Standing up in the press box between the Oregon coaches’ booth and the Stanford coaches’ booth last Saturday night, it struck me how you could have looked at their respective postures and known immediately how the game was going. Scott Frost walked tall and with purpose into the booth while the Stanford coaches meandered their way in, all but dragging their feet like students headed for detention. From the top of Autzen Stadium to the sidelines, one team’s headset-wearing leaders knew exactly what they’d come to do, how they were going to do it, and that the result had been determined because of how they’d spent the previous six days. Unfortunately, the other team’s leaders knew what they’d come to do, but they had no idea how they were going to do it and they had to know that their team wasn’t prepared to do it. After a season that began with discussion of winning a third straight Pac-12 championship and perhaps even being a factor in the four-team playoff, Stanford’s fans have spent the last two months backpedaling like Neville Chamberlain and negotiating with their own plummeting expectations. Bowl eligibility is now essentially the ceiling for this team, and it is in no way a certainty. The game in Eugene didn’t expose anything new from Stanford’s perspective. Oregon is an elite football team, and everything from the coaches’ outfits to the offense to the tens of thousands of fans singing “Shout” before the start of the fourth quarter was in sync. Stanford is as far away from the Ducks as it’s been in a long, long time.
Ironically, it was a play that occurred well after the outcome had been decided that stands out in my mind. Stanford’s second string quarterback, Evan Crower, helped lead the Cardinal to the Duck two-yard line in hopes of adding a face-saving, lip-stick applying TD to this absolute pig of a game. Stanford faced fourth and goal from the two-yard line. Coach Shaw called time out and came up with a run out of an obvious run formation that Oregon stuffed. Patrick Skov was left to try to bulldoze two Ducks and ended up flattened short of the end zone. Quietly, in Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, David DeCastro and Toby Gaffney wept. Actually, what’s more likely is that David DeCastro had already tossed his flat screen out the window. Coach Shaw famously said that DeCastro showed up on campus “in a bad mood” and pretty much never changed in his four years on campus. Amidst everything that failed this year for Stanford’s offense, the absence of this attitude is perhaps the one most worthy of lamentation. And it all comes back to identity. Oregon has one. Stanford had one. Stanford, whether they admit to it or not, is much closer to falling back to the Wal-Teevian abyss than it is to rising up back to the Pasadena Glory of the past two seasons.
In a way, this article is and is not about what happened in Eugene last Saturday. As Hogan’s interception and fumble fertilized the seeds of the first quarter red zone failures into the stillborn weeds of a 45-16 demolition, my thoughts and emotions drifted from what was transpiring on the field to the notion of where Stanford is headed. I couldn’t help but think about Sun Tzu’s notion of battles being won long before they are fought. As I resigned myself to the reality that the outcome in Autzen Asylum was determined well before the ball kicked off, I was chilled to think that barring a significant change by Coach Shaw, Stanford’s road is going to be marred by the same trio of interrelated flaws that wrecked the game against Oregon and the entire 2014 season: insecurity, uncertainty, and inexperience.
Stanford’s success has produced a significant loss in coaching personnel over the past four years. Of the six major offensive coaching positions (Coordinator, QB, RB, WR, TE, OL), only Mike Bloomgren and Morgan Turner are coaching the same positions they were in 2013. Tavita Pritchard is coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers after coaching running backs for one year. With the addition of Lance Taylor as running backs coach, the Cardinal is breaking in its third leader at that position in three seasons. The departures of Pep Hamilton and Mike Sanford have necessitated some of this shakeup, and it’s led to consternation on the boards and amongst fans. The truth is that it’s not at all uncommon for teams to have coaches coaching positions they never played. It’s also typical for coaches to coach multiple position groups (successfully) over the course of a career. Scott Frost and, believe it or not, Chip Kelly, have spent time coaching defense, of all things. No, the problem is not that guys are coaching “out of position.” The problem is that Coach Shaw is running an apprenticeship for young coaches, and it’s not working out.
Last Saturday night in Eugene the contrast between the two programs was so great, it was hard not to focus on the team that was doing things correctly and succeeding. It was a bizarre respite from the constant drumbeat of mechanical difficulties, formation confusion, revolving-door substitutions and play-calling, and all the other notes of discord the Cardinal has played during 2014’s cacophony of calamity. It got me curious about Oregon, about the way its coaching staff was constructed, and if there were any real conclusions to be drawn in relation to Stanford moving forward.
