Are the 2016 Oregon Ducks a Lost Cause?

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Is this season a lost cause? Many fans are already asking the question, just five games into a 12-game season. The struggles have been well documented. The defense not getting any consistent pressure, the linebackers out of position, missed tackles at every level. The offense humming one minute, then pedestrian the next. Repeated attempts to run up the middle despite the Ducks’ inexperienced line, many tackles for loss. Calls for the coach’s heads, legs and arms abound.

In my first article this season was titled Hope, Expectations, and the 2016 Oregon Ducks, I concluded with my hope was not in the offense but in the defense, that it would: “disrupt instead of react, apply constant and constantly-changing pressure, dictate the tempo, the time of possession and the score.” I concluded the article with:

“My hope this season is that regardless of what happens on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive side finds greatness, and through that the team finds greatness, and that once again our collective hope and expectations will reach yet even greater heights.”

After watching five games I can tell you that the hope I wrote of above has evaporated, and I have no expectations of greatness, this season.

Normally the difference in height of these columns is much greater.

David Miller

Normally the difference in height of these columns is much greater.

But I don’t believe this season is a lost cause and I still have hope. In my article last week, I predicted a 6-6 season, which included the assumption they’d beat WSU. Despite that loss I still think the Ducks can win three more games and end up 5-7. Now, that would mean the Ducks first losing season since 2004, the Ducks first season without nine wins in ten years, and the first season in ten years where the Ducks won’t end up ranked in the AP Top 25.

Those are three very large and bitter pills to swallow. The Ducks have been at or near the top of the college football landscape for nine straight years and this is apparently the year it all comes crashing down.

You’re probably thinking: so then how is this season not a lost cause and how does this Ducks fan still have hope? It’s not a lost cause for two simple reasons. First, the Ducks can still win games, they’re not destined for 2-10. The Pac-12 is not so strong that with the Ducks defense and young offensive line they can’t notch some wins. Several other teams in the Pac-12 are in the same boat: good offense, weak defense. Those are teams the Ducks can beat, and wins are something you can build upon.

Second, in terms of getting better, nothing compares to live game snaps and then watching yourself on film. It’s a fact that you improve faster when the competition is harder. Given how several Pac-12 teams and their players are markedly better than the Ducks right now, that points to a lot of opportunity for the Ducks players to improve quickly.

There is always light at the end of the tunnel...if you go far enough

Flicr

There is always light at the end of the tunnel … if you go far enough

And that, my friends, is the proverbial light at the end of this dark tunnel we’re all in right now. That is where the hope lies. In the future, in improvement, in next season. A lot of people hate the saying “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” but all we have right now is the journey, however difficult it may be.

Due to recruiting and injuries the Ducks are starting four red-shirt freshman offensive linemen. No other team in the Pac-12 is starting even a single freshmen on the offensive line, and for good reason. It’s a position that probably requires more reps to master than any other. You have to perform at your peak both physically and mentally on every single play and there are something like 150 different plays. So the Ducks offense has and will continue to struggle this year. The blocking is inconsistent, the zone-read ineffectual, the pressure on the quarterback frequent.

But it also means that by the end of this season the Ducks are going to have four pretty good offensive linemen with three years of eligibility left, giving them consistently high performance along the line through 2019. Marcus Mariota is touted as a once in a lifetime talent, and he was, but recall he had a good or great offensive line in front of him pretty much the entire time he was here. It makes a huge difference in every aspect of the offense, especially Oregon’s.

The defense … where to begin.

When switching to a 4-3 you are always always going to have personnel problems. You’ve been recruiting for one system and now you have to not only teach guys a new system, but you don’t necessarily have the stable of bodies you need for the 4-3.

Recruiting is another issue. The Ducks have had some marquee talent on the defensive line for several years now, but not anymore, and it shows. They’re rarely getting pressure on the opposing quarterback, even when the Ducks blitz, and certainly not when the Ducks drop eight or nine guys, a call that Brady Hoke seems to have a proclivity toward.

Given time and the right type of players the Defense should improve, but is there enough time?

from Video

Given time and the right type of players the defense should improve, but is there enough time?

There are times when the Duck linebackers seem completely lost, and plays where I struggle to find them on the field at all. They’ve had injuries, guys are young, but this seems bigger than that. I can’t help but wonder if it relates to Don Pellum’s coaching ability. He’s been the linebacker coach forever, outside his stint as defensive coordinator, but perhaps the switch to 4-3 hasn’t been easy for him to coach.

