Oregon Football: Time to Wake the Sleeping Giant

Marc Burton Editorials

The end for Mark Helfrich was written long before the second half rains in Corvallis washed away any hope of his redemption. There was no artistry to that second half bludgeoning by Oregon State. No intricate scheme or innovation was required. It was straight ahead football, 27 consecutive running plays by the Beavers, and the Ducks had no answers … very little fight and very few answers. A fitting epitaph to 2016 Oregon Football.

Bradenton Herald

Coach Willie Taggart introduced to the Oregon faithful

After a season like 2016, change was inevitable, and now Willie Taggart is the proverbial next man up. The question of whether he is the right man or not won’t be answered for some time. At this point, all we really know about Taggart is that he is a football architect, a builder of programs. So strap on your hard hat Mr. Taggart, because there’s building to be done.

Rob Mullens and company should be applauded for stepping up and making the right decision to sever ties with Helfrich, and not settle for the watered down product that most certainly would have persisted had Helfrich been retained. Say for instance Helfrich had stayed, what then happens after the 2017 season? What would constitute an “acceptable” degree of improvement after this year’s 4-win train wreck?


Sun Bowl

Would he continue to coach with six or seven-wins in 2017 and an appearance in some 3rd tier bowl game? Would we have regressed back to the era of an 8-win ceiling for the Ducks and a trip to El Paso and the Sun Bowl? It’s a slippery slope, and the direction the program was comfortably sliding towards under Helfrich.

I never understood the argument that said in effect, “Helfrich and the offense are fine, just fix the defense and we’ll be right back in the hunt.”  Someone has to explain to me how you can divide the responsibilities of the head coach to cover only one or two aspects of a teams overall play, because I’m just not familiar with that particular sport. At the most basic level football–a team sport–consists of offense, defense, and yes Virginia, special teams. We can drill deeper into these individual facets of the game, but make no mistake, the head coach oversees, provides context, and is ultimately responsible for the performance of each.

Just to be clear, being routinely stymied offensively in the first half of games, lacking cohesion and rhythm while the games were still competitive, and then scoring several meaningless 4th quarter touchdowns when the games were out of reach was not a sign of a robust offense. Equally, I saw little improvement in the offense’s performance over the course of the season, something you would expect from a young team with solid coaching. Rather, mistakes in week two were still evident in week 12.


Aiden Schneider of the Oregon Ducks

Special teams were mostly atrocious, littered with penalties and unfocused play. Example: how many times did players lose sight of the ball and run into their own return man resulting in a fumble? At least three by my count. And for god’s sake, would someone in an Oregon coach’s uniform pay some much-needed attention to our kicking game? Because here’s a little secret, in close games, field position matters.

The universe bailed out Helfrich and company when Aidan Schneider decided to walk on, slap a big red “S” on his chest and turn into an All-American. But what was the thought process around developing a punter? It speaks to hubris and high levels of inattention to treat the kicking game like an afterthought, especially with that defense.

And how about that defense … wow!  Doing justice to that sore subject will require another full article, at another time. But let me assign some quick grades to the three pillars of defensive football, Point of Attack, Gap Integrity and Tackling.

  • Point of Attack: F+
  • Gap Integrity: F
  • Tackling: F-

Did I miss anything?

In fairness, Helfrich had a lot of help making 2016 into a year of infamy. Every position coach bore some responsibility. No one walks away clean and unscathed after a firestorm like that. But unlike many, I see value in what transpired this year, as the pain was necessary to initiate the wholesale changes the program now needs to move back into contention and relevance. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Oregon ushered in a fresh coaching mind, and the results were nothing short of stunning.

The Comeback.com

Coach Kelly enjoying the moment

Charles Edward Kelly (or “Big Balls Chip” if you were sitting in the student’s section), anyone remember that guy? Because in the fall of 2009 there wasn’t universal optimism that a talented, but relative unknown, OC could take over the reins of the program from the successful and capable hands of Mike Bellotti. But talent is talent, and it didn’t take very long to see that with Kelly at the controls Oregon was on a rocket ride to the upper echelons of College Football.

The epiphany for me came in a late October game that year against USC. Does anyone remember the atmosphere in Autzen that night? Halloween, a packed house, and a national television broadcast with the 10th ranked Ducks taking on Pete Carroll‘s 4th ranked Trojans. Choose any adjective you like … because electric really doesn’t do justice to the sound the home crowd was making that night. It was, as they say, off the hook.

In the midst of that cauldron, late in the 3rd quarter, the Ducks were driving once again. LaMichael James and company were relentless and the Trojan defense was showing the telltale signs of exhaustion; late to the line of scrimmage, hands on hips, they were gassed. And after a first down inside the 10 there was Chip, racing down the sideline, arms wind-milling, animated and screaming ‘let’s go … let’s gooo!”

USC Trojans.com

Oregon vs USC on Halloween night

All of what Kelly would mean to Oregon was distilled in that moment for me. Because there were my Ducks, the sometimes good but rarely great Ducks, about to kick sand in the face of the once mighty Trojans … and it was all due to this squat little guy in a visor. The entirety of Chip’s football philosophy … speed, conditioning and an unceasing attack … were crystallized and on full display. Fortunes had turned, not just within the game, but also in the minds of Oregon fans forever, and Chip knew it before any of us. The Ducks scored on the next play and went on to rout USC to the tune of 47-20, the worst loss of Pete Carrol’s college career.

I say this as a reminder as much to myself as to everyone, 46-7 (Chip’s coaching record) is the new birthright for the Ducks. We need not settle for less. Forget all the garbage you’ve been reading of late. Not only is it possible, it’s already been done. With the right guy in place Oregon need not settle for anything less than excellence. And while I’m on the subject you can also forget all the recruiting crap about what Eugene isn’t.

Because you hear the same tired refrain from every second tier college coach with a losing record in every major college sport in the country. “You just can’t recruit here because of: (fill in the blank) It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too wet it’s too dry, too big, too small, too urban, not urban enough, blah, blah, blah.” You heard it at Stanford before Jim Harbaugh, at Colorado before Mike MacIntyre, at Oregon before Bellotti / Kelly,  at Washington State, Boise State, Oregon State … and on and on and on.


The Giant awakens

The common denominator in the refrain is the coach who sings it. You’ll never hear those excuses from coaches who win, but rather only from those who lose. The point is the right guy will not use that time-honored crutch when it comes to recruiting elite athletes to Oregon. Because he’ll focus on all the things that Eugene is: beautiful, vibrant, storied, one of the great places in the entire country to go to college, to play and watch the game of college football.

Forget Mark Helfrich, he wasn’t the right guy. A new legacy is about to unfold. The Willie Taggart era has begun, and for the first time in what feels like awhile I’m fired up about Oregon Football. It’s time to wake the sleeping giant.

Marc Burton
Cupertino, California

Top Photo Credit: Craig Strobeck

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