This is the honeymoon period, the era of good feeling before the endless scrutiny and potential fan mutiny. When it passes, all Mark Helfrich has to do to be considered a success is average 50 points a game, win 90% of his games and a National Championship. Renaud Lavillenie himself wouldn't set the bar this high, but Helf is on the runway, blowing out two breaths and rocking into his rhythm, getting ready to plant and fly.
He thinks he can do it. You have to admire a man who optimistically sets out to succeed a genius. Chip Kelly went 46-7, earned four BCS bowl trips and a UPS commercial, but now the former Southern Oregon quarterback has to display el gigante cojones of his own. Pop quiz hotshot: it's fourth and one at your own 35, the NCAA is on line one, and Kenjon Barner is preparing for the NFL combine. What do you do?
Photo right: Mark Helfrich greeted Oregon fans and the media with enthusiasm, sincerity, laid-back Northwest humor and cordiality, but to keep them won over, he has to win (usatoday.com photo).
Failure is not an option in Eugene, and that's pretty remarkable when you consider how long Duck fans lived with mediocrity. We loved the Ducks when they were absolutely miserable and only occasionally competent, but nobody wants to go back to the days of 3-8 and three and out, when a Weedeater Bowl bid and a scarce win over Washington were crowning achievements.
Thirty years ago quarterback Mike Jorgensen led the Ducks with 938 yards, 5 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The team exceeded expectations at 4-6-1, but endured both insult and injury. They lost to Pacific 21-15 in the season opener. Ohio State clubbed them them in the Horseshoe 31-6 in game two, the kind of paycheck sacrificial slaughter the team had to accept to balance the budget in the days before Phil Knight and the 3.2 million dollar locker room. The misery continued, as misery often does. Don James and his despicable Washington Huskies romped 32-3, a desolate trip to the desolate Palouse ended 24-7, and the Civil War was a nothing-nothing tie they nicknamed The Toilet Bowl.
No one ever rises to low expectations. It's remarkable to consider the transformation in Oregon football, how different now is from historical reality. A team with no natural recruiting base and not much tradition has become a standard of excellence and the circled game in the PAC-12. Now everybody wants to beat Oregon; then it was a given and a cause for derision.
Defensive coordinators are an endlessly scheming lot, slaving over greaseboards, watching endless loops of videotape in darkened rooms, yelling themselves hoarse in meeting rooms, hunched over a tackling dummy like the Hulk in his moment of transformation. You wouldn't like them when they're angry. They're prone to crusades, spit-flying diatribes, sloganeering and singular obsessions. This year most have a single goal that festers like a boil on their scabbed, bleeding consciousness: beat the Ducks, and stop the spread. In 2012 the Webfoots put 70 on Colorado, 62 on the 7-6 USC Trojans, 52 on Washington, and 51 on Washington State. They trounced the Bears for 59 and doubled up the Beavers 48-24. In all there were 6986 yards of offense and 645 points. The Oregon offense had a sudden and relentless beauty. When De'Anthony Thomas dashed to a 94-yard touchdown at the Fiesta Bowl in the first six seconds, the look of frozen horror on the face of Wildcat fans as he crossed the imaginary tape was the posterizer moment in an era of giddy success.
Defensive coordinators get teeth-grindingly unhappy, witnessing those kind of did-you-see-what-he-just-did outbursts of joy and exuberance. Marcus Mariota throwing for six touchdowns, Kenjon Barner romping for 321 yards, it sticks in their craw. They want to stop the Ducks, and with Barner graduated and Chip Kelly cashing big pay checks in the NFL, you can't blame them if they think that now is their chance.
The denizens of defense in the pass-happy, offensive-minded PAC study overtime 12 months a year, and it's a mortal cinch lock they'll give extra study to what Stanford did in grounding the high-flying attack back in November, holding Mighty Oregon to 405 yards and 20 measley first downs in a 17-14 road victory. Barner found no lanes along the Cardinal line, held to 66 yards on 21 carries as Shane Skov and company filled every gap and had an answer for every trick and feint in the Oregon arsenal. The DC legion of doom will also borrow concepts from the NFL, noting how the Baltimore Ravens stymied San Francisco's spread attack on four cracks inside the seven yard line, using run blitzes to confuse Colin Kaepernick and force him to throw quick, ineffectual passes to covered receivers instead of giving the ball inside to Frank Gore behind a mammoth offensive line. Coaches are idea whores and equal-opportunity pickpockets; they'll steal anything that works.
