Tag Archives: Chip Kelly

Tangled up in Ducks

BOULDER — When Mark Helfrich left Dan Hawkins’ football staff at the University of Colorado following the 2008 season to join Chip Kelly’s staff at the University of Oregon, there was speculation he was frustrated by a bad offense he was powerless to change.

Nobody said anything on the record, of course, because this dance is well-rehearsed by now and it’s all agreed: Every former employer was awesome and every future employer is providing a cherished opportunity.

Like many of the issues surrounding the CU program at the time, this one had to do with Hawkins and his desire to have his son, Cody, play quarterback. Helfrich knew where major college football offenses were going, and Cody Hawkins, a wonderful kid and mediocre football player, was not it.

Three years earlier, Hawkins made Helfrich the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I football. (I don’t use the initials that replaced the divisions because I don’t know what they mean and you don’t either.) Helfrich was 32 when Hawkins persuaded him to leave Arizona State, where he was quarterbacks coach, to become CU’s offensive coordinator.

Helfrich was a protege of Dirk Koetter, who had been offensive coordinator at Oregon when Helfrich was a graduate assistant. When Koetter got the head job at Boise State, he brought Helfrich with him to coach quarterbacks. When Koetter moved on to Arizona State, again Helfrich moved with him. But the opportunity to be a coordinator in a major conference at 32 was quite rare, and Hawkins had followed Koetter at Boise State, so it was all in the family.

Unfortunately, it was a little too all in the family during the Hawkins era at CU. It was probably true that the younger Hawkins was the best quarterback on the roster, but that was a sad rationale. A coach looking for a bigger, stronger, faster or more athletic quarterback would have been more aggressive than the elder Hawkins in recruiting competition.

Helfrich had already worked with some pretty good quarterbacks — Bart Hendricks at Boise State and Andrew Walter at Arizona State — and it is not hard to believe that he could see, like most people, how limited the upside was on Cody Hawkins and any offense built around him.

In fact, it’s possible Helfrich saw something of himself in the younger Hawkins, and that this insight helped him see Cody was in over his head. An Oregon native, Helfrich was a small but accomplished high school quarterback who chose Southern Oregon and a prodigious NAIA career over an offer to walk on at Oregon, where he knew he probably would have spent his career on the bench.

So Helfrich’s choice in 2009 was to continue coordinating a bad Colorado offense that was hard to improve given the limitations at the most important position, or move back to Oregon and work under Kelly, an offensive coordinator of such repute that Oregon reportedly kicked head coach Mike Bellotti upstairs to create the head coaching vacancy Kelly craved.

As a newly-minted head coach, Kelly wanted Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. And he wanted to do lots of interesting, innovative things. For Helfrich, it probably wasn’t that tough a call. He thanked Hawkins, packed his bags and went home.

Kelly moved on to the NFL this season. He’s the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were just pulverized by the Broncos to drop to 1-3, but that’s another story. Kelly reportedly lobbied for Helfrich to succeed him. He may not have needed to. The OC moving up is an Oregon tradition, dating back to Bellotti under Rich Brooks.

So, in the year he turns 40 (later this month), Helfrich ascended to one of the best jobs in college football — head coach at Oregon. He is in charge of a program that will have no financial restraints so long as Phil Knight is alive. He is part of a tradition of innovative offensive football. Each of the Ducks’ last three coaches — Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich — was the offensive coordinator under his predecessor.

A year ago, Helfrich was in his fourth and final season as Kelly’s coordinator when the Ducks beat CU 70-14 in Eugene, a game not as close as the score might indicate. It was 56-0 at halftime.

Saturday, the Ducks came to Boulder and beat the Buffs 57-16. From a purely arithmetic point of view, that’s about 15 points of progress for the Buffs. They even led for a minute. Actually, a minute and 49 seconds on the game clock the first time, a minute and 34 seconds the second and final time. Oregon does everything fast.

The Ducks demonstrated yet again how important the whole quarterback thing is. Helfrich called his guy, sophomore Marcus Mariota, “a stud,” which is exactly right. If you were going to build an elite college quarterback from scratch, you would build a 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound athlete with a rocket arm, runner’s legs and a brain that figures out really fast when it’s time for which. Oh, and you might give him some Samoan blood, given the disproportionate number of great football players that tiny island and its descendants have produced.

