First in a three-part series examining the fallout, potential impact and realities regarding Oregon's football program following a 9-4 season, the Ducks' worst since 2007. Part 1 looks at how the blame game surrounding the program could be a dangerous one to play.
An Oregon football fan approached me early Sunday morning while I sat in the Dallas airport on my way back from the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio the night before.
We briefly discussed Oregon's spectacular meltdown. How the Ducks amazingly turned a 31-0 halftime lead over TCU into a 47-41 triple overtime loss. Then the fan said the following:
"It will be interesting to see what happens. It seems like the bar has been raised for the program."
Having not slept all night -save for 30 minutes on the short flight from San Antonio to Dallas, - I resisted the impulse to debate such a pretentious declaration.
I had my fill of attempting to talk sense into shamefully elitist Oregon fans the night before on Twitter. I pretty much ignored a text message from a booster following the game that simply read, "HEADS. WILL. ROLL."
Clearly, some members of Oregon's fan base (not all, some) have lost their way. We are not even a year removed from the Ducks' appearance in the 2015 national title game yet the bitterness in some circle over a "down" season is palpable.
What they don't get is that this is just the beginning.
Expectations were artificially raised for the program's future by an era that is soon to be in the rear view mirror because of the natural evolution of the game. The calling card of the program, the "blur offense," is losing its potency. The rest of the Pac-12 has caught up. The Ducks are no longer as intimidating.
So if you're having trouble handling this season, invest in therapy insurance now. You're going to need plenty of couch time in the coming years.
The irony of how Saturday's loss played out shouldn't be lost on anyone. Consider that during that second half debacle against TCU, it was the Horned Frogs who used an up-tempo scheme similar to Oregon's to bludgeon the Ducks, who had no answer.
The results were symbolic of how much has changed since Oregon's first trip to the national title game following the 2010 season.
It's why believing the program is above having down years, seeking to place blame and even expecting that another coach or coaching staff could be the answer is more of a sign of desperation than reality.
Oregon has re-entered an era of being good, but not great. A program that will have ups and downs, rather than one that constantly thrives to the point where 9-4 could be viewed as being below an imaginary and artificial bar for success.
That leads us to Part 1...
-- Blame game a dangerous one to play --
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich demoted defensive coordinator Don Pellum two days after the Alamo Bowl.
It could be that Pellum, who returned to linebackers, is okay with the move. He has not been made available for comment.
But he did appear shocked following Saturday's game to hear that during the previous day's press conference, Helfrich had evaded the question about his defensive coordinator's future. At the very least, as of Saturday, Pellum didn't believe his position was on the line.
The question is, should it have been?
The defense played pitifully this season, ranking 115th in the nation in yards allowed (481.5 per game) and 113th in scoring defense (37.5 per game). But in 2014, the season that saw UO reach its second national title game, the Ducks allowed just 23.6 points per game while facing a daunting schedule.
Included were dominant performances over Arizona in the Pac-12 title game (51-13) and Florida State in the Rose Bowl (59-20).
Helfrich electing to go in a different direction is in essence blaming Pellum for the defense's poor season in 2014.
But is that completely fair? Is a double standard afoot? Because, if not for a savior, Oregon's offense would have performed worse than the defense. Yet, nobody on that side of the ball paid the price for that reality.
In the same press conference Helfrich evaded a question about Pellum, the head coach promoted Matt Lubick from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator despite him never having called a play in his career.
Lubick's first outing included a half of football against TCU in which the Ducks gained just 19 net yards on 18 plays.
Clearly, the main problems stemmed from frequent bad snaps from backup center Doug Brenner, and the poor play of backup quarterback Jeff Lockie.
They replaced injured center Matt Hegarty and starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. Both, by the way, were graduate transfers brought in this season to fill deep holes left by the graduation of quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu, both now in the NFL.
Oregon's offense is as much, if not more, to blame for the Alamo Bowl loss as the defense. Yet Helfrich doesn't appear to be rethinking Lubick's position following what might have been the worse half of football ever delivered by the Ducks.
