There’s no question that Oregon’s offensive performance in 2018 fell short of the standard set in recent glory years. As fans, we’re left with one question: What should we do about it?
The internet’s popular theory is that if we don’t fire the offensive coordinator, we should at least have the decency to get our skivvies in a knot and lose a lot of sleep.
But these alternatives have problems.
First, the person who runs the offense, and how he does it, is not our decision to make. We hire other people to make that sort of decision through our donations, ticket purchases and television subscriptions. And as much as we might think we know, as much we have invested in the program, these “other people” know more and have more invested.
This is not to say that coaches are infallible. History proves otherwise. But there are some things to consider.
If scheme was a part of Oregon’s offensive problem this year, it wasn’t the only contributor. Few people seem to recognize it, but Oregon had challenges at every position group on offense in 2018.
First, the most obvious problem: Dillon Mitchell set the Oregon single-season record for receiving yards. How can a record-setting performance be a problem? Maybe because he was the only one who could get open and catch the ball? Most of the time, anyway.
The next most obvious problem? Not to belittle the efforts of freshmen running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, but it’s not the same as having Royce Freeman, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner or De’Anthony Thomas in the backfield.
Quarterback? Well, having only one reliable receiver to throw to and nothing more than a pair of raw freshmen to hand off to will put a dent in the stats of any QB. Wyoming’s Josh Allen made it to the NFL, but he couldn’t complete passes against Oregon’s so-so secondary in 2017. And Jake Browning — old finger-wag himself — seemed to lose a lot of his ability when John Ross left for the NFL. Justin Herbert may be special, but he still depends on his supporting cast.
Now we get to the real meat: the offensive line. We all thought they were going to knock people over this year; but (Beaver defense excepted), it just didn’t happen. And we thought Mario Cristobal was supposed to be the best offensive line coach in the country. Alabama West, here we come!
So what happened? I won’t pretend to have expertise that I don’t have, but I will make a couple of observations. First, any game becomes easier if you cheat. But the problem with cheating is that you might get caught.
One obvious way for offensive linemen to cheat is to anticipate the snap and get a quick step on defenders. The other obvious way is to hold defenders. In the past, Oregon has had plenty of false starts and plenty of holds called. But as fans of other teams will be quick to point out, the Ducks also had a certain number of holds not called during their glory years.
Against the Oregon States and Arizonas of the world, you maybe come out ahead by flirting with the yellow flag. Third-and-five becomes third-and-fifteen? No problem.
The problem, though, is that it won’t beat Alabama.
So, if the Ducks are ever going to win that Natty, the offensive line needs to learn to execute within guidelines that strictly follow the rules. That’s a skill set far above the previous motto of “hope-we-don’t-get caught.” Any lineman who plays the game without anticipating the count and without holding is making the game harder for himself. I’m guessing there’s a learning curve involved.
It’s easy to look at the Ducks’ meager rushing attack against Michigan State, but zero false starts? Zero holds? That lays the groundwork for better things to come.
Oregon’s offense might or might not have performed better this year under the old offensive scheme. Given the difference in personnel, we’ll never know.
But any savvy investment adviser will tell you that there’s a difference between short-term and long-term, and what works best for the short-term isn’t necessarily best for the long-term. Mario Cristobal is building for the long-term, so you have to expect that there might be some short-term expense involved.
Cristobal might have come out ahead in 2018 if he retained the offense that made Oregon famous. But he doesn’t seem to believe that trying to beat the Alabamas of the world with one-on-one speed in space will get the job done.
So the dilemma is this: Do you immediately start to develop the power and mentality needed to compete at the highest level, or do you wait until you have the horses to do it? Cristobal has made his choice, and I’m not one to second-guess. If he weren’t here for the long run, he might be back in Miami by now.
Granted, there is still the issue of vanilla play-calling. Maybe Cristobal thought getting the basics down was time better spent than adding bells and whistles. With ten returning starters on offense, plus some help from the best recruiting class in Oregon’s history, that can come next year.
There is nothing in Mario Cristobal’s persona to suggest that he is stupid enough to insist on running between the tackles with limited success until he gets fired. And it’s not as though plays that work with a run-pass option are trade secrets that he will never have access to. My guess is that he’ll put two and two together here.
As much as we fans know and care about Oregon football, Mario Cristobal has a lot more riding on this than we do. There is every reason to have faith in the guy and take joy in what he has made of the program in the short time he has been here.
But-but-but … the offense sucked this year! If you truly think Mario Cristobal did not notice that, then I suggest that you write to him at the Oregon Athletic Department and point it out. This is just a guess — I haven’t talked to him personally — but I think he noticed and will do everything he can to make it better. He’s getting paid well to worry about it. Me? The only thing I’d gain by worrying about it is an upset stomach.
But I value my mental health. I’d rather bask in the joy of a 9-4 record, a win over the Huskies, a bowl win over a tough B1G team and a rosy outlook for the coming year.
Speaking of the Huskies, Coach Chris Petersen, whom many lamented Oregon didn’t get as a head coach, is now 2-3 against Oregon during the Ducks’ most dismal period this century and 1-4 in bowl games as the butt-sniffers coach. Even with Oregon’s vanilla play calling and disappointing offensive performance, things could be worse.
So I invite you to join me in having faith and sharing joy in the resurgence of Oregon football. Don’t worry. Be happy. Go Ducks!
Sandpoint, Idaho Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
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