Oregon’s 20-year football nadir has produced three factions on this site. It is no secret that I belong to the outnumbered Root-and-Branch faction. As difficult as may be for some to hear, in this camp we’ve forecasted that Mark Helfrich will fail and have begun calling for new leadership to reverse the degradation to Oregon’s erstwhile winning culture.
Then there is the ‘Only-the-Defense-Sucks’ faction. To them, it is no more complicated than our head coach, who (unbeknownst to our competition) is an offensive wizard that happens to be saddled by Brady Hoke’s ineptitude on the defensive side of the ball. Anything more than a surgical fix on the defense is irrational. Fix that, they say, and everything will be as right as rain.
Lastly, there are what I call the Fascists. For this segment, blame is laid anywhere but the current head coach; including the current athletes and prior coach. The rest of us are to keep our traps shut, toe the line and salute the administration, in unison, right or wrong.
While there is no arguing with the latter, for sake of the record, we do not live in a world where fans are not allowed to express their opinion about the object of their fanaticism; where doing so is somehow tantamount to Duck treason.
Or where doing so risks the delicately balanced esprit de corps as of the modern 18-to-22-year-old snowflakes who must have a Pro-Oregon safe space lest they catch wind of our dissention and quit.
While it is an interesting social phenomenon that such an opinion exists, it suffices to say that it misdiagnoses the problem.
The Root-and-Branchers submit that the problem is Helfrich’s leadership itself – not necessarily the poor performance or bad results but the degradation of focus and discipline.
I submit Helfrich does not have the je ne sais quoi – the intangible quality akin to Justice Potter Stewart’s I-Know-It-When-I-See-It test – necessary to coach young men to championship status.
I submit - and I am not alone - that these traits were apparent from the onset of Helfrich’s tenure, irrespective the apparent ongoing success. When one looked closely, Heflrich’s Ducks have always lacked the discipline and focus necessary to continue the unprecedented trajectory that Chip Kelly brought to Oregon.
If the observation is accepted, it follows that the leadership must be changed – Root-and-Branch – to reestablish that trajectory. We should be willing to tolerate the necessary stepping stones in a rebuild – poor performance, youth, lack of execution and even bad results – but we must not accept a failure of leadership.
To say this failure is not the coaches fault because the players quit is like saying it’s not the father’s fault his daughter became a stripper because she was a skank to begin with.
If we can generally agree that a dad’s ultimate job boils down to keeping his daughter off the pole, a coach’s sacrosanct job is to keep his players from quitting. Players only quit when leadership fails.
At least we can engage Only-the-Defense-Sucks Faction with rational dialogue even if they do quizzically label us irrational. The lead defense of the offense, as it were, is that, well, at least as of a month ago, the offense was 16th out of 128th in yards per game.
Through Week 9, however, Oregon had fallen to 22nd (23rd Rushing Offense and 35th Passing Offense) in yards per game. While that is a far cry from the top 5 standard recent history has imposed on our expectations, they argue this is ample evidence to keep Helfrich around as long as required.
I suggest we dive a little deeper, because I’m not so sure the offense is “just fine.” During the first nine weeks, Oregon played a total of two top-twenty defenses: Colorado (9th overall, 19th rush and 10th pass) and Washington (18th overall, 42nd rush, 13th pass). Within the other seven weeks, there was one unranked cupcake defense (UC Davis), California’s 125th ranked defense, ASU at 124th, and UVA at 100th: four games against pitiful opponents during which Oregon’s offense racked up 2338 of its 4441 total yardage. Do the math. Even though the offense put up 500 yards on Stanford yesterday, those four weeks against bottom-feeder defenses are nearly half of the 10-week total production.
It’s no secret that Oregon’s playbook rises and falls on a successful run game to open up defenses to develop the option and play action. Linebackers commit for a split second, the flats and hooks open up, the safety steps down, and the defense exposes its seams to explosive plays. Easier said than done, but that all hales from a successful run game.
