Mark Helfrich in Year 1: he’s no Chip Kelly, but who is?

With apologies to the legendary Hugo Bezdek, Chip Kelly was the greatest coach in Oregon football history.

He won at an unprecedented rate. He came, he smirked, he conquered. He evaded capture by the NCAA and turned an .867 winning percentage (.916 in conference) and four top ten rankings into a 32.5 million dollar payday in the NFL, all guaranteed, with a corner office, a four-game winning streak and congratulatory texts from Erin Andrews.

I smell Roses: Chip Kelly made winning expected in Eugene, and now Mark Helfrich has to contend with his legacy.  (US Presswire photo).

Not bad for a chubby defensive backs coach from New Hampshire by way of John Hopkins. The fast-talking football savant with the ability to sell a vision, envision everything faster and more efficiently and scribble football logistics the way Mozart composed symphonies, whole in his head, took college football, held it upside down and shook it until the money and the trophies rolled out.

Duck fans miss the greedy little bastard. He was their Tyrion Lannister, the imp with the quip and a gift for the grand scheme, but with a football mind and a disciplined personage that would never settle for anything but excellence and burned, absolutely burned, to win now and win forever in a way that sent Pete Carroll scurrying to the Seattle Seahawks like a tarnished pretender. Chip Kelly deserved the hot tub. He sent one fan a refund check for $435. He told fans to shut up at midfield, put the Ducks in the NCAA crosshairs, but fans loved every sneer and caustic one-word answer. Because he got it done. There were no excuses, no letdown losses to BYU or Wake Forest, no excuses accepted when a quarterback ducked out of a sorority with a laptap or a talented cornerback whizzed down I-5 at 118 miles per hour without a Whizzinator.

A year later, the Ducks have lost both their authentic swagger and their furious intensity. The 2013 team slumped to 10-2 without Chip Kelly, and without an 8-play, 83-yard last-minute comeback by the gifted quarterback he put in place (after snatching him from a river of lava in a dense rain forest in a forgotten tropical paradise) there would be some furious, angry-mob, petition-brandishing outrage at the Hatfield-Dowlin Center right now. If Marcus Mariota, Bralon Addison, Daryle Hawkins, Johnny Mundt, Josh Huff, Thomas Tyner and the offensive line don’t combine on that scintillating piece of Oregon football history, the Ducks are 9-3 and headed to the Holiday Bowl or worse, and Mark Helfrich is in serious danger of being one and done.

People have short memories that undergo constant revising. In fact, a story shifts in the brain every time it’s retold, and the story of Chip Kelly is no different. In his first year Kelly had an embarrassing, unfocused loss to Boise where the team laid a gigantic egg and punched itself in the face on national TV. They barely beat a 5-7 Purdue team and floundered against a Utah squad that back then, was somewhere between Nevada and Nicholls State. They had a letdown game against Stanford, and needed a last-minute drive to tie Arizona before winning in overtime. The next week, Jeremiah Masoli, the now defrocked legend, had to truck a safety on 4th and 3 to beat a pesky Beaver squad that at the time was #16 in the country and playing for a Rose Bowl of its own.

God how times change. If Nate Costa doesn’t pluck a dribbled snap off the turf and save the last-second extra point, the Ducks are 9-3, headed to the Holiday Bowl, and everybody is questioning whether Kelly has the chops to replace Mike Bellotti.

Except, he did, and fans even gave Kelly a pass when the team faltered in the Rose Bowl, kicking the ball into the end zone versus Ohio State, up-chucking a chance for greatness and making Terrelle Pryor look like the second coming of Vince Young while Masoli looked like the second coming of Ryan Perry-Smith.