In the endless chess game that is football, played with pieces that bruise and get tired and occasionally forget the snap count, it's Mark Helfrich's move. He has to figure out how to duplicate the success that opponents are feverishly trying to figure out, and he has to do it without his most powerful piece. Kenjon Barner and his 21 touchdowns and 1767 yards are no longer on the board.
With the running game a big question mark for 2013, speculation is rampant among Duck fans that the new Oregon coaching staff will open up the passing game. It would be anyway. Speculation is always rampant, particularly in February when there is no actual football.
Where will the yards and points come from in the Oregon attack this fall? Barner and James are gone, and with them the blur-fast tailback you could count on for 1700 and 25. Marcus Mariota and Thomas are dazzling, but with their slightish frames, you can't think either could carry a workload double or three times what they took last year, and Byron Marshall seems capable but not brilliant after a freshman season in which he carried 87 times for 447 yards. Thomas Tyner has world-class speed and potential, but he hasn't attended a practice yet.
For Helfrich's offense to succeed as famously and flamboyant as Kelly's, he'll have to tweak the distribution of the football. He can't merely do things in the same way, because the DCs are closing in on that, and this is a new team with a different skillset than the groups of 2009-2012. The 2013 team, as yet, lacks a dominant tailback but features a fast, accurate-throwing quarterback coming off one of the best freshman seasons in NCAA history.
With good health, open targets and ample opportunity, Marcus Mariota could ensure that this new era of Oregon football starts out even better than the last one. The Ducks will begin next season ranked in most preseason top fives, but to stay there they'll have to unleash Version 2.0 of the offense, and that has to feature Colt Lyerla in a larger role.
In all their formulas and blueprints for stopping Oregon, no one accounts for the tight end, because the Ducks have never featured him. Lyerla's had flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons, increasing his catches from 7 as a freshman to 25 as a sophomore, displaying good hands and tough running ability, breaking tackles and finding the end zone 11 times in his career.
At 6-5, 246 and still popping out more cords of fast-twitch muscle, Lyerla is an awesome football weapon the Ducks have largely left parked in the tunnel next to the Harley. He has the size and speed to be a matchup nightmare for both linebackers and strong safeties, and it usually takes four or five of them to bring him down. Provided he's achieved the maturity to be consistent and stays healthy for a full season, his potential emergence opens up the Oregon offense by giving it new range and variety. Linebackers can't crash the run because they have to account for him. Safeties can't double cover Josh Huff, De'Anthony Thomas, B.J. Kelley or Bralon Addison because they can't Lyerla roam free down the seam.
The best example of how the Ducks comically strong manchild could be used is Rob Gronkowski, now with the New England Patriots, a star inside receiver for the Arizona Wildcats in 2007 and 2008. In the Ducks wild 55-45 win over UA in '08, 6-6, 260-lb. wildman Gronk went beastly, 12 catches, 143 yards and a touchdown. Lyerla isn't as burly as the Patriot All-Pro, but he's more athletic, able to leap a 65" plyobox or dunk a basketball with either hand.
A featured, formidable tight end makes an offense a chain-moving nightmare, and it's especially effective because the throws to use him are so simple. Mariota has terrific vision and touch. Incorporating a package of plays that make Lyerla one of the focal points of the offense, rather than an occasional twist, could be the X factor that makes the absence of Kelly, Barner and James something they stop talking about by game four. If Helfrich wants to tweak what Oregon does and make it work with Tim Gunn panache or Rob Gronkowski bare-shirted boldness, he has to get Lyerla the god damned ball.
A nice read from start to finish. Very accurate summation of past and present UO football program. Having suffered through the 70s and most of the 80s I can identify with, and appreciate your comments. In hindsight, thank god there was no overtime rule in place in 1983. If forced to make a call on the most torturously awful game, I believe it would be a toss-up between the 1975 5-0 loss to SJS; or the aforementioned 83' nightmare.
