Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This Week's Extended Metaphor: Harvey Dent

Notre Dame 24, Purdue 21

“Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
–Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

In Notre Dame football, there’s a pretty easy litmus test for whether you go down in the record books as a hero or a villain.

1. Did you lead the Fighting Irish to a national championship?
If YES – congratulations! You will go down in the annals of ND Football history as one of the greats, be commonly referred to by just one of your names (Rockne, Ara, Lou, etc.), stay in the consciousness of Irish fans for generations to come, and eventually have a bronze statue erected in your honor in the vicinity of Notre Dame Stadium.
If NO—please proceed to question two.

2. Is your name Bob Davie?
If NO—congratulations! Your name will be dropped out of the average Notre Dame fan’s cultural memory in ten years or less.
If YES—Don’t you wish members of the media would stop mentioning your affiliation with Notre Dame? Me too. It would be great if, the next time someone brings it up, you could just stop pretending like you know what the hell you’re talking about. K-thx-bye.

Obviously, the heroes are the ones we like to remember. Notre Dame won at least one national championship in every decade in the twentieth century except for the first and the last. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Notre Dame was still learning how to play the game. And in the last…well, you could make the argument that ND should have won another national championship in the 1990’s. When speaking of that 1993 season, Lou Holtz certainly does. (If they ever invent time travel, I’m going back to that ’93 Boston College game and making sure their kicker has a case of blistering turf toe the likes of which Jimmy has never imagined.)

But as much as I’d like to agree with Lou, that’s really neither here nor there. What matters—what’s frustrating—what’s been eating Notre Dame fans alive pretty much since the end of the 1993 season—is that we are in the longest dry spell in Notre Dame history. We’ve failed to win a national championship for twenty years, we coughed up the all-time win record to Michigan (and then watched as the two winningest programs in college football history suffered through back-to-back 3-9 seasons), and we lost our chance to assuage some of the pain with an 8th Heisman Trophy to some chump quarterback from Ohio State whose name nobody even remembers anymore. (Screw you, Whatsyourname, Jr. Are YOU a starting quarterback in the NFL right now? NO!)

And as the worst decade of Notre Dame football in a hundred years comes to a close, everybody seems to have the same thing on their minds….

Charlie: The Weis Knight

That ten-year contract is looming large in the psyche of, oh, pretty much every Notre Dame fan ever. Widely regarded as a Really Stupid Move by everyone with 20/20 hindsight and also most human beings who do not have the initials CW, KW, or JJ (why not try actually WINNING a bowl game before you decide to renew your coach’s contract?), the 10-year deal has been an object of intense scrutiny over the past couple seasons as angry fans and rich alumni have debated just how much it would actually cost to buy the contract out. (My estimate? Three times the annual GDP of Haiti, multiplied by how many times Jimmy has complained about turf toe this season, divided by the percentage of yellow-seat ticket holders who would actually pay out of their own pockets to see the Offensive Guru go.)

Regardless of how you felt about the contract when it was first signed, you may recall that, in his first two seasons, it was pretty hard to hate Charlie. What kind of insults do you throw at a guy with 4 Superbowl rings who molds a 50% passer into a Heisman candidate in one season flat (Brady finished 4th in Heisman voting his Junior year, just in case you have forgotten) and takes his team to BCS bowls two years in a row? For two seasons, jokes about hamburgers were pretty much the worst we got…and those kinds of jokes are pretty weak and easy to ignore when your team is ranked in the top 10 and taking you to New Orleans for New Year’s.

And then came the beginning of the end. A 3-9 season followed by a 6-6 season that only barely managed to redeem itself with a long-awaited bowl win. And now, some fans would have you believe, it’s a BCS bowl or bust for Charlie.

It’s funny how quickly Notre Dame fans can go all Harvey Dent on your ass.

