Yes, we know we have a lot of young players. Yes, we know the departure of Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno has left a sizable vacuum, possibly in terms of leadership, definitely in terms of talent. And it's possible that I was way too naive about both of these issues in my preseason projections of Georgia's fortunes, in which case, ancient mariner, you may consider me a sadder, wiser man from this point on. But the fact remains that we possess the following assets on our team:
· a fifth-year senior who is currently second in the SEC in total offense;
· the most dominant receiver in all of college football right now;
· a pair of tight ends with nine recruiting stars between them;
· an offensive line that returns every starter from last year's unit, which paved the way for 1,400 rushing yards for Knowshon Moreno and only let Matt Stafford get sacked 17 times all season;
· two senior defensive tackles;
· one of the hardest-hitting linebackers in the country; and
· a special-teams unit featuring the nation's leading punter, a placekicker with only one field-goal miss all season, and a kick returner who already has two 100-yard TDs
. . . and we're still only 3-3, with a four-touchdown loss to Tennessee.
That's embarrassing, and unacceptable. It is no more acceptable than any of the blowout losses Jim Donnan sustained even after bringing in all of his outstanding recruiting classes; if anything, it's less acceptable, because while Donnan never gave us consistent evidence that his teams would be better than that, Mark Richt already has.
On that note, some people have compared Saturday's Tennessee loss to the Auburn game in 1999, which is frighteningly apt. For those of you fortunate enough to have not been in Sanford Stadium on the evening of November 13, 1999, here's the thumbnail sketch: A 4-5 Auburn team that had just recently snapped a five-game losing streak came into Sanford Stadium to face a ranked Georgia squad, rolled up a 31-0 halftime lead, and coasted to a 38-21 win. Ben Leard, a mediocre QB who had accomplished nothing of note that season, completed three-quarters of his passes and shelled us for 416 yards. Georgia's offense accomplished nothing until the game was way out of hand. A coach already developing a reputation as a complete asshole in his first year on the job got to laugh in our faces. (All this starting to sound familiar?)
That comparison would be bad enough for Mark Richt, since the blowout Auburn loss is generally seen as the beginning of the end for the Donnan regime. But I'd like to make another comparison that I think bears more relevance to the state of our program on a macro level, and if my Auburn friends will forgive me for dragging out their program one more time, this is where the Separated at Birth part comes in:
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I didn't care for Tommy Tuberville either as a person (the smarminess of his poor-man's-Steve-Spurrier act was downright irritating, and got even more so as he had less and less to back it up) or as a coach (just last year I pronounced him maybe the most overrated coach in the league). But anyone who survived the turmoil and embarrassment of an attempted coup in 2003, only to turn right around and lay waste to the entire conference on the way to a 13-0 season the very next year, must have had some coaching chops.
The problem, though, with that phoenix-like resurrection in '04 was that it turned Tubs into a bit of a monster. This is a purely subjective judgment, I grant you, but once he had the 13-0 season in his back pocket, Tuberville seemed to start acting like he was invincible. I can think of few more retroactively embarrassing sound bites by any SEC coach in the last decade than when Tuberville bitched and moaned about how hard it would be for his team to play for the BCS title -- just two days before Auburn went out and got themselves pounded by an unranked Arkansas team. It gave the impression of someone who had already put himself in the championship spot and thus was devoting more energy to settling pointless old scores with the BCS than to settling the scores that mattered on the field. And when Auburn did lose a game like that, Tuberville frequently employed "weasel words" with the skill of a politician, giving any and every explanation for the loss other than "We just got outcoached" or "I didn't prepare the players well enough."
The biggest indicator of success-induced complacency on Tuberville's part, though, was his loyalty to an underachieving group of assistants, most of whom Tuberville either brought with him from Ole Miss or had worked with in some prior capacity. And let me be clear that I mean position coaches, not coordinators, whom Tubs burned through so quickly it started to become a running joke -- but that was symptomatic of the problem: Given the choice between unloading a coordinator or unloading one of the position coaches with whom he went way back, Tuberville opted for the coordinator time after time, even in the face of mounting evidence that the position coaches weren't pulling their weight (and were, in some cases, actively trying to submarine the coordinator who wasn't part of the good-ol'-boy network). By the end of 2007, Auburn had a QB who'd gone from four-star recruit to basket case; an O-line that was allowing said QB to be pounded into goo on a regular basis; and a receiving corps that pundits repeatedly trucked out when they needed a poster child for the "underachieving" label. Yet instead of ditching the position coaches responsible for those units -- Steve Ensminger, Hugh Nall, and Greg Knox, respectively -- Tuberville chose to part ways with Al Borges, who had been brought in to save the Auburn offense from Nall's dismally incompetent hands following the 2003 season and helped turn it into a 13-0 machine (with on-the-brink QB Jason Campbell being magically transformed into an NFL first-rounder in the process).
