Culture

Are the Portland 49ers the Next Big Thing in the NFL?

Since Oregon doesn’t have an NFL team, the winning ways of the University of Oregon Ducks have in recent years been the Beaver State’s claim to nationally recognized football excellence. From 2009 to 2012, under head coach Chip Kelly, the Ducks appeared in four consecutive Bowl Championship Series games (now the College Football Playoffs), including the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.

It’s a testament to the U of O program that the Ducks kept winning after Kelly’s departure.

Now, with Kelly ensconced at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers, a growing contingent of Oregonians who can’t get behind the Seattle Seahawks is coalescing around him, with high hopes that a scientific, micro-managed Kelly system will be just the ticket to get the underwhelming Red and Gold back in the playoff hunt.

Could the 49ers become Oregon’s (and by extension Portland’s) new home team? With Kelly’s hiring in Santa Clara evoking memories of top-ranked college seasons past, it’s possible.

The rooting-interest dynamic is interesting. While many locals support our sister city’s Seahawks, another whole swath consider our gridiron relationship with Seattle a take-no-prisoners rivalry. A lot of Hawk-bashers already root for the 49ers. With California transplants inhabiting the Great Northwest in ever-growing numbers, allegiances are all over the map. Throw in a bunch of rebellious Oakland Raider fans and you’ve got the picture.

Kelly’s move west comes after his controversial firing after three seasons coaching the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2013, Kelly became only the second head coach in league history to win a division title in his first NFL season, taking the 2012, 4-12 Eagles to 10-6, and the NFC Eastern Division Championship. In his second season in Philly, the Eagles went 10-6 again, but failed to make the playoffs. A fall to 6-9 in 2015 precipitated Kelly’s termination.

With the 2016 season underway, questions hang in the air like a Joe Montana bomb. Will Kelly’s accelerated, run-and-gun offense set opponents back on their heels, and revive memories of the dynasty years of Bill Walsh and George Seifert? How long will it take Kelly to make the playoffs in one of the NFL’s most challenging divisions?

Optimistic 49er/Chip Kelly fans say it’s only a matter of time. Naysayers are skeptical that Kelly has the wherewithal to go all the way at the pro level. Everyone is waiting for Monday Night Football on September 12, the night Chip Kelly takes the field at Levi’s Stadium for his first regular season home game against the Los Angeles Rams.

San Francisco is not scheduled to meet the Eagles in the 2016 regular season, so a chance at vindication against the team that let Kelly go will have to wait for a possible playoff game. The Niners will get the Seahawks twice of course (the Portland/Seattle rivalry pales in comparison to the way the SF and Seattle fans interface over a line of scrimmage). In week three, Kelly will enter the lion’s den, CenturyLink Field, the loudest stadium in the league. There he’ll face a fired-up Seattle team that after years of being a 49er doormat has taken a personal interest in dashing the hopes of the 49er Faithful.

Kelly has hinted that the preseason will determine his choice for starting quarterback, either Jim Harbaugh-era dynamo Colin Kaepernick, who has suffered injuries and bouts of mediocre play, or the new kid in town, Blaine Gabbert, whose workmanlike performance characterized the 49ers’ disappointing 5-11 2015 season.

It’s not going to be easy to improve on that showing. The 49ers have been ranked next-to-last in NFL.com’s preseason power rankings. Both Kaepernick and Gabbert are near the bottom of ESPN’s quarterback ratings.

It will take a Chip Kelly miracle. He did it his first year in Philly; can he do it for the Niner Nation? Which now officially includes Oregon.