Still, despite all of these challenges there is really nowhere to go but up. The defense can hardly get worse, and similar to the offensive line they will get better as the season goes by and they spend more time in the 4-3 system. The Ducks do apparently have a decent secondary, which is something to build upon, but right now they are being asked to cover Pac-12 offenses and make the tackles on running plays. They simply can’t be everywhere at once.

In any case, despite the level of vitriol coming out of Ducks Nation, the coaching staff isn’t going to change any time soon. Rich Brooks was the coach from 1977-1994. During those 17 years nine were losing seasons, two were 6-6, and only six were winning seasons. Mike Bellotti was coach from 1995 to 2008. During his 13-year tenure he had only one losing season, 2004. There were however some lean years, including 6-5 in 1996, 7-5 in 1997, 7-6 in 2002, and 7-6 in 2006. Regardless, the expectations from the Brooks era to the Bellotti era changed dramatically.

Ducks fans have been accustomed to at least winning seasons for a very very long time.

David Miller

Duck fans have been accustomed to at least winning seasons for a very very long time.

Oregon fans expected a winning season every year at a minimum. Chip Kelly took the expectations into the stratosphere with a 44-6 record over four years. Mark Helfrich largely sustained that with a 33-8 record over his first three years, with wins in the Alamo Bowl in 2013 and Rose Bowl in 2014. Last year the team struggled greatly when Vernon Adams was out, culminating with humiliation in the Alamo Bowl against TCU.

This really kick started the rhetoric regarding the coaching staff. Why was the defense nearly the worst in the country? Why couldn’t the Ducks hold a 30-point lead at half-time against a much weaker team? Why hadn’t the Ducks been developing quarterbacks from within?

Prukop isn't the scrambler like Mariota and Adams, but can Herbert do better behind a young line?

from Video

Prukop isn’t the scrambler like Mariota and Adams, but can Herbert do better behind a young line?

The start to this season has led to calls for wholesale coaching changes, but it isn’t going to happen. Helfrich would have to oversee 2-3 losing seasons in a row to be fired and if the defense continues to struggle he might be able to bail water by firing Hoke, lengthening his own tenure.

Coaching changes rarely, if ever, result in more wins. Typically, it takes programs 2-3 years to see the results of a top-tier coach, of which there are few on the market each year.

So if you are putting your hope in a coaching change after this season you will be disappointed. Instead hope in a more experienced offensive line, a quarterback (Justin Herbert?) behind them who’s developed from within the program, a continued pool of fast and skilled running backs and receivers, and a defense that has more maturity, fewer injuries and understands the 4-3 well enough to play like it.

Disclaimer:  Readers: Every writer on FishDuck.com is allowed to express their opinion in their articles. However, articles do not represent the views of the other writers, editors, coaching consultants, management, or the principals of FishDuck.com    Charles Fischer

Top photo credit: from Video

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David Miller

David Miller

David, a father of two young Oregon fans, has been a Duck all his life after growing up in Eugene. Although not UO Alumni, his wife was a Journalism major there, and he has stayed true to his Ducks wherever life has taken him. In addition to watching the Ducks each Saturday with up to 200 fans at the Irish Channel in Washington, D.C., he has enjoyed playing tackle football with friends each fall for 25 consecutive years, regularly implementing the latest Oregon offensive wrinkle to stymie defenses. David has been writing short stories all of his adult life for fun and is excited to be writing about the Ducks on Fishduck.com.

  • beautifulportland

    Once donations and season tickets hit all time lows, the AD will be forced to make a HC change. Sooner than later I predict.

    Oregon Alum and Basketball Season Ticket Holder

  • douglas fur

    Mr. Fishduck’s reminder that we have just come through 3 years of recruiting restrictions laid on by the NCAA for indiscretions in the Chip Kelly era was timely. They have been a slap on the wrist compared to what other teams have received but they have hurt. The increased competition from other PAC12 teams on the rise has increased the impact of these sanctions.

    If you look at the conference through a sanctions lens you see: UW hs finally recovered from the Don James Era sanctions; Colorado is back post Neuheisel; and USC maybe turning the corner from the Pete Carrol era. We’re experiencing a small dip in our road cccompared to the decades in the wilderness spent be these teams.

