What Syracuse coach Doug Marrone can learn from Chip Kelly

My wife grew up in Portland, graduated from the University of Oregon, and loves her Ducks! I’m a lifelong Syracuse fan, but since there’s almost no chance Syracuse will play Oregon anytime in the near future and because my wife is much more pleasant to be around when she’s happy, I’ve found myself rooting for her Ducks too. Once you get past the weird jerseys, they’re an easy team to root for. Their spread offense is lightning quick (both in terms of pace and personnel) and is easily the most exciting, big-play producing scheme I’ve ever seen on the collegiate level. Their defense blitzes constantly, takes chances, and while not as dominant as many of the SEC’s top defenses, consistently makes big plays. Their special teams, with the exception of some mediocre place-kicking, is superlative as well. So basically, watching the Oregon Ducks play football is the polar opposite of watching my beloved Syracuse Orange(men).

oregon

What can Syracuse learn from this?

So why is Oregon such a joy to watch while Syracuse makes me scream profanities at my television on a weekly basis? Some of the answers are obvious. Oregon gets better recruits and has better players than we do. With Nike co-founder, Phil Knight, an alumnus of the school and possibly the world’s best booster, Oregon objectively has the best football facilities in the country. Recruits like that sort of thing. They have those weird uniforms that Nike customizes for every game they play in. Recruits like that sort of thing too. The facilities and uniforms certainly help, but I’m going to go out a limb here and say that the reason why Oregon has gone from winning a total of 5 conference championships in it’s first 85 years, to 5 in the past 11 (including three in a row since Chip Kelly took over as head coach), is because of coaching. (Note: there’s also that whole recruiting violation report, but let’s stick a pin in that for now.)

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Is Chip Kelly a great coach? I think so. But more than being a great coach, he’s an exciting one! His spread offense is designed for big plays and scoring, and few if any teams in the country make more big plays or score more often than Oregon. He takes chances no one other coach seems to take, going for it on fourth down with reckless abandonment and surprising opponents with two point conversions out of unique extra point formations. Even his defense gets in on the excitement. His linebackers get to blitz and his corners and safeties are encouraged to make big hits. Watching a Duck game can sometimes feel like a three hour Sportscenter highlight. And all the things that make the Ducks so much fun to watch, all the big, exciting plays, turn out to be things players really enjoy doing when they play football too. Getting to be a part of a fun, exciting system is attractive to recruits and when players are having fun on the field, they tend to relax and make more plays. Excitement begets momentum, which begets excitement, which is a wonderful cycle in football.

So what does this have to do with Syracuse? Nothing. And therein lies my frustration with head coach Doug Marrone and his staff. Of course Marrone is working with far less than Chip Kelly is. Our facilities are terribly outdated. Our recent history (under He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) is atrocious. We renamed our field to remind people of our past glory, but as much pride as we take in our National Championship (in 1959) and our Heisman winner (in 1961), most of the parents of the players we’re trying to recruit weren’t alive back then, so “44” and our storied legacy certainly can’t mean all that much to their kids. Marrone was dealt a bad hand, no denying that. But he has to sell Syracuse, the program, and himself in spite of the aforementioned disadvantages (as well as the dreaded Syracuse winters). So how do we do that, besides calling ourselves “The Harvard of Central New York” when we’re barely “The Syracuse of Central New York?” We take a page from Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks, and we make our product more exciting.

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I like everything I’ve seen and heard from Doug Marrone outside of our actual games, but very little of what I’ve seen during them. It’s year four and we’ve added the hurry-up offense to our game plan. That’s a start I guess, but what good is the hurry-up offense when our play-calling is still painfully conservative? We have a quarterback in Ryan Nassib, who has some very clear strengths (arm strength) and weaknesses (touch passes and composure under pressure), and yet week in and week out, we have to wait till we’re down by multiple scores before we start throwing the ball downfield. We have a tremendous young talent in Ashton Broyld, a former quarterback who’s lined up primarily as a running back and occasionally as a wide receiver, but we’ve never once used any deception with him and/or had him throw the ball. We have a thunder and lighting running back combo in Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gully, but we like to run the former outside the tackles and the latter between them. It suffices to say, we neither play to our players’ strengths, nor do we take chances (until a game is virtually out of reach).

I’m not a Marrone hater. I don’t want to see him get fired and I don’t even think he’s “on the hot seat” yet, whatever that means. I love the guy’s loyalty, passion, and appreciation for Syracuse football. I just want to see him deliver a more entertaining product. And of course part of that is on the players; regardless of what Marrone says, they share in the blame for the turnovers and penalties. But at the end of the day, he’s the coach, and more than just being (ultimately) accountable for allowing a sweep to be run for Jerome Smith on second and goal from the one foot line, Marrone is responsible for our lackluster scheme and ultra-conservative approach to the game. The status quo has proved week in and week out to be a loser. So he can do himself and his players and the Syracuse fans a huge favor by taking some more chances, and altering his game plan, if not his scheme. That’s the approach that worked for Oregon and it can work for Syracuse too.

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