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Let's Talk About Brian Kelly the Genius Offensive Mind

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Has it been all its cracked up to be?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the worst things that can happen to someone coming into a new position, especially a high profile position, is to be labeled as something they're not.

When Brian Kelly took the head coaching position at Notre Dame in December 2009 virtually every article about the new leader in South Bend used phrases such as "spread offense mastermind", "offensive genius", or "offensive guru."

This was not good for a couple reasons. One, it set unrealistic expectations from the start as most expected Kelly's 2009 performance with Cincinnati to be the norm at Notre Dame. Two, it's largely been a waste of time over the past 5 years listening to proponents and detractors arguing over something that wasn't exactly the truth.

Roughly 12 to 18 months into Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame just about everyone was shocked how well the Irish were recruiting on the defensive side of the ball. "An offensive genius who knows he needs talent on defense, wow!" Around this time Kelly made some comments saying they were focusing hard on defense because he can "manufacture offense."

The You-Think-Your-Offense-Is-All-That Index

Offense Index

I remember we used the term 'manufacture offense' a lot back in ~2011 and it's as close as we've come to Kelly bragging about his own abilities coaching offense.

Just about the only person who actually studied Kelly's offense prior to 2010 was Chris Brown at Smart Football and he gave quite a different take to the common perception:

Will Kelly's offense will work? Structurally and schematically it's fine. He's not an offensive genius, but (a) who really is? and (b) didn't you guys just go through that "decided schematic advantage" business with Charlie Weis? (Beware of coaches claiming genius.) He knows his offense, and by that I mean more than he schemes well; he knows how to coach his offense, down to the little fundamentals of receiver releases versus press coverage, quarterback reads and ball faking, line technique, and the like. Kelly also gameplans well even if the offense itself is pretty straightforward other than being a true four or five wide spread. And, ultimately it will be about playmakers making plays. He should give them opportunities to do that.

Pretty interesting to read that today, isn't it?

Kelly's track record stretching back to the early 90's at GVSU is littered with plenty of ups and downs on offense. Heck, just a couple years prior to taking the Notre Dame job Cincinnati put up just 370 yards per game (51st nationally), 5.6 yards per play (46th), and a trio of quarterbacks led by Tony Pike combined for 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

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What Happened at GVSU?

Kelly's time at GVSU is still shrouded in mystery which is odd given he coached there for 13 seasons. Kelly took over for Tom Beck in 1991, as Beck left for the OC job at Notre Dame where he'd stay for just one season. GVSU was a strong program as they went 50-18 in Beck's 6 years as coach, including 21-3 over his final 2 seasons. It took Kelly a long time to improve upon this winning.

During Kelly's first 8 seasons the Lakers never won more than 9 games but were consistently among the best teams in their conference. But, he only made the playoffs in 3 out of those 8 seasons and lost in the first round each time--laying down criticism that he couldn't win the big game.

In 1999, Kelly went on the hot seat with a hugely disappointing 5-5 season and the Lakers started 1-4 to begin 2000 as it looked like they'd be hiring a new coach. But Kelly's star-studded 1998 class (for D-II standards) that took a redshirt were about to make their impact on the program as seasoned vets. From this point forward, Kelly finished his career at GVSU going 47-2.

Kelly's track record stretching back to the early 90's at GVSU is littered with plenty of ups and downs on offense.

From 1991 to 2000 Kelly's GVSU teams had some good and less than good seasons with scoring. His first 3 seasons couldn't muster anything better than 26 PPG. They averaged 32.2 and 37.0 for the 1994-95 seasons but went back down below 30 PPG for 1996. The rest of the seasons up to 2000 saw the Lakers average 30.0, 38.5, 25.9, and 30.6 PPG.

It wasn't until 2001--when Kelly visited several major conference schools during the off-season--when he installed a no-huddle spread offense built around rising junior quarterback Curt Anes. The Lakers averaged a shocking 50.5 PPG in 2001 and 46.7 PPG in 2002--winning the school's first ever National Championship in the latter season. Anes' junior and senior seasons saw him combine for 6,965 passing yards with 96 touchdown passes, and his passer rating in 2001 remains the second best ever for any quarterback at any collegiate level. Anes graduated, and the PPG went down to 36.7 in 2003 but the Lakers won back-to-back National Titles by using redshirt freshman Cullen Finnerty in more of a quarterback run-heavy offense. Then Kelly left for Central Michigan.

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Before arriving in South Bend, Kelly was really known more for developing players, making changes that suited his players strengths, and winning in a variety of ways on both sides of the ball much more so than being an offensive genius. When you strip away all the bravado and bickering, this is pretty much exactly what Brian Kelly has done at Notre Dame. Some more winning would be nice but the foundation of the program is definitely not because Kelly is an offensive genius.

Now, with 5 years of data and a set of eye balls let's rate Brian Kelly's coaching of offense at Notre Dame.