    Saying that Helfrich has been coasting on Kelly’s recuiting success ignores the fact that these sanctions are just endng. Giving Kelly all the credit for recruiting is also a distortion. Recruiting is a group efort. (Greatwood tipped Helfrich to Mariota nd Helf told Kelly we had to have him.) The loss of Nick Aliotti’s recruiting base has probably had more impact on recruiting than Kelly’s departure. Our woes on defense point to this.

    Give Helfrich a couple of unrestricted years of recuiting and we’ll have a better idea of his skills.
    The same for Hoke. Although I’m concerned about his teaching skills. The basic
    skill flaws which others have pointed out would seem to indicate he’s overly focused on the BIg Picture of the 4-3 and not covering the basic details on which it needs to be built.

    Looking at restrictions makes me wonder “What’s David Shaw’s excuse?” I ackowledge Stanford has its own self imposed recruiting handicaps but the trees have had a greater fall from expectations than Oregon. So where’s the mob at the castle gate calling for Shaw’s departure?

    A 2 win season? I hope not but as long as it’s a turning point we’ll survive.

    DRB ’74

    • Matt B.

      No one is calling for Shaw’s head because he’s a good coach and wins consistently. Losing to Peterson, who is also a good coach – both of them will likely prove to be great and are the Pac-12’s best chances of a national title this decade – doesn’t merit any reprimand. He’s one 3 of 5 Pac-12 titles, 3 Pac-12 Coach of the year award, has overall record of something like 57-16. Helf is no where near either Shaw or Peterson. Yet. He may be in 10 years but I hope he earns his stripes elsewhere.

      • douglas fur

        Helfrich is our coach. The impediments he’s had on recruiting were harsher than those Shaw faces. I think he deserves some slack. My point in bringing up Shaw was to demonstrate that even good coaches have bad years. Transitions, whether or not sanctions are involved, can take a team out of contention for decades. Wishing Helfrich earns his coaching stripes elseware doesn’t address the fact that transitioning to a new coach will not assure us of better outcomes sooner than giving H. a few more years to prove his worth. And who’s available; Sarkisian, Tiffen?

        DRB ’74

        • Matt B.

          I’m working on that issue for next Sunday! No sneak peaks.

  • Matt B.

    I agree with you that it will take minimum 2 years for coaching changes to yield fruit; sometimes 2 years before you can even tell whether they have the ability to yield fruit. Which is why waiting 2-3 years for the Helf to hit a deeper rock bottom is out of the question if Oregon wants to change its football persona into a powerhouse program with consistent national title hopes. If a 5-7 season is not a lost cause to Oregon’s AD, alum, and fan-base, then Oregon will likely never be anything other than a mediocre program with sporadic opportunities to grab headlines. Of course, on the field, anything can happen, but on paper Oregon has a realistic shot at winning only 2 more games this season: Cal and OSU, but I certainly wouldn’t put any money on the Ducks in Berkeley this year. But if a “best case” outcome for Helfrich’s 4th season is 4-8 then what? Oregon has not had fewer than 5 wins since 1991. We all should be able to agree that going backward 25 years is the wrong direction.

    If the Wait-And-See-Because-Oregon-Has-Historically-Been-A-Mediocre-Program-So-An-Immediate-Change-Is-Crazy Wing of Duck Nation is wrong, and the Helf doesn’t turn his program around, its 2020 before a new coach has the opportunity to lift Oregon out of the Pac-12 basement in which it currently sits. If 62-20 in Autzen wasn’t a clear enough sign, we now have have 70-21. At home. To Washington, albeit a fantastic version under Peterson. Should it really take a Burning Bush to see the signs?

    • douglas fur

      The problem with burning bushes is that they dont oftren come with written instructions but are “subject to inturpretation” through which error and opinion enter.

      • Matt B.

        The Good Lord would have it no other way.

    • themilman

      Thanks for your comments. My bottom line is that I just don’t see them knee-jerk firing Helf after this season, no matter how bad it is, given the long list of excuses he has built in (youth, injuries, new defense, etc. etc. etc.). I know there are good rebuttals to each and every one of those but still. Now, if they continue to struggle next year then I could see the boot coming, but then we could expect another 2-3 years to get back to good. Hence my hope is that the problem is less Helf himself and more the weight of so many other issues that culminated at one time, many of them of his own doing yes, but many he can avoid in the future, like not spending enough time developing QB’s from within, not recruiting enough talent on the defensive line, etc.

  • DonealDuck

    I didn’t realize Vernon Davis ever played for Oregon, let alone last year after he had already played a number of years in the NFL! Are the Ducks on secret NCAA probation this year because of that obvious rule infraction? That might explain the MIA status of the defense this year!

