The Specialists

The University of Oregon has won plenty with teams led by "system quarterbacks" without NFL futures. But what have those quarterbacks gotten from the experience?
Share |

Finished in 2010 and funded by a $41.7 million gift from Phil Knight, the John E. Jaqua Academic Center rises from a reflecting pool like the pyramid of the Louvre, a monument to student-athletes gilding a busy Eugene, Oregon thoroughfare. This past August, the unveiling of the University of Oregon’s latest uniform prototype—a Chain Maille Mesh design touted by Nike as “pinnacle performance innovation”—drew hype from ESPN, CBS, and Sports Illustrated. Last Saturday, a sellout crowd rocked the revamped Autzen Stadium as freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Oregon offense hung a 50 on the scoreboard with 7:06 remaining in the secondquarter.

Meanwhile, former Duck signal-callers kick off the 2012 season in professional obscurity: Dennis Dixon is mulling an offer from the Sacramento Mountain Lions (UFL), Jeremiah Masoli is riding the injured-list of the Edmonton Eskimos (CFL), and—following failed NFL workouts in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Arizona—Rose Bowl-winning QB Darron Thomas stares down his rookie-season from the ranks of the unemployed.

System quarterbacks. Chip Kelly’s high-flying Spread Offense is hardly the first scheme to control for imbalances in size and talent by employing specialized role-players, and no shortage of record-shattering collegians produced diminishing professional returns. Some cashed-in (Houston Run and Shoot busts Andre Ware and David Klingler), some didn’t (Nebraska Power Option mainstays Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch), and some could still go either way (Nevada Pistol-eer Colin Kaepernick and Texas Tech Air-Raider Graham Harrell).

College coaches earn their contracts by fielding competitive teams and recruiting players who fit their systems, not by producing draft-worthy pros. But there’s a difference in Oregon—a difference of about $14 billion separates Kelly’s Big Green from system-driven programs in Houston or Reno. Nike founder Phil Knight’s net worth has capitalized Duck football with both a Fortune 500 infrastructure and the commensurate top-down hierarchy. 

“The tempo is unique,” Jon Gruden told the New York Times in 2010, speaking of Chip Kelly’s legendary go-go-go practices, adding that “he had never seen an operation that was both this fast and this refined.”

Ceded the coach’s headset in 2009, Kelly adopted the winning culture instilled by Mike Bellotti and adapted the existing systems with an efficiency expert’s eye: shaving drills from five minutes to three, eliminating excess plays, and minimizing team risk through an emphasis on interchangeability rather than a focus on key individuals. Kelly also displayed a consultant’s taste for chunk-style jargon. “The practice field is not where we talk,” Kelly said in a 2009 Nike Coaches Clinic. “It is where we do the skills.”

The results, though, were the opposite of PowerPoint dryness--not just back-to-back-to-back BCS appearances and a regular slot in the top five for total offense, but some of the most exhilarating, flat-out thrilling football on either side of Sunday. This has meant the unflappable Darron Thomas, rallying his squad into formation after a failed down and snapping off the identicalplay for breakaway yardage; Jeremiah Masoli at the goal-line, executing the Zone-Read with such finely honed legerdemain his touchdown do-se-do’s demanded replay, with the lead camera having joined the entire defense in biting on a pitch that never left the QB’s hand; Dennis Dixon exploding into the open field: before blowing out his ACL on the Autzen Stadium turf in 2007, no single NCAA player was more critical to his team’s BCS hopes.

In training his quarterbacks to master the Spread Offense, Kelly stresses fundamentals, teamwork, and accountability, but after a competitive spring battle in which UO freshman Marcus Mariota (Mario-TAH!) narrowly won the starting job over sophomore Bryan Bennett, there remains the question of what broader skills these system quarterbacks gain during Kelly’s rigidly planned, obsessively focused practice schedule. A legitimate consolation exists for the competition’s loser—Joey Harrington’s one-time backup, A.J. Feeley, has enjoyed the longest NFL tenure of any Bellotti/Kelly signal-caller—but will the winner be positioned with marketable tools or are they investing the entirety of their human capital on a skill-set with little currency beyond their college eligibility?

“Education is the transference of knowledge,” Kelly said during that same 2009 Coaches Clinic, though in prioritizing a skill-set that produces far greater benefits for employer than employee, the transference of this specialized knowledge runs counter to the University of Oregon’s stated educational mission: “the establishment of a framework for lifelong learning that leads to productive careers and to the enduring joy of inquiry.”

