The first time you quit, it's hard. The second time, it gets easier.
The third time, you don't even have to think about it.
----Paul "Bear" Bryant
I've watched the University of Georgia win a lot of football games over the years. There have been big wins and little ones. SEC Championship Games and early season tuneups against the directional school du jour.
I've also watched a good number of losses. Not so many in the past 7 years as before. Not as many as a South Carolina or Vanderbilt fan of comparable age, but still several dozen. Each of those losses has a different character when viewed in hindsight, a different bitter flavor that is unmistakable even years later. Some are more bitter than others.
Saturday's was more bitter than most. As several of you have noted, it's one thing to lose to what may well be the two best teams in the country. It's another to lose to a Georgia Tech team that was not only less talented, but also exceptionally depleted by injuries. My team, your team, our team did not play up to its potential on Saturday. Again.
Coach Bryant was right. Those who quit as a matter of habit scarcely even realize that they're doing it, or why. This team has made rolling over and dying an art form this season, and it's impossible for me to understand fully the reason. Corvey Irvin gave one clue when he said that "In the first half, we were all over the field having fun, and I guess we kind of lost our composure. I guess we thought we had the game wrapped up in our pocket, but we really didn't."
That's a brilliant deduction, Sherlock Holmes. This team got bludgeoned in the first half by Alabama before almost getting back into it in the second, then got smoked in the second half to cement an embarrassing loss to Florida. How they could possibly not understand that a football game consists of two halves, and that failing to play one of them usually means you lose, is beyond me.
And while I am among the bloggers least likely to call for coaching heads to roll, make no mistake, this one falls squarely on the coaches. When you listened to this coaching staff for most of this underwhelming season, you could detect a smidgen of satisfaction. A bit of blase. It was as if they didn't see all the little things that were going wrong, and were focused only on the wins and losses. But you can only win ugly for so long. Once in a while winning ugly is gritty. When you do it every week it's just ugly football.
It's hard to turn a football team around when it starts down the wrong path. And this team has. They play soft. They play stupid. And the coaches have tolerated it. Because of injuries and what we thought would be a grueling late season schedule, they dialed back on the contact in practice from the get-go. That was a terrible miscalculation, as Coach Richt (to his credit) has admitted. The result was a team playing lots of backups who weren't prepared for the intense competition they would face on Saturdays. We were just as injured, but less prepared. In retrospect, it was a strategic decision on par with making childrens' candy in the shape of Lego blocks. In both scenarios, some kid choked, but you couldn't really blame him.
The coaches have tolerated terrible special teams play. They've made excuses for it. What they haven't done is find a way to fix it. I've become convinced that what we need is a fulltime special teams coach. A veteran guy who has nothing to do but make sure that we have a handle on the little things in the kicking game, and who can occasionally scheme in a wrinkle or two that give us the edge in a close game. Like the one we just lost.
That guy might also consider putting somebody besides Richard Samuel back to return kickoffs. I think the guy has loads of potential as a bruising tailback, but he's miscast in this role. He doesn't have the shift or shake at 220 pounds to make the gunners miss. He's returned kicks he should have fair caught, and fumbled at the worst possible times. Why Asher Allen is no longer filling this role is beyond me, unless it's that our starters are too good to play special teams. We wouldn't want them to get tired, after all.
Urban Meyer sure doesn't want Chris Rainey to get tired, either. I can't figure out how the sneaky little devil keeps getting in the game on special teams. Oh yeah, his coaches are willing to do what it takes to win. And I'm not even going to address Blair Walsh's stupifying inability to kick a football into the endzone despite having, allegedly, one of the strongest legs in recent memory. Is it effort? Coaching? I don't know, but it's got to be fixed.
I hate to say it, Bulldog Nation, but we are at a crossroads. We should know in a matter of weeks whether we will be losing the only quarterback on our roster with significant game experience and the tailback who arguably kept this foundering ship afloat. My guess is that we lose both. We will be opening the season on the road in 2009 against an Oklahoma State team that could start the season in the top 5. Florida will be better next season behind a veteran offensive line, maturing defense, and a stable of returning skill players. Georgia Tech will have a full year of option offense and better personnel to run it.
LSU will be LSU, only with their new Jamarcus Russell clone at quarterback instead of a semiautomatic interception dispenser disguised as Jarrett Lee. Even Arkansas looks like a much better team under Bobby Petrino than they did in the early going. Anyone who tells you a 5-7, Auburn-style implosion is out of the question next year is sorely mistaken. Speaking of Auburn, does anyone really think they'll be worse than they were this season? Just another little something to chew on.
Inexperience in key positions and a tough schedule are bad enough. A lack of discipline and focus won't make things any better. As a preliminary list, here are things that one guy thinks need to happen if we are to put this disappointing season in the rearview:
- Getting healthy. The injuries took their toll this season. Make no mistake about that. While injuries in fall camp are no excuse for phoning it in on defense in the second half of the twelfth game, they did deprive this team of a lot of momentum in the early going. It seemed like we spent a lot of time just trying to get our collective heads back above water while other teams (Florida comes to mind) swam past us Michael Phelps-style. This team will get a lot better if we can just keep the same 11 guys on the field at the same time.
- A fulltime special teams coordinator. As noted above, our special teams put us in bad positions all year long. Missed field goals, bad kickoffs, poor coverage and poorer kick returning put this team behind the eight ball on a dozen or more drives. A coach of mine once told us that there are three phases to a football game, offense, defense and special teams. He believed that if you won two out of three of them, you would have a hard time losing. My subsequent observations have not proven him wrong. If we're going to play with an inexperienced quarterback and refuse to play consistent defense, we need to at least win the special teams battle. Coach Fabris is a great coach. Anyone who's seen him work up close knows that there's not a better motivator in college football. The guy can get you jacked up from 50 feet away. But asking him to handle both special teams and our young defensive ends is just too much. Speaking of which . . .
- Better defensive end play. I am not a proponent of firing Willie Martinez. It's amazing how quickly people have forgotten his "brilliant" gameplans against Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma State in 2007. However, if we're going to win with his system we have to have all the parts. This means somebody has to become a game changer on the outside. I'm less convinced than before that it's going to be Rod Battle. But Justin Houston looked better and better as the year went on, and may be the guy. Cornelius Washington is a fast, physical edge rusher, and Toby Jackson has as quick a first step as I've seen. Whoever we look to, Coach Fabris has a heck of a job ahead of him, one which needs to be his primary focus.
- First Snap. Last Snap. Every Snap. It occurred to me over the weekend that the "Finish the Drill" mantra is a good one. But after 7 years it may have finally become so much background noise. This is my personal attempt at a new motto for this team, which has either failed to show up for the first snap or failed to hang around mentally for the last one. I'll be printing up the teeshirts later. Preorder now.
- Contact and competition. This team looked soft to me. And football teams don't go soft overnight, nor do they toughen back up overnight. If I see another damned trip to the pool during fall camp, or hear about the players "deserving a day off" in August, I'm going to go apoplectic. This team needs a steel-toed boot jammed into it in the worst way. It needs to be reminded that "good enough" just isn't good enough. On the road of life, you generally wind up getting precisely as far as you're willing to carry yourself, and this team has shown a tendency to be pretty satisfied with itself prior to Saturday. We'll see if they still are come bowl season.
I'll be back this evening to talk some hoops. Until then, feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, and . . .