Yet, Oregon’s offense failed to hit 200 yards running two times: USC (85) and (against the worst run defense in the country) Cal (192).
This year, Oregon has eclipsed 300 rushing yards in a winning effort only once: 301 yards against UVA’s 71st-ranked rush defense. (The other 300+ yard game? Nebraska.) And what of the remaining five fair-to-middling 200+ yard games? 214, 215, 230, 245, 251 against the 21st-, 18th-, 42nd-, 28th- and UC Davis’ unranked cupcake rush defenses. Once again, yesterday’s 226 total rushing against the Cardinal is mitigated by the fact that Stanford’s rush defense went into Week 10 ranked 40th.
To draw conclusions, it’s a rough year for the Ducks and the Pac-12. Their strength of schedule reflects that. One would expect a healthy, consistent offense that, but for a bad defense, is ready to fight for a play-off berth to increase production as its competition declines. Instead, Oregon has had only modest success against unimpressive defenses.
So, is the offense’s decline out of the top twenty a one-off drop, ala 2009 when per game production fell to 33rd but rebounded the next year to No. 1? Or have we Root-and-Branchers correctly diagnosed a greater cultural rot infecting the program from the leadership.
This is a subjective debate, to be sure. Two weeks ago I conceded that if Helfrich won out, I’d support another year. He didn’t. Aaron Lewis made a tremendous case for the value of a bowl game. I was sold. Had Helfrich turned this season into a bowl game, Rob Mullens would have his little bit of improvement and Helfrich would have been onto something.
But if success merits credit, then failure merits consequences. If the Fascists are right and the seniors and upperclassmen have quit because they do not want to risk their futures for Oregon football today, that failure belongs to the head coach alone – not the athletes or coordinators.
Helfrich’s leadership has deprived the 2016 Ducks of a bowl game and registered the first losing season in recent memory. We now hope for a 4-8 record, and the Platypus Trophy’s real prize is to avoid the ignominy of being last in the North.
If that is enough for you, God Bless. I humbly suggest it is not enough for Oregon’s future. Nor should it be enough for any serious program. Until fixed, the decline will continue, recruiting will languish, and Oregon Football will enter a new Dark Age.
I submit the archetype target for head coach is a young, NFL defensive coordinator, with D-line experience, from a program that employs an offense that is compatible with Oregon’s tempo spread; someone who is successful, aggressive, but has not had his own helm and undoubtedly wants it.
The symbiotic trade is likely transitory in nature since an NFL helm will undoubtedly open up in response to a successful stint in the NCAA. Nevertheless, I submit this is the blueprint to rebuild Oregon’s culture; by putting defense first. And I submit the ideal candidate is Matt Patricia of the New England Patriots.
He has coached both offensive and defensive line. He’s been promoted from linebackers, to safeties, to DC. Although an East Coaster originally from New York, which may be an automatic red card for certain Oregon fans, if we can set geographical prejudices aside, his resume is impeccable.
He’s been with Bill Belichik for more than a decade. There is no defensive position on the field he cannot coach. And I love that he is an aeronautical engineer: undoubtedly the skillset he uses to take opposing offenses apart. I’m guessing he wants a promotion, would be willing to travel for it and that Oregon can free up the funds to compete, and beat, his coordinator salary.
Giving Helfrich a third DC in three years would do little more than allow him to keep guessing on that side of the field. This is not so much an answer as a prayer that Helfrich’s broken clock will eventually be right. Prudence dictates that Oregon finds The One. That we allow our Neo to tell Mullens who his coordinators will be. Youthful leadership from the NFL will inspire Oregon’s young athletes and invigorate recruiting.
I commend the Change-the-Defense-Only faction for its vigor and unyielding critical analysis of the defensive woes. It is emboldening that two of three factions are assessing the evidence in a rational search for a final verdict. As the season winds down, each of us should weigh that evidence as we ponder Oregon’s football future. We can only hope that Mullens is doing so, as well.
Garden City, New York
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