose my job?" if they speak up or act out.

"I tip my hat off to Chip," Bethea says, "for letting us do that and letting us feel some type of way."

Kelly will handle the X's and O's. Players will handle the protests.

That's that.

Nobody knows when these protests will cease. Bethea says he has encountered racism since childhood and admits nothing during an anthem will change anything overnight. More players will take a knee, raise a fist, personalize a cleat. Kelly can't overhaul these 49ers overnight, either. But for now, there is harmony between coach and player.

"I think he's learned from whatever happened there in Philly," Bethea says. "Chip is a very intelligent, very smart guy."

Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

What now?

The head coach stands equidistant to every drill in motion, turning to each for three to five minutes to soak in the action.

With his right hand, Kelly spins his whistle lanyard as everything from Kanye West's "All Day" to AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" blares from the speakers. He sports a black 49ers windbreaker with a play sheet neatly tucked into his back pocket. Near the weight room, on a shorter field, are enlarged medicine balls, resistance bands and weighted sleds all lined up in perfect rows to be used later.

Protein shakes rest on a table nearby. They'll be consumed, not trashed in frustration.

Indeed, he's back in his element. In charge. The 49ers believe in Chip, and most importantly, Chip still believes in Chip.

"The team is behind Chip 1,000 percent."

— 49ers safety Antoine Bethea

A good thing because, on the field, his team is getting blasted.

After a promising win over the Rams (28-0) to open the Chip Kelly era, the 49ers have been beaten by the Panthers (46-27), Seahawks (37-18) and Cowboys (24-17). Each loss makes it more difficult for players to buy into any combination of GPS trackers, sleep cycles, protein shakes and guest speakers. Each loss further proves a quarterback who can make audibles at the line of scrimmage still trumps a quarterback robotically executing calls from the sideline. Each loss, in a Philly redux, is wearing out Kelly's defense.

In Philly, he was stubborn. He never evolved.

Now, Kelly and all of his madness is under trial this 2016 season.

Kaepernick's protest could've wrecked the locker room. It hasn't, and that's admirable. But it's also unknown if Kelly is seeking the one-on-one bonds he never fostered in Philadelphia. It's also unknown whether, when it's time to add talent, he'll gamble on personalities.

Even the "Patriot Way" has its exceptions. Belichick lets Rob Gronkowski party. Gronk is eternally Gronk. Randy Moss once had 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns on a 16-0 New England team. Albert Haynesworth even was a Patriot for six games.

Belichick rolls the dice and cuts bait at precisely the right time. Be it the draft or free agency, Kelly and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke must strike a similar balance.

Here's the irony: The NFL was always Kelly's dream. Hawkins is sure of it.

And yet through hours of exploring and experimenting and thinking 10 chess moves ahead—McConnell remembers Kelly having the quarterback hand the ball off behind his back on the Statue of Liberty play, then faking off that with a play-action pass ("Holy cripe!" he laughs); Hawkins cites the impromptu phone calls to Tony Dungy; Maehl cites Kelly "vacations" to Afghanistan in the offseason—Kelly might've missed the No. 1 trait needed to succeed in the NFL.

It's a people business. Every player is wired differently. If Kelly could've connected, maybe he'd be guiding a dynasty in Philadelphia. McCoy's lightning-flash change of direction? Jackson's speed? Maclin's complete game? The personnel fit Kelly's run-'til-the-defense-pukes attack perfectly.

Instead, he's in Santa Clara and pressure is rising.

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Dustin Bradford / Getty Images

Do not count on Kelly totally redefining himself. His style is what got him here. As Armstead says, coaches with conviction like Kelly will "tweak" things here and there, but "you remain who you are." Kelly would probably much rather succeed in San Francisco, his way, and give one massive middle finger to his haters. No doubt, he has an army of believers.

From Bethea: "The team is behind Chip 1,000 percent."

To ex-Duck/ex-Eagle Taylor Hart, who's now back with Kelly on the 49ers: "This team's buying into what he's preaching. I've been on winning programs with him. I know he's a good coach."

To Patton: "I'm all-in."

To Dial: "It's just about having the guys buy into what he's selling. It's about getting guys to buy into a system each and every year and sticking to the plan."

To Kerley: "A lot of people don't understand it. They might think it's a college mentality. If you buy into anything, it has an opportunity to be successful."

Such endorsements must be music to the head coach's ears. Proof he's on the right track.

But what will players say in, oh, three years when someone calls to chat about Chip Kelly?


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.