As I traveled around the country this past month -- watching games, talking with coaches, preparing for the 2013 season -- one question came up most often, capturing the imagination of both the people who work in football and the fans who watch it: What will happen when Chip Kelly brings his fast-break offense to the NFL?
At Oregon last season, Kelly's no-huddle offense averaged more than 82 plays per game and left opposing defenses sucking air with its relentless pace. The prospect of translating that feverish tempo to the pro game is tantalizing.
So, can it work in the NFL?
In some respects, things have already started to change. The ebb and flow of the modern game often suggests something that more closely resembles basketball, where teams exchange scoring runs that change the momentum of a game (think of the Seattle Seahawks' late run in last season's divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, or the San Francisco 49ers' post-blackout surge in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII).
But most inquiries about pace revolve around the simple question of whether you huddle or don't. In certain situations during the game, there are obvious advantages to not huddling. But there are repercussions to consider if a team tries to get through an entire game -- or even an entire season -- without huddling.
Kelly might be nearing that point. The Philadelphia Eagles ran about 90 percent of their offensive plays without a huddle during the preseason. In doing so, Kelly and his system are pointedly refuting the old schoolers who still worship time of possession.
"Time of possession is how much time can the other team waste," Kelly told the assembled media in Philadelphia during the preseason. "So all I gathered was that they stand around a lot more (on the field) than we do. So I think when people look at the time of possession, and that's what people look at automatically ... it's not time of possession. It's plays run is what I look at, because you're not exerting any energy if you're just standing in the huddle."
While it's true that the average number of plays per game has increased incrementally in the past five years, as more teams use more no-huddle attacks, the broader historical trend has remained largely unchanged: Teams averaged around 64-65 plays per game last season, just as they did in the early '90s. Since 2000, the league leader in average plays per game typically has fallen between 68-69 plays per game. The only true outliers in that period were the 2012 New England Patriots, who averaged 74 plays a game. (The other three teams that made it to Championship Sunday last season were all within the normal range of plays per game.)
So the sea change hasn't occurred yet. I like Kelly and think he has some terrific offensive ideas, but I don't think number of plays is any more of a magic bullet than time of possession. Obviously every play or second you can possess the ball, you are better off than when your opponent has it. But whether you subscribe to the Bill Parcells school of football, in which time of possession is paramount, or fall in love with the new wave that says you impose your will on the other team by running plays until your opponents' tongues are dragging on the ground, neither method means anything without accompanying points. Without steady scoring, both philosophies are like empty calories in a diet -- they fill space, but serve no purpose.
In 2012, Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles were sixth in total plays (1079 on the season, for an average of 67.4 plays per game). The problem was they ranked 29th in the NFL in scoring -- in large part because they tied the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets for most giveaways in the league with 37. Michael Vick is a scary quarterback to play against because he can hurt you in so many ways, but he's also thrown 24 interceptions and fumbled 21 times in 23 games over the past two seasons. Nothing will bring the high-paced offense to a screeching halt quicker than a turnover.
I mentioned the Patriots' frenetic pace above, but Tom Brady might take a different approach this year with such attrition in his pass-catching corps. Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead are gone, while Rob Gronkowski's status remains uncertain -- those five players accounted for 84 percent of Brady's completions last season. Trying to run more plays with the group Brady has now could prove to be problematic.
Of course, you have to grant Kelly his other point: Time of possession is similarly inconclusive. After all, four of the NFL's top seven teams in time of possession last season didn't make the playoffs.
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Neither philosophy is a panacea. As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton told me last week, "You can make a mistake in falling in love with time of possession or plays run, just for the sake of themselves. It has to be integrated with offensive productivity and what you are doing on defense."
The Baltimore Ravens opened last season totally committed to a breakneck pace on offense. By December, it had cost offensive coordinator Cam Cameron his job, because the defense was being exposed too much, and Ray Rice was not touching the ball enough.
So the Eagles won't huddle much. They'll hope Vick can severely reduce his mistakes. They'll try to put pressure on their opponents. But even if all the other factors turn out as favorably as possible, there will be limits as to how much Kelly's approach can translate to the NFL.
One of these limits is the structure of the game itself. Just as the Buffalo Bills discovered when they were running the K-Gun in the '90s, the NFL isn't going to change the way it officiates games just to benefit modern, fast-paced offenses. It simply takes longer to get plays off in the NFL. Why? Well for one thing, the hash marks are closer to the center of the field, meaning it takes a moment longer to place the ball after a wide run/pass or a play that goes out of bounds. Also, the placement of the referee and umpire behind the offensive line of scrimmage means there's usually an instant longer before the ball can be snapped.
Make no mistake, the league would love to cram in more plays -- and conceivably, more action -- into three hours. The NFL has fine-tuned the game to keep it within the networks' time frames, but has done so with the fear that some of the action might be lost. Thus, a more frenetic pace would seem to be something the NFL would embrace: more plays, more offense, higher scores.
However, the NFL and competition committee are constantly battling the perception that they are turning the game into nothing more than a 7-on-7 passing scrimmage. I don't see them adapting any rules to accommodate this expedited style of play. They would point to the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world, saying those guys are doing just fine with the current game flow.
So when Kelly makes his pro debut -- with Vick and Co. hitting the road to face Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins on Monday night -- you can count on a couple of things from the Eagles: they'll try to dictate the pace, and we'll see them do some things we haven't seen in the NFL before.
But even as we talk about new possibilities, the heightened pace of offenses and the trend toward more agile, mobile quarterbacks, the NFL always returns to the eternal verities: If you run a no-huddle, make first downs and score points, you're a potent matchup problem for defenses; if you run a no-huddle and string together a few three-and-outs, then it will be your own defense -- not your opponent's -- that winds up in the weeds.