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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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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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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 Jackson...so 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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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.