I remember when I first realized that Mark Richt was taking the program some place it hadn’t been in a long time. Ironically, that time came during a loss – the ’02 Florida game. But it was at some time during the first half when I saw the defense routinely (key word, there) stuffing an offense that had given it nothing but fits for more than a decade that I knew those guys could play with anybody. There was an attitude, a confidence about the way they went about their business that made me feel like that. And it started with the guy at the top.
So if you’re expecting me to start raving about how it’s time for Richt to go, or how Damon needs to start issuing ultimatums today, by Gawd, then this post is going to be a disappointment. Mark Richt is a good man and a great head coach. He hasn’t stopped being either of those.
But… but. I’ve read Macon Dawg’s reasoned, thoughtful comments about how this isn’t the first time Georgia’s suffered a humiliating loss, and while I agree to a point with his reasoning, I think there’s more going on than that. Mark Richt wakes up this morning as the captain of a very dysfunctional ship. I doubt there’s anyone in the Dawgnation, including the head coach, who feels same way about the program today as I did in Jacksonville seven years ago.
If I had to put my finger on what’s wrong, I’d call it a crisis of faith. I don’t mean that in a religious sense. (By the way, of all the arguments I’ve seen about what’s wrong, blaming Coach Richt’s religious convictions for the slide has to rank as the dumbest.) Rather, it’s a systemic doubt: the coaches lack faith in the players to execute and the players lack faith in the coaches’ ability to deploy them efficiently and effectively.
Speaking of irony, how else can you describe that in Richt’s self-proclaimed year without stars, this team seems more reliant than ever on hoping that it can ride sheer talent to get through a game? That’s why the offense goes through complete games where the winning strategy is little more than throw it to A.J. And that’s why you see dumb decisions on the field every week, like Prince Miller electing to return a punt from his goal line.
I’m certain Miller knows in the aftermath it was a silly thing to do. We’ll probably hear an acknowledgement from him of that some time this week, just like we heard from Brandon Boykin last week about his decision to run back an interception from deep in his end zone. But in the heat of the moment, look for these kids to keep doing things just like that – because that’s what Georgia football boils down to these days, hoping that somebody can pull off a game saving play all by their lonesome. It’s certainly entertaining, but it’s no way to sustain a program over the course of a season. Or seasons, as it’s starting to appear.
And that’s why I have to beg to differ with Macon Dawg, at least a little. What depresses me the most about what I saw yesterday is that none of the bad happened in a vacuum. There were plenty of little instances and bigger things that echo developments we’ve been observing for some time now.
Here are three of those things for you to ponder as much as I have:
- Blair Walsh. Here’s a stat that should blow you away – Walsh leads the SEC in touchbacks. Let me say that again. Blair Walsh has had more kickoffs result in touchbacks than any other kicker in the SEC. He’s made all his PATs and he’s 9 of 10 in field goal attempts. 50+ yard field goals are getting to be the norm for him. In short, he’s having an all-SEC season. Yet to hear it from his coaches, you’d think he’s a significant part of Georgia’s special teams problems. The insistence on directional kicking in the face of Walsh’s leg strength has gone from puzzling to frustrating to absurd. Insane is just around the corner, I’m afraid.
- Jonathan Crompton had a career day. Willie Martinez’ epitaph? If not his, sad to say, it may wind up as Richt’s. You simply can’t survive as a head coach at Georgia if your teams can’t play defense competently. And at this point, I’d settle quite happily for competence. There’s no other way to say it than that Georgia’s defense is flat out bad right now. The team’s Pavlovian reactions to misdirection and play action are predictable, to the point of being reliable – just ask Kiffin – and are exacerbated by poor fundamentals. The number of quarterbacks (and tight ends) who have enjoyed Georgia’s defensive bounty grows at a consistent and alarming rate. That’s the worst part of Crompton’s performance: nobody was surprised.
- Spiking the ball with one second on the clock. I don’t know who made that Reggie-Ball-on-fourth-down-esque decision. But it’s embarrassing that anyone associated with this program did. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of another SEC coach that would try something like that.
If it sounds like I’m putting the onus of the situation on the coaches’ shoulders, you’re right. The first responsibility of a good coach isn’t recruiting or scheme or play calling, although they’re all important. It’s motivation. It’s getting your kids to buy into what you’re doing and believing that the program has an identity. It’s why Tennessee smoked Georgia yesterday. It’s why Georgia is going to struggle to win seven games this year.
And there simply isn’t a valid excuse as to why this program, with all of the talent and resources it has at hand, should have to struggle to do that. The rock music critic Greil Marcus had a great line about Rod Stewart – rarely has a singer betrayed his talent so completely – that isn’t on point for Mark Richt, at least not yet. But it concerns me that it still came to mind unbidden after watching yesterday’s loss. Right now, if there’s a bigger underachiever in college football than this Georgia squad, I can’t think of it.
It’s not realistic to expect changes between now and season’s end. And I don’t want Richt rushing off half cocked on big changes, anyway. (Besides, who could he bring in midseason, even if he wanted to make a change in coaching?)
But there’s one change he could and should make now. They need to quit throwing kids under the bus in public. That’s not to say that there aren’t some decisions on the personnel front that are due. But the comments in the press need to stop. In some cases, like Walsh’s, they’re not only disheartening, they’re increasingly stupid in light of the performance on the field. And whatever else Richt has to say to Martinez this week, something needs to be said about behaving like a petulant adolescent during a game when a player makes a mistake. Throwing a clipboard after a penalty may feel good, but it looks bad. There’s a reason Spurrier is mocked for acting like that. There’s also a reason he gets away with it. And Willie doesn’t have that luxury.
It’s apparent from their post game comments that these kids are hurting. Yet they’ve managed to acknowledge how things are falling short without pointing fingers in the press at themselves or their coaches. There’s a dignity in kids like Rennie Curran that deserves our support. And that of the coaches.
One last thing. I hope this is just a sentiment of the moment, and I know it’s hard to resist circling the wagons when things are going badly, but Mark Richt needs to reconsider and reject this kind of thinking:
“If you’re a leader or a player and you are brave enough to be in the arena, there’s going to be people outside the arena that want to throw things at you and say things about you,” Richt said. “But there’s honor in being in the arena, and a lot of people don’t understand it because they’ve never been in there.”
Coach, you’re better than that. We’re not the issue here. The real problems you face are fixable, although the fix won’t be pleasant. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. After all, it’s not like you haven’t done it before. I’ve no doubt you’re capable of doing it again.