Maybe the most dreadful part about the 49ers during the 2015 season was not that they lost so many games. It was that they were boring.
They’re not boring any more.
The hiring of Chip Kelly by the 49ers may turn out well or turn out to be a train wreck. But it’s going to be entertaining as hell to watch what happens next. After the safe-as-milk hire of Jim Tomsula as head coach last January, the 49ers have gone the opposite direction and gone the unsafe-as-moonshine-but-hoo-man-what-a-kick-in-the-pants route. They have gone out for a tightrope walk. Hold your breath. Owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke are out there together, wearing spangled tights and leather slippers, whistling along to calliope music and hoping this all somehow works out.
All right, wipe out that image. Let’s try to take this seriously and analyze the decision.
Begin with the basic pluses:
u Kelly as a head coach is an upgrade over Tomsula as a head coach. (Maybe not the highest bar to clear but considering some of the alternatives, not to be taken for granted.)
u Kelly has proven he can rev up an offense and provide entertainment for young and old alike in that particular part of the game.
u Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who was sent into some sort of weird sort-of-injured-and-needs-to-clear-his-head exile in the middle of last season, could be just the multi-dimensional quarterback that Kelly can revive and turn into a true NFL weapon. Very interested to hear what Kelly says about this when he does his first news conference, rumored to be next Tuesday.
u The 49ers are now one of the league’s more intriguing teams going into the 2016 season, from several angles.
u Kelly, after initial success as the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach in 2013 when he turned around a 4-10 team from 2012 into a 10-6 team that reached the playoffs, then turned off a lot of people when he gained more personnel power and made moves that alienated some of his players. He says he learned a lesson from that and evidently has told the 49ers that he will be happy just to coach the team, period.
u Most of Kelly’s peers, folks such as Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh, have expressed admiration for the X’s and 0’s that fly out of Kelly’s brain and call him an excellent football coach. After a season of watching the turgid 49ers’ offense in 2015 -- and frankly, in the last season under Harbaugh in 2014 -- it should be fun to see what Kelly diagrams up at Levi’s Stadium.
Now, the potential minuses:
u Kelly has a personality that is . . . um, challenging to manage. That was true at Oregon and in Philadelphia. At least one person connected to Kelly’s days in Eugene has described him to me as often anti-social and borderline certifiable. Of course, people said the same thing about Harbaugh at Stanford and with the 49ers. On merit. These guys are in a crazy business so I’m not surprised if it drives them all crazy.
u Kelly’s hurry-up offense puts big pressure on his team’s defenses to be in fantastic physical shape and ready to endure more snaps from scrimmage than usual. That’s because the offense either scores very quickly or goes three-and-out even more quickly. This will require more roster depth and perhaps even a different drafting/free agent philosophy to value athleticism and aerobic aptitude (a term I just invented.
u For all of Kelly’s contrite comments regarding the end of his Philadelphia tenure and his pledge to not mess with personnel matters, you can bet that there will be disagreements between him and Baalke over roster makeup. Kelly will probably bite his tongue at first, but then one of two things will happen: 1. The 49ers will lose too many games and Kelly will agitate that he needs more of his own handpicked players to succeed. 2. The 49ers will win a number of games and Kelly will use the clout to try and obtain more of his handpicked players. This is the place where the tightrope walk will be the most risky.
u Kelly’s reputation in Philadelphia as being insensitive or even disdainful of African-American players with strong attitudes will precede him here. He needs to address it up front with the current 49ers roster in whatever way he wishes but he must address the topic. Perhaps it’s all baloney. Nothing like that ever surfaced at Oregon. But Kelly can’t ignore it and have that be the elephant in the room when he shows up in Santa Clara.
u Kelly was 2-2 in postseason bowls while at Oregon and lost his only NFL playoff game with the Eagles, a wild card defeat by New Orleans. That’s not a horrible record but shows you that Kelly is not a superhero coach on the biggest stage. Of course, at this point, 49ers fans may just pine for him to get the 49ers back into the postseason, period.
Thus ends the balance sheet, with so much still ahead to learn. But the tightrope walk has begun. Get ready for a riveting show. Read Mark Purdy’s blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/purdy . Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.