Thursday, October 15, 2009
O’Brien 2.5: The State Of State Football At The Halfway Point
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s likely not too smart to grade Pack football coach Tom O’Brien immediately following one of the most embarrassing and disturbing losses in the history of NC State football. However, I’m a believer that every new coach should receive five years to instill his program and his kids before the subject of his dismissal—or a contract extension—should be broached. Keeping that in mind, we’re now 2.5 years into the O’Brien era … so let’s have a (not totally comprehensive) report card of the progress halfway toward that five-year mark.
Gameday Coaching: C
Why is this category first? Because nothing else matters except Saturdays (and sometimes Thursdays). Each and every measurement begins and ends with gameday. Keep in mind that this category is substantially and crucially different than preparation; this involves making in-game adjustments based on what the other team is doing. Winning the third quarter is usually a fairly good indication that what you are seeing in the first half and reacting to during halftime changes is working. Frankly, this is an area that has been woefully disappointing since O’Brien arrived; too often, the damn-the-torpedoes resolve (hell, he’s an ex-Marine) involved in sticking with a plan and hoping it eventually pays off has been found to be wanting against the better coaches. Among all the categories in which you can grade a coach, this one is perhaps most disturbing to me.
To be fair, this is an area where O’Brien has actually been a pleasant surprise, in most quarters. He has long been considered to have a tremendous eye for talent, with some even describing him as an advance scout for Notre Dame when he was the head man at Boston College (i.e., he would spot a player at B.C., offer him a scholly, N.D. would see that happen, swoop in and land the player). To some who rely too much on rankings and get star-struck, there would appear to be an over-reliance on “sleepers.” However, O’Brien and his staff have proven that not only are they adept at recruiting to a system and signing players who match their profile, but they are also increasingly able to land big-time talents who are coveted by major programs. This grade would be higher if there were a couple fewer unqualified players every year and the on-field results were trending upward a little more clearly, but I think the recruiting philosophy is a winnable blend of system additions and difference-makers, and it will bear out as a successful approach in the long run.
Preparation/Game Planning: C+
The hard part is that the blame for woeful early-season starts has to be bundled into this category -- but so to do the strong finishes that have occurred in O’Brien’s first two seasons. For the most part, the staff has done a fairly good job of anticipating what the foe is going to do and fashioning a game plan that maximizes advantages and addresses shortcomings, especially (as with Herb Sendek in basketball) when there is additional time to do so. However, holes in the system have appeared in Year 3, with the predictability on the Pack’s part and the element of surprise on the opponent’s side leading to mind-boggling losses at Wake Forest and at home to Duke. Initially, this has been perceived to be a strength of this staff, but the relative lack of results in the era-defining Year 3 is setting off alarm bells throughout Wolfpack Nation.
Player Development: B-
Another very tough grade because there are areas where player development is easy to see (along the lines of scrimmage) and other areas where the lack of development is glaring (secondary, linebacker). Year 3 has demonstrated an almost unconscionable lack of fundamentals in some spots, which have been graphically displayed in the sheer number of missed tackles and dropped passes. Shortcomings in this category also have to be attributing to the slow starts under O’Brien as well. However, if you believe that games are won and lost on the line of scrimmage (as I do), this grade should get a requisite boost thanks to what would appear to the development of potentially dominant defensive and offensive lines. However, in Year 3, once again, whether this category can be perceived as a strength or weakness of this staff is certainly up for debate due to recent performances.
One of the biggest criticisms of Chuck Amato (and rightfully so) was his inability to retain assistants from year to year, thus losing any semblance of continuity within the program. Now, though, the question has shifted into whether continuity should trump an overly loyal approach to assistants who don’t appear to be getting the job done. Does O’Brien have the fortitude to say goodbye to someone he hired or has a longstanding relationship with? If this is truly a “performance-based organization,” as he has repeatedly stated, at what point do you stop wandering down a certain road and start looking for a new path? These are legitimate questions for the offseason, should the Pack season continue to deteriorate at its current pace. But on the whole, O’Brien has assembled a loyal, hard-working, tireless group of football junkies who love to recruit … one would like to believe that that eventually has to pay off.