Regarding your reference to an "X" factor player: this is a term that has been skewed in usage from it's original meaning. The best example of an "X" factor player, as it was explained to me by a respected NFL former player and scout; is one that can come at the defense from nearly anywhere on the field. The best example he used was Antoine Randal El, who was utilized by the Steelers as receiver-runner-passer. He exhibited talent from any of these positions and was nearly impossible to defend against during his prime years.
Lyerla stands as a receiver-FB combo in whose hands the rock should be placed numerous times; either by pass or handoff. He is nearly impossible to be brought down by less than three pponents.
@sstates SS--Thank you for your comments and the insight on the "X" factor player. Lyerla has the potential to be that kind of athlete for the Ducks, able to play tight end, H back, Slot, wideout, tailback or fullback, a load to bring down with excellent hands. Biggest question is whether he's grown enough to handle the increased responsibility with consistency. He already has an NFL body and the physical talent.
Emotional maturity! Probably the biggest question about this player yet to be answered. You are in a better spot than most to observe how that factor plays out. Let's hope that outcome is positive for this enormously talented young man.
@sstates Mike Wines over at Oregon Duck Soup has a highlight video for Lyerla last year. http://winesfamily.blogspot.com/2013/02/colt-lyerla-2012-highlights.html. It's amazing to think what he could accomplish if he stays dialed and directed next season.
Excellent writing Mr. Newton! I like your style and thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay. The upcoming season is certainly one of the most intriguing I can remember, with bona fide returning talent to go along with the tantalizing unknowns of Helf, Tyner, the receiving corps, et al. You're spot on with your analysis and Lyerla is a beast who needs the damn ball! I hope they get him in the backfield some like they did last year. I also hope for more of an air attack, to see if all of those talented, fast receivers can step up. I love the running game, but there's nothing better than three runs and a bomb off play action to stretch the defense. Keep up the good work and go Ducks!
@prez76 Prez, Appreciate that very much. I agree, this does shape up as an intriguing year. The Ducks return a very solid nucleus and plenty of athletes who got a ton of time last year and could blossom into stars, while the "tantalizing unknowns" make for some skepticism nationally. How will Helfrich handle things as a first year coach? Even Kelly seem to freeze a bit at that opener versus Boise State. Addison, Sanford, the Allens (Devon and Chance), Keanon Lowe all have the pass-catching ability and speed to be the kind of receiver defenses have to game plan for (something the Ducks haven't had in several seasons; it used to be a staple of the attack) but they have to put it together. We'll all look forward to spring practice and our first glimpse of the new team, and we may even be allowed to watch some of it.
Thanks again for reading and commenting.
What hasn't been discussed here is getting Lyerla at RB (hopefully MH is thinking about it). He was used there pretty effectively a couple of times during last season (not clear why we didn't see it again) and it is pretty clear that he fills a gap that exists in terms of who can carry the load in the backfield with Marshall/Tyner. With a good TE corps already there (Pharaoh Brown and Evan Baylis), seems he would be a good addition to throw at defenses. Was Toby Gerhart any good in the Stanford run game?
@ducktd Good point about Lyerla carrying the ball . He's a bruising runner, and the Ducks used him very effectively in a package for a couple of games at midseason, but then seemed to drop it altogether. At the least it's a great counterpunch. Gerhart had a similar downhill, physical style, but Colt might be faster and tougher to bring down.
Helfrich said in his introductory press conference that the basis of his philosophy was "we will attack in all phases." Finding ways to use Bane effectively could be a key part of that attacking style he wants to establish. Boom!
I've been thinking lately that Colt is being misused at Tight end. He's to awesome to be used for 2 catches a game and some blocking. We have several other young talented tight ends who can do that. What we really need is Colt at middle linebacker to replace Kiko. We need beef and athleticism in the middle of our D now. 220 pound middle linebackers get run over by elite football teams and hat is what we aregoing back to now. Go Ducks!
@Rocketscientist It's awesome to think of Lyerla's fearsome athletic ability at linebacker, but unlikely that he'll switch at this point in his career. The Ducks feel he can do the most damage getting the ball in his hands, and offense is where he wanted to play. It's an Oregon tradition that goes back to Barner, Jeff Maehl and Dante Rosario--at UO, the best athletes always wind up on offense. Nick Aliotti would probably agree with YOU.
