I will be making the trek into to Chicago this coming Friday to make it down to South Bend for the Notre Dame game, and I cannot be any less enthused. It's going to be cold for my newly adapted Southern blood, and I'll get to witness what hopefully wont be a terrible outing for the 'Cats — can't wait.
You might say I'll be embracing the suck, and within the team, suck is seemingly fully embraced, but should it? You'll have to answer that for yourself, but I for one, am not going to buy it. If you "embrace the suck," then you're embracing this program as it sits for the next 3 games. When you look at this season in hindsight, all the worries that we had through the first two games are continuing to show up in week 11. Where should all the accountability lie? Fitz, AD, assistants, players, football alums? Where/what are the shortcomings within this football program and what can be done to get things into the right direction?
Let's take a look at the bigger issues and see if we can figure it out.
The same issues are showing up in week 11 as they did in weeks 3-4 of LAST season. A seeming increase in talent yet lack of production and the feeling of players being "held back" and not hitting their ceilings. Before the Ohio State game last year I wrote this. All the problems were the same leading up the Ohio State game as they are now. Weak line play, misuse of talent, yadda yadda yadda, but they were winning, so they weren't glaring. I wish I had written it more satirically, because it would have been spot on.
But the question remains: Where/with whom does the accountability lie? Last week, I commented on an article written by Kevin Trahan about how NU should accept a bowl bid at 5-7. After seeing comments that worried if "we went to a bowl game, the changes needed wouldn't happen and the staff would get a free pass," I elaborated and showed how things should be viewed in terms of accountability:
Just because you go 5-7 doesn't mean you need to make changes on staff and just because a team makes it to a bowl game doesn't mean the staff gets a free pass.
Head Coaches are the ones who deserve to catch heat for the W-L record and in game management (if that is their role).
Coordinators deserve heat for lack of production, miss-use of talent, or being ranked in the bottom 20% of CFB - regardless of how great your W-L is or whether or not you made a bowl.
Position Coaches deserve heat for players not playing to their abilities & mental errors - regardless of what your W-L is or whether or not you made a bowl.
Head coaches deserve heat for allowing the above to happen for a period of time deemed undesirable by fans and administration without making staff changes.
If fans want staff changes this year, and there arent, then I can see why people are saying "Fire Fitz". Until then, Pipe Down.
So with all that being said, we can now begin to unravel where accountability should lie. I think we can all say that there is certainly some deserved criticism of position coaches. Offensively, there are two groups that seemed to have underperformed given their expectations and talent. Wide receiver and quarterback were likely two of the most talented groups on paper, yet haven't seemed to come close to hitting their ceiling. It is now painfully obvious that our backup quarterbacks are not developed to where they were expected to be after seeing Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver finally get some time. You could possibly argue that offensive line should be on that list, but it's been well documented this is simply our weakest position on paper, but they certainly haven't been developed as fans have hoped either. Defensively, it is fair to say that production has risen on pace with talent. The only area you could argue otherwise is with our defensive line.
Again, from my comment:
"Coordinators deserve heat for lack of production, missuse of talent, or being ranked in the bottom 20% of CFB – regardless of how great your W-L is or whether or not you made a bowl."
I think we can sit back here and easily see who has done their job and who has not. Hankwitz and McCall both adopted a team that relied heavily on special teams to tilt the field and they came in and did wonders. Hankwitz's defenses regressed for a season or two after Persa went down, and we struggled to pick up the slack when the offense was forced to play with two very "green" quarterbacks. After that, his defenses started performing up to, if not past, expectations the past few seasons, with a bump in talent. The same cannot be said on offense. Kafka-less, Persa-less, Kain-less even with an big increase in talent at wide receiver and tight end, the performance of the offense has simply sputtered out with a handful of good-to-great performances a year and below average performances more often than not. Plan B has never seemed to work, and there has never been a, NU backup quarterback readily prepared to come in to play if a starter went down.
It should go without saying that the head coach deserves to catch heat for the W-L record. Coach Fitz knows that, and he is his biggest critic. Some people have questioned his game management. Game management wouldn't be as exaggerated if the special teams and offense were playing up to par, but it's still his job to manage the oversight of that. When it comes down to winning and losing, game management can decide games for a team. This year certainly provided ample amounts of areas and situations to critique. You never truly know what the inner workings of decision making are all about from a fan or even former player perspective, so that is something that has to be worked out within the framework of the staff. Lastly, there's a lot of value in someone who tries to work things out with the tools they have, but even more value when they know when they need new tools.
I brought up recent football alums for a pretty substantial reason. Obviously, we have little say as to what happens on the field or what goes on behind closed doors. However, every year football players who are graduating from the program are taken through their exit interviews. Here, they are encouraged to express themselves as to where they think the state of the program is, how their 4-5 year experience was, what they'd like to see changed, etc. A lot do not fully express their opinions; they either just want to be done with it or have no desire to cause confrontation. My question is, should we as recent players take some form of accountability as well? A lot of people had a chance to say something to Coach Fitz in their exit interviews. Did they? Maybe. I hope so. I didn't. But I also didn't have a poor experience with my coaches. I thoroughly enjoyed working alongside and playing for Fitz, Hank, and Bates and thought I worked with some of the best defensive minded coaches around. I guess the bigger question is, if the right people did bring issues to light, why has nothing changed?
