Remember the Chicago Bears? They’re that team that’s been to the playoffs once in the last decade, right? You know, the guys who haven’t had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Jim McMahon in 1985?
Well, this year you can also call the Chicago Bears one of the most improved teams in the NFL. In particular, you may notice a host of accolades being showered on one Bear in particular, given how the passing game has made such an incredible turnaround: no, not second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who on Sunday became only the second player in NFL history to throw five touchdown passes to five different receivers in the first half of a game. I’m talking about Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.
After all, while Trubisky’s play has brought him to the top ten in NFL passer ratings, what really has had TV commentators and Bears fans impressed is the play calling. Much of that credit goes to head coach Matt Nagy, but any Oregon fan should recognize some of the plays themselves. While Chicago is certainly not running a spread offense, many of the Xs and Os look familiar — not just in a literal sense as the same plays, but in the sense of attacking at all times.
Watching the Bears through the first four games of the season provides an unmistakable reminder of the talents Helfrich brought to Oregon. It’s not to say things didn’t go rather badly that final season in Eugene. It’s not to say that there weren’t legitimate concerns about recruiting and motivational skills. But oh my, Helfrich has a beautiful mind when it comes to drawing up plays.
This moment for Helfrich is even more distinct when we think about the season Chip Kelly is having thus far at UCLA. To be fair, it’s not likely to be an overnight success when you’re transitioning a pro-style offense to the spread. It’s not likely to all go perfectly well when the Bruins had been under-achieving on the recruiting trail for years under Jim Mora, which is all the more clear now that quarterback Josh Rosen has left for the NFL. Yet the luster has undoubtedly come off of Kelly’s brand. After all, he has four losses in his first four games at the helm in Westwood. At Oregon, it took four years for him to have four regular-season losses.
Then there’s Oregon itself. After Saturday night’s convincing win against Cal, the team is looking good under Mario Cristobal with a 4-1 record and a No. 18 ranking in both major polls. But the 28 offensive points scored is still underachieving compared to Oregon of the past decade. Many have been encouraged and impressed with Cristobal’s effort to make the Ducks bigger, tougher and stronger on the line of scrimmage, able to execute Stanford-style power running up the middle as much as Kelly- and Helfrich-esque jabbing at the corners.
Yet it’s still an open question whether the Ducks can have it both ways: a power team and a finesse team. And even if that’s possible it will result in better ball control, but it likely won’t produce as many points. If nothing else, it won’t result in plays that make us marvel at their creativity.
Make no mistake: I’m not suggesting that the Ducks would be better off having never fired Helfrich. After all, it’s encouraging and unmistakable that recruiting has picked up. And with Jim Leavitt leading Oregon’s defense, there is reason for an optimism that fans never quite had with defensive coordinators Nick Alliotti, Don Pellum or Brady Hoke.
Yet watching Helfrich in his offensive coordinator role with the Bears, one can’t escape the fact that Oregon let a brilliant guy go. One can’t escape the fact that, in retrospect, we never quite gave Helfrich enough credit for Oregon’s offensive prowess — for building a Ferrari that simply drives faster and looks better doing it than any other car we’ve had in our garage.
There was a time during Kelly’s tenure, particularly in the 2010 season as the Ducks went undefeated, when the head coach was being bandied about as a football genius of historic proportions. Kelly in those heady times was even called the Bill Walsh of the spread, the guru who would literally change the way the game is played. To some extent it’s true: since Kelly took the Philadelphia Eagles head coaching job in 2013, the NFL has indeed seen more spread-offense philosophy become part of the pro game.
Yet I still suspect that Helfrich doesn’t get enough love and credit from Oregon fans, even if we’re specifically talking about the four years he spent as head coach and the fact that he led the Ducks to one of their two greatest seasons in history in 2014.
Even if we establish that we wouldn’t trade Cristobal for Helfrich as head coach, I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone for Helfrich had Oregon retained him. No one will ever know whether he would have righted the ship after the disappointing 2016 season or whether things would have continued to decline. That’s what happens when you fire a coach after one bad season; you’re left to guess what that future might have been.
The more time goes by, the more I liken Mark Helfrich to another Oregon coach who was fired and perhaps didn’t deserve it, or at least where the case was ambiguous: Jerry Frei. Like Helfrich, Frei was the hand-picked successor to a legendary coach (in this case Len Casanova). Like Helfrich, his teams posted season records that were up and down, but perceived as disappointments given the talent Oregon had. Like Helfrich, Frei was only one year removed from a successful season when he was fired. In 1970, the Ducks finished second in the Pac-8 conference at 6-4-1, but simply going 5-6 the next year was enough to get him canned.
Frei had a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback in Dan Fouts, an All-American running back in Ahmad Rashad (then known as Bobby Moore) and a future Super Bowl-winning tight end in Russ Francis, but he was fired because he couldn’t keep Oregon winning consistently. Frei was succeeded by two inferior head coaches, Dick Enright and Don Read, who fared much worse. In the ensuing five seasons after Frei’s firing, Oregon’s best finish was sixth place in the conference out of eight teams.
If Frei had to be fired, there was eventually a positive outcome. In 1977, six years after Frei’s last campaign, Rich Brooks took the helm. He would remain at Oregon through the magical 1994 season that ended with the Ducks’ first Rose Bowl in 37 years. We can only hope that Mario Cristobal is a Rich Brooks figure. After the one-year fling with Willie Taggart, who deserves credit for leaving Oregon better than he found the program, but lost a lot of respect with a one-and-done performance in Eugene and some used-car-salesman inclinations, Cristobal seems to have the rock-solid character to be a general of this program, and the charisma to recruit better than any of his predecessors.
Yet even if Cristobal is successful — even if he takes the Ducks back to the rarified air of the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games — the continuing career of Helfrich compels us to acknowledge that we may have underestimated the man: while he was Kelly’s assistant, while he was head coach, and now that he’s a successful NFL coach on the rise.
There have been many legendary coaches who have served as assistants or head coaches in Eugene, many of whom have gone on to the NFL. Frei himself was a successful longtime assistant for the Denver Broncos. Today former Mike Bellotti assistant Dirk Koetter is the head man in Tampa, and former Oregon quarterback Norv Turner remains one of the most sought-after offensive coordinators in the game, some 25 years after earning Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys.
Legendary former Oregon quarterback Bill Musgrave is the offensive coordinator in Denver and received much praise this week on Monday Night Football for his play calling. Past Oregon players like Guenther Cunningham and Jack Patera have also been NFL head coaches.
It’s an exclusive alumni club that Helfrich now belongs to, and we should not be surprised if Oregon becomes just one of the successes in his portfolio.
Top Photo from Video
FishDuck Note: Brian is modest and does not tell us that he is a professional writer who contributed this for fun, but he did write a wonderful book about Oregon football that I highly recommend as a birthday/Christmas present. Being so busy, he cannot write for us often, but I am a big fan of his work and am very grateful. Charles Fischer
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Brian Libby is a writer and photographer living in Portland. A life-long Ducks football fanatic who first visited Autzen Stadium at age eight, he is the author of two histories of UO football, “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline” and “The University of Oregon Football Vault.” When not delving into all things Ducks, Brian works as a freelance journalist covering design, film and visual art for publications like The New York Times, Architect, and Dwell, among others.
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