First, a caveat. It would be easy and misguided to judge the Oregon coaches on the result of Saturday’s game. Second, the way Oregon does things isn’t remotely close to being the only way things can get done. With the sky falling on the Cardinal, it would be easy to dispatch babies with the bathwater, and that’s not necessarily the cure for what’s ailing Stanford. But when you take a look back and focus on the long view, it’s clear that as well as Stanford has done, Oregon seems far more likely to enjoy the success it’s enjoyed for the past five seasons. So let’s start with a stat that blew my mind when I calculated it. Not counting grad assistants or generically named “offensive assistants,” Stanford’s offensive brain trust has a total of 22 years of coaching experience. This doesn’t count years coaching abroad, and does include years coaching sub-FBS schools and of course, the NFL. Oregon’s core offensive coaching staff has 117 total years of coaching experience. Is there some correlation here? How could there not be?!?! Oregon has had the best offense in the conference, and this year Stanford has the worst. Stanford faced a significant challenge this year. The offensive line turnover, the reality of Hogan’s strengths and weaknesses, and the absence of a power runner all demanded that change and adjustments be made. There was never a more pressing need for a depth of experience from which to draw. Instead, Stanford went forward with only one coach who had accumulated nine years of coaching experience coming into this season. And it goes deeper than the coordinators as well. In fact, Scott Frost is the least experienced offensive coach. Oregon has twocoaches who alone have more experience than the totality of the Stanford offensive core. Is it really hard to understand why one team scored 45 points against a very good defense and the other scored 16 against a team lit up for 41 the week before?
This is where the insecurity issue enters. When doing this research, I stumbled upon this quote from Coach Shaw when it came to the promotion of Mike Bloomgren to offensive coordinator: "I'm very excited about elevating Mike Bloomgren," said Shaw. "He was the only choice. We didn't interview anybody else, and we didn't want to interview anyone else.” Huh? Now I don’t know how many people Oregon interviewed before going with Mark Helfrich, or how many others were interviewed before Scott Frost rose to OC, but that quote is staggering. Why wouldn’t you want to interview somebody else? Why wouldn’t you have a list of the top five available coaches? If Bloomgren is on the list, great. Let him interview and compete for the job. And surround him with experience. Bloomgren and Frost are basically equal in terms of experience, with Frost having the far superior playing pedigree. The difference is that Oregon has surrounded him with decades of wisdom. It’s okay to have young coaches, and there’s nothing to say that a young coach can’t be great or a difference maker. However, to have a staff that is entirely devoid of even a 15-year veteran is ridiculous, especially for a program playing (and succeeding) in a Power 5 conference. For all we know, there may be some great future coaches on staff for the Cardinal, but it’s hard to argue that any of them are at the level of Oregon’s core, who’s least senior member has 18 years of coaching experience. Furthermore, all but one of the coaches on Oregon’s staff have coached at other destinations, with some coaches returning for a second stint in Eugene. Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost are the two least experienced offensive coaches for the Ducks, and they have the security to surround themselves with men who have seen and coached more football than them.
I hate getting into psychoanalysis of coaches and their character. I don’t know if Coach Shaw chose to open Cardinal Coaches’ Camp because he wanted “yes men,” as some have theorized. I know that regardless of his rationale for assembling this group, they’ve failed, and it’s hard not to identify the staggering lack of experience as a reason why. When you are the head man, you don’t have to be the guy with the answers. You just have to be the guy who knows the right answer when you hear it. You’re going to get the credit anyway, so why not surround yourself with the best available? Considering all the efforts the University has made to accommodate and retain quality assistants, why was Coach Shaw reluctant to execute a rigorous job search when replacing the coaches he had to replace?
This lack of experience has exposed an insecurity, and that insecurity has led to uncertainty since the team convened in Spring Ball. Day after day came report of the defense dominating the offense, a clear indicator that things were not right. Yes, we have a very good defense, but there should have been an understanding from the get-go that this group of players was not going to succeed in the same way as previous units. We needed an altered offensive identity, but nobody was certain as to what it should be. So the coaches chose a mixed bag of identities, which is the same as not choosing. We had no clear cut starter of our running backs, so they chose all of them. The offensive line needed an identity, but without any identity, their time was split practicing for essentially multiple offenses. The players have some skin in this mess as well, but that’s a topic for another piece. The bottom line is that Stanford has inexperienced coaches coaching an inexperienced offensive line and inexperienced running backs, and that has produced the worst offense in the conference.
The Oregon coaches are so compelling to me because despite the gigantic chasm in academic restrictions, the talent of the Oregon team is not vastly superior than that of Stanford’s. It’d be one thing if USC (the most talented roster in America, even with the scholarship restrictions) were dominating Stanford, but they have beaten Stanford by only a field goal the last two years. Oregon, a team with comparable talent, completely eviscerated Stanford on Saturday night. Also, the fact that the Duck coaches have been around means none of them were schooled in the Chipster’s Blur offense, because they’d been coaching for decades before it had been invented. They learned and adapted as old dogs. That’s a credit to them, Kelly, and Helfrich. Stanford’s coaches needed to be adaptable, and however one may want to divvy up the blame between Coach Shaw and the staff, they were not.
So moving forward, Coach Shaw has some very difficult choices to make looking ahead to 2015. This staff needs experience, and without Doc Brown’s DeLorean at his disposal, Coach Shaw has two choices: Bring in some experience, or wait for this group to accumulate it. In the short term, they’ve got two weeks to prepare for a rigorous close to the season, featuring three challenging teams and two more road games.
I’m grateful for this bye week, but it’s becoming painfully clear that a bye season may have been what was needed.
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