Instead, Lubick is afforded the excuse of not having his center and quarterback for the second half. But why wasn't Pellum given the same benefit of the doubt when he was saddled all season with a young and battered defensive secondary that struggled to cover and tackle much of the season? Or, when late losses to Washington State and TCU clearly would have been prevented with at least marginally decent effort by the offense?
Again, it's not as if Pellum has never proven he could be successful with better talent and experience in place. He has. Oregon allowed 35 touchdown passes this season compared to 21 last season.
Pellum was not afforded two graduate transfer defensive backs to help sure up that group and look at what happened.
Now let's imagine where the Ducks' offense would have been this season minus Adams.
If not for the graduate transfer rule, and Adams' desire to move from Eastern Washington to Oregon, it's fair to say Oregon would have gone 5-7 at best this season.
UO went 2-2 in four games without Adams (broken finger) with wins over Georgia State and Colorado. Adams played little during a 62-20 loss to Utah, and entirely missed the team's double-overtime loss to Washington State, a game that ultimately cost the team a trip to the Pac-12 title game, by the way.
So, whose fault is it that Oregon's quarterbacking situation became so dismal?
That blame would fall on Helfrich, former offensive coordinator Scott Frost, and to some extent, former coach Chip Kelly, who oversaw recruiting in 2012 and for most the assembling of the 2013 class.
All three failed miserably to identify, recruit and develop a future replacement for Mariota.
Their collective failures exceed Pellum's, in my opinion. But Adams saved their bacon. Until he didn't. In the end, by leaving the Alamo Bowl with a concussion in the second half, he reminded everyone just how badly of a job the aforementioned coaches did in handling the quarterback situation.
Yet Pellum is the one demoted. Lubick, after a hideous half in the Alamo Bowl, will be offensive coordinator next season. Frost has a $1.7 million annual gig as the head coach at Central Florida. Helfirch remains head coach at Oregon.
But there's more. Oregon has so botched the recruiting of quarterbacks that the Ducks have been forced to sign another graduate transfer, Dakota Prukop out of Montana State, to start in 2016. Once again, the offense gets a savior.
We're not done. Former four-star quarterback Morgan Mahalak, recruited by Frost in 2014, is seeking to transfer after spending last season on scout team despite the problems displayed by Lockie and walk-on Taylor Alie.
Yes, things become so desperate that Oregon, the home of Fouts, Miller, Musgrave, Smith, Harrington, Clemens, Smith, Dixon, Thomas and Mariota, turned to a walk-on quarterback over a recent four-star recruit.
If Mahalak leaves, the Ducks best hope for 2017 will be freshman Travis Jonsen, who redshirted in 2015. If he is not ready by 2017, or if both incoming three-star recruits don't set the field on fire, the Ducks could be back on the trail of a graduate transfer quarterback yet again.
In that scenario, the combination of Helfrich and Frost would have failed in recruiting and developing a quarterback in the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes (although Jonsen would still have a chance to be ready by 2018).
Yes, Pellum got screwed.
The blame game usually rolls downhill until eventually it reverses field and runs up hill. Helfrich has now set the precedent that one bad season, even a year removed from the greatest season in program history, is enough to result in the loss of title.
To be fair, it could be that Pellum no longer wants to be defensive coordinator. Too much pressure. It could also be that he and the staff failed to identify issues that could have been corrected. Maybe a more seasoned defensive coordinator would have found a way to fix the defense.
Maybe Helfrich received pressure from elsewhere to make a change. ("HEADS. WILL ROLL.")
It could simply be that Pellum deserved to be demoted. But if he did, then so did others. And if one isn't safe from the blame game, none of them are.
What we do know is that there were plenty of issues surrounding the Ducks in 2015. Some were successfully masked. Others were not.
But only one guy took a hit.
Next up: Part 2 - Football 'machine' not bigger than people involved, as seen with basketball.