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The revisionist history on Riley holds up
There are good reasons to believe the departed Sooner coach wasn't all he was cracked up to be, and the next guy in charge of Oklahoma's offense may well do better
Everybody’s taking shots at Lincoln Riley these days.
Not because he lied about 15 minutes after losing Bedlam, nor because he jumped ship the next day to Southern Cal, nor because he had the audacity to say he didn’t get any of his old players to quit being Sooners and start being Trojans, but got them from the transfer portal instead, which sounds like a distinction without a difference.
None of that. Old news.
Now, folks are wondering if, though Riley may have shocked the two Joes, university president Harroz and athletic director Castiglione, maybe he didn’t shock Alex Grinch and some of the assistants he brought with him to the land of Troy, maybe they knew where they were headed all along.
Others have pointed out, accurately, that the program, under Riley’s direction, though offensively prolific, still got a little worse each season.
Many are predicting incoming offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby will be a better steward of the unit than Riley would have been had he stayed, that the Sooner offense will be more accountable, better run and ultimately more effective, even if it’s not leading the nation in yards per play, which OU managed under Riley in 2017 (7.4), 2018 (8.1) and 2019 (8.4).
What’s so interesting is that it’s revisionist history because by the time the Sooners hit their stride in 2015, Riley’s first campaign as offensive coordinator, until the Sunday he shocked everybody with his departure, Sooner Nation was pretty sure there’d never been a better offensive coach in the history of the game.
Now, evidence is being presented making the case he wasn’t, and the funny thing is, if you look for the evidence in the right places, in the right context, the case might just hold up. Indeed, an entire reinterpreting of Riley’s legacy may be in order.
Allow me to help.
Riley’s offense was pretty great as long as it was led by a Heisman Trophy or Heisman Trophy contending quarterback, of which he had three spanning five seasons. Baker Mayfield finished fourth, third and won it. Kyler Murray won it. Jalen Hurts finished runner-up. Still, sometimes those offenses weren’t as shiny as their numbers.
The Jalen Hurts season, 2019, OU averaged a nation’s best 8.4 yards per snap, more than it gained the previous two seasons when it also led the nation. But that offense would typically begin the game on fire and sputter to a finish. It was the season the Sooners’ second-half slowdowns arrived, an issue that persisted right up to Riley’s leaving.
Nor was it just a quarterback thing.
The Sooners were high-flying not when they had good pass-catchers but all-world ones like Marquise Brown, Dede Westbrook and CeeDee Lamb, three of the five best receivers in program history, alongside Ryan Broyles and Mark Clayton, and that trio had one thing in common, each coming to OU to play for Bob Stoops.
So did Mark Andrews, the No. 1, 2 or 3 tight end in Sooner history, alongside Keith Jackson and Jermaine Gresham, and still it took Andrews becoming a junior before Riley really threw him the ball, his catch total jumping from 31 to 62 in 2017.
There is also this.
Do you know the last receiver to catch 40 passes at OU? Not 50 or more, but 40 to 49? A weird question but it illustrates a point.
It was Charleston Rambo in 2019, catching 43 for 743 yards, playing the No. 2 role to Lamb, who caught 62 for 1,327.
Prior to that it was Lamb in 2017, his freshman season, when he played the No. 3 role behind Andrews and Brown, who, between them, caught 119 passes for 2,053 hards.
You’re probably thinking these last two seasons somebody must have caught 50 or more while several caught quite a few less, but it’s not the case.
Last season, four Sooners caught between 32 and 39 and only Marvin Mims, who caught 32 for 705 yards, turned them into more than 400. Jadon Haselwood, who led with 39, turned them into 399. Two seasons ago, Mims and Theo Wease each caught 37 and nobody caught more.
It’s like Riley knew how to get a lot of balls to the best receivers in the country, players who arrived before he took over the program, but wasn’t so good at getting balls to anybody else a whole lot, even Mims, who’s really, really good.
A great season for reference is 2008, Sam Bradford’s Heisman year and the last time OU played for the national championship.
Joaquín Iglesias, who played one game in the NFL, caught 74 passes for 1,150 yards and led everybody. Gresham was next with 66 for 950. Broyles, a freshman, grabbed 46 and Manny Johnson grabbed 42.
As pros, the quartet caught 410 passes, but 377 belonged to Gresham, 32 to Broyles and one to Johnson.
Broyles would become one, but only Gresham was a star and first-round prospect, but offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson understood who his go-to guys were, anyway, and went to them. He wasn’t trying to throw to 10 or 11 guys and he didn’t have a depth chart with a bunch of ORs on it because he couldn’t make up his mind and, because of that, his quarterback had the opportunity to create enduring chemistry with the receivers he was throwing to the vast, vast, vast majority of the time.
For Riley, unless his Heisman hopeful quarterback was throwing to future Pro Bowlers who’d signed to play for the previous head coach, he never seemed to find three or four guys he really liked and because he couldn’t, the last real No. 1 receiver at OU was Lamb in 2019, the last real No. 2 was Lamb in 2018 and the last real No. 3 was Lamb in 2017.
The last two seasons, there have been none; yet, why Mims couldn’t be made to be a real No. 1 is a great question.
That’s where Lebby can come in and make a big difference fast.
Drake Stoops caught 16 balls last season, but there’s no reason he can’t catch 40 to 50 if he’d just be put in the slot and kept there. He’s always run great routs and nobody has better hands.
Mims doesn’t have to only be a deep guy. There’s no reason he can’t lead OU in yards and catches, too. Theo Wease could have a breakout season, or somebody we don’t see coming could emerge. But it will require a depth chart that means something, not a random collection of 10 or 12 names.
If Lebby can find his guys and feed them, while maintaining competition in the room, while benefitting from the accountability head coach Brent Venables’ new culture demands, his offense, opening day, should be better than just about everything Riley managed each of the last two seasons and, for long stretches, the one before that.
Yes, Lincoln Riley’s numbers were shiny. Also, they were about the only thing on his resumé and there’s more to it than that. There’s consistency and playmaking, rising to the occasion and, sometimes, even overachievement.
Now that he’s gone, perhaps Jeff Lebby can offer a Sooner offense that reflects those possibilities.