THE NUMBERS

STAT 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
PPG 66 49 80 74 40
YPP 63 37 38 37 35
RZTD 87 28 112 100 45
RUSH 77 26 30 53 70
QBR 59 59 75 56 30
LOST 71 110 14 21 101
FEI 36 26 12 20 21
OE 66 30 42 33 39
S&P 27 20 7 27 22

*All numbers are based on national rankings: (PPG) Points-Per-Game, (YPP) Yards-Per-Play, (RZTD) Red Zone Touchdown Percentage, (RUSH) Rushing Average, (QBR) Quarterback Rating, (LOST) Turnovers, (FEI) Fremeau Efficiency Index, (OE) Offense Efficiency, (S&P) Football Outsiders' Efficiency model.

RANKING SYSTEM (1 through 10)

10 offense

  1. Such a terrible offense, and you actually tried.
  2. Such a terrible offense, debatable if there was any effort to move the ball.
  3. Good things in place, but crazy stuff happens and you lose your mind on TV.
  4. Generally open to some offense, but not a focus at all.
  5. Perfectly average.
  6. Associated with 'good' more often than not with little else to show for it.
  7. Not the total package, but can put a hurtin' on a scoreboard occasionally.
  8. Sound systemic foundations & production. Lacking a gold medal or two.
  9. Considered a genius, not quite enough of a track record for immortality.
  10. The unquestioned best in the biz.

IDENTITY - 6.5

Let's get something out of the way now because it'll color the rest of this discussion. For some reason, a loud minority of fans think Kelly stubbornly refuses to change his offense and his pass-happy (35.6 passes per game in 2014, 44th nationally, my word!) ways. But, he's always tilted much more towards fitting a system to his players rather than hammering home a super strong identity. For example, the tight end position wasn't much of a focus for Kelly at Cincinnati and that's obviously changed at Notre Dame--while the use of a H-back this upcoming season is yet another likely tweak at the position.

Another example is how Kelly changed his 2009 offense when Tony Pike was injured and Zach Collaros started at quarterback. Yet another example was during Grand Valley's 2001 season when Anes tore up his knee in the first playoff game. The backup struggled and Kelly converted a receiver and ran the freaking wishbone offense---narrowly losing in the National Championship.

The 2012 Irish offense was pretty different than the 2014 offense, and this fall we'll probably see an offense unlike any we've seen so far under Kelly. You don't have to turn into Paul Johnson to show you mold your offense to your players' strengths. Tommy Rees has become the poster child for a player Kelly misused within the offense but many have assumed (wrongly, IMO) that the Irish offense would have been more productive pounding the ball and forcing Rees to go under center, rely more heavily on footwork, and make tougher throws off play-action.

Players over plays. One could argue the merits of this but Kelly obviously lives that credo. Generally, he's done well playing to his strengths. Gaining 300+ yards in 33 out the last 39 games (and less than 250 only twice in three years, two defensive slugfests against UM in 2012 & MSU in 2013) isn't easy playing Notre Dame's schedule. I'd say we take for granted just how often the Irish don't lay an egg on offense.

A 6.5 rating isn't all that high, though, and I think Kelly needs to narrow his focus on offense, especially at this point in his tenure. At a place like Notre Dame--with all the extracurricular obligations on the players--the program would have benefited and will benefit in the future from a more well defined system that can be perfected.

If Zaire and the power spread is the future (probably won't be but that's another discussion) then quarterbacks who are stocky, tough, and outstanding runners should be who we recruit. Wimbush can maybe run that system while Kizer can't, so the future beyond Zaire is questionable in terms of identity. The past hasn't been great in this regard, but again, a lot of good things have come from working with the players on hand and their strengths.

Generally speaking, Kelly's identity might hamper the offense's ceiling but at the same time it pushes the floor up.

GAME-PLANNING - 7.5

Putting together quality game-plans on a consistent basis is a definite strong point for Kelly. I would imagine this grade will be the one that is the most controversial, so let me address a few things:

1. Small sample size

I'd bet several people saw that 7.5 and immediately thought back to the 2013 Oklahoma game (the typical common complaint for these discussions) as evidence of bad game-planning. The Irish began the game going pass, run, pass, pass with 2 interceptions--obviously a poor game-plan, right?

If that is evidence it's not a very convincing one on its own. Too often the judgments focus on just a small handful of plays out of hundreds and hundreds of snaps--and perhaps even worse a snap shot of the first series or two of a game while ignoring the other 90% of play.

2. #RTDB

Do good game-plans exist if you're not IMPOSING YOUR WILL on the opponent through the run game? Alternatively, is it bad game-planning when your attempt to IMPOSE YOUR WILL results in a multitude of punts? The latter scenario was a very real possibility had Kelly gone away from Rees' strengths (quick decision making spread quarterback with good accuracy) and relied heavily on an average run game.

