Oregon faces tough task in post-Chip Kelly era
Chip Kelly does everything fast, except, apparently, deciding on NFL jobs. Twelve days after his initial nine-hour meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles, after what must have been some serious persistence by the once-scorned franchise, Oregon's wildly successful coach is in fact doing what we all assumed he would in the weeks and days leading up to the Ducks' Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State. He's leaving for the NFL.
The about-face may come as a shock to Oregon and college football followers, but the end result was expected from the time Kelly nearly joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this time a year ago. He'd accomplished nearly everything one man could accomplish in four years as a head coach (a 46-7 record, three Pac-12 championships and four BCS bowl appearances). Apparently torn between his Pennsylvania-sized ego and his affinity for the Ducks, Kelly finally got whatever assurance he needed to feel comfortable taking on a new challenge.
(Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, this was never about money, of which Oregon has plenty. It also wasn't about fear over pending NCAA sanctions, because then Kelly presumably would have left last year or last week.)
While the very end came suddenly, the eventual separation between Oregon and Kelly had been coming for nearly a year. Therefore, Ducks fans have had plenty of time to brace themselves for this day.
That won't make it any easier.
Kelly was synonymous with his fast-paced spread 'n' shred offense, but was the offense really the primary factor behind that 46-7 record? We're about to find out. While previously proclaiming he'll conduct a "national search," Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens is expected to follow through on last year's plan to promote offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. It makes sense. When a program is rolling the way Oregon's has the past four years, the obvious goal is continuity -- especially at Oregon, where, in a modern rarity, the entire staff has remained intact the past four years.
And Helfrich, a 39-year-old Oregon native who has long been thought of as a future head coach, knows the offense. With quarterback Marcus Mariota, all-purpose threat De'Anthony Thomas, tight end Colt Lyerla and receiver Josh Huff all returning, the Ducks could conceivably keep putting up 45 points every week and keep Winning the Day.
But that assumes Oregon's success was primarily a function of its schemes and play calling, perhaps an oversimplification. As Kelly frequently reminded reporters, "Win the Day" was a 365-day-a-year mantra, a three-word summation of the program's overarching philosophy. Oregon was such a machine in large part because seemingly every last player on the roster took on a part of Kelly's cocky personality and indifference to convention. The Ducks would attack, attack and attack some more until they wore you down. That required more than just a clever draw play on third-and-seven. That killer instinct was ingrained in their culture.
Take the game-turning touchdown drive in the aforementioned Fiesta Bowl. After watching Kansas State dominate most of the second quarter, cut an early 15-0 deficit to 15-10 and threaten to add another score, the Ducks seized on a costly Wildcats false start and an ensuing missed field goal. They drove 77 yards in five plays and 46 seconds to reassert control of the contest. It was a classic Oregon pedal-medal moment. Did it happen because the Ducks are trained to move quickly? Because Kelly got Lyerla involved at the right moment? Or because Kelly's teams follow their aggressive coach's lead and instinctively pounce?
Try as it might, Oregon won't be able to bottle and replicate the Kelly formula. In fact, it shouldn't even try. Helfrich is his own man, and quite different than Kelly, the mild-mannered Northwest native to Kelly's wired New Englander. At his own Fiesta Bowl postgame press conference, Kelly described his presumptive successor as "intelligent, detail-oriented, great manager of people, great friend, one of the funniest guys I've met in my entire life, but knows how to be serious when he has to be serious."
In the Oregon best-case scenario, Helfrich becomes its own David Shaw, the cerebral Stanford alum and former offensive coordinator who took over for fiery savior Jim Harbaugh and took the program to even greater heights. Two years after Harbaugh's potentially damaging departure to the 49ers, Shaw is firmly entrenched as a possible Stanford lifer, a more natural fit than Harbaugh ever was. Helfrich could do the same at Oregon. He may keep calling the same outside zone plays, but he can put his own stamp on the program. And Oregon fans won't live in the same state of constant anxiety over his possible defection.
In the worst-case, he becomes Oregon's Larry Coker, the offensive coordinator Miami promoted when Butch Davis bolted for the Browns even closer to Signing Day than this. The 'Canes reaped the short-term benefits of continuity, combined with a loaded roster, winning the national title in Coker's first year. Ducks fans would be in heaven if Helfrich climbs that last remaining hurdle which eluded Kelly. They'd be less thrilled if the program then imploded like Miami's did because Helfrich, like Coker, was far from the best available guy for the job.
Helfrich will be dealing with at least two daunting challenges. One is the NCAA. At this point it's not a matter of when, not if the Ducks get dealt major sanctions over the Willie Lyles recruiting saga. That much became clear when the Committee on Infractions rejected the school's request for summary disposition (a plea bargain) and proceeded down the road toward a hearing. The case is nearly two years old now. It won't end with a slap on the wrist. That will be one remnant of the Chip Kelly era.
The other will be the impossibly high bar he established. Oregon fans, some of them old enough to remember going 25 years (1964-88) without a bowl berth, are now conditioned to expect annual dominance. National championships are now the annual goal, and BCS berths the accepted minimum. The first time the Ducks go 8-4 -- and they will eventually go 8-4 (or worse) -- hellfire will rain down on the new coach for having the audacity to not win at the same absurd 87 percent clip as Kelly.
All of which will make the 2013 season crucial both for Oregon and Helfrich. When following a universally beloved coach, the worst possible thing you can do is have a bad first year. From purely a perception standpoint, it's almost impossible to dig out of that hole. But if Helfrich can produce at least a Pac-12 title in his first year (the glacial pace of the NCAA case may well push any postseason ban to 2014), he'll establish early confidence. Then it's a matter of sustaining that momentum -- no small feat.
The most remarkable aspect of Kelly's run is that no amount of attrition fazed him. The starting quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli) gets kicked off in the spring of 2010? Put the next guy in (Darron Thomas) and reach the BCS championship game. The senior leaders on both offense (Carson York) and defense (John Boyett) suffer season-ending injuries early in 2012? Move up the second-stringers and produce arguably the best team of his tenure.
That's the part no successor could possibly expect to maintain. Kelly's four-year run was nowhere near as easy to accomplish as the Ducks' offense often made it seem. We may more fully appreciate that four years down the road.