Deadspin featured a column last week that questioned the use of quarterbacks in Oregon's offense, first under Mike Bellotti and now Chip Kelly.
"What's In It For Oregon Quarterbacks," the headline asks -- the "what" meaning reward for the running the "it" that is the Duck offensive scheme.
"What" seems pretty obvious: nation-leading offensive outputs, Pac-12 Conference championships, Rose Bowl berths, BCS title opportunities. Tunnel vision focus on the NFL prospects of Oregon quarterbacks, using the small sample size of Ducks since Bellotti first introduced the spread to Eugene, obscures appreciation for the genius that is the UO system.
Oregon had a surefire NFL quarterback in 2001, Joey Harrington. Harrington led UO to a Pac-10 title and Fiesta Bowl victory. After his departure, the Ducks went 7-6, 8-5 and finally 5-6. The losing season was suffered with another NFL quarterback behind center, St. Louis Ram Kellen Clemens.
Bellotti recognized the need for a new offense that would 1. accentuate the abilities of the quarterback rather than force him to fit into a system and 2. win games. He watched game tape of Mike Dunbar's offense at Northwestern, which "had done a good job in the Big Ten with lesser material."
UO won 10 games its first season with the spread, was a Dennis Dixon injury away from playing for the national championship in the third, and won the Holiday Bowl in the fourth. Kelly was offensive coordinator for the latter two. As head coach, Kelly took the principles and put them through the Ivan Drago regiment, and three conference titles ensued.
Rich Rodriguez made a point at Pac-12 Media Day that resonated as I pored over the aforementioned critique of the Bellotti/Kelly system: "You aren't going to invest time and money [scouting a prospect] if you're an NFL owner or GM if the guy can't play. It doesn't matter what system you're in, if you can play, you can play."
That the Ducks are three-time BCS participants and routinely atop the nation in points scored without quarterbacks who commanded NFL attention is as strong an endorsement for the system as any. It's also at the heart of a tall mountain the UA will try to climb Saturday.
Marcus Mariota beat out Bryan Bennett to fill the void Darron Thomas left unexpectedly this off-season. Mariota has been stellar through three games: eight touchdown passes, 674 yards on 75.3 percent completions, another 108 yards rushing -- and all that is with Kelly only pushing halfway down on the accelerator.
Mariota is a freshman with size that could make him an NFL quarterback by the time his days in Eugene are finished. Time will tell. The same is true for Bryan Bennett, who performed well in relief of Thomas last season. If they don't play on Sundays though, both can be big winners on Saturdays because the offense fosters it.
Arizona comes to Autzen Stadium with a quarterback whose NFL stock has skyrocketed in recent weeks. Matt Scott is similarly flourishing in an offense not known for producing pro signal callers, giving credence to Rodriguez's sentiment that talent wins out. A question lingering over Arizona throughout the off-season is how the Wildcats would adapt should the redshirt senior suffer an injury.
Rodriguez has not been in Tucson long enough to establish the cache of players Kelly has in Eugene. An injury to Mariota means Bennett -- who, coincidentally, accepted his benching with the maturity and foresight that now rewards Scott -- steps in. And he likely does so seamlessly.
So yes, Kelly's spin on the spread offense has yet to produce an elite NFL quarterback and it does function without one. Just imagine how scary it will be when it has one.