Call it a tale of three birds: the Eagle, the Ducks and eating crow. Or maybe, just maybe, you can call it the ultimate validation of Oregon football on a grand scale.
When Monday Night Football debuted on September 9, one could feel the eyes of the sports-watching nation focused resolutely on the game between Washington and Philadelphia. Viewers, not just in DC and Philly but throughout the country, were eager to see a speedy quarterback execute read-option plays with precision and charisma, leaving opposing defenses reeling and sucking wind.
In other words, many fans were waiting to see budding superstar Robert Griffin III, wondering how he would fare returning from knee injury.
But a funny thing happened on the way to crowning the former Heisman Trophy winner as king of the NFL’s future. Griffin’s Redskin offense was about as effective as lawmakers in the US Congress, a few miles away from the stadium: mired in gridlock and mistakes. Granted Griffin had some rust to shake off, but the real action was with Philadelphia’s offense on the field. Instead, while quarterback Michael Vick showed Griffin and the sports world that he’s not quite ready to relinquish his legacy as one of the past decade’s best run-pass combos (at least not until the next injury), the game’s star was clearly a guy who never took the field to play: Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly.
The NFL season is now just two games old, but it may have already provided a transformative moment, both for pro football and, more specifically, for our beloved Ducks. On that Monday night in suburban Maryland, a football world that had been skeptical about Kelly’s spread offense ever having great success in the pros, had to face the fact that they were wrong.
As the Eagles marched up and down the field, those who think football is defined for eternity by runs up the middle for two yards at a time, were forced to eat crow. For Chip Kelly’s team may have won by only three points, but in so doing — especially in that first half, when the Eagles ran a stunning 53 plays and seemly could do no wrong in steamrolling a solid Washington defense — may have provided a transformational moment in the history of football, one defined by the brand of football played in Eugene.
Remember that JPEG circulated by Nike after the Ducks lost the 2011 BCS national championship game? It read, “Everyone loses games. Few change them.” Three years later, it’s clear that wasn’t just a tagline. It was a first-draft of history. And history, as another saying, belongs to the victors. If you spank an opposing defense the way Kelly’s team did in the Monday Night debut, you don’t just earn the praise of John Gruden (again) and Mike Tirico: you show the entire league that football – as we know it – is changing.
For much of the past eight months since Chip Kelly left Eugene for Philadelphia, Duck fans, opponents and agnostics alike, wondered how and when Oregon would begin to decline. After all, we’ve seen this narrative play out in sports countless times before: a legendary coach leaves a team, and sooner or later the wins start to decrease. As the currently second-ranked Ducks have enjoyed a nearly perfect 3-0 start under head coach Mark Helfrich, however, many of us have sighed in relief that the football alchemy that happened under Kelly might, at least for a time, continue under Helfrich and a staff of long-serving assistant coaches nearly intact from the Kelly/Mike Bellotti regime.
Watching that Monday night game and the hype surrounding Kelly that came with his offense’s success, I began to consider for the first time a possible future in which his departure for Philadelphia might actually help the Oregon program.
If Kelly could become a successful and proven winner in the NFL, establishing a wholeheartedly spread offense where other teams have dabbled, that would become a calling card for the Ducks. In the past, one of the knocks against Oregon and other spread teams on the recruiting front, has been that it doesn’t prepare offensive players for the pros as well as traditional formations. Numerous teams prior to this season have made the read-option play part of their repertoires, but nobody has gone all-in with the spread in the NFL like Kelly is doing. And in that 53-play offensive display by Vick and company in that first half against the hapless Redskins, one almost had the feeling of seeing into the future of the game.
It still may not be an overnight success this season for the Eagles. The season’s second week brought a close loss to San Diego, although Philly’s offensive statistics remained robust. On Thursday night, the growing pains and the effect of three games in 11 days were felt.
But even if it takes a season or multiple seasons to get the right personnel in place, that first Monday night game, at least in my mind, proved once and for all that both Kelly and the spread can and will, be successful in the National Football League.
Though I have no connections necessary to confirm it, I’ll bet after that Eagles-Redskins game, Helfrich’s staff was calling and perhaps even visiting some of their most coveted high school recruits. “You think Oregon’s spread offense can’t prepare you for the NFL?” they might ask. “Well, I dare you to try and count on one hand the times John Gruden and Mike Tirico used the word ‘gassed’ while talking about the Washington defense.”
Nothing in college or pro football is certain. This year’s Ducks have the talent to go all the way, but an injury or even one fluke play in a close game, could derail a national championship run. And for Kelly’s Eagles, no formation can make a mediocre group of players great. He may need to prove as skillful at drafting players as making them feel out of shape. Yet there’s a sense of momentum one senses with Kelly that’s very different from the last time an Oregon head coach went to the NFL: Rich Brooks in 1995. Be it Rick Pitino and John Calipari in basketball or Nick Saban and Lou Holtz in football, many college coaches have failed in the pros. Chip may do the same. But it feels like he’s part of a transformation, and if that happens, it can only be a feather in our shiny metal caps.
*Watch for a joint OREGON/EAGLE Video Analysis next Tuesday! For the bye week, we have three analysts who are helping me look at the similarities and differences of the Oregon offense and the Philadelphia Offense. This will be fun!
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