It has been a few weeks since my last post and despite traveling for the holiday, the real reason is that I had to get away from a ton of negativity before I posted again.
I have had several heart-to-heart talks with members of the Pirate faithful, ranging from those in the “Fire Ruff” camp to those in the “In Ruff we Trust” camp. Regardless of their leanings, what my crew all agrees on is that this season was a resounding disappointment. And, what most agree about is that there is some pretty nice talent among the youth on this team. Where the tensions rise is when the conversation turns to the reasons for the disappointing results on the field.
My personal bent on what I saw on the field is pretty well documented. My faith in this staff is a bit shaken and my emotional connection to the program is being tested. On the surface, all of the excuses being tossed about by the program apologists are legitimate and deserve fair analysis. Injuries riddled the offense from the jump. Losing Justin Jones in fall camp – in hindsight – simply killed this offense. Losing Hardy a few games in didn’t help either. The offensive line, even at its best early in the season, was inexperienced and lacked cohesion – something that many of the “In Ruff we Trust” crowd cautioned against way back during spring camp, despite a constant confidence espoused by Coach Riley. The running back position was thin – so thin – in spring camp that Torrance Hunt – who finished as the starting back – had to be moved from his wide receiver position. This was another point that the diehard supporters were pointing out early on when trying to temper expectations.
Then, there were the defensive issues. The apologists have said over and again that former Coach Skip Holtz recruited so poorly that the front seven had no chance in 2010 and would barely improve in 2011. To their surprise, the defense was not the issue this season. Stellar? Not even close. Horrible? Well above that line.
Still…below the obvious deficits that were known to all of us whether we were 1/2 full or 1/2 empty types, deeper issues appear to exist within the program. Specifically, on the field, our coaches sometimes appear to be inflexible, ill-prepared, incapable of adjusting, and not overly – at least outwardly – concerned about what many see as obvious lack of fundamentals, passion, and pride in the players on the field. There is a seeming lack of urgency.
It is these points that give a good reason to hear out those who may lean toward the other end of the spectrum – the near “Fire Ruff” crowd.
One need look no further than the final four games. Each game, starting with the USM game, offered a huge prize for the Pirates should they win and they failed epically in 3-of-4 opportunities. Against USM, the C-USA East Division was on the line and lost. Against UTEP, a winning season was on the line and lost. And, against Marshall, a bowl bid was up for grabs…and lost. Yet in each of those games, a casual fan could see the mistakes being made, the inability to make adjustments when needed most, the lack of preparation and discipline…all the things that usually give way to raw want power and that adrenaline-driving championship edge that carries teams when everything is on the line. And what is more disconcerting is that many of the guys on the roster were part of those championship teams in 2008 and 2009 – they were winners who have become losers (in regards to W-Ls which sometimes is the hallmark of failed leadership).
So, like many things, does the reality fall somewhere in the middle?
On the one hand, I think it is fair to give Coach Ruff his 4-5 years. Watching the offense when it is on its game, is exhilarating and Coach Riley brought that to us. Watching some of the talent that is emerging on defense and watching what one season of focus from this young unit has me eager to see what Coach Mitchell can get out of them one year older in 2012. Most of the young coaches are easily accessible and willing to dig in and put in the effort to improve. There is Jeff Connors – who is like a Godsend for this program and will at least squeeze every ounce of competitiveness and passion out of the rising young Pirates. And, Ruff is so affable and is one of our own, you can’t want anything less for him to be the man who takes the program to the next level.
On the other hand. Football is about competition and the only acceptable goal is victory. Yes, you want to do it with dignity and fairness, but winning is the only thing. The offense fell apart this season. Pressure or no pressure, a seasoned QB with a 3:1 TD to INT ration in his junior season would be expected to improve on his numbers. Our OC said again and again that we were deep in talent at the WR position (which, in part was a very true statement) but all that young talent also turned the ball over by not being able to execute the “routine play.” The “more talented” offensive line played more like the inexperienced line than the talented group that had been in the system for a year already. And to hear more than a few of our opponents openly discussing how easy it is to read our audible signals, to breakdown our QB’s progression and get a jump on our plays and see no adjustments, is really alarming. The offense repeatedly put the defense (just like the final 6 games of 2010) in short fields to defend and the pick 6 has become not only a staple for our opponents but the regular catalyst that signals the offensive meltdown we see all too often.
Defensively, we improved quite a bit from dead last and that was a relief. BUT, it is not like we shut people down and among the out of work coaches are a host of guys who could probably come in here and bring us up to near great again in a season. We gave up way too many big plays in the clutch and didn’t force turnovers. And, my own speculation is that as much as the turnaround was spearheaded by a change to the 3-4, I can’t help but think that letting Coach Wiley roam the sidelines with the team while Coach Mitchell sat upstairs, had as much or more to do with it.
Special teams was so horrendous that if a coaching change (even if it is to reassign rather than let someone go) is not made there, then it is very appropriate for fans at large to question the decision-making going on in the program. Can’t say anything else on that one.
My hope is that Coach Ruff does some solitary, non-personally biased analysis on this past season. That he makes some of the hard decisions that need to be made. All the coaches need to be held to the same standards regardless of resume or age. I am for the love them up, coach them up theory, but I can’t help but see our team as group in search of an identity. The players seem to possess neither the chip that the ’91 bunch had nor the swagger of the ’08 and ’09 editions of the team. The program seems devoid of a intensity. You sense it with the fans, but you don’t see it with the team. Passion has always carried our successful teams. We are not good enough nor do we have access to the funds and players necessary to win every game without that passion.
What is great about football is that there is always next season and for that, I am thankful. And, I will be there pulling for Coach Ruff to right the ship and for our young talent (players and coaches, alike) to rise to the occasion. And maybe, just maybe, their 3rd year will be the charm. Regardless of which camp you are in today, it is probably a safe bet that season 3 will be the one that unifies the fan base either wholey in or wholey out with this staff.