The Willie Taggart administration is already off to a flying start, literally. And as Coach Taggart jets around the country recruiting the players that will restore Oregon to its place at the top of the Pac-12, the rest of us finally get a chance to imagine more specifically what Oregon football will look like in 2017.
Now, I know Taggart is a coach who will look at the systems in place and decide what to keep and what to change, rather than installing all of “his stuff”. But considering the following stat, I think it’s safe to assume that one piece of Oregon football will be put out to pasture with this new hire.
In 2016, Willie Taggart’s South Florida Bulls attempted zero two-point conversions. Zero. Point. Zero.
So for those of you doing the loudest grumbling at Oregon’s cavalier attitude towards the PAT, congratulations. Your wishes are coming true. For those of us that loved what Oregon did with the PAT formations, trying to steal extra points whenever they could - and at the very least, making the opponents use practice time to plan for it, this feels bittersweet. Oregon might still be “Oregon” under Willie Taggart in terms of speed, tempo, misdirection, and offense winning games, but unless I’m quite wrong, this piece of Oregon’s identity is fading into history. So let’s take a look back at the Oregon 2-point conversion: what was amazing about it, who were the key players that made it possible, and what went wrong for it in the end.
The Basic Idea
The basic principle behind the 2-point plays was simple: shift into a “swinging gate” formation, and then the holder surveys the defense. If a mismatch is identified, the holder will call for the snap, and run the play to the side of the formation with the personnel advantage. If there isn’t a mismatch, then the holder shifts the group back into the PAT formation, and they kick. The PAT holder had the bulk of the responsibility on the play to determine whether a mismatch existed.
2007, Chip Kelly’s first year as offensive coordinator brought about an offensive revolution at Oregon; it also brought about the first twinklings of two-point trickery. Nearly all Ducks fans remember the 2007 Michigan game for the fake Statue of Liberty play, but it was also the first time every we saw a swinging gate conversion, a side snap from Eric Steimer to Ed Dickson, who simply fell forward behind a wall of blockers.
It wasn’t pretty; nothing is as an infant. They ran the same play after the first touchdown against Arizona, just before they stopped the game and handed Oregon the national championship trophy. It looked even rougher around the edges in the Sun Bowl, when a speed option by Justin Roper and Matt Evensen just barely broke the plan of the goal line. But there was something there, that was sure. All Chip Kelly needed was time to refine and tinker.
2008 began with the first unsuccessful swinging-gate try, the holder-kicker speed option this time from Tim Taylor to Evensen, who got lit up by two Boise State defenders short of the goal line. And then...that was it. No other attempts for the rest of the season. It looked as though the swinging-gate conversion was nothing more than a gimmick.
When Chip Kelly took over for Mike Bellotti in 2009, the mad scientist ran WILD with the two-point conversion tries, running the swinging gate a whopping...two times; first, for two of the 42 points against Cal, your standard issue bubble screen to Morgan Flint.
Then, a conversion try worked flawlessly against Washington because the Huskies decided to play 3-on-5 on one side.
2010 - The Legend is Born
Oregon’s only undefeated regular season was also really when Oregon went from “a team that will occasionally use the swinging gate” to “THE team that runs the swinging gate the most, the best, and with the most variety”. It happened just after their 52-31 win over Stanford, arguably the most impressive win of Chip Kelly’s tenure. It was almost as though Kelly and staff said, “Well we got past our toughest hurdle of the year. Our next two opponents are WSU and UCLA, who are both awful. Let’s learn some fun stuff.” So, they did.
Up until now, we’d really seen two plays out of the swinging gate: the “get it to the guy out wide behind a wall of blockers”, and the “holder runs a sprint option to the side with fewer people”. 2010 was when we started to see some real innovation.
Five games, five successful conversions, starting with a classic “wall of blockers” play at Washington State:
Next, a rollout for Nate Costa against UCLA. The play was designed to be a pass to Dion Jordan; it was slow to develop, and Costa had to improvise to get the conversion.
A week later at the LA Coliseum, Chip Kelly pulls out something completely new; 3 “WR” out to the right, and they have the two inside guys (who I think are David Paulson and Jeff Maehl, correct me if I’m wrong) run rub routes to free up Brandon Bair on a slant for an easy conversion. To say that again, that’s two pass catchers who would go on to NFL careers running designed rub routes for a defensive tackle. Just watch it like eight times, it’s pretty.
Then, Hate Week, and what I like to think is the thing Chip Kelly was setting up the whole time. The Ducks score their first touchdown, go swinging gate, and then pull it back into the PAT formation. “Whew! Dodged one there!”, says Washington. Uh, no.
That’d be Costa taking the snap and just handing off to Rob Beard, who runs untouched up the middle. This is one where it wasn’t a read by Costa; the coaching staff had looked at Washington’s PAT formation, seen how they overload one side and go 4-on-4 to the left of the snapper, and said, “well that’s a freebie.”
Important note: this was Jake Locker’s senior season at Washington, and he lost this game 53-16. Still the best QB in Husky history though, definitely.
Against Cal, the Ducks went back to an old standby, the same Dion Jordan behind a wall play they used against Washington State. It is to be noted that this is Jackson Rice’s first conversion as the holder, after Nate Costa’s knee injury a week prior.
That would be the last two-point trick in 2010, but surely Oregon wouldn’t try that gimmicky nonsense in the biggest game in program history?
