It was hard to find a conversation that didn't offer the usual list of remedies - "we need to get tougher, take away the fancy locker rooms", or "fire (offensive coordinator) Andy Ludwig" and even " it is time to clean house".
Such is the disenchantment over a 5-6 season record.
Athletic Director Bill Moos was quick to address the question when speaking to the Eugene Register Guard. "We're not panicking. No way." Radical changes aren't likely, but clearly some retooling is in order.
How much of that record is on the coaches and/or scheme or to what degree that record reflects the growth curve of a team is open on a case-by-case basis to interesting debate.
Whatever the equation, it hasn't worked in the Ducks favor for three years now. One insightful voice has pointed out elsewhere just how completely across the spectrum of benchmarks game performance has diminished over the coinciding period of time; i.e., giving up many more sacks, third down conversion rate sharply lower, smaller average gain per completed pass, increased number of penalties for more yards, etc. The case-by-case basis does seem to be forming a disturbing downward trend in the least; a less optimistic view would describe it as a spiral.
However, sometimes the progression curve does not adhere to its traditionally preferred configuration, juniors and seniors holding most of the playing spots with a special young player here and there to season in gracefully. With early NFL departures taking out some of that top tier talent after their junior season, a predominantly senior/sophomore configuration may become the more common reality in the composition of football teams with sophomores and second string seniors replacing the departed players. In the best scenario you then hope to fill a hole or two somewhere in the two-deep depth chart with a freshman.
Over the past 6 years the Ducks have had to transition from a team with athletic wealth spread equitably across a spectrum of 2 – 3 contiguous classes to a configuration where the legacy knowledge of the outgoing team isn't able to be relied upon for next year's group. To my view, this gap was most clearly evident in the receiving corps and in the defensive secondary. Theoretically a full recruiting cycle could be consumed getting back into "sync."
For all the criticism they endured, Sammie Parker and Keith Lewis left some very big shoes to fill and in the end no one really did. Those two represented the deep threat on both sides of the ball, folks.
The good news is, as I watched the conference, I didn't see a lot of teams that "out-athleted" the Ducks. Oklahoma certainly was well stocked and USC would line up favorably to the Sooners, as the Orange Bowl should illustrate. I found the Duck's personnel to closely match that of California, with an across the board higher level of experience being a key advantage for the Bears on both sides of the ball. It is encouraging to compare Cal's 2003 season w/ Oregon's 2004… and like Cal this year, next season Oregon will be a very senior oriented team.
One additional element to keep in mind is that in the past four years two ex-Oregon offensive coordinators became head coaches in the Pac-10. First Dirk Koetter assumed the head position at Arizona State (by way of Boise State) and then Jeff Tedford took over at California.
Such a brain drain is thrice fraught with consequences. Obviously, very talented coaches are now not only not working for you but are in fact working direct in opposition to your success. It also created a situation where three of the teams in the conference run offensive systems of some derivation of Oregon's. This puts the whole conference on alert, raising the level of familiarity the rest of the teams possess about your tendencies, philosophies and strategies. Plays that used to be reliably counted upon to be successful are more closely contested in the least and more frequently found to be ineffective. Game play execution becomes incrementally harder to sustain.
Hearing eight or nine games into the season that we "have to find ways to get the ball their hands more often" – as we did with regard to both Rosario and Day – is a self-fulfilling prophecy if you want it to be… and it shouldn't take two thirds of the season to implement. It is also a symptom of a team that has become too predictable, too familiar.
One of the luxuries afforded by the week of inactivity over Thanksgiving was the ability to finally sit down and watch game tapes of teams in some of the other conferences. In watching the Iowa/Wisconsin game a tempting facsimile for the Ducks was found in the Hawkeyes.
Iowa City is assuredly not the gravitational center of the Big 10 constellation - Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, maybe even Michigan State, Penn State and Purdue generally enjoy a more prominent reputation and more acclaimed recruiting results. The Iowa staff recognizes this reality, brings in the best kids they can get and then makes certain the message is received that solid fundamentals aren't a goal or an expectation, they are an imperative.
On defense, Iowa squares up to the tackle, breaks down and contains the flats and forces everything toward the middle of the defense. There is not a lot of switching or motion, they line up and play the ball first and then the man.
The Hawkeye offense is a product of the skill set of the athletes on the field, not a particular system or philosophy the players are deployed to implement. As a result, they don't beat themselves and pretty consistently go out and run the conference to the tune of 7-5, 11-2, 10-3 and this season's record of 9-2 with the bowl game still to come.
A 5-6 season boils down to either the coaches ain't teachin' well or the kids ain't learnin' good, to callously abuse the English language. As applied to the 2004 Ducks, given they did perform at a somewhat higher level at one point during the season but regressed after the Cal game to the point of complete collapse against both UCLA and (especially) the Beavers, my suspicions lean toward the latter. If there are personality conflicts with the coaching staff, that regression could be a sign of the players tuning them out, though I don't get a sense that is the case. It then does come back to the kids not retaining what they have been taught.
Or perhaps being taught too much? I found it interesting to hear Aaron Gipson tell OSN there was "confusion" over defensive assignments against the Beavers. By the 11th game of the season, confusion shouldn't be an issue, unless there is too much change in game plan from week to week. Again, the Iowa philosophy comes to mind, just line it up simply, and play fast. Good things generally are the result.
Offensively, QB sacks – whatever their cause – have been a continual problem for three years running. Next season the Ducks will be starting the most inexperienced offensive line they have started in a number of years. Most are redshirts, having a year of practice – but game experience will be scarce. Some simplification may be necessary on this side of this side of the ball as well.
If the offensive line isn't able to sustain a pocket long enough to fully stretch the field in the passing game, it might be time to "go John Cappelletti /Penn State mode" – line Dante Rosario up at tailback and give him the ball to pound between the tackles 20 times, then give it to Terrence Whitehead another 20. Go play action off the dive for eight to ten shots at Tim Day – and take a try or two with Cameron Colvin or Demetrius Williams deep. That is your offense, period. Then either throw away the option package entirely or elevate it to something other than a quarterback keeper. Scrap all the flanker screens and shovel passes. Simple, potent, and surely within the athletic grasp of this team. If employed to some reasonable approximation of potential, I don't see any in the conference able to stop such an attack.
In doing so, at least for a season or two, the conventional wisdom on how to beat the Ducks will have to be reformulated, and will not be simultaneously reinforced by two other teams in the conference. Innovation and adaptation frequently start with a step backward.
Should the learning curve accelerate to the point the playbook can be expanded beyond that – fine, but if it ain't broke I hope you don't break it by fixing it. As Boise State's head coach Dan Hawkins said with regard to his offensive playbook "Bigger is not always better… better is better."
There will be an extra measure of scrutiny by ALL interested parties to this year's recruiting season and spring practices to see which direction the Ducks appear to be headed. Lacking a significant step forward in performance next season, it is not unreasonable to think more drastic solutions would be entertained next off-season.
Though the football season has ended for the Ducks and our attention will now turn toward basketball, this will be topic that will be revisited in several different contexts over the coming months.