When Oregon lost head coach Chip Kelly to the National Football League, it lost a heck of a coach. Everybody knows that.
The Ducks also lost the seminal figure in their surge to becoming both a consistent national power and one of the most fun teams to watch in college football. Kelly was to Oregon what Steve Jobs was to Apple -- a unique innovator who always seemed to be one step ahead of the competition. His teams were prepared, smart and difficult to predict. Just when you thought you had him figured out, he came up with something else.
It was as if he was that late friend of mine, who used to say, “Just when you think you have all the answers, I CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!”
And in his absence, Oregon football has tried its best to maintain Kelly's aura by continuing to stick to his style. But the style without the designer is a cheap imitation. A knockoff. And that's what Duck football has become -- a product that looks on the surface just like the ones Kelly created, but without the substance and innovation that made the whole thing work in the first place. They have nobody now who can CHANGE THE QUESTIONS!
I don't know what to think of Coach Mark Helfrich. He talks a good game. He takes responsibility, as he should, when things don't go well. He obviously knows football way better than you and me, But there's something missing. And in a lot of the ways you measure the impact of coaches, he doesn't measure up very well.
I've always looked at penalties as a measure of the preparation and discipline level of football teams -- a direct result of coaching. The Ducks are averaging 11 penalties per game, 125th in the country and ahead of only Arkansas State, San Diego State and Marshall. Seriously, that's brutal. Oregon came out Saturday afternoon not ready for Colorado, which was starting a freshman backup at quarterback. The Buffaloes jumped them early and took control of the game. And the Ducks, with the game seemingly in their grasp, couldn't execute late in the game to win it.
Yes, quarterback Dakota Prukop tossed up the football equivalent of an air-balled free throw in the end zone, leaving a fade pass woefully short. But was it the right call? Was Prukop prepared to make such a throw? We'll never know, but I believe it's a reason that going out and grabbing a Big Sky quarterback who was a graduate transfer as a one-season fix is probably not the way a big-time program should go about its business. Prukop is new enough to the program that I'm not certain the coaches could ever have known what he's capable (or not capable) of doing late in a Pac-12 game.
Recruiting is a big part of the coach's job and for me, the mere fact of a program of this nature having to go out two years in a row to the Rent-A-Quarterback store in the Big Sky Conference is a sign things aren't going well in that department.
The defense is as big a problem this season as it was last year -- perhaps even worse, as the Ducks seem stuck in a rather static 4-3 that doesn't get much pressure on the quarterback and seems to grow confused in zone coverage. There are only two ways out of that problem -- recruit better players or talk Nick Aliotti out of retirement. The former is much more likely than the latter, I would assume.
The offense, though, has been this team's identity for years and it's not hitting on all cylinders, either. And with that defense, the offense must get much, much more efficient for Oregon to end up on the winning side of the scoreboard.
And this is where Kelly is missed the most. This coaching staff is still trying to to run Chip's stuff without Chip and I don't think that's going well. The tempo is inconsistent and that doesn't matter, anyway, because everyone has caught up to the whole play-fast deal. The play calling is pedestrian and where Kelly always seemed to be outside the box and difficult to predict, the Ducks now seem at a loss at times about how they want to attack.
For all their playmakers on offense, Oregon ranks tied for 69th in the country in third-down conversion percentage. Part of that, of course, is not getting many yards on first and second down. That's when Oregon seems at its offensive worst, by the way -- first and second down, where the conservative side of the coaching staff seems to have a death grip on the offense.
Chip Kelly built Oregon into a feared national powerhouse and an offensive juggernaut. We won't ever know if he could have kept the Ducks on top -- only a select few programs can maintain that excellence over an extended time.
But I do think we know by now that Helfrich hasn't been able to do it. That's not an indictment, really. Apple still hasn't recovered from losing Steve Jobs, either.