People forget about that part of the legend, how close it was to mediocrity. Back then, 10-3 seemed marvelous, and optimism was rewarded the next year when the Ducks blasted #5 Stanford 52-31 after falling behind 17-0. Kelly and special teams coach Tom Osborne dialed up an onside kick down 17-7, and LaMichael James sent Shane Skov to the sideline with a suspicious limp, unable to slow the pace of the blur. James ran for 257 yards on the then less-indomitable Cardinal defense, and seemed to scoot off with the Heisman Trophy with a punctuation mark 76-yard run late in the fourth quarter. 

In Kelly’s second year in 2010, the Ducks hung 52 on Stanford, 60 on UCLA, making Rick Neuheisel’s eyes glaze over on the sideline. They looked like barbarians against the Trojans, ransacking Los Angeles in a 53-32 victory. They mushed the Huskies 53-16.  Those Ducks didn’t lose to anybody, and never got loose-lipped about where they were going. They were beady-eyed on winning the day. They won 12 of them with dispatch and impunity before a Michael Dyer rollover and two inexplicably overturned Cam Newton turnovers undid them in a 22-19 triumph of a malevolent SEC-infatuated god. Fans can still see the loose chunks of turf under Josh Huff’s feet, and the holes that were never there. 

Kelly brought the Ducks within four stinking field goals of three national championships, and then he was gone. Without him, the team slipped back into the same uncertain and rickety above-averageness he instilled in them at the beginning. The Ducks and new coach Mark Helfrich were 10-2 this year, a handful of marvelous poised plays from ruin and recrimination.

Mariota may not have saved Mark Helfrich’s job, but he definitely saved him from a whole series of tense questions and a column today that would be several shades more insistent. They won. A week later, we can work with that. 

The team slipped back without the genius, and if we’d been stone cold honest in August, we would have seen it coming. This team lost two first-round NFL draft picks. The heart of it was gutted when Kyle Long, Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay and Dion Jordan finished their eligibility. There wasn’t a go-to running back in the backfield anymore, just a workmanlike sophomore and an unproven freshman, both of who played very well, but didn’t have any punctuating 76-yard runs or 322-yard rushing days between them.

Instead, this was a team rightly built around Marcus Mariota, the singular defense-changing talent in the arsenal. When Mariota got hurt, the offense lurched into safe mode, rebooting at a few hundred kilobytes per minute, a shadow of itself. Playcalling got stagnant, and Super Mario couldn’t bail them out with spectacular escapes. The Ducks faltered, dribbled the football away, and fans were confronted with the awful reality that the Ducks could lose by 26 if they didn’t show up ready to play, something that hadn’t happened since Mike Bellotti shaved his mustache.

Mark Helfrich’s competence can’t be objectively judged on his first twelve games. He ought to be granted his first coaching Wagnerian Ring Cycle, a bowl game, a recruiting class, and off-season coaching moves. 

So far he is no Chip Kelly, but Kelly wasn’t the Kelly fans remember in the beginning. His team stumbled and won narrowly. They had their escapes and lucky twists of fortune, their own letdown game in Palo Alto. The Duck faithful were more forgiving then, because that was before going to the Rose Bowl was like, whatever. Back then, 10-2 and suiting up in a New Year’s Day bowl was a big deal.

Now, the masses are only satisfied by the last page of the BCS reveal. Injured quarterbacks be damned, it’s top two rankings, PAC-12 Championships or the scrap heap. This is a fan base that’s not easily satisfied. They want an unbroken string of 12-win seasons and a trip to the Dr. Pepper/Vizio mountain where the footballs are crystal and Chris Fowler’s salt-and-pepper hair is bedazzled with green and yellow confetti. Auburn could return to the national championship instead of them, and it sticks in their craw. Helfrich nice-guyed away a dream.

Except, he didn’t. 10-2 was a realistic outcome for this team, given the losses at linebacker and the serious limitations in Mariota’s mobility and effectiveness in key games. Kelly might have won them all, but he’s not coming back to the hot tub any time soon, and there’s no coach like him lurking in the lobby of NCAA coaching convention, waiting to spring out from behind a tall succulent, his agent at his elbow, pleading Rob Mullens for a shot. Chris Petersen, Will Muschamp, Ed Orgeron, they aren’t Chip Kelly either, and you won’t find his like for another 93 years, the time between Kelly and the last Oregon Rose Bowl win, engineered by the legendary but now overshadowed Bezdek.

