Before I start, let me note that it's always an easy proposition to suggest firing people, especially when you're not the one that has to pull the trigger. If you've read my writing long enough, you know that I have a weak spot for firing people - I'm not part of the crowd that's constantly asking for someone to be shot in the head. It's too easy a solution, although I admit, a popular one.
I like the Shawn Watson's philosophy of a "multiple offense". I'm not ignorant of the fact that a powerful running attack is part of Nebraska's heritage, but the ability to shift into a spread and use the zone read and spread option plays give us a huge advantage over our opponents - we just didn't execute them well this season.
I disagree with the notion that Nebraska can't recruit skill position players that can run anything other than a power running game. If Bill Callahan could recruit decent quarterbacks (Zac Taylor, Joe Ganz) and receivers (Maurice Purify, Nate Swift), then why can't this staff?
You can write off some of the offensive problems as turnover in players, but only some. Still, the West Coast offense is largely dependent upon timing and that timing has to be developed between a quarterback and his receivers. We knew it would be tough to replace Joe Ganz, Nate Swift, and Todd Peterson, but I don't think anyone could have foreseen the difficulties Watson faced early in the season when the receivers were not performing as well as was needed. Menelik Holt started the first five games, then disappeared along with Curenski Gilleylen and Chris Brooks. Holt had 15 receptions for 175 yards, none after the Iowa State game. Brooks had 13 receptions for 177 yards, but none since Texas Tech when he had five receptions for 66 yards to lead the receivers. Gilleylen had 16 receptions for 299 yards, none after Iowa State.
They were replaced by Khiry Cooper and Brandon Kinnie. Kinnie finished the regular season with 13 receptions for 129 yards, with 12 of those receptions coming after Iowa State. Cooper's receptions were split throughout the season, as he finished with 13 receptions for 80 yards, with seven coming after Iowa State.
The only consistent receiver all season was Niles Paul and even he had problems (turnover at the goal line, Iowa State). Paul finished with 36 catches for 673 yards to lead the receivers, having six receptions against Iowa State and 13 the rest of the season.
That level of turnover doesn't allow a quarterback to develop the much heralded "chemistry" with his receivers. Granted, Lee's accuracy didn't seem to improve over the season, so you could argue it didn't make much difference as to whom he was throwing the ball.
As for Barney Cotton, the offensive line did progress somewhat throughout the season although the offensive output did not. The number of holding calls and false starts dropped as the season went on, and the line was asked to do a lot with defenses stacked against them to stop the run.
Add to that a general lack of depth. Jacob Hickman played well at center, and Ricky Henry started every game at right guard (the position that was unsettled before the season began). Marcel Jones and D.J. Jones played in rotation at right tackle while Mike Smith started every game at left tackle. Derek Meyer started when Keith Williams was injured, then Williams took over the starting left guard position for the final ten games. The loss before the season of Jaivorio Burkes at tackle and incoming freshman Brent Qvale certainly didn't help the depth issue. Off the top of my head, what we didn't see is the level of in-game rotation that we've seen in past seasons. (I"ll look into this more in the off-season.)
I suspect that most people would like to see Cotton fired because of his association with failed coaching regimes of the past (Solich at Nebraska, McCarney at ISU) rather than knowing much about offensive line coaching. In his defense, keep in mind that, other than Ricky Henry, these are still Bill Callahan's offensive linemen (In other words, Callahan's preference for size over speed still plagues the offense).
Going back to Watson, I'm not 100% sure what to think, other than he got hit with a perfect storm this season - a new starting quarterback, inconsistent receivers, and an offensive line that, well, had its problems. Add to these the fact that one quarterback left before the season started (Patrick Witt) while another was lost to injury at the start of the season (Kody Spano). Running back depth was severely hampered by dismissal (Quentin Castille) and injury (Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead).
A counter argument would point out that every team has to deal with injuries and then list all of the teams that did well despite them. For that, I have a response: Oklahoma.
The biggest problem with firing a coach, especially an offensive coordinator, is that you're going to throw away a year while the new guy implements his system. The counter argument here (I assume) is to bring in someone who runs a much simpler offense, so easy that you and I and a trained monkey can run it. Or perhaps magic happens and everyone instantaneously learns the new offense by having chips implanted in their brains or something like that. (If you're voting for a simplified offense, I vote for Texas Tech's then, because they replace quarterbacks and receivers year after year and seem to get the same fantastic results.)
So, give me your answer to the title question. Does one of these guys need to answer for this season? Or maybe both?