“He’s such a great person, first and foremost, and then he’s, oh, by the way, an incredible football player,” Helfrich said. “The stuff he does in practice, we look at each other and kind of shake our head. And that shows up in games. That’s the neat part about him, about (running back) De’Anthony (Thomas), about some of our best defensive players, is they’re great practice players. Not good practice players, but great practice players. And that’s infectious.

“Physically, he’s very gifted. Obviously, his size, his speed, his release, his timing, his knowledge, he’s a smart guy, he’s a tough guy. Is that enough? He’s a superlative machine.”

The Buffs, on the other hand, are trying to preserve yet another redshirt year. Last year, you might remember, it was not worth burning Shane Dillon’s redshirt year on a lost season. Dillon is no longer with the program. In fact, his experience at CU so turned him off to football he now wants to play basketball. In retrospect, it might have been worth burning his redshirt year to see if he could improve on the most dreadful season CU football has seen.

This year, it is not worth burning Sefo Liufau’s redshirt year. Liufau is the prized first-year recruit of CU coach Mike MacIntyre, a 6-4, 215-pound high school star of, yes, Samoan descent.

For a minute there, before CU began its conference schedule, it looked as if junior Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas during the short-lived Jon Embree era, could bridge the gap adequately.

But Wood was not good Saturday, and he suffered in comparison to Mariota, who was sensational. The respective stat lines are a close enough approximation. Mariota completed 16 of 27 passes for 355 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also carried seven times for 49 yards and two touchdowns. His afternoon was finished before the fourth quarter began. Wood completed 11 of 33 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His net rushing yardage was minus 8.

Granted, there are talent gaps between these rosters at many positions, but in Paul Richardson the Buffs have one of the most talented receivers in the country, so it’s not as if Wood has no weapons. At some point, the excuses have to stop.

The performance at quarterback was the key difference in the game, and allowed Oregon to turn it into a blowout as quickly as it did. The Buffs’ defense gave them a chance even after MacIntyre elected to begin the game with an onside kick. Granted, you need some wrinkles if you’re going to beat the Ducks, but giving Mariota the ball at midfield to start the game might be out-thinking yourself.

Nevertheless, CU forced a three-and-out and Wood drove the offense into field goal range — the big play a 55-yard pass to Richardson — and a short-lived 3-0 lead. One minute, 49 seconds later by the game clock, Mariota scored the first of his seven touchdowns — two rushing, five passing. The Buffs responded with a beautifully conceived option pass off a reverse, in which Richardson, split wide left, came in motion to the right, took a pitch from running back Michael Adkins and lofted a pass to a wide-open D.D. Goodson in the right flat, who rambled 75 yards to give CU a 10-8 lead.

This was the first time this season an opponent led Oregon twice. So that’s something. But not much. By the end of the first quarter, the Ducks led 29-10. At halftime, it was 43-16. In the Oregon locker room, they were not happy.

“We kind of challenged them at halftime,” Helfrich said. “Other than the scoreboard, we didn’t play our way in the first half, and who knows (why) that is. I don’t know if it’s altitude or thinking about something else or whatever it may have been, we responded well, and that’s encouraging.”

Oregon shut down the CU offense in the second half, and for the first time this season, MacIntyre’s team looked nearly as helpless as Embree’s team of a year ago. MacIntyre said he saw improvement in Wood from the week before at Oregon State and you can only hope he said that because he has to. If Wood doesn’t improve a lot more, and soon, CU will have to decide whether it is willing to be the Pac-12’s punch line for yet another season in the interest of some prospective four-year career that may or may not work out as planned.

Meanwhile, Oregon is rolling, averaging almost 60 points a game, giving up fewer than 12. I asked Helfrich if his team is where he wants it to be.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re 5-0, and that’s our best statistic. We haven’t played remotely to what we can in any phase in any game. So that’s encouraging. The guys that we have on this team know that. They’re excited to get better and excited to come to work and get ready on Monday.”

If anybody in the CU administration really wants to know what has happened to the program since Hawkins was hired in 2006, he or she should place a call to Helfrich and find out how the program lost one of the most impressive young coaches in the game today.

Maybe he would have gone home anyway. That would certainly be the movie-of-the-week narrative. But Helfrich had already demonstrated a coach’s nomadic instinct for the best way forward, moving from Eugene to Boise to Tempe to Boulder. Maybe Hawkins’ nepotism is part of the answer. Maybe there were other factors.

Helfrich’s decision to go back to Oregon and Saturday’s game have one thing in common: The Ducks had a much better quarterback than the Buffs both times. So long as CU is willing to live with this, its football program will not appear on any map.

