Some time ago, I wrote a line that I really think is so true to so many moments that I will repeat it here: between despair and hope lay the minutiae of everyday living. The same can be said for being a football fan. In the stands, as a pure fan, there is hope, and there is despair. From above, with a somewhat more critical eye and somewhat less prosperous hope, there is also a bit of that minutiae of everyday living.
From this perch, I find myself no longer tainted by the stench of blind faith.
Having read the pros and cons from various sources, there really is a fundamental debate about the direction of the Oregon program. Yesterday, I took a look at the case for retaining Mark Helfrich; today, in a counterpoint argument, I look at the case against Helfrich.
BAD FROM THE BEGINNING
In early part of the 2013 football season, I spoke with a former player who had graduated following the 2012 season. What he told me was, in retrospect, not as surprising as it should have been. Essentially, he knew from the very beginning that there was a change and, in his words ‘not for the better.’ The tone, structure and discipline of practice had changed. He felt that the team was not as focused on each game.
That thought bore fruit when the concept of ‘Win the Day’ had vanished by the time Northwest Rival Washington found a place on the Duck schedule. While the Ducks won that game, it became evidently clear that Mark Helfrich had tossed the Win the Day concept, if not the words, to the wayside.
I said it then and say it now, rivalries matter to fans – and they should – but they should never matter to teams. What lay in front of them, regardless of rankings, point spreads, or past history, should be the most important thing for that week. Greg McIlroy, the Alabama quarterback who helped guide the Crimson Tide to a national championship, spoke recently about Nick Saban and the Alabama approach. Paraphrasing his words, he essentially said that each week his team was afraid that if they played poorly, they would lose. They had that approach for McNeese State, Vanderbilt or Auburn. A business approach that keeps teams focused on smaller goals while the coaches build a master plan.
Chip Kelly had this edge and Mark Helfrich does not.
DEBACLE IN ARIZONA
This was the first true sign that the team was not preparing properly. Following a loss against Stanford, the Ducks were heavy favorites in Tucson – and got drilled. Players spoke about having been disappointed following the loss of their National Championship Dreams.
The truth is that an athletic department source told me that Helfrich attempted to get the players ready – Helfrich told his team at the Friday practice that if they played like they had practiced, they were going to lose; that they needed to get focused and serious. They did not. They lost.
The team rebounded after that game to close out a strong looking first season under Helfrich. But the cracks in the armor had begun to show.
SLOPPY PLAY CONTINUES
Had the Arizona game been an outlier, a one game break of normalcy, much could be said that it was just that; an exception.
Unfortunately, as Duck fans have become painfully aware, sloppy play and mental mistakes became more glaring over the next few seasons. Defenders often out of position, a defense that not so gradually fell off the charts into program historically putrid performances.
Each season has had at least one ‘stinker’ game where the team simply was not ready to play, got out-coached or failed to hold onto whatever edge they thought they had. But it would be the 2015 season which would really mark the difference. With Marcus Mariota gone, and Vernon Adams injured, all of those flaws which had been there, cracks which had gone unnoticed, began to play out in front of our very eyes.
There are too many poor performances in the last two seasons to consider it an aberration. They are a trend and not looking to trend up soon.
Yesterday we rightfully reminded readers that many of the recruiting failures could be looked at as sanction related. While that is true, it does not really give the coach a free pass. Recruiting, especially on the defensive side of the ball, has been very poor.
The linebackers have not improved since the departures of Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay. The man ultimately responsible for that position – Don Pellum – was promoted following the departure of Nick Aliotti. His unit has under-performed on the field and he has under-performed on the recruiting trail. While my sources have indicated that his promotion was not entirely bought into by Helfrich, in the end, he holds the accountability for the performance of his staff. He will also have to fall on the sword should his decisions backfire. And they have backfired in spectacularly poor fashion.
Helfrich has attempted to keep the Chip Kelly train rolling. Who could blame him? Kelly’s formula worked, so why change? The problem is that he kept the wrong portions like secrecy and sarcasm, feigned the concept of ‘aggression’ with decisions that looked like he had a backwards cue card as to when to go for a fourth down conversion and when to kick. The choices look strained and unplanned – as if ‘oh, it’s fourth down, and inside the 50, guess we will go for it.’ The truth is that the decision about fourth down should have been made with the third down call – with tempo critical to the choice – and they are not.
This is indicative of how Helfrich looks like he is ‘trying to be like Chip’ when his inner nature is, more-or-less, an old fashioned approach to football. He is a risk averse coach trying to look like a risk taker.
Helfrich had no choice but to own the disastrous promotion of Pellum. When that went south, a true re-evaluation of the entire program should have taken place – as it did following the Las Vegas Bowl debacle against BYU. Instead, he looked for a band-aid fix.
Brady Hoke was a very good defensive line coach. But he proved that he did not really have the wherewithal to lead a program. So taking the notion that he could somehow lead a defense was a leap of faith. One which may cost Helfrich his job and send Hoke back to a coaching abyss.
In some ways, it is unfair for Hoke to be judged so harshly. It would be like me entering a writing contest by taking my son’s third grade book report and trying to make it a masterpiece by the end of the month. Hoke entered a situation where the depth chart was virtually empty of playmakers at all three levels. He was not only trying to change schemes, but he was doing so with an empty bench. But that is the life of a coach; Brady Hoke knew what he was getting into and made his choice.
The truth is that the recruiting at all three levels had been poor for several years. I am not a big ‘you’re fired’ person. Firing people sucks. It is the worst part of a job. I don’t make anywhere near $3.5 million, and the people I have had to fire do not make anywhere near $600,000 per year with great PERS nests on which to fall back. Again, though, that is the nature of the beast to which Helfrich signed on; it’s not all Heismans and Rose Bowls. Tough decisions have to be made – and it looks like his off the field decisions were as deeply considered as his two point conversion strategy. “This is what was always done before me, so this is what I will do now.” A leader sets his own path; he does not follow along with blind faith.
In the end, that may be the undoing of Mark Helfrich; his inability to create his own identity in a manner that kept the program rolling. Down seasons are going to occur; I would have no problem with a down season; a rebuilding year. The issue is not wins and losses as much as preparedness. This team looks lost and unprepared, and has looked like that for most of last season and the first five games this season.
Helfrich has continually said ‘that’s on us’ in reference to not having players ready. He’s right. It is on the coaches. And for that reason, the continued inability to get the team prepared and ready to play, this head coach has failed.
Tomorrow: A look at potential coaches