What If Vernon Adams Didn’t Break His Finger in 2015?

David Marsh Editorials

The 2015 season saw Oregon turn to a one-year graduate transfer in Vernon Adams, and that move could have led to so much more than the 9-4 record shows. This season lived and died on Adams’ right index finger, and Mr. FishDuck lamented it with me when I pulled him away from super-sic-bo.com to discuss it. With Adams sidelined, it set up an effective end to the Mark Helfrich era, which then put an end to a long line of continuity within the Oregon football program.

The Season That Was 2015

The 2015 season was actually rather successful despite Adams’ broken finger. Oregon only lost four games: 31-28 against Michigan State, 62-20 against Utah, 45-38 against Washington State, and then the cursed Alamo Bowl when Oregon fell to TCU 47-41 after a first half that saw Oregon leading 31-0.

All four losses came when Adams was not fully healthy, either with a broken finger or in the case of the Alamo Bowl when he was sidelined from a concussion he suffered at the end of the first half.

Oregon’s offense was explosive when Adams was in the game, and was all but impossible for opposing teams to defend. 2015 also saw one of Oregon’s worst defenses in program history, as the Ducks frequently gave up yards and points. Oregon was, however, still able to win because the offense was so explosive — frequently putting opposing offensives in the position of needing to score, which led to playing outside their comfort zone. This worked, but only because Adams challenged every opposing offense to a shootout in which he knew he had more firepower.

Vernon Adams was the heart and soul of the 2015 Oregon offense.

The Year That Could Have Been

So, what would have happened if Adams’ finger was not broken when a former teammate from Eastern Washington took a shot at him on a slide at the end of the very first game of the season?

It is safe to say that Oregon would have beaten Michigan State, as that game hinged on one key play at the end of the game where Adams overshot Byron Marshall running free down the sideline. There were even times during the game when Adams was trying to play left handed — something that he was able to do on occasion, which is remarkable under normal circumstances and clearly was one of his more novel talents than an actual alternative to his dominant hand. Even with the missed Marshall throw, Oregon would have scored more if Adams was healthy and would have left East Lansing with a win over Michigan State — a Spartans team that would go on to make the playoff.

Oregon’s loss to Utah would probably have come even with a healthy Adams. This was one of those games that Oregon’s defense was just constantly gutted by Utah and couldn’t find a stop, and this was really the game where the current Oregon-Utah rivalry started to come alive. Matters were probably made worse as an Adams-less Oregon couldn’t move the ball and score on demand. So let’s just count this as a loss regardless, though with Adams it would not have been as ugly.

Vernon Adams looks to pass against Michigan State with his left hand.

This brings us to Washington State, the third of the regular season losses. This was the first victory in Washington State’s four win-streak against Oregon. Washington State defeated Oregon 45-38 after two overtimes. This was a dominant day for Royce Freeman as he racked up 246 yards on the ground, though Oregon’s passing offense only accounted for a meager 123 yards.

Now, if Adams was able to play against Washington State it seems pretty reasonable to assume that Oregon would have handily defeated the Cougars. The game was close without Adams, and without a passing offense, so just think of how good Oregon would have been if the Ducks were able to move the ball through the air.

An Alternative 2015 Post-Season

If we take this alternate history, it leaves Oregon as a one-loss regular season team and with a win over B1G Champion Michigan State. At this point it would be safe to reason that Oregon would go on to win the Pac-12 Championship in a rematch against USC, who Oregon beat quite handily 48-28 earlier in the season. Oregon would at the least be looking at a Rose Bowl appearance, but would just as likely be looking at a return to the College Football Playoff.

Would Oregon have won a National Championship with this team? Absolutely not; this defense was worse than the 2014-15 defense that failed to contain Ohio State in the CFP National Championship Game. Additionally, if we were to assume that Oregon would be taking Michigan State’s No. 3 spot in the playoff, it would mean that Oregon would square off against eventual National Champion Alabama. This would have been a loss (and probably a bad loss), but I like to think Oregon would have fared  better than Michigan State’s 38-0 loss to Alabama.

With an electrifying season like the one that could have happened in this scenario, it would be completely conceivable that Adams would have been at least invited to New York as a Heisman finalist. This would have meant an Oregon quarterback appeared in back-to-back years as a Heisman finalist, as Marcus Mariota won the Heisman the previous year. Would Adams have won the Heisman? Maybe, but probably not.

Vernon Adams was a a jaw-dropping athlete, and his play against Arizona State would have built his Heisman campaign if he wasn’t injured.

The three Heisman finalists in 2015 were Alabama’s Derrick Henry, the eventual winner, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. Let’s presume that Adams would have taken McCaffrey’s spot and in all reality it was probably Adams who led Oregon to a win over Stanford that helped block McCaffrey from actually winning the Heisman.

Possible Ramifications to the Timeline

Well, if Adams was healthy and Oregon made a return visit to the College Football Playoff, this would have elevated Oregon’s status and the Pac-12’s status as well. This would then make for three consecutive years that a Pac-12 team reached the playoff. 2016 would have turned out in a similar way for Oregon and the Pac-12 with Washington winning the conference and reaching the playoff.

As for our Ducks, Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum would have been demoted and Helfrich would have hired a new DC, and let’s say that would have been Brady Hoke. The 2016 season would have been a disaster, as there were some greater problems brewing within the Oregon program culturally and Oregon’s methods of recruiting were becoming quickly outdated. Helfrich was completely within the norm for Oregon’s recruiting standards but what had become apparent by this time, regardless of the timeline, was that Oregon was not recruiting well enough to compete with the blue bloods.

2015 was a pivotal year for Oregon football and the Alamo Bowl disaster marked the beginning of the end of the Helfrich era, though if the 2015 season had a healthy Adams and was a success, would Helfrich have been given 2017 to try to correct the problems after an awful 2016 season? Would Oregon have fired Helfrich and hired Willie Taggart instead, which would have led to the Mario Cristobal era and now the Dan Lanning era at Oregon?

Would Oregon or the Pac-12 have been better off if Adams didn’t break his finger at the start of the 2015 season?

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By Kevin Cline


Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.

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