Broncos on historic roll

Chip Kelly wanted to revolutionize the National Football League by picking up the pace, wearing opponents down and blowing them out, the way he did in the Pac-12. In his fourth game as an NFL head coach, he got to see a team do it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his team.

Somebody told Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning that 52 points was a franchise record and Manning expressed concern for the team’s Arabian gelding mascot.

“I did not know that,” he said. “May have to give ol’ Thunder an IV after this one.”

George Will once complained that football combined America’s worst characteristics: violence and committee meetings. The Broncos and Eagles mostly eliminated the committee meetings Sunday at Mile High, leaving defenders on both sides gasping for thin air.

“I’ll tell you, I don’t know if I’ve ever been that tired, as I was in the first and second quarter,” Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said.

The Broncos don’t huddle up much either, but they take their time snapping the ball as Manning surveys the defense and checks off to another play, or pretends to check off to another play, or pretends to pretend to check off to another play. The result is almost always the right call to counter the defense presented and a frighteningly high level of execution. Manning completed more than 80 percent of his passes Sunday. This has a longer-term effect, which Kelly’s team displayed in the second half, when it became Manning’s chew toy.

“He’s just another offensive coordinator on the field,” Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said. “If he doesn’t like it, he just checks to what he wants.”

Through the first quarter of the NFL season, the Broncos’ offense has operated like a sports car. It’s a little temperamental, occasionally sputtering or stalling, but when it starts to roar, it blows everybody away.

On the other hand, it’s early, the weather’s been great and they haven’t played a top-10 defense yet, at least by the rankings going into Week 4.

After a competitive first half, the Broncos led the Eagles — one of the worst defenses in the league so far — by a 21-13 score. Both offenses looked potent, but the Eagles made a lot of mistakes — penalties and dropped passes, what Kelly calls SIWs (self-inflicted wounds) — and the Broncos didn’t.

When Manning & Co. came out of the locker room after intermission, they drove 80, 80 and 65 yards for touchdowns, never requiring so much as a third-down snap. By the time the period was over, the score was 42-13 and the Broncos had their fourth blowout in four games. Manning put up another double-take stat line — 28 of 34 (82 percent) for 327 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 146.0.

“We felt really motivated to score points against these guys,” he explained. “You saw their offense. They are capable of scoring points. Our defense did a heck of a job answering their challenge. We were motivated to be on top of our game offensively, to score points — touchdowns, not field goals.”

Records tremble and fall:

— Manning broke the NFL mark for most touchdown passes in a season’s first four games with his third TD pass of the day — his second to Demaryius Thomas — and extended the fresh record to 16 with his fourth, the second of the day to Wes Welker.

— Manning’s streak of touchdown passes without an interception to open a season reached 16, a feat last accomplished by Milt Plum in 1960. The difference is it took Plum 10 games. I asked Manning if the name rang a bell. He acknowledged a quick briefing from Patrick Smyth, the Broncos’ media relations director.

“Patrick gave me a little bio,” Manning said. “I did know he played for the Browns. He gave me his college — Penn State. I’m throwing 16 out as a number — is that right?”

It is.

“OK,” Manning said. “My brother Cooper and I used to play a lot of trivia when we used to take road trips with my dad, so Cooper would be proud that I knew Milt Plum.”

— The Broncos won their 15th straight regular-season game, breaking the franchise record of 14, established in the championship seasons of 1997 and ’98.

— Their 52 points was a franchise best, eclipsing the 50 they piled on the Chargers 50 years ago.

— Their 179 points through four games is second only to the 1966 Dallas Cowboys, who scored 183. Watch out: Those Cowboys scored only 10 in Week 5.

— Welker became the only receiver in the league with at least one touchdown catch in each of his first four games. Tight end Jimmy Graham of New Orleans has a chance to join him Monday night. Welker now has six touchdown catches, the same number he had all last season with the Patriots.

People are running out of superlatives. This is the best stretch of offensive football — the most explosive, the most methodical, the least error-prone — many of us have ever seen.

“You get worn down a little bit,” Kelly admitted, experiencing the feeling he gave other teams so often while he was at the University of Oregon.

Somebody asked him if his defense playing pancake to the Broncos’ steamroller was disconcerting.

“I think it is disconcerting, but you’re also playing against an offense that four teams have tried to stop them and they haven’t yet,” he said. “I don’t have an answer. Is it disconcerting? Yeah, it is disconcerting to not be able to get teams to third down.”

