De-Design Ducks’ Dismal Defense

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld asked President Obama what sport is most comparable to politics. Seinfeld suggested liar’s poker or chess. Obama complimented him on the question, then gave a surprising answer: football.

There are many players involved, specialization is rewarded, hitting is common, so is punting. “But every once in a while, you’ll see a hole. And then there’s open field.” Sometimes football is a lot like life. Other times, it’s only like football. This is one of those other times.

Here’s what we’ve learned about fast break football since Chip Kelly was hired as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator in 2007. It can become the foundation for a nearly successful team, excelling in offense but barely keeping up on defense.

Fast breaks work in basketball because the same five players play both offense and defense. Football is a platoon sport, Charles Nelson notwithstanding. (But ask yourself, “Who can withstand Charles Nelson?”)

Kelly installed his system in Eugene, and since in Philadelphia, with the same result. The Ducks and the Eagles this year each had dismal defensive statistics. As the Ducks rearrange their coaching ranks, admitting this half-mistake should shape more than how they recruit a new defensive coordinator.

When the Ducks replaced criss-crossed metal reinforcement pattern on their uniform’s shoulder pads with various wing patterns, they proclaimed “this is who we are.”

Our players are taught to “fly to the ball”, which is great when there’s a fumble or an errant pass, but not when the ball is in the hands of an opposing player, fully capable of changing speed or direction after a Duck has committed to flight.

A human projectile relies on steady state forces to anticipate its target’s exact location at impact. Once airborne, no changes can be accommodated. Result: missed tackle.

If the Ducks hope to win a national championship, they must match their unstoppable forces with a healthy number of immovable objects.

As Kelly’s zone-read offense has gained popularity, word’s gotten out how to defend against it. That word is patience. Stanford Cardinal coaches were some of the first to teach their linemen to stand their ground and wait for the ball. Don’t go get the ball; just guard your turf. If the ball doesn’t move past you, the defense has prevailed. It was the opposite of “fly to the ball” — and it worked.

A running quarterback with three options must eventually choose one to move the ball past the line of scrimmage. If that line is guarded by a series of defenders, evenly spaced like huge, grinning clothespins, there are no gaps for the offense to exploit.

With patience and discipline, defending the sweep runs becomes as simple as, “Red rover, red rover, let Duckie come over.” Good coaching makes difficult assignments easy, but Duck defenders haven’t been built for success.

We heard incessantly this season about “communication issues” and “missed assignments.” Duck practices have been closed in recent years, so a coach’s analysis may not match a fan’s. But it likely means that a player got overeager, tried too hard, and impatiently left his ground undefended.

Maybe — and this is my point, slowly delivered — team practices built around speed cannot properly teach patience. A team with wings on its shoulders doesn’t naturally stand its ground. Swagger on defense leads to open field for opponents.

We’ve recruited for wingspan, finding and developing players that other schools have overlooked. But now we need some players who will provide pure width. We may have to tweak the “Oregon Way” in order to attract enough of those wide-bodied players.

Whatever those changes look like should be personified in the defensive coordinator the Ducks hire. Nick Aliotti was colorful and fun to quote, raising the profile of the team’s defenders. Start there.

Loud music and speedy reps sound like fun for the young speedsters on the team, but when do the immovable objects get their chance to learn what stalwart looks like? Is there some way to mix the high flying, “can’t touch this” Ducks we’ve enjoyed for the past decade with the “Gang Green” defensive juggernaut that succeeded at scrimmage in the mid-1990s?