Being Two-Face

So, for those of you unfamiliar with the film The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is the dashing D.A. of Gotham—its public face of good, its White Knight. Through a series of dire and tragic circumstances, he develops into the villain Two-Face—so called because half of his face has been burned off and disfigured, while the other half remains quite normal and dashing-looking.

Two-Face carries with him a coin, which he flips to make important decisions, like whether to order eggs or pancakes for breakfast, or whether he should blow his archenemy’s brains out.

Anyway, the point is that I feel like, as Irish fans, we all play the role of Two-Face. At the beginning of a coach’s career, we show our good side and throw our coins into the air, hoping for the best. We watch eagerly as our coins glint in the sun and wait for a verdict—having thrown the coins high enough so that it’s a season or two (or three) before they land. As football fans, which way the coin lands is hopefully being influenced by something with a little bit more gravity than…gravity…but even so, it seems like when the coin lands, that is it.

If you’re a Lou or an Ara, or a Rockne or a Leahy, you’re a coach who’s managed to take the Irish to a national championship victory in his third season. Your side of the coin will be forever shiny.

If not…you’d better give us a reason to re-flip our coins pretty fast (i.e., put your team in a position to win a championship or at least a BCS bowl game), or we’ll run you out of town with pitchforks and burning shillelaghs.

Personally, at this point, I agree with the gurus over at Blue-Gray Sky—I wouldn’t be sad to see Charlie go, but unless we’ve got a truly talented coach waiting in the wings, there’s simply no point getting rid of him. Now is not the time to be buying out million-dollar contracts—not unless we’re sure there’s another coach out there who’s truly worth the check.

Other binaries

Sometimes I feel like there’s a cosmic coin toss going up before each game. Which team will show up to play today? The team that was practically perfect (in terms of penalties) as it trounced Nevada, or the team hobbling and wobbling with yellow flags and turf toe as it tried really hard to lose to both Michigan State and Purdue? Because, among other things, this is a team that’s just not meeting its potential.

You know, you don’t have to be a team oozing with talent to win football games. Talent makes a difference, as players in this decade like Michael Floyd and Julius Jones and Shane Walton have certainly proven. And it’s hard to be really good without talent.

But even without slop buckets full of talent (and I’m not saying we don’t have talent—I’m just saying we’ve got no excuses), you can still be good. It doesn’t take talent to go to the weight room or the training field and properly condition yourself for the season. It doesn’t take talent to study the playbook and know what you’re supposed to do on the field. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of talent to have fundamentals drilled into your head until your brain turns to mush and you react without thinking. All it takes to accomplish that is grit and determination and passion.

And that’s most of football, isn’t it? Grit and determination and passion? Sixty percent mental, forty percent physical—or so says the movie Little Giants?

It seems to me like potential’s one of the worst things to have. Potential means you’ve got all this pressure and all this expectation and, at the end of the day, nothing to show for it but frustration if things don’t pan out the way you know they could. But in football, as in life, could haves/would haves/should haves mean absolutely nothing—unless, next time, you turn a “coulda woulda shoulda” situation into a “dude I just totally f*%$-ing smoked that shit” situation.

And frustration over all this wasted potential is what’s got me Harvey Dent-ing it up in the stands. At the end of the Purdue game, I swear to you, I did not react when they scored that final touchdown. At least not right away. I was too busy being a gloom-and-doom girl, convincing myself that we were going to lose and steeling myself for the crushing sense of defeat and long night of heckling that was sure to follow.

But eventually, after all the players on the sideline pumped their golden helmets into the air and began rushing toward that end zone like a river bursting through a dam, it hit me--oh hey, maybe you SHOULD be cheering right now. So I jumped up and down and screamed and tried to pull the euphoria out from beneath my sense of temporary paralysis. But it didn’t quite work as well as usual, because I was still standing there with my knees shaking thinking OMFG we had this thing sealed up in the second quarter What The F happened? And I was too busy being pissed off at our team for playing the same damn sloppy-ass game three weeks in a row to even really be happy that we won. And thinking to myself, dear God, if we’re 3-1 right now, why does it feel like we’re 1-3?

