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The 49ers began the Chip Kelly Era by pitching a 28-0 shut out against the Los Angeles Rams. Kelly became the 6th straight 49ers head coach to win the season opener in his first season with the team. The Niners have now won their last 6 regular season openers, the longest current streak in the NFL.
No one really knew what to make of the Chip Kelly hire. As I mentioned last week, the team was going into this season with more questions than answers. We can all agree that what we saw last night was a step in the right direction.
Blaine Gabbert wasn't perfect, or great, or even really good. He had a sub-par game (he was worse than his stats indicated) and the offense really struggled to get things going in the second half once the Rams made adjustments. However, he didn't make any crucial mistakes - despite a bevy of close calls - and he was able to guide the offense to 28 points, which is more than the 49ers scored in any single game last year. The offensive line was mauling arguably the best defensive line in the game.
The defense was dominant. They made sure tackles, covered up the Rams receivers, got to the quarterback and created turnovers. Todd Gurley, the 2015 Rookie of the Year, never really got going. He finished with 47 yards on 17 carries. The defense held contain and shored up pursuit angles that were missing in the preseason. Jimmie Ward was all over the field and quietly had his best game as a pro. Jaquiski Tartt even made several special teams plays. It was truly a team win.
But back to Kelly. Being there at the game added the benefit of being able physically see plays unfolding. Kelly's offense was on full display - whether or not the ball went where it needed to go was another story - with receivers at every level finding open spots on the field. All of this allowed Blaine Gabbert to find an open option and complete 22 passes on the night. It was more of a ball control offense in the first half, with the 49ers getting the bulk of their 28 first downs during that time.
We saw some staples of a Chip Kelly offense: high tempo, getting running backs involved both running and catching the ball, receivers getting open in small spaces and of course, a lot of points. It was as good of a first game that the 49ers could have hoped for, given what they've been through the past 2 years. The offense scored more points than it scored at any point last year and the Niners had 28 first downs, more than they had in any game last year. As an added bonus, the 49ers also won the time of possession battle.
Kelly's offense has the ability to make receivers look good and that's exactly what happened. Recently acquired Jeremy Kerley had 7 catches for 61 yard while fellow receiver Quinton Patton had 5 catches for 60 yards. Those aren't earth shattering numbers, but they're numbers that the team can definitely work with. The offensive line also fared much better because they weren't having to block for as long, that's what having quick hitting plays does for a line that had to be reshuffled 2 days before kickoff.
It was an important win for the 49ers and for Chip Kelly, for different reasons. The 49ers have been in the news the past few weeks for reasons other than football and have been a lightning rod for controversy. It was nice to get away from that for a bit and enjoy a solid team win. Above all, it's always great to start the season off 1-0.
Yes, it's just one win and yes it was against an inferior opponent, but for Kelly, every win will help dissolve the notion that he isn't a player's coach and he'll absolutely take each win he can get. The team came out looking prepared and focused, which was the case in exactly zero games last year. It's taken a grand total of one game to see that Kelly is a massive upgrade over the man he replaced.
The true test now comes with 3 out of the next 4 games against 2015 playoff teams, including a road game against last year's Super Bowl runner up, the Panthers this Sunday. If the 49ers can tread water through this treacherous stretch in their schedule, they'll be ok. If not, it'll just be another solid start to a season followed by a fall back down to earth for the red and gold.