Such Mission Statements should seldom be taken to the bank, and the glass-walled Jaqua Center deconstructs any myth that UO sports are an integrated campus arm: the yearly maintenance for the state-of-the-art tutorial center proved so burdensome the University required a separate $5 million gift to provide for the structure’s upkeep. In a bit of TARP-tastic bookkeeping, while the athletic department’s $2 million annual tutoring budget is paid through the University’s general fund, the majority of the Jaqua Center remains off-limits to the student body.

In the flap over Darron Thomas's decision to defy coaches, scouts, and skeptics by declaring for the draft, pundits and commentators have held up the Rose Bowl-winner as a cautionary tale, an athlete whose hubris cost him the chance to lead the Duck juggernaut in one last quest for BCS glory. Underlying that perception, though, is a lurking sense that for such system quarterbacks, these BCS seasons are precisely where their skills peak. In this reading of the decision, Thomas’s on-field education is presumed over, so why not stick around for another title run?

Thomas himself seemed to believe he’d learned all that Oregon had to teach. Bob Jones, Thomas’s high school coach, recounted a conversation he had with his former player before Thomas made the decision to turn pro: “He asked ‘How much better can I get as an NFL quarterback doing what we’re doing at Oregon?’”

This is no slap upside Chip Kelly’s visor: Thomas owes his college quarterbacking career to Kelly, as Thomas backed out of a high school commitment to LSU when he suspected the Tigers viewed him as either a double-threat or a straight receiver. (And anyone who’s seen Thomas chased down from behind by pursuing linebackers already knew what his disastrous 4.8 40-time at the combine confirmed: for all his talents, the man does not have the wheels of an NFL wideout).

“Masoli lacked the height and arm talent to play in The League while Thomas was much too erratic in his accuracy and fundamentals,” ex-Seahawk quarterback and current ESPN analyst Brock Huard explained to me via e-mail. “The credit really goes to Chip Kelly and his staff for minimizing their weaknesses, playing to their strengths, and having the flexibility within their scheme to adapt to their personnel.”

And some credit surely is due. During Saturday night’s season-opening blitzkrieg, the primary suspense quickly shifted to what would be the first to reach fifty: Mariota’s full-tilt offense or commentator Matt Millen’s use of the word “poise” while lauding the freshman’s cool under center. In declaring for the draft, Thomas overestimated the value of poise as an isolated asset, comparing himself to Cam Newton and believing his leadership qualities could provide the type of spark Newton brought to Carolina as a rookie.

Like Thomas, Newton wasn’t charged with a pro-style offense at Auburn, but he did have a track-record of executing against pro-style defenses; nothing to date has stymied Chip Kelly’s scheme like an SEC front-seven. And for a quarterback tasked with dropping back against NFL-level size and speed, no amount of poise can compensate for a lack of accuracy, arm-strength, or mechanics.


A recent Slate article advocated an exemption for high school tailbacks to make the leap straight to the NFL, minimizing years of uncompensated wear and tear on bodies with a limited shelf life; an oft-cited stat pegs the average NFL career at 3.3 years. But what numbers indicate anything “unprofessional” about Thomas’s three seasons quarterbacking Oregon’s Spread?

Thomas’s Rose Bowl win provided the Pac-12 a payout estimated between $18-$22 million. Chip Kelly enjoys the security of a six-year, $20.5 million contract. Nike isn’t merely footing the bill for a $63 million dollar expansion of the Ducks’ training facility—the corporation will also select the architect and contractors while controlling the paper trail. Week in and week out, the Ducks charge from the tunnel in brand new unis, serving as walking, winning billboards for Nike, Inc.’s Pro Combat uniform systems.

“If a player, especially a quarterback has a 'professional' talent, then the NFL will seek to find it and develop it for their own best interests,” Huard told me, and the exact same could be said of elite college programs: they seek out and develop specialized talent for their own best interests. Which, mission statements notwithstanding, is winning games and making money, not necessarily in that order.

Efficiency-expert Chip Kelly learned perhaps his most valuable professional lesson in 2007, when Dennis Dixon’s torn ACL turned the Ducks from BCS-contender to divisional also-ran. On both sides of the ball, Kelly’s recruiting has since targeted both speed and interchangeability—throughout the competition between Mariota and Bennett, Kelly has maintained confidence that either athlete would succeed in the starting role. Only two individuals remain irreplaceable in Oregon’s top-down model: Chip Kelly, who calls the shots and Phil Knight, who writes the checks.

Rather than swerve into digressions on Dependency Theory or offer pie-in-the-sky suggestions that Nike provide severance, pensions, or back-end compensation to productive college athletes, it's probably better to simply look back to Auburn. Cam Newton provided one optimistic model, but Dr. Paul Johnson’s definitions of Political Economy cut to the quick on this question. Per Dr. Johnson, an “exploitive division of labor” exists when a superior entity reaps the principal gains from specialization, at the expense of worsening conditions for the specialized worker. All those years producing in the system before finally being turned loose to earn a living: Dennis Dixon in the UFL, Jeremiah Masoli in the CFL, and Darron Thomas on the couch. 