Last year I caught some heat for being too close to the program to be giving forthright opinions and pointing out some of the glaring ineptitudes that surrounded the program. I fully understand why some may feel that way, but also feel that honesty is the best policy, and knowing that I have never had any ill will or bad intentions against anyone in the program, I always felt it was at least okay in my book. My intentions have and will always be only for what may be best for Northwestern football. This time around. I doubt I’ll be getting a lot of similar responses.
While all our issues on offensive certainly started becoming ever so more apparent after the 2013 Ohio State game, they seemed to always be there. They were just covered up. Covered up with return man who could change the game in 5-10 seconds. Covered up with the three quarterbacks in a row who could escape on third and medium and extend plays and drives (which apparently is a very desirable down & distance for us). What this season has shown us thus far is that the bare bones of our current offensive scheme is very futile without a quarterback who can, at the very least, extend a play, regardless of pedestrian o-line play or receivers that can get quick separation. Siemian's best drives have always seemed to come from an uptempo offense, and we've mainly seen that on opening drives (which are typically scripted) and two-minute drills. Yet the uptempo is rarely seen. This isn't a always an issue with the coordinator, it could very well be Coach Fitz that wants to change to more of a pound it out team. Thats fine by me, I'm from Pittsburgh. I love that style of football, but it seems to being done at the cost of losing football games.
Players' ceilings are not being met in certain position groups. I think it's a fair assessment to say there has not been much development of the wide receivers, offensive linemen or defensive linemen, or at least not at the pace most have hoped/expected. Many of the defensive linemen were highly touted, the offensive linemen seemed to all at least be solid recruits, and our wide receiver group has always seemed to be our deepest position despite the injuries sustained this year. This could fall on the shoulders of their position coach, strength program (for OL/DL), or players just simply not buying in or doing enough. Which of those three issues it could be can only be assessed from in house, not from anyone writing articles or watching on TV.
It’s pretty safe to say a lot of fans and football alums have seen more talent than we ever had on both sides of the football, as there has been a big emphasis on recruiting team speed and athleticism from Coach Fitz. Jay Hooten has done a great job making the skill guys look the part of athletically strong & fast CFB skill players. I know when Larry Lilja and Hooten were working together during my time there, Lilja handled most of the OL/DL from a strength perspective. I'm not sure how it is currently structured, but with not a lot of development in the trenches, it might be something that is looked at. As mentioned before, it could be those players just not buying in.
One of the most intrinsic qualities of the locker room seems to be missing. Excuse my language, but I firmly believe that the roster is severely lacking in the "asshole/dickhead" department. This is a point I plan on taking a much deeper dive into with another article in the near future. In short, these type of players command and create a certain type of respect and leadership in an entirely different light than the "Rah Rah" locker room leader. It is something a fan may not quite understand, but most who have strapped it on likely know what I'm speaking of. The only one I can see fitting into that role sadly retired from football recently. I should be able to point out many, many more. The teams I played on, we had many assholes and dickheads, myself included.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There will be a good hard assessment following this season, just as there always is. No one likes losing, plain and simple. I trust that Fitz will make the right decisions for the program. However it does seem the pressures building up too much not to have at least some very hard decisions regarding changes going on the offensive side of the ball.
If we do in fact have changes, most have pointed toward McCall. I've seen a lot of people who want to see a big name hire instead of an up and coming guy. It will be hard to go for a big name hire at offensive coordinator without them wanting to bring in their own assistants. Which means coaches like MacPherson and Heffner, who have seemingly done the best getting the most out of their players, would more than likely at least have to interview for their own job. Be careful what you wish for.
I think Fitz is 100 percent the right person for the job as head coach at Northwestern. and anyone saying otherwise is exactly whats wrong with this generation of CFB fans, where "what have you done for me lately" is ever more apparent. He is a great football mind, instructor, motivator, "face" of the program, liaison to the university and instills the right values that are ever so missing from college football. He's the kind of guy you give way more than 2-3 seasons of "suck" at a middle of the pack, academically-oriented Big Ten institution. My question to all fans and critics out there, because it's something that I think is certainly is a possibility, is does he do too much?
I feel he would be getting the most out of himself and the program if he were able to get an offensive coordinator that he is able to trust enough to call assistant HC/OC. If he is able to give the offensive coordinator a much longer leash on game day decision making, allowing him to focus on his best attributes as a coach, defense and simply manage the team. A Chuck Amato to Bobby Bowden type relationship, which granted wasn't very successful, but the pitch forks were out for Bowden well before Amato came on.
Northwestern can win more games than they'll lose with pedestrian/average offense, defense and special teams. Hell, they can even go to bowl games and win with the aforementioned. That's the at the very bottom of expectations, and those very bottom expectations are not being met.