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?
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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. 


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