    ;)

    just kidding… .thought you might want to edit that

    • Thanks Doneal-got it!

    • themilman

      Thanks, not sure why I wrote Davis there, complete brain malfunction.

  • Mike Green

    Helfrich showed he can win with Chip’s players and Chip’s plays…

    But now that he is using his players, which he got when the ducks were a top team, he can’t even stay competitive with Wa St.

    Recruiting will be in the tank with Helf as head coach — so the margins of losses will be even greater

    Helf lost 2 highly rated defensive recruits from this state earlier this year.

    That is why I am starting the Lane Kiffen to Oregon campaign…

    Lets put some TALENT back on the field – I can live with losses that should have been wins…

    I can’t live with watching players in Oregon uniforms that should be playing instead for Portland St – the players are really that bad

    I won’t go into names here, but many of the defensive starters would at best be scout team players on a top 5 team

    In 2014, the duck defense was only subpar with its inside linebackers – the rest of the starters were pretty darn good

    Helfrich cannot bring in talent — we can discuss it now — but in early Feb, the proof will be obvious as Oregon gets rated below 40 or 50 in the discussion for best recruiting class

    Without a coaching change, I don’t see any of the good recruits staying the course

    • themilman

      Thanks for your comments. It’s true we’re missing a star on the defensive line, something we’ve had for several years with Buckner and Armstead, and it shows. We get very little pressure, and when we send our linebackers blitzing they disappear into a black hole. There are literally plays where I can’t find a linebacker on the field. If the defense doesn’t improve dramatically next year (like say from nearly worst in the nation to maybe only 60th worst?) then Helf and Hoke will have more questions than answers.

  • MAITAIDUCK

    I think you’ve been taking in a few to many frat parties down in Eugene! I seriously don’t think you understand really what your talking about and thats easy to point out because your so young. Helfich I’m afraid is in over his head as to the way games have been played and the Husky game to me was the last straw when players played as if they had somewhere else to be. I don’t know about you but I love Football and when I played I loved to practice because every chance I had to put on a uniform and play that was it. Helfrich doesn’t get it and you can see that and heres what you don’t understand Phil Knight has put Inver 300 Million in upgrading Oregon because why, He wants Oregon to be successful and yes hopefully win a Title. You don’t put out that type of CASH if you don’t expect big things so you even thinking Helfrich gets 2 seasons of 2-9 makes me think you better go back to what you do best but forcasting future Coaching tenures at Oregon isn’t one of them. That UGLY beatdown was pretty much to hard for most die hard fans to take in because there was no heart from these players. Thats all on Helfrich and if he can’t get these kids to run through walls fore him then he’s a cooked goose for a program thats taken huge steps to reach this point and any 1 man isn’t good enough to reverse that progress and thats just what Marky Mark has done. He’s bring records to Oregon that I clearly don’t see boosters and fans alike excepting too much longer because their records that are not good like being up 41-0 at HT at the Alamo bowl and then losing it. 70 points from your hated rival up North and Petersen could of made it uglier and didn’t. This while their were some very highly rated recruits in the stands that got to see this and Freshman getting interveiwed that were saying This team was giving up and didn’t want to play and didn’t care. Well if that isn’t throwing your coach under the bus I clearly don’t know what that means then. Either way if Helfrich doesn’t get it right and beat Cal in 2 weeks he’s not going to be given more than likely that many more losses before he loses his job because when your team quits on you and this isn’t Pro Football where these guys are getting paid this si where the Coach is in charge. He’s clearly shown that he is clkose to being the wrong hire in 2013.

    • themilman

      Thanks for the comments. I’m 40 and live in DC, so not sure who this is directed to, but I will also point out it was written before the Husky game. I acknowledge every point you made but I still think it will take more than one losing season for Helf to be fired and I don’t think next year will be a losing season. If it is then I think he could fire Hoke (assuming defense remains terrible) and buy himself yet another year. We’re all just guessing here, as is anyone attempting to predict the future. I still think we can win games this year and I do believe we’ll have a winning season next year, even if it’s just barely.

      • Mike Green

        I can’t see why you are optimistic for next year. Hunt, Daniels, Freeman, Crosby, all 3 tight ends, Carrington will most likely be gone.

        That leaves Dye as the only player who could be considered all pac12 and a potential NFL player.

        Chip won with good college players. I don’t see good players anymore.