Share |


Nice information, valuable and excellent design, as share good stuff with good ideas and concepts, lots of great information and inspiration, both of which I need, thanks to offer such a helpful information here.kettlebell swing

We Are A Full-Service Provider Of High Quality Backlinks That Help Boost Traffic, Increase Rankings, And Build Authority. With Years Of Experience We Know Exactly What Type Of Manual Dofollow Blog Comments It Takes To Quickly Increase Your Online Visibility
High PR Links

Critical bench is an ebook which is immediately available after purchase. The product is geared towards building your muscles and strength.i want to make my muscles bigger how can

I like viewing web sites which comprehend the price of delivering the excellent useful resource free of charge. I truly adored reading your posting. Thank you! Decorative Hand Towels

I’m excited to uncover this page. I need to to thank you for ones time for this particularly fantastic read!! I definitely really liked every part of it and i also have you saved to fav to look at new information in your site. seo

Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!make money online

Going to graduate school was a positive decision for me. I enjoyed the coursework, the presentations, the fellow students, and the professors. And since my company reimbursed 100% of the tuition, the only cost that I had to pay on my own was for books and supplies. Otherwise, I received a free master’s degree. All that I had to invest was my time. Ambien for sale

This is an excellent post I seen thanks to share it. It is really what I wanted to see hope in future you will continue for sharing such a excellent post.does it really work

The worst part of it was that the software only worked intermittantly and the data wasn’t accurate. You obviously can’t confront anyone about what you have discovered if the information isn’t right.i have a translation and interpreting agency

Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!

Nice information, valuable and excellent design, as share good stuff with good ideas and concepts, lots of great information and inspiration, both of which I need, thanks to offer such a helpful information here.

This is an excellent post I seen thanks to share it. It is really what I wanted to see hope in future you will continue for sharing such a excellent post.odwiedź stronę autora

I recently came across your article and have been reading along. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make readers read from the beginning to the end. I would like to read newer posts and to share my thoughts with

Really nice and interesting post. I was looking for this kind of information and enjoyed reading this one. Keep posting. Thanks for sharing.

Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!

You might comment on the order system of the blog. You should chat it's splendid. Your blog audit would swell up your visitors. I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.milagro para el acne descargar

I don’t have the time at the moment to fully read your site but I have bookmarked it and also add your RSS feeds. I will be back in a day or two. thanks for a great site.

It really does raise an important question though, because as "flexibility" and "versatility" become focuses of recruiting - what you're quietly propping up is the importance of the coach.

"Any player can ride this ship, but only one man can steer it." Kind of a thing...

As Chip Kelly and countless other coaches lean towards recruiting cogs, they're essentially strengthening their own job security. A double edge sword that only really cuts the, ahem... student athletes.

I'm a little uncomfortable with uncritically parroting Huard's assessment of pro-level quarterback development. The NFL is, after all, a league with maybe a dozen good quarterbacks at a time. And turning from outcomes to process, while it's pretty to think of these billion-dollar organizations as rationalized and bureaucratic, I live in Oakland, and the AFC West does a pretty dominant job of demonstrating that, in fact, these organizations are hidebound, reactionary, willful, and, in the final analysis, simply run by people who are not particularly intelligent.

The fact Duck QBs end up leading UO on annual national title runs is a testament to them and the program, not an indictment. Aside from Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, AJ Feeley and Kellen Clemens, they are not generally NFL caliber to begin with.

For many years, the UO football program were perennial losers - annually getting beaten by big schools like USC, UCLA and UW. Seeing they couldn't attract the talent drawn to these top schools and helped by an influx of alumni investment (not a new thing in big time college athletics) Oregon crafted a way to compete with limited on-field resources. Now that they can compete with the big schools and do it with lesser talent, their efforts are deemed exploitative? Doesn't seem right. Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas aren't in the NFL because they aren't good enough, not because they played for Chip Kelly. Similarly, Andrew Luck would have been a no.1 draft pick regardless of whether he went to Stanford or Oregon - the guy is born to play on Sundays.

Cheers from an avid reader,
Matt Brown

Completely agree with we are not to lament all the other great college but not NFL calibre QBs because they are not sponsored by Nike?

Charlie Ward just rolled over in his grave (metaphorical as it may be).

I do however completely agree that college players should receive some sort of salary. How to determine who gets what is a very complicated matter.