By Bruce Hooley
The most interesting college football game of the weekend for Browns fans might not be Ohio State’s trip to Wisconsin, where the Buckeyes hope to remain unbeaten in advance of the season finale next Saturday against visiting Michigan.
Even for those Browns Backers whose loyalties cross over to OSU, the game of greatest consequence could be Stanford’s matchup against No. 1 Oregon.
What results from the 8 p.m. kickoff at Autzen Stadium in Eugene (ABC-TV) will provide another piece of evidence in the debate over whether Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s point-a-minute offense would translate to the NFL – or more specifically, the Browns.
Oregon’s offensive statistics are so staggering they make Madden numbers look like the Browns’ inept attack of a year ago.
Kelly’s “Quack Attack” averages 54.8 points this season and has produced 42 or more points in 13 straight games, including 11 games of 49 or more points. That’s the longest streak of 40-plus points by any team in the BCS era, dating to the 1998 college season.
Over the last three years, Oregon has gone 34-3, winning 32 times by 10 points or more and 24 times by 20 points or more.
In the habit of grabbing a sandwich when the Browns take the field for the start of a possession? If Kelly comes to Cleveland, you best quit doing that, since 40 of Oregon’s 71 touchdown “drives” this season have lasted less than two minutes, and 21 have taken 60 seconds or less.
Not surprisingly, Oregon ranks 99th among 120 Division I teams in time of possession, averaging 28 minutes per-game. Could an NFL defense hold up if its offense forced it to play so many snaps? Of course, if the offense scored like Oregon’s. But if not, there could be trouble.
“We’ve lost time of possession in almost every game we’ve played,” Kelly said this week. “(We’ve lost it) a lot. Two years ago, we played UCLA. They ran 73 snaps; we ran 71 snaps. They had the ball for 40 minutes; we had the ball for 20 minutes. We won, 60-13. We don’t look at that stat. Time of possession means absolutely nothing to this operation.”
Kelly is correct in that most of the time, who has the ball the longest doesn’t matter. But in the four years he’s been the Ducks’ head coach, all six of his losses have come in games where the opponent has compiled a huge time of possession advantage, including six minutes by Auburn in the 2011 BCS National Championship game and Ohio State’s whopping 42-minute chunk of the clock to Oregon’s 18 minutes in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
In the NFL this season, the significance of time of possession is mixed. Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Chicago and Atlanta rank 1-5 in that category, so it seems pretty significant. But Kansas City (9), Philadelphia (11) and Washington (12) all rank ahead of New England (13), Green Bay (16), the Giants (17) and Tampa Bay (18), so perhaps it really doesn’t matter.
Kelly has been getting credit for an off-season meeting with Patriots coach Bill Belichick that supposedly added juice to New England’s no-huddle offense and introduced some spread schemes borrowed from Oregon’s playbook.
"I was interested to hear how (Kelly) did it," Belichick told the Boston Globe in October. “I would say he expanded it to a different level and it was very interesting to understand what he was doing. Certainly I've learned a lot from talking to Chip about his experiences with it and how he does it and his procedure and all that.”
New England indeed converted to the same one-word play calls in the no-huddle that Oregon uses, but beyond that Kelly said he gained more from talking to Belichick than he imparted to the three-time Super Bowl winner.
Oregon runs the no-huddle throughout the game and practices at a tempo seldom seen at any level. One league executive told NFL.com, "(Kelly) runs the best practices I've ever seen. I would hire him in a second if I ever had the opportunity."
Others are skeptical of Kelly’s system that exposes his quarterback on Zone Read runs.
One unidentified NFL general manager told NFL.com’s Adam Schein, “I'd be scared of Kelly. Does he understand the pro game? (Former Redskins coach Steve) Spurrier had no idea. (Kelly) would not be my first choice, but I'd interview him."
But another GM told Schein, “Kelly is innovative enough to do it. He's a bright guy. I think he would understand the hierarchy in the NFL."
Former NFL linebacker and ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman has doubts about Kelly’s system transferring as is.
“Are you going to let an NFL defense hit your quarterback like Oregon’s gets hit running the Zone Read?” Spielman said. “I don’t think that’s going to work. There’s no way your quarterback is going to last the year if that happens.
“We reached the NFC Championship game one year in Detroit with the Run-and-Shoot. The next year, we went 5-11. Defenses adjust in the NFL. The Wildcat worked for about a year. Now, not so much.”
Is there another way for Kelly to spring big plays without a defense worrying about the potential for his quarterback to run? We won’t know until he gets to the NFL and is likely forced to protect his quarterback more than he does now.
What’s indisputable is the explosiveness Oregon possesses when teaming a dual-threat quarterback with an array of talented rushers and receivers.
The Ducks had 69 plays which gained 25 yards or more in 2011 and have 37 such plays this season, 14 of which have gone for touchdowns.
But Kelly’s contrarian ways go beyond how he schemes his Xs and Os. He is a convert to a Moneyball metric of sorts, believing the mathematics favor him routinely going for it on fourth down, occasionally on-side kicking and lining up a point-after-touchdown formation that sometimes prompts Oregon to go for two points even on its first touchdown of the game.
If any current NFL coach tried that, they’d fit him for a straightjacket, given the conventional wisdom of punting on every fourth down outside an opponent’s 40-yard line and going for two or on-side kicking only in the throes of late-game, clock-induced desperation.
Kelly could prove a visionary destined to turn the NFL on its ear, or he might be a crank whose foray into professional football would be a spectacular, flaming failure.
The only way to know is to hire him and give him free rein, which Tampa Bay tried to do this past off-season before Kelly declined the offer to complete “unfinished business” at Oregon.
He’s in position to finish that business with a win over Stanford, arch-rival Oregon State on the road next week, the UCLA-USC winner in the Pac 12 championship and whoever else might survive to reach the BCS title game.
Then, presumably, Kelly would be off to the NFL….maybe even to 76 Lou Groza Blvd. if/when new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam drops the axe on Pat Shurmur.
Oregon is a 20.5-point favorite after ripping Stanford for over 1,000 yards and 100 points the past two years. Against everyone else in those Andrew Luck-led seasons, Stanford went 23-1, allowing just 17 points per-game. Against Oregon, Stanford got ripped, 53-30 and 52-31.
So why might tomorrow’s matchup be any different? And what should Browns fans look for in judging whether Kelly’s offense is NFL-ready?
Keep your eye on the line of scrimmage, where Stanford ranks among the nation’s best in controlling movement by its opponent’s offensive line.
Stanford linebackers Trent Murphy (6-5, 261), Chase Thomas (6-4, 245) and Shayne Skov (6-3, 243) are all likely to be taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. They may have the ability to control Oregon up front and keep the Ducks from getting into the secondary to exploit their speed advantage.
Some opponents have done that for a quarter or a half, but Oregon always seems to find an answer that eventually unleashes the hounds on another runaway.
The same might happen against Stanford. If it does, Kelly still won’t have proven his offense could similarly expose an NFL defense with fast and ferocious tacklers at every level.
But if his Ducks rout Stanford again, the buzz about Kelly is only destined to grow.
Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”
Email Bruce firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz
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