That’s right, it doesn’t. Mario Cristobal could hire a young reincarnation of Sean Payton, Lincoln Riley or Bill Walsh. Ya know, hire the next offensive “genius.” But, if that chosen one is only allowed to coach with one hand tied behind his back, then, it doesn’t matter. Oregon will not become elite. Oregon will not win a National Championship.
It’s time for Cristobal to take the next step in his development as a head coach by getting out of the way and letting the specialists he has hired do what they do best. If Cristobal puts his conservative, ground-and-pound limitations on his next offensive coordinator, instead of giving him the green light to light up the scoreboard, then the shortcomings that have plagued the Oregon offense will continue.
After my end of season article, I received comments such as, “Wow, after reading this, you’d think the Ducks went 2-10 instead of 10-2.”
Well, for an elite program 10-2 may as well be 2-10 because you aren’t making the playoff, and that’s all that matters. For the Alabamas of the world, there are no “nice seasons;” you win it all or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re disappointed. Oregon’s 10-2 is especially painful when they could have easily gone 12-0 if not for poor offensive coaching.
Don’t get me wrong, 10-2 is a very good season, but success is measured against expectations. For example, the 2010 Oregon Rose Bowl team (2009 season), also 10-2, had tempered expectations heading into that season and played better than expected. On the contrary, the 2019 team had high expectations and a grand opportunity to run the table but let it slip through their fingers. A 10-2 record was the consolation prize.
Allow me to digress for a moment. Yeah, sure, perhaps I am being a cold, cut-throat, son-of-a-gun. But it takes an iron stomach to compete at the highest level of college football. Ever since Rich Brooks slowly but surely put the program on an upward trajectory over 40 years ago, the goal was always to become elite, and we are now so close.
Ever since I was a little boy in the early 1980s, sitting with a mere 17,000 fans at Autzen Stadium and losing to the likes of Pacific and San Jose State, the dream was always to play with the big boys. With big dreams come big expectations and it takes a will of steel. As the program transforms, the fans who support that program must also transform.
Sure, maybe I’m sounding a little overly dramatic, but what the hell, it’s true.
Writers and college football pundits John Canzano, John Wilner, Dwight Jaynes, numerous studio analysts and Oregon’s own ex-DC Nick Aliotti all said the Ducks were not getting the most out their offense — consistently making such claims as “too conservative,” “too predictable,” and “too easy to defend.” FishDuck.com‘s Coach Ken Woody had consistently questioned Cristobal’s strategy on the offensive side of the ball, and perhaps none more to the point than after the ASU game.
Yes, good teams have the occasional off week or bad game. But, when you look at the offense under Cristobal the past two seasons, the poor offensive play goes well beyond the occasional off game. It is a pattern of behavior. It is who you are.
In 2018, on top of the mediocre play of the offense, there were four games in which the offense was AWOL. This year, the Ducks’ offense looked awful against Stanford, Cal, ASU and Oregon State. Even in a couple of games where they won handily against weak competition (Montana and Arizona), there was a “we should have done more” feeling. And of course, the most painful of them all, the second half clam up against Auburn.
Too harsh? That’s fine, I get it, it’s a shrewd business. Cristobal gets an “A” in all other aspects of his tenure (defense, recruiting, motivation, leadership, etc.), but his stubbornness in this single area of the team is holding Oregon back.
A highly recommended article published on ESPN.com before the conference championship games covered how Georgia also runs a conservative, Cristobal-esque, ball-control offense. They are in Year 4 of Kirby Smart’s tenure, and due to lack of offense this year, the Bulldogs, like the Ducks, are on the outside looking in.
Meanwhile, Ed Orgeron and Nick Saban each have had their “Road to Damascus” enlightenment on offense — Saban during his Lane Kiffin as OC years, and Orgeron just this past off-season. They gave up their old ways and opened things up (while Dabo Swinney adopted the old Chip Kelly offense years ago).
The highlight of the ESPN article is captured in this quote regarding Orgeron’s recent transformation:
“Ed Orgeron, when he was at Ole Miss, controlled everything,” said one SEC defensive coordinator. “Well, he realized at LSU that, ‘You know what? I’m a defensive line coach, a good recruiter. I can motivate kids and organize. I’m not going to mess with the offense. I’m going to get people and let them do it.”
Sounds a lot like Cristobal, doesn’t it? A line coach, motivator, great recruiter and leader. He needs to steal a page out of the Orgeron playbook and get out of the way.
Simply put, would you rather have a team that plays great defense and OK offense? Or, a team that plays great defense and great offense?
The elite teams have figured out that in 2020, you must be great on both sides of the ball.
The End Game
During the season, Cristobal talked about going 1-0 every week. But as the season progressed, I didn’t believe him. Instead of coaching his team in the here and now, maximizing his team’s current strengths and attacking the opponent’s weaknesses, Cristobal — come hell or high water — just wanted to play tough.
To heck with strategy.
It’s as if he was so fixated on establishing an identity and a culture that he forgot to coach for today. Good coaches do both simultaneously. Cristobal hasn’t, and it cost the Ducks the 2019 CFP.
The history of Oregon football over the past 40 years has been one of excellent and innovative coaching (most years) that has made the team play above its talent level. The opposite happened this year as the Ducks were coached down, and it cost them two games.
Had the Ducks employed an offensive system that had maximized each player’s potential, had the Ducks played tough and smart; then they would have had a perfect regular season, won the Pac-12 title game, and made the playoff. Then Justin Herbert probably goes to New York.
This isn’t a call for Cristobal to return to the old ways of Oregon football, we’ve been there and done that. It’s a call for him to tap into Oregon’s culture of being “football’s future” and jumping ahead of the curve, not behind it.
Dear Mario, can we please add an explosive, no holds barred offense in 2020?
After all, you know what they say about hindsight.
Spokane, WATop Photo by Eugene Johnson
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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