The best coach in school history is now exchanging gibes with the Philadelphia media for bigger money and a richer challenge. Duck fans have to give his hand-picked replacement a fair hearing, at least as complete as Jameis Winston got in Florida state district court.

Helfrich can’t be Kelly. He doesn’t have the same edge, or fierce knowledge of how to craft an offense or scheme a Cover 2. No one does. Kelly has a counter to the counter to the counter, a gimmick, a wrinkle and a fresh innovation of message to keep a team locked on when the noise is all around them. He’s one of the best motivators and football minds in history.

What Helfrich can do is grow in the job, and in some ways, he’s better suited for this stage of the Oregon story than his mercurial and gifted predecessor. Chip Kelly had a distaste for recruiting. He was impatient with boosters and hated hierarchy. He skirted around NCAA rules, as there are a lot of them.

This week the Oregon staff is out in homes, and Helfrich’s Coos Bay sincerity will play tremendously well there. Athletes are going to know he cares about their future. Mothers and fathers are going to trust them with their son. In spite of doubts about Oregon’s red zone offense, there are no doubts about Helfrich’s work ethic and intelligence, and the way he saved Oregon recruiting last January suggests he and the staff will close brilliantly in 2014.

Recruiting is a key piece of the puzzle in college football. Without talent evaluation and aquisition, there are no BCS bowls, certainly no more of them. 

Helfrich’s even-handed nature and refusal to panic, his focus on ignoring the criticisms and avoiding excuses, his sense of accountability and day-to-day consistency is a great foundation for the CEO of established company. He’s not brilliant in the way Chip Kelly was brilliant, but he’s bright enough, and the losses drive him far harder than they do the armchair quarterbacks.

His job just got harder with Chris Petersen taking the reins in Seattle.

What Helfrich has to do now is put a snap to the reins in Eugene. He needs to have a come-to-Jesus with Nick Aliotti and craft a plan for the development of the Oregon defense, match the scheme to the personnel and get the right players on the field at the right time. He needs to take the slack, complacency and divided attention out of Oregon practices, field a squad that hears his voice and takes it cues from him. The message of the program has to be reflected in their statements to the media and their quality of attention. All the rogue, loose-lipped remarks about team goals have to end. Marcus Mariota and Hroniss Grasu will be the spokesmen and pacesetters next year, and there isn’t a team in America with clearer and better leadership.

The 2014 Ducks have to get better in the red zone and tougher on 3rd down. They have to have better luck about who gets injured (their two brightest stars limped to the sideline this season) and get some 4-star linebackers to blossom into their potential. Torrodney Prevot, Tyrell Robinson and Danny Mattingly could infuse the Ducks next defense with speed, athleticism and a nasty edge, provided they know which gap to cover and where to line up.  Someone has to give them the tools to do that.

Helfrich can’t get a personality transplant over the winter. Even Phil Knight can’t build a laboratory for that. What he can do is tighten up his organization, get the staff completely on board with his leadership, make changes in scheme and approach that get better results. He’s a smart guy. In February after the frenetic and demanding recruiting chase is done, he’ll evaluate the lessons of the first year, meet with his players and coaches, evaluate his own approach and priorities. Expect him to come out for spring practice with a clearer knowledge of how to do the job and a healthy Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. The linebackers will be improved, with three promising second-year players ready to shore them up. He returns 108 starts on the offensive line. The blood of the coaching staff will be refreshed with a new patriot or two.

At that point, he’s still not Chip Kelly, but he’ll be a bright, organized guy with a plan, great talent and a winning organization. He can produce the results to match it.

If not, Mullens will reevaluate in a year.