There’s a certain clarity that comes from games like Saturday’s loss. There’s no ridiculous penalty, no turnover, no play (unless you count 17 versions of the same bootleg play), and no specific coaching decision on which you can pin a loss like that. In earlier setbacks you could take some solace in the performance of the defense as the offense struggled, excuse points away to field position, or zero in on horrible calls against Rashad Jones or A.J. Green. You could look ahead to the next game thinking how things might finally click if we just stopped those pesky turnovers. That fog has lifted after a weekend that ended with Mark Richt admitting that “where we are right now is a culmination of everyone.”
It’s not my place to be flippant with the careers and livelihoods of Georgia’s coaches. We’re customers and not shareholders or managers, and our choice is ultimately whether or not to buy the product (a fact which will be very evident come kickoff of the Tennessee Tech game). That doesn’t imply satisfaction or complacency. It’s Mark Richt’s job to manage his staff and team, not mine, and his program’s success will ride on those decisions. He’s certainly given us plenty of reason to trust his judgment when it comes to building a successful program, but the current competitive landscape and the state of the Georgia program are uncharted waters for this coach. At the very least he’s earned the opportunity to try to navigate these waters.
I will say one thing though to those who still maintain some sort of firewall between their feelings for certain assistants and their reverence for the head coach. If the start to this season has made any difference in the way fans view the program, it’s that their dissatisfaction can no longer be put on a specific area or assistant. There is a program problem now, and it’s Richt’s problem to address.
Calling for changes on defense is nothing new; some have been at it since the first half of the West Virginia game that concluded the 2005 season. Grumbling about special teams (and kickoffs in particular) is also a well-worn path. But aside from the occasional gripe with John Eason whenever a receiver dropped a pass or pointing out the offense’s role in some of the spectacular team meltdowns over the past couple of seasons, most of the vocal critics have been able to target the bulk of their criticism at one or maybe two assistants and reassure themselves that the one simple change is all that’s keeping Richt’s Georgia program from reaching its fullest potential.
Is that possible any longer? Is there an area of the program about which to feel confident apart from A.J. Green’s natural gifts or the legs of Butler and Walsh? I don’t mean that in an emotional fling-poo-blame-everyone sense. There just isn’t a part of the team performing at a high level right now. Even the offensive line – the supposed strength of the team – hasn’t been able to survive the loss of a single player. I’ve even seen calls for Richt to take playcalling duties back from Mike Bobo – a decision that was universally hailed as a success at the end of the 2006 season.
I don’t envy Richt’s position over the next couple of months. Fans would replace coaches weekly if they could with all the cold consideration of managing a fantasy football roster. Richt has to deal with some very difficult decisions regarding men he respects professionally and likes personally. Part of the current level of grumbling among the fans has to do with Richt’s unwillingness to make changes following last season in which some of the same issues manifested themselves. Instead an intact staff (except for voluntary turnover) plus an emphasis on the vague concept of “leadership”, a relatively healthy roster, and even a well-disciplined off-season haven’t added up to much. It could be argued that the program is currently living with the consequences of prior indecision.
You can see the weight of the situation pressing on Richt. It shows up in sharp postgame exchanges with reporters. It shows up in the bunker mentality that has Richt talking about the “honor in being in the arena.” It’s even more frustrating and concerning for the staff and players, but at the same time there are many fans and members of the media still willing to stay in Richt’s corner. Now’s not the time to push them away no matter how high the level of frustration.
This painful situation is of course the tradeoff of a program built on loyalty and family. That’s almost always a feature and not a bug. It’s proven to be a winning culture – a culture that was cited when sought-after assistants turned down opportunities elsewhere to continue on in this working environment. Is part of the appeal knowing that the pressure to produce is sometimes less in such a culture? That’s a question for Richt that will have to be considered even any staff changes that take place; any postseason assessment will have to look at the incentives and rewards within the program that guide and reinforce the culture, and it goes way beyond money. Those kinds of touchy-feely management issues can be some of the most difficult for technically proficient head coaches who excel at the principles of football.
Regardless of how you feel about the staff, we’re just not likely to see many changes before the end of the season. This is the team and staff that’s going to trot out there for the next six or seven games. We have the luxury of thinking about decisions that are months away, but the team still has at least six games left and can’t afford to become preoccupied over the last one.
Earlier in the season it was possible to talk about the team Georgia could be if they eliminated certain mistakes and played more efficient and smart football. Now halfway into the season we have to admit that those traits are more or less the identity of the team. Turnovers, questionable decision-making (fielding a punt on the 1? spiking the ball as the clock runs out?), and porous pass coverage remain and don’t seem to be going away.
It’s disappointing and frustrating for fans, and I know many people have already written off this season and will wait for significant changes before getting back on board. That’s understandable – it can be a big investment of time and money. For those willing to stick it out with this team and season, I hope you listen to Michael Moore. That seems much more honest – and also much more likely to be embraced by the fans – than the stone wall coming from the coaching staff. Following Saturday’s comments, Richt was much more open on Sunday about putting everyone on notice. “I’m pointing the finger at all of us as a whole. We must all improve, period,” he said.
Any time a program faces a crisis like this, you have to pay attention to recruiting. Georgia has the bulk of another impressive class already committed, but it’s reasonable to expect that even the most rock-solid commitment will be observing how Georgia finishes the season with special attention given to any changes on the staff. Lane Kiffin is going to wave this win in the face of as many recruits as he can find this week, and I don’t blame him; it’s the only thing on which he can hang his hat going into the bye week recruiting trips. The building frenzy of Georgia fans calling for a scorched-earth approach to the coaching staff won’t go unnoticed either.
We love our analogies. Towards the end of last week I began to hear a lot of Georgia-following-FSU comparisons to tie Richt’s problems to Bowden’s, and FSU’s shootout loss to Tech on Saturday certainly didn’t help things. Now we’ve started to see and hear a few people mentioning Georgia’s stunning turnaround in 2007 which followed a disappointing start and an ugly loss at Tennessee.
Is such a turnaround possible? Sure. Georgia stands a chance against all of its remaining components (and that includes Florida). The biggest difference between 2007 and 2009 is the lack of upward vectors on this Georgia team. In 2007, you had a sophomore Matthew Stafford coming into his own. Knowshon Moreno put up 157 yards at Vanderbilt in a game that transformed him from impressive newcomer to the supercharged star we all saw finish the season. Defensive end Marcus Howard also began to come on strong towards the middle and end of the season and gave Georgia the pass rush they needed to become a much more effective defensive team. There appear to be few players on those kinds of trajectories this year. Joe Cox hasn’t been a disaster at quarterback, but his floor and ceiling appear to be set. The tailback situation is as muddled as it was before the season. Justin Houston’s return did give the pass rush a nice shot in the arm, but the overall defense still struggles.
“Georgia is just as close to 1-5…”
One last thing: please – enough of this. It’s bad enough that Georgia is 3-3; let’s not start taking away wins or players. Yes, Georgia would be worse off without A.J. Green (duh). But he’s on the team. Georgia did come close to losing the South Carolina and Arizona State games, but playing the what-if game with those close outcomes does a disservice to the plays made by guys like Green and Rennie Curran to secure those victories. If this isn’t going to be a championship season, such standout plays might be the best things we’ll have to take from the season.