Grading 2014 Oregon: Helfrich A Slight Disappointment
By John Baker
Assistants are recruiting, the balls are being stowed and the shadow of a fairly successful 2013 football season for the Oregon Ducks grows dimmer and dimmer.
Under first-year head coach Mark Helfrich, the Ducks won 11 games and the Valero Alamo Bowl with a workmanlike 30-7 verdict over Texas.
Yes, by any measure that makes sense, the Ducks had a very good 2013. Why does it feel like a bit of a disappointment?
Perhaps because that within its grasp, Oregon had the chance to do so much more. So did Helfrich in his first year as coach.
While Helfrich demonstrated that he’s a capable head coach at the BCS level, there were times you wondered if the Chip Kelly legacy was a bit more than the new coach could handle. And did the Ducks suffer because of it?
With the season over, Helfrich will have a chance to hire a new defensive coordinator, look forward to employing the services of dynamic quarterback Marcus Mariota for next season and employ a bevy of offensive weapons in myriad ways. He’ll also have a chance to evaluate just how effective he was as a head coach.
We’ll help him with that with our own evaluation.
This offense is built to make coaches look good — when its working. And fortunately for Ducks fans and Helfrich, the offense rolls to big numbers most of the time. Sometimes it takes a while, but once the engine is fired up and running, play-calling for this team becomes easy. It all seems to work.
However, there were times during the season when Helfrich’s stubbornness cost this team dearly. Too many third-and-shorts or fourth-and-shorts featured nothing more than a handoff up the middle and led to nothing. Sure, it works against the Colorados of the world, but when Stanford or UCLA are stuffing your run game between the tackles and have eight or more men creeping toward the line of scrimmage, you wonder about the validity of a handoff up the middle.
In an offense that’s known for innovation and doing the unexpected, Oregon’s third- and fourth-down conversion rates show something else: A more conservative bent than under Kelly’s rule.
A year ago the Ducks were 90-of-195 on third-down conversions, tied for 27th nationally. This year, they were 69-of-160, down to 45th. Perhaps the 35 fewer third-down attempts is, in itself, somewhat telling. Fourth down helped fans fall in love with Kelly, and the Ducks were 15-of-31 this year, down from 20-of-31 a year ago.
Helfrich has the experience and ability to make a fine head coach. But anyone who watched the Ducks this year noticed that the flamboyant attack we’d grown used to had something missing. Perhaps he and first-year play-caller Scott Frost just need a little seasoning.
They say that a head coaches experiences the greatest learning curve between the first and second year. It will be interesting to see if Helfrich makes that leap in terms of offensive imagination. It’s one thing to go for it. It’s another to simply bang your head against a wall built in front of you in plain sight. In important games, the Ducks did just that far too often.
Motivating The Troops
Even after the Stanford loss, which was more of a physical than mental beating, the thought was that Helfrich was much in the mold of Kelly: A strong motivator who could push the buttons of his players.
Then came the Arizona debacle. After losing a chance at the national championship game, the lead for the Pac-12 title game and a possible Rose Bowl bid, the Ducks got a second chance. A jarring Stanford loss opened the door to reclaim all that it had lost to the Cardinal a few weeks earlier.
That should've been prime motivational ground, but the Ducks not only went to Arizona and laid the proverbial egg, they cooked in it.
The Ducks were not ready to play. Mariota hobbled one-legged on what we now know was a torn MCL and the defense seemed shocked to find Ka’Deem Carey eager to feast on yardage and scores. In short, in a game the Ducks had to have, they came out flat and floundered.
Therein lies the worry with Helfrich in terms of motivation. We’re dealing with young men here, so who knows what they are capable of sometimes, but you had to ask yourself why the Oregon team looked flat and out of sorts from the beginning.
That question has to be addressed to the head coach. Unfortunately for Helfrich, the question didn’t disappear in the Civil War win over Oregon State a week later, a team Oregon dwarfs in comparative talent.
Even the win over Texas seemed somewhat restrained.
Helfrich has said he’s no Chip Kelly and will be the coach that he is. While that’s a commendable approach and probably the only approach a coach should have, it was clear that Oregon didn’t finish the season on a high note emotionally or mentally. And that lands at the head man’s door.
Ego Under Control
The beauty of Helfrich is that he’s an Oregonian through and through. He speaks a language the natives understand and comes across as a humble guy with a workmanlike attitude.
He is a cooperative interview and while his penchant for Kelly-esque non-responses to injury and strategy questions grows tiresome, in the ultra-competitive world of big-time college football, you can understand that the phrase “competitive advantage” may be an overworked statement, but it matters to these men.
If Helfrich keeps winning 10 or more games a season, he’s going to have a nice career in Eugene. He’s going to get better as a head coach and the Ducks will continue to surround the program with talent. He’s got himself a nice national program now with all the trappings anyone could want and the resources (hello, Phil Knight) to make magic happen.
Let’s hope the man we see and hear is the same man who coaches the Ducks. The pressure will be unrelenting moving forward and it can be stifling. Hopefully his sense of humor will remain intact and, with a few tweaks and touches, he’s able to get Oregon to where it wants to be.
But coach, open the practices to media once in a while. It really doesn’t put you at a competitive disadvantage. Seriously.
Handling The Players
We give Helfrich high marks for dealing with the issues of Colt Lyerla’s meltdown, the infamous snowball escapade and other assorted missteps by his players.
Helfrich has shown himself to be a strident proponent of keeping his players accountable and when they transgress, he delivers appropriate and swift action.
There are times when you need to give young men a second chance and times when you need to help them learn by making life’s lessons tough on them. Helfrich seems to instinctively know the time to do each. It feels like the program is in good, strong hands with its first-year coach.
In terms of personnel, he needs to have a backup quarterback ready to play should Mariota suffer something similar to this year’s torn MCL. Mariota was not nearly the same player and probably could have used some recovery time. A capable backup doesn’t put Mariota at risk of further injury and injury-induced poor play. Secondly, how does De’Anthony Thomas only get five touches in the Alamo Bowl (not counting kickoff return)? Your most dynamic offensive weapon as a decoy? That makes no sense whatsoever.
This year was a success. There’s no other way to characterize Helfrich’s first season as the head man at Oregon. But within that success, you could see some subtle differences between Helfrich and the man he replaced. Some of them good, some of them bear watching.
The truth is, despite winning 11 games, Oregon’s season seemed to lag coming down the home stretch. The offense was not nearly as dynamic, the defense struggled to stop the run and given two opportunities to make its dream season come true, the Ducks got physically humiliated and then mentally trounced.
While the Stanford result can be put down to the Cardinal imposing its will on the Ducks, the second, at Arizona, offers no excuses other than the team wasn’t mentally prepared. That’s on Helfrich and his staff.
Thankfully, there will be a 2014 season to play and a playoff system in place. The Ducks will return a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and, with a new defensive coordinator in place, perhaps a more physical style will help stop power running teams from manhandling the Ducks.
Sure, those are nitpicks within the confines of an 11-win season, but they showed up often enough that they are worth noting heading into 2014.