Cal football had a truly successful season, and that needs to be said plainly. It may have ended bitterly and had some dreadful lows, but head coach Justin Wilcox made good on the expectations a reasonable fan should have had going into the season.
I say that to qualify what I think must happen next season for it to end up being another success. If Wilcox has more control over the offense than is believed, he needs to truly relinquish control of that side of the ball. But if Wilcox has already turned the offense over to others, then this season’s offensive stagnation is at the feet of offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, and the Bears should start shopping for a replacement.
There were plenty of things about last season’s offense that drove me batty, but it was year one, Baldwin came in with an impressive track record at Eastern and Central Washington, and most importantly, there were positive trends throughout the season. Ross Bowers looked more confident each week, and the offense seemed more and more tailored to his skill set.
Last season culminated in what I considered to be a really impressive run against Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA. The numbers weren’t huge, but the offense looked cohesive. With nearly every crucial player returning, all signs pointed toward a strong 2018.
Good God, that was not the case. The Bears’ offensive efficiency ranked as the second worst among all Power Five teams, ending just above Rutgers and below eternal laughingstock Kansas. How do you ruin the efforts of a defense that was top 10 in the nation by just about any statistic? That’ll do it.
The eye test tells an equally ugly story. Chase Garbers entered in week one as a surprise, and it looked like he was leading an offense meant for someone else. In the final week of the season, nothing seemed different. Garbers was running around with no purpose, Patrick Laird was being run directly into oncoming rushers, and not one receiver emerged to have anything even resembling a consistent role. And unlike last season’s late surge, the Bears offense was absolutely anemic against USC, Colorado and Stanford, saved in the first two only by heroic jobs by the defense.
I don’t think calling this season a success on offense even would have required an above-average offense. In year two, Wilcox and Baldwin haven’t had a chance to fill out the roster with players who fit their philosophy. They dealt with what seemed from the outside like a bizarre injury situation regarding Bowers and a few other skill position guys.
No one was expecting Cal to resemble a vintage Oregon team, but finishing well below Oregon State was a bummer. Not improving one iota over three months might necessitate someone getting the axe (no, not the one that’s been housed in Palo Alto for the past decade).
Baldwin is very cerebral and super kind, and just last offseason, he was apparently in the running for the top spot at Oregon State. But whatever the reason, things haven’t taken off at Cal in the way anyone would have expected from his former high-flying offenses. Whether it’s a nontranslation from the FCS to the Pac-12, a mismatch in coaching philosophies, or just one of those unfortunate things, the hiring seems to have broken bad.
Cal’s defense is great, and it’s great today. That can’t simply be banked on indefinitely while the offense struggles to figure out its side of the equation. The Bears need to be aggressive in fixing their offense and capitalize on the window they’ve created for themselves with their defense. All signs are pointing toward that meaning saying goodbye to Baldwin. It shouldn’t bring any fan pleasure, but if that’s what it takes for next season’s squad to be a true Pac-12 competitor, it should be more than worth it.