And then I wondered—when did I get this way? I mean, if you know me at all, you know I’ve been a complete psychopath about football since high school, so that’s not what I mean. What I mean is—when did I become such an effing DOWNER? There was a time, I do recall, when no matter how badly we were losing, no matter how badly we were playing, I would calculate the likelihood of miraculous fourth-quarter comebacks in my head and cheer until the final whistle blew. Of course, I still always cheer until the final whistle blows, but so far this season it’s been slightly more debatable whether I’ll make it to the final whistle alive, let alone cheering.

Which is, you know, not good.

And now for the main event

All of this waffle aside, let’s talk about the actual football game.

It’s obvious that this team is not the team it has been for the last two seasons. This is a team that can win close games. This is a team that is not going to cough it up to 3-9lameduckcoach Syracuse on Senior Day and make David Bruton cry. This is not a team that’s going down without a fight.

However, this is also not a team that’s going to win the hearts of America—or, more pertinently, save Charlie’s job—anytime soon.

Noticeable progress in the O-line aside, the main improvements in the team this year don’t really have anything to do with blocking, tackling, catching, or stripping the ball. Instead, the main improvements are in team unity, maturity, and leadership. Golden Tate saying he loves having the pressure on him, because that means he gets a chance to help out his team. Jimmy Clausen campaigning for the chance to lead the team on a last-minute 4th quarter touchdown drive, should the need arise. Kyle Rudolph looking at his quarterback in the huddle on 4th down and saying, “Jimmy, give me the ball.” Pretty much everyone in the offensive depth chart saying, “hell yes, we are prepared to step up and make plays in the face of Mike’s/Armando’s/Jimmy’s injury.”

And they did. For three quarters or so.

You want to hear an interesting stat? In the third quarter, when it was all Dayne Crist & the Second-String Superstars (would be a really bad name for a rock band), we kicked the shit out of Purdue in the time of possession battle, 11:40 to 3:20. You remember how many drives Notre Dame had in the third quarter? Two. Yep, that’s right, it took us nearly twelve minutes of game time to engineer two drives downfield. On the first drive, it took us five and a half minutes to get from our own twenty-two yard line to the fifty yard line, and then we had to punt the ball away. On our second drive of the third quarter, we kept the ball for six and a half minutes, and this time drove from our own seventeen yard line to the Purdue forty-one yard line before turning it over on downs.

The third quarter was the only quarter of the game in which neither team scored.

And you’d think, after all that rest we gave our defense, they wouldn’t have choked up two more touchdowns to Purdue—both through the air, and one on an astonishing breakdown in our secondary that left Jaycen Taylor so wide open he could’ve been a barn door.

I think we’ve got good players in our secondary—Robert Blanton was second in tackles this week to the usual team leader, Kyle McCarthy, and our other corner, Darrin Walls, intercepted the ball in the fourth quarter, which unfortunately amounted to nothing—but Purdue threw for 289 yards on Saturday, and there’s NO WAY Purdue’s last touchdown should have happened the way it did. (Somebody screwed up BIG on that play.) At the very least, our pass rush leaves much to be desired. And you’ve got to ask yourself—what GOOD does Tenuta’s aggressive, blitz-happy play-calling do when none of the players seem to know how to make a proper tackle? How about drilling that instead of schemes for a change? And what about stripping the ball? I mean, when is the last time one of our defensive players forced a fumble? Can you even remember that far back? My heart bleeds remembering a time when this was a very real and palpable possibility:


On offense, we got some good production out of the Wildcat formation—which makes my heart bleed, because you all know how I feel about the Wildcat formation. I thought our second string played pretty decent, all things considered (re: chewing up the entire clock in the third quarter), though it was monumentally frustrating that we didn’t manage to convert a fourth down until the fourth quarter.