On the right track. I have been thinking/wondering/wishing that Chip would have used the passing game more to stretch the field deep, and especially when called for in huge and critical games such as last years Stanford disappointment, and against Auburn, where when they did throw deep they hit some gamebreaking and gamechanging big plays. But, Chip although flashing a deep pass every now and then, seemingly never figured out just how important or valuable that dimension to their respective attack might be. Granted, the reason for that is almost certainly due to the fact thier execution and productivity in the zone read option with bubble screens combination was so dynamic and fruitful, that the deep pass was an interesting extra that was not 'NEEDED', 99 percent of the time, such that when it was needed it was not identified or understood to be needed and the ducks unfortuantely lost some big games because of it. What this really all comes down to is play calling on the fly, in game changes, reacting to the in-game scenario being played out. Being flexible enough in your own mind, to alter your game plan, and not hold to dogmatically to your own pregame convictions, or at least to be able to shift when things are not working, by going to the deep pass as more than an occasional distracting decoy from what you are fully committed, attached, and in love with, namely the zone read plus bubble screens combo, that Oregon is now predictably known for, and efficently runs as well or better than anyone. That failure to let go of his usually unfailing offensive strategy in-game, and change to plan B if you will, - at least as long as it takes to force the defense to react and change too, such that your plan A is once again viable - was CK's achilles heel while at Oregon. That single defect that may have kept him from raising the crystal ball as National Champion. It is what I will be watching for as CK operates in the NFL now. It is why I would not have given him an NFL head coaching job today. I am equally hoping that Mark Helfrich is that much better than CK was, in that he is smarter than CK such that he will call plays as 'Needed' in big games where things are not going well, and will not stay overly attached and in love to the detriment of losing, when as you eluded their are 'weapons' and other players on the field, and on the bench, that can provide the solutions for winning in close and tight games, where what you LOVE is not going to get it done that day. Lyerla is certainly one of those weapons. But, more than that this team needs the deep ball passing game to be active, ready, and used when needed, The lineage is their in the duck dna, ala dan fouts, chris miller, and dennis dixon, et al. It is not a foreign notion, or idea in that sense. Under Ck, it was underappreciated or even neglected to an extent. If MH is wiser than CK it won't be while he is head coach. IF that is the case MH will be a better Head coach then CK, becuase Oregon will probably win a National title or 3. Hope MH is listening.
@nyduck Pretty critical of a coach that has almost single handily changed how the game is played, and at all levels.....
inflated hyperbole aside,, many articles have been written about the spread and zr, its origins, and who invented what, kelly admits he stand on others ideas and shoulders, readily admits, he didnt invent anything, he just runs it very well, ault is being more being credited for the NFL's incorporations of the zr of late, kaepernick, et al, read the new york times article cerca last month pre super bowl as an example,, sorry to prick your little bubble,, the world of football is bigger then you seem to think,, green and yellow kool aide asside!!
agree,, so far kelly's excellence has been organixational, vision, plan, stratgey, execution,, Also, note, he was the only college coach seriously called/pursued/wanted byt the NFL this year,, NOT MEYERS(SCUM), not saban, not miles, the nd kelly is a misatake that hasnt yet happened, the pnn state guy is an NFL guy who wil soon be back there( he;s legit), the others are overrated college coaches that benefit form the wholly unequal playing field that results from recruiting. The draft in the NFL would expose them all,, already did saban,, and MEYERS that overrated joke, backstabber, who is ringing him form NFL??? who wants him?? NO ONE!! Tells the real story,,Kelly was regarded more highly than all of them.
@nyduck Kelly has said many times that there's nothing new in football, and elements of the read option and spread date back to Dutch Meyer and Bud Wilkinson. I think CK's real genius lies in his attention to detail and ability to get young men to understand and buy in to the goals and objectives of the program.