Anyone can announce a guilty verdict on game-planning without every actually judging the game-planning.

Does Kelly put together perfect game-plans? No, but who does? When critiquing Kelly it is much more common to see foolish or bad series' of plays (again, beware of small sample sizes) more so than watching an entire game of "what is he thinking" football that results in few points for the offense.

For every Pitt 2011 there are 6 or 7 other games with strong results that jive with the strengths and weaknesses of Notre Dame and the opponent. Put simply, Notre Dame under Kelly very rarely comes out and runs a bunch of strange play-calls, spread over entire quarters, and falls flat on its face because of bad game-plans.

I recently read that Kelly is bad at game-planning because he had Tommy Rees throwing the ball 40+ times. You know how many times Rees threw 40+ passes in a game? Five times. That's 16% of Rees' career starts. Were a couple of those bad gameplans? I'd argue at least a couple of them were, but this line of thinking qualifies for both small sample size and #RTDB bias.

IN-GAME ADJUSTMENTS - 7.0

The ASU game this past season isn't normally brought up as a positive for the Irish offense and coaching. However, it is a good example of the staff and players making good adjustments. After the disastrous start there was a stretch over 2+ quarters--following a counter to the Sun Devils' attacking defense--that Notre Dame piled up 409 yards on 39 plays.

10.4 yards per play is some serious offensive output. I'm usually impressed with how Kelly makes little tweaks and usually doesn't let a defense out-flank him during a game.

BIG PLAY VS. STEADY PRODUCTIVITY BALANCE - 8.0

It's not like you don't want to be an explosive offense but there is some value in being able to grind out drives when the situation arises, especially against stiffer competition.

STAT 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
10+ 40 22 51 50 23
ExD 37 36 80 43 32
MtD 64 34 14 27 30

*National rankings in (10+) Plays of 10+ Yards, (ExD) Explosive Drives per Football Outsiders, and (MtD) Methodical Drives per Football Outsiders.

If I had to give one reason why the advanced stats respect Notre Dame's offense more than general polling it would be the healthy balance between being explosive and methodical--with more respect given to the latter. For all the talk about Kelly loving "chunk plays" notice how Notre Dame has been better at methodical drives each of the past 4 seasons.

OPERATIONAL SMOOTHNESS - 3.0

Over the past 5 seasons the Irish have been in the Top 30 in fewest penalties three times with 2 seasons inside the Top 15. Generally, the offense has been very good at keeping the holding calls way down and staying disciplined. The false starts--while sometimes inopportune--seem about average.

Which makes the other aspects to operating the offense so odd. Burning timeouts to prevent delay of game penalties have been a recurring theme for years. Relaying play-calling has been excruciating at times. Confusion on the play-call happens too often. The use of tempo is always a little clunky and never quite a source of comfort. This most definitely has not been a strength of Kelly's which is why the current staff as arranged has a lot to prove in this crucial 2015 season.

CREATIVITY - 3.5

Creativity is a funny thing. It's really difficult to be a coach who consistently calls plays with creativity. That's because when it backfires it's seen as the worst of all sins on offense.

Tommy Rees threw a flea-flicker on his first collegiate pass. It was picked off. Has Notre Dame called a flea-flicker once in the nearly 5 full seasons since then? Do you think Kelly will call a wide receiver sweep at the 5-yard line again any time soon?

Creativity is probably overrated anyway. It's too easy to chastise a lack of creativity and in the next breath blame the coach for getting too cute. We want our offense to IMPOSE ITS WILL but also for the coach to come up with timely and imaginative game-breaking plays, too. It's really difficult to have it both ways.

I also think of creativity in the sense of utilizing the whole swath of the play-book, especially within the liberal confines of a spread offense. Kelly scores really low on the 'trick play' creativity and below average in developing a multi-faceted attack from his playbook.

CLUTCH - 5.5

If there was one area I could retroactively change from the past it'd be this grade. No doubt, Kelly has had his fair share of big brass ball moments on offense to win football games. It's at this point though that I should mention just how important players are to these discussions. Take the game-winning throw against Stanford this past season--does Kelly get credit for being clutch or is it mostly just Golson, Koyack, and the players?

It's too easy to chastise a lack of creativity and in the next breath blame the coach for getting too cute.

Anyway, the FSU game was there last year. The Northwestern game was there on multiple occasions, including three straight incompletions in overtime. The Louisville game was there for the taking on a final drive deep into opponent territory.

Every team can make this claim but even a handful more clutch moments on offense could have brought Notre Dame several more wins. And if they had happened, Kelly's offensive prowess at Notre Dame would be viewed much differently today. Also, the red zone efficiency, while its had its moments, has been a black eye for the offense and drags down the clutch score significantly.