Borges, as we all know, was replaced by spread guru Tony Franklin, who, like Borges before him, was disdained as an outsider by the good-ol'-boy group -- and when the internal conflict resulted in disaster, Franklin was shown the door with the 2008 season just half-over. Incredibly, the guy who received the interim OC tag in his place was none other than Steve Ensminger, who managed to be even less productive in that spot than Franklin had been. Make no mistake, Tuberville didn't get fired at the end of that season because he'd hired Tony Franklin; Tuberville got fired because his assistants had poisoned that offense so completely that it would've sucked no matter whom they hired as OC. In spite of the evidence that whatever they were doing wasn't working anymore, Tuberville stuck with blind loyalty and an insistence on "staying the course" (whatever that was), and he paid for it in the end.
Now, after all that, let me say that, even after Georgia's recent struggles, I have complete faith that Richt is both a better coach and a better dude than Tuberville was, and the same goes for our assistants compared to Tuberville's. But Richt's legendary loyalty to his assistants is starting to show cracks just like Tubs's did. Our defense, for example, has followed an almost linear downward trajectory ever since Willie Martinez took over from Brian VanGorder in 2005, yet there has never been any hint that Martinez's job is on the line. Our special-teams coach (who has to divide his attention between ST and the defensive ends) justifies our continued use of disastrous directional kickoffs with about the most asinine explanation possible -- yet not only does he remain in control over special teams, there's little evidence he's received any directive to dispense with this tactic. The presence of Logan Gray on the field for punt reception is a veritable flashing neon sign indicating that we're not going to attempt any kind of runback, yet we keep on putting him out there, and he keeps on not running it back. Georgia starts the Tennessee game in a soft zone, and despite that soft zone getting picked apart by the play-action, no discernible adjustments are made. As with Auburn in the latter years of the Tuberville regime, things that aren't working aren't getting fixed.
There are other creeping symptoms of Tuberville Syndrome: veteran players at a variety of positions not being properly developed; implications that past success should mitigate current failure; Richt's increasing testiness with the press; his growing tendency to put blame on players not "executing," which sounds just as bad as when Terry Bowden used to do it. I got chills this morning -- the bad kind -- when I read Paul Westerdawg's explanation that Georgia's current "Lack of a Sense of Urgency" was "a by product of Coach Richt's eight year deal and his enormous buyout." Not because I was shocked to hear something like that, but because I'd considered the same possibility just the day before, and I couldn't believe I was having those thoughts about a guy I liked and respected as much as Mark Richt.
I don't believe that Mark Richt is a bad or stupid person, nor do I believe that about any of his assistants, even the ones whom I hope aren't working for us this time next year. And I don't think for one second that he's satisfied with our performance this season. But changes have to be made, in some cases big ones, and I've begun to have doubts that he's committed to making all of them. More and more, we're seeing a "stay the course" mentality coming from our coaching staff that's proving detrimental to the product we put on the field. Last year, for example, Richt backed off on full-contact tackling drills in practice, which manifested itself in the shocking decline of our run defense over the second half of the season -- yet no effort was made to change course until our defenders were literally bouncing off Georgia Tech players in the regular-season finale. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result; if that's the case, then we've been doing some pretty insane things lately.
Following last night's Dolphins-Jets MNF game, Jets coach Rex Ryan had the guts to call his team's performance an "embarrassment" and claim "full responsibility" for not having the team properly prepared. He cited specific decisions he'd made that turned out to be bad ones, and explicitly vowed to do a better job the following week. And this was all after losing by only four points, on the road, to a team with the best rushing attack in the league, with the winning score occurring in the very last minute of the game. If Rex Ryan is willing to hold himself that comprehensively accountable for a close, valiantly fought loss, is it too much to expect our coaches to be just as accountable for a loss in which we all but laid down for Jonathan Crompton?
I'm not simply seeking Richt's shame or self-flagellation here; his shame plus two bucks might get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks, depending on what part of the country I'm in. What I'd rather have is an end to the complacency, a recognition that the old ways of simply staying the course and "hoping that [the team] can ride sheer talent to get through a game" are no longer keeping our heads above water. And while I think we need a big staff shakeup at the end of the season, I'm not even calling for that now, because as naive as I am, I'm at least smart enough to realize that such a shakeup this week wouldn't improve our immediate prospects at all. What I'd rather have, if you conservatives out there will pardon the dredging-up of an Obama trope, is a more obvious commitment to change. Directional kickoffs not working? Then don't do them anymore. Walk-ons and bench players not covering kickoffs well enough? Then stop being afraid to use starters. Veterans not producing? Then put the good of the team before your desire to reward seniority and give the young kids a shot. This is not about giving veterans their due, or giving the players a "challenge," or proving the worth of what you think should be considered a time-honored strategy. This is about winning games, and an emphasis on anything other than that is missing the point.
I like and respect Mark Richt both as a coach and as a human being, and he's too good in both of those capacities to fall into Tuberville Syndrome. But to avoid that fate, he's going to have to make some tough decisions over the next couple months, decisions that may test concepts such as tradition or loyalty. We've seen what happens when he unleashes the power of Evil Richt on other teams, but the time is fast approaching when he may have to be willing to turn it on his own.