The move of Chip Kelly from the ranks of the college game into the NFL raises lots of questions from a variety of different perspectives. NFL fans want to know what kind of offense Chip will run, if his schemes translate to the next level, who his QB will be and if the fact that he's never once coached on an NFL sideline matters. College fans want to know if Chip was truly an innovator or if it was the scheme mixed with the athletes that propelled his offense to such audacious heights. Oregon fans, of course, want to know what happened between "I'm staying" and "see ya' later". Non-Oregon fans ... read that to mean fans of other P12 teams ... want to know whether or not coaching really matters and if Oregon will ultimately stand up to the ultimate test of whether or not their program is, indeed, "great". The answer to the last will begin to unfold before our very eyes over the next several weeks and months as the new Oregon coaching staff gels, as signing day passes, as the form and content of spring practices materialize and as the NCAA sorts out the answer to how sullied the compliance practices of the previous regime really were. All of this, of course, leads us to the question as to what the new pecking order in the P12N is likely to be and whether or not Oregon is the elite program at the top of our division that will dictate terms to the rest for years to come.
The short answer here is that I believe that we are about to learn that Oregon is not so much an elite program as much as Chip Kelly is an elite coach.
Oregon fans will deride me for my Husky bias (guilty) and point out that Oregon was on a significant upswing before Chip Kelly took over as head coach four seasons ago. They would, of course, be emphatically correct. However, the fundamental question here is whether or not Oregon has reached a level of "eliteness" in the way that Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Michigan, LSU, Texas and Oklahoma have reached similar status over time. Has the program climbed to such a perch that they have achieved a permanent "status advantage" among pollsters, benefactors, recruits, high school coaches, analysts and opposing coaches such that the expectation is that they will always be a conference and matchup favorite no matter what coach, what scheme and what players are on the field?.
The answer, I believe, is "No".
Or, more specifically, "Not Yet".
While the comments thread to follow this article will likely involve all sorts of interpretations of what "elite" means, I am opting to focus on the transcendent interpretations of the term. For Oregon to truly be "elite" in this sense, Chip Kelly's impact would have to additive to an existing portfolio of achievement and status. This is simply not the case. Consider that Oregon has been involved in six conference championships since the formation of the Pacific 8/10/12. Three of those belonged to Chip Kelly. Rich Brooks had one while Mike Belotti had one and shared another. Of course, Oregon won a handful of conference championships coming out of the old Pacific Coast Conference, but the mere fact that there was a 40 year gap between their last and Rich Brook's championship contributes the notion that Oregon has not been one that has long been sniffing the ranks of the elite.
One could make a defensible argument that Oregon is a "new elite" program, one that was born following the leveling of the competitive playing field among colleges and enabled by thoughtful leadership in terms of marketing, branding, facilities planning and fund raising (and perhaps the occasional recruiting violation). This argument implies that these stated factors are what propel greatness and are independent of whomever coaches the program. If this was so, then the greatness would have been evident prior to Chip and will continue beyond Chip. Does this notion hold water? Maybe. However, it is hard to say definitively because of how narrow the window of this upward trajectory has really been. Chip has been a part of the Oregon coaching staff since 2007. The record of the Ducks while he has been involved is a gaudy 65-14. In the six seasons preceding his arrival, all Mike Belotti years, the Ducks record was 48-26. Very good, but still averaging a little over four losses per season. Despite the fact that all the other advantages noted earlier were enjoyed during the Belotti watch, the elite results didn't materialize until Chip's arrival.
Ultimately, the greatness of a program will be built upon the greatness of its players. Outstanding coaches can take average players and get good results, take good players and get great results and take great players and win championship. The best of the best coaches can take good players and sniff championships. What kind of players did Bellotti leave Chip? What did he do with them? There are no easy ways to assess these questions, but an interesting case study is that of Dennis Dixon - the Oregon QB who started for the Ducks both before and after Chip's arrival in 2007. Prior to Chip's arrival, Dennis was a middling performer on the field. As a junior starter, he completed just over 60% of his passes, hit for 12 TDs and 14 INTs and had a passer rating of 120. He also rushed for 440 yards and 2 TDs. His numbers were somewhat pedestrian and he was benched for three games in favor of the immortal Brady Leaf. The Ducks would score 383 points that year on their way to a 7-6 record. One season later, with Chip Kelly at the helm of the offense, Dennis Dixon was leading an offense that would score 496 points and was contributing with a 68% completion percentage, 20 TDs, 4 INTs, a 160 passer rating, 550 yards and 9 TDs rushing. It was a remarkable turnaround for a player that had rather average skills for a P12 QB. Chip would go on and replicate that success with guys like Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas ... guys who, quite frankly, would not be P12 QBs for many other teams much less trigger men for some of the most prolific offensive teams in the CFB universe. Chip took average-to-good players and put them in positions to sniff national championships. This is a sign of elite coaching at work.
Of course, Chip leaves behind a stable of players much better than what he inherited, and this is where the uncertainty comes to our analysis. Mark Helfich will step in and attempt to pick up with Chip left off. He will be inheriting a number of NFL caliber talents, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. But he will also be inheriting guys who may or may not flourish under him as they did under Chip Kelly. Much of this depends on how Helfich decides to use them and this is a question without a firm answer. Duck fans are quick to assume that Helfich will "continue the system", but to this point, I'm not so sure. Chip Kelly, himself, will tell you that he never ran the same system two years in a row when he was answering questions at his Philadelphia presser. While I think that this is somewhat overstated coach speak, I take him at face value in his assertion that schemes have to be tweaked year to year in order to conform to the personnel. This responsibility is no longer Chip's - Helfich will be doing the tweaking henceforth. Furthermore, we have another challenge to continuity and it lies in what the new head coach is capable of doing. Unlike Chip did while he was offensive coordinator, Helfich never called plays at Oregon. The truth is, we don't even know if he will call plays going forward. If he does, his background at Boise State and Arizona State tells us that, as a disciple of Dirk Koetter, he is a pass oriented mind who is known to be an outstanding mentor to QBs. Will the Helfrich be a Chip clone or does he plan on making the job his own by putting his own stamp on the offensive playbook? Is he even capable of calling a game like Chip did even if he wanted to? History would seem to indicate that coaches tend to want to be known as more than a caretaker for other people's legacies. Such is the tendency of leaders and such is my expectation for the next head coach of Oregon.
My bet is that the Oregon offense will morph into something that blends Dirk Koetter tendencies with Chip Kelly philosophies. This evolution will no doubt put pressure on guys who were perfect fits for Chip Kelly to adjust to what Mark Helfich will want to grow his program into. There will no doubt be guys who flourish. For example, Marcus Mariota is surely going to benefit from being less a Chip guy and more of a Helfich guy assuming that more traditional pocket passing gets introduced into the offense. But others may not. The ability of the program to quickly reload, recalibrate and replicate the successes that Chip Kelly achieved are what will be the ultimate measure of how "elite" Oregon will ever become. Right now, all we can say is that Chip Kelly demonstrated himself to be a truly elite coach, taking a good team and making them unquestionably great in a conference that lacked a true elite challenger for much of the era. The new coach will be challenged to navigate the challenges of rebuilding programs, looming sanctions, recruiting disruptions and the implementation of his own philosophy changes (whether they be great or small) as he tries to advance along the set trajectory. Any way you slice it, this is a new Pac 12 North and the threshold of "eliteness" is still waiting for Oregon to cross.