Somebody else asked if he noticed how good Manning was.

“I think you have an appreciation, but I wasn’t sitting there saying, ‘Hey, that was a really cool play by Peyton.’ He frustrates you. Maybe at the end of the season we’ll go back and break down the Broncos tape and kind of look at what he does. But when you talk about the great quarterbacks in the history of the game — there’s been a lot of them — but I think he’s right up there with the best that have ever played, and he’s proving that right now. I know he’s setting records for the start of a season. He’s a great football player.”

Sunday’s steamroller was especially impressive because Manning & Co. barely saw the ball in the early going. They drove to a touchdown the first time they had it, then sat and watched for the rest of the first quarter. That wasn’t all bad. After the Eagles countered that first touchdown with a field goal, Trindon Holliday took the ensuing kickoff 105 yards, tying a franchise record he set last year, for another Broncos special teams touchdown.

The Eagles responded with another long drive, again settling for a field goal. By the time the Broncos offense snapped the ball again, it was the second quarter. It went three-and-out in what Manning called their worst series.

“Holliday’s return was great, but it does keep us off the field, and for whatever reason, we weren’t as sharp on that series after that lull, when we needed to be,” he said.

So, on their next possession, following an Eagles touchdown that closed the gap to 14-13, Manning drove the Broncos 80 yards in 11 plays, foreshadowing the third quarter by never requiring a third down. The variety of the offense was on display. Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman ran the ball. Manning completed passes to Hillman, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Virgil Green. Moreno scored the touchdown on the ground.

Up 21-13 with a little more than 2 minutes remaining in the first half, Manning found himself in a second-and-12 on his own 8-yard line. After multiple neck surgeries, at age 37, he isn’t given much credit for throwing the deep ball anymore. So he launched a 52-yard strike over the top to Decker.

“The one at the end of the first half, luckily it didn’t come back to hurt us, but we’re in a three-deep coverage,” Kelly said. “You hope you don’t get a post route thrown on you in three-deep coverage.”

Manning placed the ball perfectly after overthrowing Decker on another deep route earlier by maybe six inches (Manning estimated the overthrow at “an inch long”).

For one of the few times all day, the Eagles prevented the Broncos from scoring on that final drive of the first half. But that just made Manning more determined, setting the stage for a Vulcan-like third quarter in which he deconstructed the Eagles defense like a pathologist.

Somebody asked Kelly if teams can lose their spirit at the NFL level.

“I think it can happen at any level,” he said.

That’s what the Broncos are doing so far — not just beating opponents but demoralizing them. Special teams specialist Steven Johnson’s blocked punt and return was the Broncos’ third special teams touchdown of the season, and that’s not counting David Bruton’s blocked punt against the Ravens to set up another.

“They were well-prepared, they were well-coached, they went out and executed and made more plays than we were able to make, and that’s the bottom line,” said Eagles defensive back Cary Williams.

Williams, who played for the Ravens when they upset the Broncos in the playoffs last year, was asked how best to thwart Manning.

“You have to have great communication in the secondary and you need to be able to make plays,” he said. “We just didn’t make plays today.”

Manning played down the growing chorus of hosannahs and stuck to his one-game-at-a-time mantra. While it’s a joy to watch and celebrate his early-season virtuosity, it is worth remembering that the first quarter of the season provides the most pristine environmental conditions and is therefore most accommodating to a precision passing game.

As the weather changes, assuming it does, the offense is likely to get less pretty. Still, one wonders how the oddsmakers will come up with a line for the Jaguars-Broncos game here in two weeks. The Jags are not only 0-4, they’ve been outscored 129-31. The NFL might need a mercy rule.

But first, the Broncos have a trip to Dallas. Manning was already worrying about what Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, might have in store. By the time the snow flies, the Broncos will have plenty of time to demonstrate whether they have an offense for the ages, or just for the late summer.

The 4-0 start is auspicious for more than its gaudy offensive numbers. The franchise has won the first four games in five previous seasons and went to the Super Bowl after four of them. The only time they didn’t was when they started 6-0 under Josh McDaniels four years ago and finished 8-8, missing the playoffs.

For now, it’s quite a show, this NFL offense with a multitude of talented weapons and a quarterback who always knows the right thing to do and almost always does it. Nobody’s perfect, of course. But tell you what. So far, he’s close.