Also—WTF Charlie on the short-yardage situations??? What, a 4th-and-1 doesn’t seem like a good time for a QB keeper to you? If you’re worried about Jimmy’s toe, direct snap it to Tate or Hughes or, gee, I don’t know, DAYNE CRIST or someone and have them barrel it over the line. Deciding to go for it from the SHOTGUN on a 4th-and-1 is basically like slapping your oversized, supremely experienced offensive line across the face with the white glove of arrogance and saying, “Puh! I spit on convention! Opposing defensive coordinator, I challenge you to a DUEL.”

A duel which you promptly lose, because WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND calls a play from shotgun on a 4th-and-1??!?!??!?!? I don’t CARE if your starting running back is out and your starting QB’s toe is injured—that’s what you’ve got a big, all-day-tough Brady Quinn-sized quarterback for! A quarterback who (you said it yourself, I believe) brings something to the table Jimmy doesn’t—he can actually scramble.

You know Charlie, sometimes I think to myself, damn, that man is good at his job. It’s just too bad you still think your job is to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL, because that’s how you run your offense. And the rest of the team suffers—special teams, defense, fundamentals, mental conditioning to avoid the sea of yellow flags in every game—because once again you’re too busy scheming to fulfill all of your duties as head coach.

I mean, I’m not saying I know what it’s like to be a college football head coach, I’m just saying…it still doesn’t feel like you’re working to figure out the college game here; it feels like you’re still intent on implementing all the fancy-ass crap you had in the NFL. Which only works, you may have noticed, when you’ve got a quarterback who’s mature enough to handle the pressure. Jimmy’s getting there, sure, but even so—it took him almost three years. You can’t play successful college ball in a system that requires a Tom Brady / Brady-Quinn-as-an-upperclassman level of maturity from Day 1. This is still a team sport, you may recall. If your solution to take the pressure off your starting QB when he’s injured is to go to the Wildcat formation as much as possible and remove the quarterback from the game entirely, this may be a sign that your offense, as a whole, puts too much pressure on the quarterback.

I’m not saying it’s not a good offensive system. I’m just saying it’s a stupidass move to try to hold on to this kind of system in college.

And by now, for serious, you should know better.

Heads or tails?

So…where is the rest of this season going to land? We keep playing sloppy, keep playing like we don’t deserve to win, even though in all three of our previous games, we were clearly the team that should have won, with a way wider margin of victory. We failed to run the clock out against Michigan. We escaped from the MSU game with a stunning interception by Kyle McCarthy. We let Purdue claw their way back into a game that should have been slammed soundly shut in the third quarter, and we barely fell across the touchdown line to make it a last-second win.

If our defense would bone up and we could get rid of the excessive penalties, we’d be in a lot better shape. That, combined with a healthy Clausen and a healthy Floyd, would put us in really good shape to take on USC.

As it is, however, I’m worried about us scraping past Washington. Do I think we can beat Washington? Why, yes. But then, I think we could beat any team on this schedule if we could just manage to play to our effing potential. Sometimes our defense stuffs the other team and forces them to three-and-outs…it would be great if they could do this more often. Sometimes our offense executes brilliant last-minute drives down the field…it would be great if they could do that with more consistency and less desperation. Sometimes our special teams plays like they were the #1 kickoff coverage unit in the country last year…but it would be great if we could get some more hangtime on our kicks and some better blocking on our returns.

And as for me? I’m putting away the dark side of the coin. We could be 1-3 right now. We could be 4-0. But we’re not—we’re 3-1. We’re playing sloppy, but any day now that could all go away, and we could go out there and kick the ever-loving shit out of a team in a way that no one’s expecting but everyone’s hoping for.

All of that is entirely out of my hands, of course, so I’ve got nothing left to do but watch the shiny side of my coin glint in the sun, waiting to see if its optimistic flashes are hints of glory—or just a fancy, scheming, Charlie-shaped mirage playing tricks with the light.

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