Oregon’s Case for the Hall of Geniuses
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.
This team’s recent accomplishments have been well noted. Using a warp-speed offense that operates 34% more quickly than most conventional teams, Oregon averaged 47 points and 531 yards per game last season, both No. 1 nationally, and has won 20 of its past 21 games in the Pac-10 conference. 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.
One of the best arguments in Oregon’s favor is what happened this spring. Opposing coaches across the soon-to-be-rechristened Pac-12 scrambled to make adjustments in the name of trying to handle the Ducks.
“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.
USC coach Lane Kiffin said Oregon was doing “a phenomenal job” and that its system is “very abnormal” because of the speed at which it moves. “That offense is part of our life,” added Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “It’s something we’ve got to be thinking about all the time.”
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.
Historically, the life cycle of “genius” teams is often short. Neuheisel points out that previous college-football innovations like the triple option, the run ‘n’ shoot and the West Coast offense, all have been cracked. The famed “46″ defense popularized by the 1985 Chicago Bears, with its emphasis on pressuring quarterbacks, was eventually killed off by the quick, short passing of the West Coast offense.
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.
The Loyola Marymount program, which had three 20-win seasons and set the all-time scoring mark in 1989-90, collapsed almost immediately after coach Paul Westhead left for the NBA. (Westhead now coaches Oregon’s women’s basketball team.) Texas Tech’s pass-happy football team, which once reached No. 2 by upsetting top-ranked Texas, fell off the map 14 months later with the departure of coach Mike Leach.
One of college football’s all-time strategic wonders was the Houston Cougars’ football team 20 years ago, which used the run ‘n’ shoot—a passing attack in which receivers created their routes on the fly. But after coach Jack Pardee left in 1990, the team’s discipline eroded. Even before the team took the field against Miami in 1991, “I was fully aware we were in big trouble,” quarterback David Klingler said. Miami crushed Houston, by a 40-10 score, and the Cougars went 4-7.
While Oregon head coach Chip Kelly isn’t going anywhere, Oregon will have to fill three holes on the offensive line this season and replace linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has been suspended. Because of its losses, Oklahoma is the early favorite to win the 2011 title.
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.”
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