The ongoing postmortems of Southern Cal's late-season collapse last fall have already provided a full lineup of culprits, including but not limited to: Self-interested slackers, starters running out of gas, immature 420 enthusiasts, and so on. If you haven't already, you can add to that list one-and-done quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates (who, despite his title, was de facto offensive coordinator and called plays), according to an NFL analyst who went out his way to put Bates in the crosshairs in a conversation with the Orange County Register's Michael Lev:
He said there were two primary reasons USC fell to 9-4 last season:
1. The Trojans' talent level wasn’t as high as in recent years, something that will be reflected in this week's draft.
2. "The offensive coordinator" — i.e., Jeremy Bates.
The second one isn’t good news if you're a fan of the Seattle Seahawks [Bates' new employer, under his former Trojan boss, Pete Carroll -- ed.]. And if you’re a USC fan, it ought to leave you frustrated about 2009 … and hopeful for 2010.
Does Bates get too much blame for the Trojans’ offensive inconsistency a year ago? Maybe. Remember, he was working with a true-freshman quarterback. But one of the things the draft analyst told me — that Bates too often failed to capitalize on mismatches — struck a chord.
Of course, if you haven't already pinned some of the offense's decline on Bates, you're probably not a Trojan fan -- his only season at the controls produced the lowest-scoring attack of the entire Carroll era, and the lowest-gaining since Carroll's first season, 2001. Beat writers said Bates "had the social skills of a coffee mug" and struggled with routine questions, "like dealing with a small child." Of all the departures over the course of the winter, his seemed the most welcome.
Whether or not that experience played any direct, conscious role in the otherwise baffling decision to hire Lane Kiffin, it does touch on the one aspect of the offseason's most shocking shotgun marriage that makes sense: Where Bates was a coffee mug and self-described "redneck," Kiffin is a shrewd, outspoken climber; where Bates was a deliberate move away from the in-house pipeline on offense that served Carroll well in the years when revered guru Norm Chow left following the 2004 national title run, Kiffin is an overt move to recreate the success of that era. After one season, the jury remains very much out on Kiffin as a head coach, but the one fact above all others on his resumé that accounts for his continued employment in that capacity -- with the Oakland Raiders, at Tennessee and now at SC -- is his role as offensive coordinator on one of the most spectacular offenses in recent memory in 2005. That attack averaged 49 points and more yards per game (580) than all but one other offense in the last decade, and capped the season by putting up 38 points on 574 yards against Texas' top-10 defense in the instant-classic Rose Bowl. With Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush and eight other starters bound for the first three rounds of the draft over the next two years, it can also claim to represent one of the most fully realized assemblages of staggering individual talent into a truly dominant whole that college football has ever seen.
Whatever else you can say about his rapid rise (which is a lot, obviously), Kiffin was the ingenue who nominally harnessed and deployed all that firepower, and it's not like USC is rebuilding in terms of raw talent. Alleged NFL skepticism notwithstanding, at least five of the departures from the worst Trojan offense in years are obviously bound for the draft this weekend, and they leave behind former five-star prospects at quarterback, at the top two tailback spots, at receiver and making up 60 percent of the starting offensive line (to say nothing of promising spring imports Dillon Baxter and Kyle Prater, also five-star recruits). At Tennessee, some players have begun to complain that Kiffin played favorites based on recruiting rankings instead of on-field merit when players actually put on pads, but there's no chance of that becoming a problem when everyone comes guru-approved. With quarterback Matt Barkley presumably emerging from his freshman skin as an entrenched leader of the offense for at least the next two years, "talent" is a ludicrous excuse for falling to the middle of the Pac-10 again in any category.
Of course, Kiffin's influence on the '05 team has been downplayed before, and he also oversaw the inevitable dropoff from that season to 2006, an equally stacked unit that turned the ball over four times in a stunning loss at Oregon State and blew a certain national title shot with a lackluster, nine-point effort at UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season. But that team was still good enough to finish in the Rose Bowl and the top five of the final polls as Pac-10 champion, which, after last year, would be greeted as a strong return to form if Kiffin can pull off the same result in his first year. Either way, we'll start to get some idea of how much of the '09 swoon can be laid at Bates' feet, and (more to the point) whether this Kiffin kid can actually coach. The jury won't stay out for long this time.