Nasty Truth: Oregon No Longer Quarterback U, But Needs To Be

Drex Heikes Editorials

We judge new head coaches by first-year wins and recruiting. But Duck fans need one more metric for Dan Lanning: show us your quarterbacks. Here’s hoping that Bo Nix has a Heisman season, but what we really want to see is what the coaches make of Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield.

For three decades ending with Marcus Mariota in 2014, Oregon was Quarterback U, developing a parade of pro-ready QBs. During those three decades, every Oregon QB went on to play professional football, mostly in the NFL. Mike Bellotti was a master with quarterbacks, as was Rich Brooks before him and Chip Kelly after. Mark Helfrich helped Mariota to win a Heisman Trophy. I pulled Mr. FishDuck away from his many betting apps to look at the Oregon QB data, and he was appalled as I was.

In the eight years since Mariota graduated, the Oregon coaching carousel has gummed up the works. The program has failed to produce an NFL quarterback, aside from Justin Herbert, a unicorn with a slingshot who had two great years under Helfrich and Willie Taggart but was handcuffed by the Squeers-like Wackfords who came next. (See colleague DazeNConfused, Mario Cristobal, Quarterback Killer.)

Herbert regressed under the Mario Cristobal-era coaches before exploding to become the NFL rookie of the year. Anthony Brown, the oft-criticized Oregon QB last year, has now had two dazzling performances in preseason games as he tries to claim a spot on the Baltimore Colts roster. (See this Zachary Neel story.)

Dennis Dixon was a leading Heisman candidate until derailed by injury, also ending Oregon’s Natty hopes in 2007.

Oregon’s QB Mojo Had Been Unrivaled

In the quarter-century since Chris Miller first played for Oregon in 1983, only two regular QB starters failed to make it to the NFL: Danny O’Neill, who set a Rose Bowl passing record that stood for 27 years, and Jason Fife, who graced a Sports Illustrated cover in 2003 after leading the Ducks over third-ranked Michigan.

Recent years have been nothing like those decades for Oregon QBs. The cupboard was so bare after Mariota that coaches turned to consecutive one-year transfers. Herbert rescued things as a freshman in 2016, but his loss to injury the next season showed Oregon’s quarterback decline. The team averaged 49 points per game with Herbert, and just 15 in the five games started by backups.

Compare the last eight years to the late 1990s, when Bellotti had NFL-bound QBs A.J. Feeley and Joey Harrington competing to start. Or compare it to Ohio State, a team so deep that it started its No. 3 quarterback in the 2015 Natty and beat Oregon.

Ty Thompson, Anthony Brown and Jay Butterfield in 2021 practice_UO Athletics.jpg

Ty Thompson, Anthony Brown and Jay Butterfield in 2021 practice

Oregon’s backups last year, Thompson and Butterfield, were the highest rated pair of quarterback recruits in Oregon history. Yet after 18 months in the program, the coaches found neither of them capable of stepping in when the offense stalled quarter after quarter. Question: What are the chances that both of those gifted athletes lacked the stuff to become a top QB? Not so much. It’s more likely that laissez-faire coaches expected them to develop on their own. Like that thing where you give a pigeon permission to write poetry. Don’t you at least have to teach it to type?

ESPN’s David Hale wrote earlier this month that over the last quarter century, only Oklahoma and USC have churned out more top quarterbacks than the Ducks. The article is spot on about Oregon’s reputation — and shows that it was largely earned before 2014.

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Starting Quarterbacks Back to 1984

Rich Brooks era (1977-1994)
Chris Miller (NFL, 10 seasons)
Bill Musgrave (NFL, 6 seasons)
Danny O’Neill (Arena Football League, 1 season)
Mike Bellotti era (1995-2008)
Tony Graziani (NFL, 4 seasons; Arena Football League, 8 seasons)
 A.J. Feeley (NFL, 11 seasons)
Joey Harrington (NFL, 6 seasons)
Jason Fife (Arena Football League, 2 seasons)
Kellen Clemons (NFL, 12 seasons)
Akili Smith (NFL, 4 seasons; European football, 2 seasons)
Dennis Dixon (NFL, 4 seasons)
Jeremiah Masoli (United Football League, 1 season; Canadian Football League, 11 seasons and still playing)

Bill Musgrave running the 1980s Oregon offense.

Chip Kelly era (2009-2012)
Darren Thomas (Arena Football League, 3 seasons; Indoor Football League, 2 seasons)
Marcus Mariota (NFL, 7 seasons, still playing)
Mark Helfrich era (2013-2016)
Vernon Adams (Canadian Football League, 7 seasons, still playing)
Jeff Lockie (did not play professional football)
Dakota Prukop (Canadian Football League, 5 seasons, still playing)
Justin Herbert (NFL, 2 seasons, still playing)
Willie Taggart layover (363 days)
Braxton Burmeister (on San Diego State roster this season)
Mario Cristobal era (2018-2021)
Tyler Shough (on Texas Tech roster this season)
Anthony Brown (undrafted, trying to win 2022 roster spot with Baltimore)

*List does not date back to four earlier greats: NFL Hall of Famers Norm Van Brocklin and Dan Fouts and NFL quarterbacks Bob Berry and George Shaw.

Dan Fouts became an NFL hall of famer playing for the San Diego Chargers.

The Ducks have had more talent at quarterback over the decades than at any other position, with excellence at QB often making up for deficiencies elsewhere. To make the playoffs again, the Ducks need armor-plated studs at quarterback. St. Peter didn’t get to heaven by missing tight ends open down the middle, and Oregon won’t either. Thompson’s and Butterfield’s level of growth this season will say much about Lanning’s ability to develop QBs now — and in the Dante Moore future.

I invite you to discuss this on the fabulous Our Beloved Duck Forum.

Drex Heikes
Los Angeles, California
Top Photo (One of the best ever in the FishDuck Photo Archive) by John Giustina of future NFL QBs AJ Feeley and Joey Harrington listening to Oregon Receiver Coach and future HC of Boise State and Washington, Chris Petersen

Bob Rodes, the Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.

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