PATIENCE & FEEL - 5.0

Here's an area where Kelly has had some big ups and down over his time in the Bend. At times, he's not very patient with the run game, but neither are dozens of other coaches. Kelly scores a little lower than most in that he can sometimes lack patience--both in the form of getting away from the run and trying for low-percentage throws down field--against weaker opponents, as well as when the game is close or the Irish are trailing.

So there are definitely some head scratching and frustrating moments. Michigan in 2013 (that was one of Rees' 40+ passing games) would be a good example of letting things get away from you with play-calling. But then you have some gems like Oklahoma and BYU back in 2012 and both the Syracuse and LSU games this past year as examples where Kelly's patience and feel for the game are on fire--the last two exhibiting two contrasting styles, as well.

NON-QB PLAYER DEVELOPMENT - 8.5

Is there anyone who doesn't think Kelly has done a very good job developing players? Next spring he'll have a fourth player get picked in the 1st round over 6 NFL Drafts. It might not be the best in the country but there's very little to complain about with how the top offensive players are being produced in South Bend.

QUARTERBACK DEVELOPMENT - 6.0

The one area everyone wants to talk about lately. Let's see if I can make this as simple and concise as possible. Kelly is hard on his quarterbacks. So are a lot of coaches. Crist's performance at Kansas (103 of 216, 47.7%, 4 TD, 9 INT) makes Kelly look good for ever getting good play out of him. Hendrix at least being serviceable in his time in Miami of Ohio meant he should have done a little more at Notre Dame. Rees got just about every ounce out of his skill-set. Golson could have been one of the program greats. We'll see how he performs in 2015 to get a better sense of Kelly's handling and use of him.

***

What have we learned? I'd say it's that Brian Kelly is a good offensive coach. He has flaws, he makes mistakes, and he has never reached the highest peaks of offensive output at Notre Dame. However, what he has done on a consistent basis is field an offense that is, to use an OFD parlance, doing good things.

Take a look at the stats table up above in this article. Check out how stuff like red zone touchdown percentage, turnovers, and rushing average have had some wild mood swings. Most of the time, this is what fans want to focus on and with good reason. Yet, look at how consistently good yards-per-play and the Football Outsiders' advanced stats (FEI and S&P) have been over the last 4 seasons.

If there's evidence that Kelly is a good offensive coach there it is. From 2011-14 no YPP worse than 38 and every advanced ranking 27th or better against a schedule that features its fair share of great opponents, no FCS teams, and only 2 out of 65 opponents who finished outside the Top 100 F/+ rankings.

Brian Kelly is not an offensive genius, and that's okay. We don't need to walk around acting like Notre Dame hired Gus Malzahn and hold that against Brian Kelly because the Irish aren't scoring 48 points per game. He's a good offensive coach who needs improvement in some areas to be considered a great offensive coach.

Lastly, the S&P rankings stretch back to 2005 when Brian Kelly was in his second season at Central Michigan. His 10-year average in those rankings is 30.2, and if you throw out his highest and lowest seasons, the average is 27.1 for the 8 remaining seasons. His 5-year Notre Dame average is actually 20.6 and even if you want to throw out the one major outlier the ND average is still right around Kelly's 10-year mean.

Notre Dame has, almost literally to a T, got what it paid for from Kelly's history as an offensive coach. It's just the 2009 season (5th overall in S&P) created this unrealistic, and frankly fake to a degree, impression that Kelly's offenses would always be that dynamic.

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Postmortem

Some may be wondering if being ranked No. 22 in S&P offense is REALLY that impressive given the tools a Notre Dame coach has to work with most years. I think it's similar to recruiting only a little tougher. That is to say, an Irish coach finishing in the 20's in recruiting team rankings would being doing good but not really for Notre Dame's standards.

We expect, even demand, Notre Dame recruit Top 20 classes on a consistent basis. Where should we expect the Irish in S&P offense? Top 40, at least? Top 35 maybe?

Let's take a look at the major conference offenses that finished ahead of Notre Dame last year:

  1. Ohio State
  2. Alabama
  3. Oregon
  4. Georgia Tech
  5. Auburn
  6. Miss State
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Georgia
  9. Baylor
  10. Michigan State
  11. Florida State
  12. Ole Miss
  13. Wisconsin
  14. TCU
  15. UCLA
  16. Pitt
  17. Arkansas
  18. Texas A&M

Doesn't this pretty much jive with what we've seen under Kelly? Clearly no one is going to argue that the likes of Meyer, Malzahn, Briles & Co. are inferior offensive coaches in comparison to Kelly. Then you have a collection of the usual suspects (Georgia, FSU, Wisconsin) who generally have very good offenses, mixed with a few programs (TCU, Ole Miss) who reached once-in-a-decade highs, or thereabouts.

Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are right behind this group, inside the Top 20 among Power 5 teams. Good, but  not great. And that's reality.