The presence of Russell Wilson automatically bumps this grade up a notch or two, because what he has done is bring playmaking ability into a sound system that relies on the winning of one-on-one matchups. As the trump card, Wilson has the ability to save a play by making something out of nothing with his feet, and coordinator Dana Bible also deserves a lot of credit for tailoring his offense to match Wilson’s strengths, instead of the other way around. Now, whether or not the playcalling itself is too vanilla or conservative is certainly a viable question. Too often, defenses seem to know what play is coming based on formation, and it would appear that every time Wilson is under center, a run is coming. Bible has long been dogged by the reputation that he plays it too close to the vest (State has used maybe two trick plays on offense since O’Brien’s staff arrived), but his willingness to institute spread offense principles represents a departure from his desired offense and a willingness to play to personnel strengths, resulting in a sound grade overall.
Here, opinions range quite a bit, most revolving around the ability—or lack thereof—of coordinator Mike Archer. On the plus side, State’s defense this year features more 3-4 principles and the defensive line has been both stout against the run and strong on the pass rush. On the down side, the Pack has been able to get precious few turnovers, has been devastated by inconsistency at linebacker and has been destroyed by inexperience and lack of fundamentals in the defensive backfield. To be fair, the Wolfpack has lost perhaps the best overall player on its team in linebacker Nate Irving and another playmaker in safety Javon Walker, whose career has ended abruptly. Teams attacked the seams in Irving’s absence last year, and when you combine his loss this year with the fact that the Wolfpack is horrible (there’s no other word for it) at cornerback, then basically teams can attack the middle and the boundaries of the field with short passes with abandon—and have. Where NC State is now is the secondary is too undisciplined to play zone successfully and too unathletic to play man successfully, which has allowed teams to attack through the air relentlessly with quick passes on three-step drops, rendering ineffective the Pack’s lone defensive strength: the defensive line. Now, the plus side is that it will be easy to predict what opposing offenses are going to do to State from here on out; the down side is that this coaching staff has proven to be powerless to stop it even when it knows exactly what is coming. How the second half of the ’09 season plays out will go a long way toward determining many of the categories above—and which grades need to be altered.
Special Teams: D
In a word, unacceptable. State either has the wrong guys on special teams, the wrong schemes on special teams, the wrong emphasis on special teams or the wrong recruiting approach to special teams—or all of the above. The punter has to hope for 20-yard rolls to approach respectable punting averages when it isn’t getting blocked, the kicker is obsolete beyond 40 yards and can’t reach the 10-yard line on kickoffs, the coverage units aren’t disciplined or tough enough to handle assignments, and the return teams are led by a guy who goes 95 yards 2% of the time and runs 35 miles an hour into the kidneys of his own blockers the other 98% of the time. The Pack has a helluva snapper, though. Seriously, Jerry Petercuskie may be a strong recruiting coordinator, but as a special teams leader, he has to be aware that his job is in jeopardy, because his unit’s performance has been simply inexcusable, and outside of Steven Hauschka in O’Brien’s first year, this phase of the program has been surprisingly inadequate.
Results/Overall Grade: C+
Ah yes … the nitty gritty. NC State is 14-17 overall and 7-11 in ACC play thus far under O’Brien. The 5-7 mark in Year 1 actually represented a strong coaching effort considering what was left O’Brien & Co., and last year’s turnaround and four-game winning streak to earn a bowl berth was very impressive as well. Perhaps unfortunately for O’Brien and his staff, though, that finish led to high hopes for the Wolfpack heading into 2009, spurred by the return of the ACC Offensive Player of the Year in Wilson, the decision of standout end Willie Young to bypass the NFL for one more season, the return to health of a few key players and a favorable schedule. In most quarters, the expectations were tempered quite a bit by the loss of Irving (it was underestimated, in my opinion), but the lackluster outing in the season opener against South Carolina sent a shock wave through the Pack faithful. Lopsided wins over Murray State and Gardner-Webb proved that the Wolfpack could dismantle the teams it was supposed to beat, and a thrilling victory over Pitt showed that State could play with the big boys. Laying cracked and stinky eggs in the first two conference matchups against eminently beatable Wake Forest and Duke, however, suddenly throws into question the actual direction of the program.
It may not be entirely fair to place so much of the emphasis on the referendum on O’Brien’s tenure on Year 3 instead of the first two campaigns (although the grade is a bit higher due to the strong finishes in the 2007 and 2008), but the reality is that Year 3 is usually when programs on solid footing under a new coach tend to begin emerging. NC State has displayed time and again that it is a second-half team under O’Brien, but that reduced margin for error is going to catch up with any team eventually. Is this the year? That remains to be seen, but one suspects that the Wolfpack had better win a couple of games it is not supposed to win in order to take some of the heat off of O’Brien, because those howls in the distance are much closer than they appear—and they sure as hell ain’t wolves.