It’s not easy for people in power to admit they made a mistake. For the most part, they are smart, thorough and have tremendous egos. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in power to begin with.
It might be time for Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens to admit that he might have made a mistake in assuming Mark Helfrich could continue what Chip Kelly started.
To be fair, assuming that Helfrich would do just that was probably the right call. He was Kelly’s offensive coordinator and called plays right from a playbook that was innovative, fun and — most importantly — successful. He did it with different quarterbacks and tailbacks.
Helfrich definitely continued Kelly’s offensive success and to some extent, his success in recruiting offensive players, except quarterback, but that’s a separate issue. Even with an average quarterback, the Ducks are able to score enough points to win with their surrounding talent.
What Helfrich hasn’t been able to do is to continue the recruitment of solid defensive players that was the underappreciated core of Kelly’s success. Oregon never had a great defense under Kelly, but it did have a defense that knew who it was. It took every advantage of its athleticism to create turnovers and hand the ball back to the dynamic offense to break an opponent’s will.
Oregon has one player that fits that mold now, just one on a team with 50-60 defensive players. Troy Dye, a true freshman who was largely unheralded coming in, seems to be the only one who wants to put in the work to make plays.
That in itself is quite disturbing.
Helfrich isn’t the only one to blame on this front. Since he was made head coach, he has been allowed to make one hire outside the program among the defensive assistant coaches: Brady Hoke replaced a demoted Don Pellum this past offseason.
Assistants John Neal, Ron Aiken and Pellum were in Eugene long before Helfrich and Hoke. Oregon has had a culture in which assistants stay not for years, but decades. Pellum, offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, running back coach Gary Campbell, along with Neal and Aiken, have been Ducks for a very long time.
It’s quite possible that some of these coaches haven’t been able to keep up with the times as quickly as Kelly, former offensive coordinator Scott Frost, and even Helfrich himself. There’s a certain aspect of the staff that has grown stale and the defense has suffered because of it.
Coming into the Washington game, no one thought Oregon had a chance given the fact that the defense was in a transitional period. The Ducks were learning a new system and most of the players on that side of the ball are freshmen and sophomores.
Something isn’t right behind the iron curtain of Oregon football. Players are actually coming out in the media and saying that their teammates are not wanting it enough and others are living in the past. Something like that NEVER would have happened under Kelly or even Mike Bellotti. Those players would have stuck by each other through thick and thin.
That’s just one example of why changes need to happen. There are many others.
Against Washington, a team whose offense is good but not great, the Ducks allowed 70 points as if it was a Spring Game. Something drastic has to happen.
When the head coach has to apologize to the fans for a final score, something drastic has to happen.
When fans and boosters are openly wondering if Oregon will win one conference game, with Oregon State still left on the schedule, something drastic has to happen.
When Greatwood, someone who isn’t boisterous at all, comes out in the media and guarantees a victory and then loses 70-21, something drastic needs to happen.
When the big news on the day before the second biggest rivalry game of the season is that the star basketball player at UO got out of a boot to practice, something drastic has to happen.
When there’s a mass exodus of fans from Autzen Stadium at halftime of the Washington game, a team Oregon had dominated for 12 years straight, something drastic has to happen. The current Husky team is more like Oregon now than Oregon.
There were times the Huskies were national title contenders and the Ducks’ only hopes for wins were against Idaho and Oregon State. Even then, they never scored 70 against them. When that happens, something drastic needs to happen.
Which leads us back to Mullens. The spotlight in this whole mess has been put on Helfrich, and that’s fair, but Mullens must act to either help the coach he believed in or admit this was a mistake and look for a different answer.
Mullens has two choices. He keeps Helfrich, but gives him the liberty to hire a staff he wants. Or Mullens dumps Helfrich and his entire staff to create a legacy of being the guy who either saves Oregon football or goes down in the attempt.
Whatever Mullens decides, it will be something drastic. Doing nothing will lead to more of the same. Right now, the same just isn’t good enough for Oregon.