Oregon couldn’t have picked a worse time to have a bye week.
With all the speculation and turmoil within the program, and everyone in Eugene wondering if Mark Helfrich is the right man to coach the Ducks in 2017 and beyond, a win on the field would silence all of that for at least a short time.
A win, however, would still be a temporary band aid on a much deeper problem. The solution is still in question, but that’s Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens’ job to figure out within the next two to three months. If he doesn’t, his job might be speculated on as well.
It’s easy to assume that the Ducks are not going to a bowl game this year. Finding four more wins in the next six games on the schedule is certainly a tall order. Oregon’s shortcomings on the field are not easy fixes and they should linger throughout the season. The defense isn’t going to suddenly become better over the course of the next two months, and the offense has proved it’s just not good enough to compensate.
The remaining teams on the schedule have superior offenses and should decimate the Duck defense. There’s always a chance an opposing quarterback will have a rough night, giving Oregon hope, but that’s unlikely, especially if UO needs such a scenario to occur more than once.
In-state rival Oregon State is the only team left that should fall to the Ducks, despite the Beavers’ most recent upset over California in overtime. That one upset doesn’t cure all of OSU’s problems, and they are many.
Right now, the Ducks are headed for a 3-8 or 4-7 season. Mullens will be pressured to do something in the offseason, which he should. Oregon can’t afford to have its football team on a downward spiral for very long, which started last year with the second half of the Alamo Bowl exposing very single thing that was a problem with the program. A healthy Vernon Adams covered up a bad defense and the lack of depth on both sides of the ball.
The Oregon football team, as with most universities, shapes the mood of the athletic department. Everything is hunky dory when football is dominating and going to Rose Bowls. Not so much when it’s 3-8.
Ticket sales are already sliding, and if the Ducks enter the 2017 season coming off an awful 2016, expect those ticket sales to fall off the cliff. Oregon will have to win over its fan base once again, a fan base it has ticked off in the last few years with increases in ticket prices and a forced “donation” fee in order to buy certain season tickets.
One way Mullens can rally the fan base is to fire Helfrich and get someone outside the program to save Oregon football. This will not be an easy decision. The Ducks haven’t fired their football coach since 1976 when they canned Don Read after a 4-7 record. Before that he was 2-9 and 3-8; the expectations of Oregon football were zero. Now expectations are off the charts.
If firing Helfrich is the path Mullens chooses, picking the next head coach has to be an absolute home run. There is no room for error. Mullens could go after Les Miles or possibly other coaches with Oregon ties such as Justin Wilcox or Scott Frost.
Houston’s Tom Herman would definitely be on Mullens’ radar after coaching under Urban Meyer and Mack Brown. He currently has the Cougars going in the right direction and would keep some form of Oregon’s offense in place.
Boise State’s Bryan Harsin will also get a look. He is currently 26-6 in his third season as the Broncos’ head coach. He is also someone who won’t fiddle too much with the Duck offense.
Ultimately, Mullens has to decide if firing Helfrich and starting over is the way to go. Whoever Helfrich’s replacement is, he’ll want to bring in a complete new staff and usher in a brand new era of Duck football.
It’s a huge decision, one Mullens might not be ready to make. Keeping Helfrich but switching up his staff might be the ideal short-term solution. Helfrich wasn’t allowed to bring in any new staff when he was hired — most of the Duck assistants are longtime coaches in Eugene. Only new coordinators Matt Lubick and Brady Hoke are recent hires.
Getting rid of all the defensive coaches, minus Hoke, would tell fans that Oregon realizes there’s something really wrong on that side of the ball. The current assistants are not doing the job in recruiting to ensure the Duck defense properly complements the offense.
Helfrich, for his part, needs to recruit and develop a quarterback within the system; the recent trend of finding a senior transfer from the FCS ranks has to stop. After one game, it’s way too early to decide whether Justin Herbert is the kind of home-grown product Helfrich can turn into the next great UO quarterback.
Firing Helfrich after one horrendous season might look like an act of desperation, but sitting around and acting like nothing is wrong isn’t prudent, either.
Whatever Mullens’ decision is, it’s the most important decision he’s ever had to make as the Oregon athletic director. It’s a decision that could make or break his career in Eugene.