Part of Pac-12 Week.
Unless you're a Golden Bear fan, odds are you didn't hear much from Cal's offense last year. In fact, even if you are a Golden Bear fan, it was probably fairly easy to block out. And odds are, Jeff Tedford is just fine with the obscurity: For anyone who ever regarded him as a kind of King Midas figure for overachieving quarterbacks and overachieving offenses in general, 2010 looked like the year the king officially lost his touch.
Statistically, that's a bit of an understatement. The Bears set new Tedford-era lows for yards and points per game, finished and failed to top 14 points or 300 total yards in any of their six conference losses. Senior quarterback Kevin Riley was inconsistent at best, and junior backup Brock Mansion was much worse when Riley went out with a season-ending knee injury just before Halloween; Cal failed to top 20 points after Riley's injury, and he and Mansion combined to come in next-to-last in the Pac-10 in passing yards and efficiency. Even the league's No. 1 total defense couldn't stave off Tedford's first losing season: Three of the Bears' seven losses came with opponents showing less than 17 points on the board.
So the upcoming season marks a milestone for Tedford's tenure in more ways than one. Through 10 years on the job, Tedford is three wins from becoming the winningest coach in Cal history, and is the architect of the program's most successful decade since the Great Depression. He's survived the planning, fundraising and construction phases of a $150 million athletic center set to open this fall, as well as a massive renovation of decrepit Memorial Stadium. At the same time, he also finds himself fighting off clearly diminishing returns on the field and searching for some hint of the old spark that ignited a gasping program back in 2002.
That was the first of five straight seasons that Cal finished among the top 25 scoring offenses in the country, reinforcing Tedford's reputation as a molder of quarterbacks rivaled only by Norm Chow: Going back to his days at offensive coordinator at Fresno State and Oregon, Tedford had a hand in coaching six first-round draft picks (Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers) from 1994-2004, along with two others (A.J. Feeley and Billy Volek) who have lasted in the league for a solid decade. That success also came with Tedford effectively coordinating the offense himself, including calling all the plays — which is how his search for an answer to the recent waltz of woe this spring led him to … himself:
When Cal takes the field for its games this season, there will be a new man calling plays for the Bears. In this case, however, it's like the old Who song: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Jeff Tedford hopes that's a good thing, because he's the boss and he'll be calling the majority of plays in an effort to make his first losing season as Cal's head coach his only losing season.
"I did it the first three or four years here, then went back and forth," Tedford said. "You've got to be all in or out, one of the two. There's got to be a role you play. You get to set things up, have a good feel for things."
Tedford originally gave up game-day play-calling in 2008, off what was then his worst season in 2007 (the Bears rose to No. 2 in the polls that October, before going up in flames in six of their next seven), to become "more efficient" as a CEO-type. At the time, most fans welcomed the transition. A year later, he handed the entire offense over to NFL refugee Andy Ludwig, his fifth new offensive coordinator in five years, with no strings attached.
It's particularly good timing in one respect: In 31 career starts, Kevin Riley never showed any signs of progress against competent defenses (he was 2-7 as a starter the last two years against teams that finished with a winning record, with a negative touchdown:interception ratio) and may have been facing a possible demotion if he had another year of eligibility. Former Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard emerged from a six-man competition in the spring as the de facto starter going into preseason camp, and if he doesn't bring the prototypical, NFL-ready size and arm strength Tedford is accustomed to in the past, he does add a long-missing element with his legs. (His rapport with his half-brother, hyped sophomore receiver Keenan Allen, can't hurt, either.) More importantly, Maynard is a fresh start for an offense that desperately needs one.
Or so the Bears hope. In reality, regardless of the quarterback, they were devoid of anyone last year who remotely resembled a Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best or DeSean Jackson as a serious big-play threat, and lost the luxury of workhorse tailback Shane Vereen, who thought he'd get what he could in the draft before being asked to assume a 250-carry workload while the new QB is breaking in. There's some experience up front, and some optimism that Allen is on the verge of a blowing up in his second season. But the general vibe is one of a fresh start — the kind of reboot entrenched coaches only get to attempt once when things start to get stale. If Tedford makes it to 2012 (there is no reason to believe he won't), he'll be the longest-tenured coach in Cal history. But his future — and maybe whether or not he even has one at Cal beyond 2012 — hinges on restoring some signs of life in year ten.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.