There is a rather enjoyable article by Darren Everson in today's Wall Street Journal regarding Oregon and the "genius" in charge of their offense, Chip Kelly. Oregon's offense was incredibly fun to watch last season, but was it really "genius" in that it was a brand new way to play football? Or did it simply take a few interesting concepts and execute them perfectly?
We're going to give this article the Fire Joe Morgan treatment, which is to say, we're going to blurb it, pieces at a time, and react. Since a) I'm not funny, and b) I really did enjoy the article, mockery won't be involved ... so it won't be true FJM representation. But the "Oregon figured out a new way to win football games" meme has traveled around quite a bit lately, and this is by far the easiest way to look into it.
Every now and then in sports, some team will come up with a better way.
Think "Total Football"—the free-flowing brand of soccer that the Dutch club team Ajax perfected in the 1970s; or the warp-speed Loyola Marymount basketball program of two decades ago, which still holds the single-season Division I scoring record (122.4 points per game); or the University of Houston football team, whose innovative run 'n' shoot passing attack allowed it to score 95 points in a single game.
Now that spring practice season has wrapped across college football, it's becoming increasingly clear that there may be another team on the verge of reaching this pantheon of all-time creative geniuses. It's the Oregon Ducks.
Fantastic intro. Anything that references Total Football -- and allows me to plug this wonderful book and get lost down a rabbit hole of Johann Cruyff YouTube highlights -- is okay by me. Like Oregon, the Dutch didn't necessarily reinvent the game of
soccer football. They just figured out the most effective way to utilize their players' own styles and talents in the most exhausting way possible for their opponents.
(Loyola Marymount was another obvious but effective comparison.)
Though Oregon lost to Auburn in the BCS national championship game, it recently received another kind of validation that's typical of genius teams: that it has done what it has without superior talent. During the NFL's recent seven-round draft, only one Oregon player was selected.
Here's where Everson loses me, at least briefly.
1. Oregon's five-year recruiting average is 17th in the country. Their five-year F/+ performance average ranks 10th. They are out-performing their recruiting rankings, but only marginally so.
2. LaMichael James was a four-star running back, Darron Thomas a four-star quarterback. Home run hitter Josh Huff was a four-star freshman. Lache Seastrunk, a five-star running back, waits in the wings. Casey Matthews, the lone draftee, was a high three-star linebacker, Kenny Rowe a four-star defensive end. Anthony Gildon was a four-star cornerback. There was a significant amount of talent on this team; without it, Oregon would not have made it to the national title game. The problem with using draft picks as evidence as talent in this case, of course, is simple -- most of the talent returns to Eugene this fall. James, Thomas, Huff, Seastrunk, Gildon, et cetera.
"We can't just wait until the week of the game to get our defense prepared for that tempo," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. He said the Huskies will do more no-huddle work in practice to learn how to compete when fatigued. He said he'll shuffle the lineup earlier to keep players fresher. "We have to get to that level in order to compete with them," he said.
UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, whose team lost to Oregon last season in a brutal 60-13 rout, predicted (perhaps a bit wishfully) that Oregon may soon be solved. "I just think that people are going to study it and practice it—especially those in the North Division—and I think people will catch up," he said.
These coaches should consult some Big 12 defensive coordinators, who have had to deal with Oklahoma (along with Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M) doing this for years. In fact, while Oregon's Adj. Pace was extremely high last year (second overall), Oklahoma's was still higher. Texas Tech and Texas A&M were in the top five. The Big 12's been playing this way for quite a while now; this isn't a brand new way to play football. The major difference with Oregon, of course, is that they played at this tempo while running the ball a ton. (They also did it in a conference that hasn't seen a lot of that tempo recently.)
By the way, if Oregon's talent remains top-notch, it will take a while for defenses to catch up. Oklahoma still won the Big 12 title in 2010, after all, despite playing this way for years, and in a conference that sees the no-huddle a lot.
Defenses have been adapting to the spread for a while by figuring out ways to get more speed onto the field. Oregon's new run-and-tempo-heavy wrinkle is just that -- a wrinkle -- and eventually defenses will adapt to that, too. The way Oregon can stay on top is by adjusting (perhaps in advance) to opponents' adjustments, and Chip Kelly is certainly smart enough to do that. If he's adapting, and if he's still bringing in tons of talent (never underestimate the role that talent plays in this equation), he can maintain a good-to-great offense.
And as I've said here before, tempo is a great weapon as long as you have a per-play advantage. It maximizes that advantage and can quite possibly wear down opponents for an added per-play advantage in the fourth quarter. But it's only going to wear defenses down if you're not going three-and-out.
A glance at some of these genius teams of the past suggests the biggest threat to their longevity is the departure of the system's leading impresario.
In 1973, after Ajax won what's now known as the Champions League for three straight years using a fluid system that allowed players to swap positions on the field, the departure of star Johan Cruyff snapped the dynasty.
Not to completely change the topic to Oklahoma, but since Oregon's staff is still intact, I'll insert another OU comment here: Kevin Wilson left Norman to take the Indiana head coaching position. New play-caller Josh Heupel is a smart guy, and he's studied under Wilson for a while, so there's a chance that nothing changes. But ... there's always at least a tiny chance that something there will change.
As for Neuhesel's dire predictions, Kelly declined to comment. Last season, when the UCLA coach said he thought someone would "solve" Oregon, Kelly had this to say, according to the Oregonian: "They must be pretty slow in solving it because I've been running it for four years here."
Kelly is right. On a per-play basis, Oregon was actually less effective on offense than they were in the previous seasons. They played at a higher pace, but their quality of play was not significantly different than in other recent seasons. However, they did benefit significantly from turnovers -- they were plus-13 in turnover margin after being plus-2 in 2009 and plus-5 in 2008 -- and they did time their breakthrough season extremely well.
USC was no better than they were in 2009, when they had tumbled quite a bit; California was significantly worse than they had been; and the teams that improved in 2010 -- Arizona State, Washington, and Washington State -- still weren't at a high enough level to catch the Ducks. Plus, they got Stanford at home. That was huge. The Ducks ran away from the Cardinal, to the point that they quite possibly would have done the same thing in Palo Alto, but the numbers suggest that Oregon's 2010 squad really wasn't any better than, in particular, their 2009 or 2007 (with Dennis Dixon) squads; it was their timing that was a lot better.
Timing, circumstance and context define so much of our day-to-day sports conversation. The best way to succeed at the highest level is to just keep producing good teams and hope one of them breaks through just right. My own Missouri Tigers did it in 2007, when their best team in decades happened to rise at a time where almost everybody else in the country kept losing games they shouldn't. Oregon was very good in 2010, but they were for most of 2007-09 too. They could be just as good -- or better -- in 2011, but their results might not be quite as impressive. They play at Stanford and LSU (sort of -- it's in Arlington, TX), for starters. Plus, if their turnover margin drifts back toward zero, or even just to single digits on the positive side, they might trip up against a team like California, Arizona or Arizona State. Timing is everything, and Oregon's was great last year.
Chip Kelly is an excellent coach who runs an excellent system, one of the smartest in the game. Chances are, he'll continue to crank out very good teams, one of which might break through to the title game again. But in a general sense, Oregon's success was due as much to talent and context as any new way of playing football. I hope they continue to succeed, simply because it's an enjoyable brand of football, and I hope others will try it too. But I think the "Hall of Geniuses" can wait for at least a little while longer.