Does Oregon's Mark Helfrich Deserve His $17.5 Million Contract?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2015

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In a vacuum, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich deserved every penny of his five-year, $17.5 million contract extension, as first reported by Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.

The problem is that we don't live in a vacuum; we live in a world in which Helfrich followed Chip Kelly, inheriting his system, his coaches and his players. No matter how one feels about Helfrich, his achievements are linked to the previous regime.

Still, Helfrich has done enough the past two seasons to earn that raise, especially in 2014-15, when Oregon won the Pac-12, beat Florida State in the Rose Bowl/national semifinal and lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Only eight active coaches have made a national title game since 2004. Here is what they earned last season (per USA Today):

  • Nick Saban (Alabama): $7.2 million
  • Bob Stoops (Oklahoma): $5.1 million
  • Urban Meyer (Ohio State): $4.5 million
  • Les Miles (LSU): $4.4 million
  • Gus Malzahn (Auburn): $3.9 million
  • Jimbo Fisher (Florida State): $3.6 million
  • Mark Helfrich (Oregon): $2.0 million

*Note: Brian Kelly made the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, but Notre Dame withholds his contract information.

With his raise, Helfrich moves from $2 million in 2014-15 to $3.2 million in 2015-16 and $3.8 million in 2019-20, per George Schroeder of USA Today. As of next season, he'll rise from No. 51 in the salary rankings to the top 25—still below those other six coaches, but close to their stratosphere.

That feels about right. Saban, Stoops, Meyer, Miles and Fisher have been doing this a long time. Other than Fisher, each has actually made multiple national title games. And Malzahn, who like Helfrich was a second-year head coach in 2014, turned a 3-9 Auburn team into the national runner-up in one season.

Helfrich did not inherit a 3-9 team; he inherited a Fiesta Bowl champion. That explains the salary discrepancy between him and those other six coaches. What he's done is slightly less impressive, so he deserves slightly less money.

Until Monday, though, he made a lot less money.

FootballScoop Staff @FootballScoop

More than he wants or needs RT @BryanDFischer: Even at ~$3.5 million/year, Mark Helfrich seems like a pretty solid bargain for Oregon.

Oregon went 46-7 in four years under Kelly, winning 12 games per season from 2010 to 2012. Helfrich is 24-4 with an 11-win and a 13-win season (although the CFP format might have boosted that).

Kelly (33-3) fared better in conference play than Helfrich (15-3), but Helfrich's only nonconference loss came in the national title game. The Ducks beat Michigan State 46-27 in Week 2 last season; Kelly never won a nonconference game that huge.

Helfrich was the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach under Kelly from 2009 to 2012, coming to Eugene after three years in the same position at Colorado. Before that he coached quarterbacks under Dirk Koetter at Boise State and Arizona State. Under his command, Sun Devils quarterback Andrew Walter broke John Elway's Pac-10 record for career passing touchdowns (85).

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 16:  Quarterback Andrew Walter #16 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass during the Pac-10 Conference Game against the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum on November 16, 2002 in Los Angeles, California. The Trojans won
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Why is this important? Because it proves Helfrich is not some two-bit, discount Kelly impersonator. If he were, Kelly never would have hired him in first place. Koetter wouldn't have either.

"He can do it all in his head," Koetter told Ray Glier of Bleacher Report in September. "He doesn't have to draw pictures on the board. … He sees the game through the quarterback's eyes. We all have ideas, but if your quarterback can't execute those ideas, they are lines on a paper. Mark is as smart a football guy as I know."

Having spent eight years under Koetter—who just became the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after three years with the Atlanta Falcons—and four years under Kelly, Helfrich has learned more about offense than most coaches will forget. Those are two of…what, the 25 best offensive minds in football? Maybe 15?

And it's clear that Helfrich took notes:

Oregon Offense: Under Helfrich vs. Under Kelly
Under Helfrich (2013-14)Under Kelly (2009-12)
Yards Per Game555.4501.1
Points Per Game45.444.7
Yards Per Play7.446.67
Average F/+ Rating20.1%13.1%
Source: cfbstats.com/Football Outsiders

The last number on that table refers to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders. The percentage denotes how a unit compares with the FBS average. Under Helfrich, the Ducks offense has been roughly 20 percent better. Under Kelly, it was roughly 13.

Helfrich, then, took a famously dominant offense and made it more dominant. And not just a little more dominant—a lot more dominant.

Part of that has to do with timing: Helfrich coached Marcus Mariota, the best quarterback in Oregon history, as a redshirt sophomore and junior, while Kelly coached him as a redshirt freshman. Who's to say what might have happened with Kelly on the sideline?

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  ESPN personality Chris Fowler interviews Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich after their 59-20 win over the Florida State Seminoles during the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern
Harry How/Getty Images

Helfrich still has something to prove, and he'll get his chance with Mariota leaving for the NFL next season. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams leads a field of five candidates to replace him.

Can Helfrich win with a new face under center? We'll find out in 2015. But based on what he's done to this point—not just at Oregon, but before—he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

He's earned that new paycheck, too.

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35