Ha, yeah they would. Now you know some defensive assistant at Auburn looked over all the plays above. You know they watched the Washington play, and knew not to sleep on a try out of the PAT formation. They evened up their unit, even kept a guy back middle in case any trickery was afoot. So naturally, Oregon runs a speed option left, with a perfect pitch from Jackson Rice (a punter) to Rob Beard (a kicker) for the conversion. You may have won* the game Auburn, but you got beat to the corner by Rob muhfuckin’ Beard.
2011-2012: Refining Perfection
2011’s tries were marked by one thing: Jackson Rice was a damn gunslinger, and wanted the rock in his hands. The conversions against WSU and Colorado were keepers for himself, presumably because Oregon spent 2010 attacking the edges with the play, and teams adjusted their lineups to leave the middle bare. My personal favorite is against Washington State; Rice sees 2-on-2 in front of him, so he snaps it intending to run it in behind the blockers. But snapper Jeff Palmer and kicker Alejandro Maldonado both block the same guy, leaving one man completely unblocked. As he’s getting blasted, Rice zips a jump pass into Maldonado’s gut, and the kicker hauls it in with a guy draped all over him. There’s no reason why that shit should have worked. But it did.
The fourth was @Stanford, and showed for the second straight year that Chip Kelly was keeping something special in his pocket for the big stage. The play goes like this: Jeff Palmer side snaps it to David Paulson on the heavy side of the formation. We’ve seen this before, Paulson just tries to run it in, right? Wrong. Paulson catches it and looks to pass. Rice and Maldonado shoot right and take two defenders with them, leaving Palmer in 1-on-1 coverage against a guy who had no idea he’d be playing coverage. Paulson throws a pretty decent endzone fade, and Palmer goes up and high-points the ball over his shoulder for an incredible catch. I mean, just watch it.
2012 brought much of the same, but without any new big-game wrinkles we’d come to expect. It became a simple formula: if there’s a numbers advantage on one side, get it out there and walk in. 2-on-1 vs. Arkansas State? Throw it to Jordan and walk in. 6-on-5 vs. Kansas State? Side snap it to Jordan and walk in. 4-on-3 vs. Arizona? Throw it to Beard and walk in. The two tries that didn’t work (WSU and OSU) were due to missed blocks, but the numbers were there.
Non-Situational Two-Point Conversions in the Mark Helfrich Era: Quantity over Quality
Chip Kelly left for Philadelphia with an 18-22 conversion rate in his six years on campus, which is obscenely good. Here’s what Mark Helfrich did in his first three years:
That’s a 6-13 mark, for a net loss of one point assuming the PATs all get made. What slipped from Kelly to Helfrich was the execution: all it takes is one missed block to sink this play, and missed blocks were happening a lot more often, against teams like South Dakota and Eastern Washington.
Charles Nelson Goes Maverick on Everyone’s Ass
The stagnation of the formation was already showing: opposing teams were stopping the play more easily, the execution on Oregon’s end was lacking, and there hadn’t been a single new innovation done to the formation since Chip Kelly left - the last truly new play being the Jeff Palmer throwback in 2011. So Mark Helfrich decided to try something new.
Throughout this entire period, the point guard of the swinging gate has been one of two things: a punter, or a backup quarterback - traditionally the two positions that assume holder duties. But Helfrich had the radical idea to put the ball in the hands of a playmaker. That playmaker was Charles Nelson, and he did not hesitate to get mad reckless with the opportunity. In his first game, Oregon attempted 5 two-point tries; they hadn’t attempted more than two in any game in history. Nelson spent three games as Oregon’s holder, and the Ducks went for a swinging gate try nine times, more than any other season in Oregon history. They converted only four.
My honest opinion: if this is a Chip Kelly team doing this, Nelson goes 8-9, and we’re talking about revolutionizing the game. But the execution simply wasn’t there, so Nelson taking aggressive swings with the decision-making didn’t make any real difference, other than to aggravate fans and lose games.
The Final Attempt
Oregon would attempt one more swinging gate in 2016. They were down 21-6 to Stanford. It was a quick-screen to the heavy side of the field, the same one they ran to Morgan Flint against Cal in 2009. The pass was batted down before it even got there, and the Oregon swinging gate died right there, amid a chorus of boos.
The Final Tally
Totals (2007-2016): 28-45 (18-22 under Bellotti/Kelly, 10-23 under Helfrich)
Swinging-gates on a touchdown other than the first one: 14 (2 under Chip Kelly)
Second-half swinging-gates: 3
A History of Holders (and their conversion rate)
2007 - Justin Roper: 3-3
2008 - Tim Taylor: 0-1
2009-2010 - Nate Costa: 6-6
2010-2012: Jackson Rice: 9-12
2013 - Dustin Haines : 2-3
2014-2016 - Taylor Alie: 4-11
2016 - Charles Nelson: 4-9
A History of Scorers (and their number of conversions)
Dion Jordan - 4
Rob Beard - 4
Charles Nelson - 3
Ed Dickson - 2
Nate Costa - 2
Taylor Alie - 2
Matt Evensen - 1
Morgan Flint - 1
Brandon Bair - 1
Jackson Rice - 1
Alejandro Maldonado - 1
Jeff Palmer - 1
Dustin Haines - 1
Pharaoh Brown - 1
DeForest Buckner - 1
Christian French - 1
Justin Hollins - 1
*Dyer was down. Never forget.