oh no.. i salute him as a a great coach, and the greatest yet at oregon,, but he isnt on mt rushmore yet,, No way. And i have zero problem pointing to and out his one of his few and significant flaws,, but that flaw in respect to the highest level of coaching is significant. The kind of flaw that seperates the great from the greatest, the champions from the also rans. Both in College football, and in the NFL. So, I am not one who belives that kings are beyond discussing in a critical view. That doesnt diminish them or their accomplishments by one bit. But, it does deal with the finer points and realities of what seperates those coaches in this case in the most rarefied levels. CK may be the best thing ducks fans have ever seen so far in coaching, but that doesnt mean he is the same breath as bear bryant, woody hayes, nick saban??(for the record -i dont endorse saban either: but few beyond ducks fans would argue that kelly is better), etc. Kelly was a notch or a few notches below them as far as the order of things gleened by record and accomplishments. So, no as good as he is/was, he is far from beyond critical analysis or criticism. And i am confident that CK would be the first to agree with what I just said as well. He knows he can be better, he hasn't reached the heights he would like to yet. He may never get there. Nothing is guaranteed. But he I am sure would also welcome any criticism that might help him be better in the future. It's not easy to see your own flaws, as we all (should) know.
@MichaelGiambattista @nyduck MG, NYduck, being a New Yorker to the core, is a bit of a contrarian, but I love his passion, and the fact that he backs up his takes with detail and evidence. He's a student of football and a man of strong convictions. Building on the foundation provided by Knight, Brooks and Bellotti, Kelly achieved some remarkable things at Oregon, but in his losses, which were few, he showed a tendency to be stubborn, failing to adjust when a quick, athletic defense shut down the read option. It'll be interesting to see if Helfrich brings some innovation and variety to the plan while retaining its core identity. Meanwhile, Kelly is off and running in the league, and already he's made some key decisions to shape his new team.
Thanks very much for participating. You're absolutely right about Kelly's impact on football, with several of the most successful teams at every level adopting his concepts and even his mantras. The Ole Miss staff was striving to win the day on signing day. There was even a sign in the coaches office.
interesting that kelly has brought eight form duck staf to eagle staff,, clearly trying to change a culture, have his best chance for success in transforming,,, put this out there too,, first year newbie nfl coaches with no nfl game fim tape for other teams to watch, tend to have some early successes, trick or surprise the other teams,, it is in the second go rounds,, ie second year and beyond you will see how that coach s really panning out in the NFL, Tampa bay last year the rutgers guy who acceded after kelly neighed, he had a great first half of season, then they were on tape, studied, reacted to by the oppposition plans, and they slumped therafter,, harbaugh in of the 'whiners', had NFL experience, diferent situation therefore, but as well as he has done, he didnt win 2 years close,, if he fades the next few years, and then has to rebuild, and nevr wins it all therefaterm then he will too will be forgotten later,, only the small percentage are truly great coaches, very elite company, very small cadre.
@nyduck NYD, thank you. You put a lot of thought and effort into this reply, although not many paragraph breaks :). It WILL be interesting to see how CK does in the league, and how Helfrich tweaks the Ducks attack.
Deep passing is problematical in the spread. We are never going to see Marcus Mariota scanning the field like Joey Harrington and striking deep, simple because this style of offense doesn't give the qb four to five seconds to throw. It favors the quick passing game, that's sure. But it will be interesting to see (again) if Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost incorporate some other formations or looks to augment what the Ducks do, even a max protect package to take advantage of Mariota's arm and mobility. They also seem to need a better answer, as you pointed out, in those games where teams get penetration, disrupting and overloading their patented zone read.
I agree they can' t do it by staying in spread formations. I am thinking they need the flexibilty to move into and out of formations, so when they need a conventional offensive set for deep passing thay can go to it. max protect scheems also would work, They made several deep throws in that auburn game, where they were getting stuffed and stymied trying to run there usual zone reads,, the result of which was to move the ball well and get points too,, and which opened up the run game as well after,, unfortuantely they just as quickly went away from it as soon as they found a little more opened up in their zone read game,, in other words, CK used it breifly but showed no confidence in keeping going to it,, even though that was clearly the achilles heal of the auburn defense ,, Ck showed a little flexibility and willingnes to change it up,, but in the end he was like a dog with a bone,, couldnt wait to get right back to breaking rocks!! pund and pound until the damn breaks open,, ony he failed to recognize times when that damn(other teams defense) was not going to break that day. Stanford could easily have been overcome through the air last year as well. CK was stubborn to a fault. Hopefully Helfrich wont be. Ps,, sorry for the longggg sentences there,, pss.. analogy,, giants fan rooting for anything eagles, would be akin to ducks fans rooting for anything fuskies!! by definition - Could never happen.