Back at the beginning of the season, prior to the USF game, we all were giving our expectations for the Irish this year. As part of the discussion, I made the comment that even if we lost 4 or so games, the season could still be a success if we continue to show progress. A lot of people had a problem with that statement--after all, we lost 5 games last year, we didn't really lose anyone, finished the year strong, destroyed Miami in the bowl game, and had the greatest crop of freshmen EVER coming in. How could we lose 4 games and consider that success?
Yes. Yes that's me. And that's what I still believe. But I never thought this year would be the year we'd reach that. Nor am I convinced next year will be that year. It could be, but even if it's not, it's okay. Failure isn't not reaching your goal--failure is not progressing towards your goal. Davie, Willingham, Weis....all of them, at the time they were let go, had stopped moving forwards towards the goal, and had not met it. The goal for ND will always be the same: National Championships. Does that mean it's realistic or necessary to expect them each year? No--but we must demand and expect the team continue to progress towards that goal.
So that brings us back to this year. We've lost 3 games. We're not going to the BCS. We've fallen short of the goal for this season, 2/3 of the way in. We're not competing at a level that gets us to the NC or makes us competitive against that elite level of college football. So, we've failed, right?
In the Army, when training as a unit, we have a concept called "crawl, walk, run". The idea is that you can't run straight off--you have to learn to crawl first, then you progress to walking, then you run, then you're ready. Other organizations may use this as well, I don't know. Anyways, we use this to get units ready to deploy and go to combat--a unit that can't do the basic tasks can't be expected to go to Iraq or Afghanistan and succeed, and it's unfair to the unit to expect them to do so. Just because you throw together a bunch of soldiers doesn't mean you can run right away, even if the unit has done it before.
Let me explain: Let's say a unit, we'll call it A Company, goes to Afghanistan and does a great job, and comes home. They're good, right? I mean, they succeeded in combat, so they're capable of "running", right? Yes, the unit that did the job overseas can run. However, as soon as the unit comes back, they cease to be that unit. Some soldiers finish their enlistments and get out of the Army. Some finish their assignments and transfer to other locations. These soldiers are replaced by new soldiers that just came into the Army, and other soldiers who finished their assignments elsewhere and come in to A Company. Your commander finishes his time in command and goes somewhere else too, and you get a new Company commander. And the process begins again, even if all the soldiers coming in from elsewhere have done all their tasks successfully before in their previous units, they haven't done it as part of A Company--they haven't done it TOGETHER. So you start at the "crawl" phase: hands-on classes on how to step-by-step do the basic level tasks like shoot, move, and communicate with each other. Once those are good, you move to the "walk": putting it together in squad and so forth level exercises at your home base, controlled to test how your unit does things and improve them. Once you get that down, you move to "run": you travel to a training center like NTC or JRTC and spend an extended time doing major field problems which stress you, help you coalesce as a unit, and get you ready for full-up deployment. By this point, ideally, A Company has remade itself and the new soldiers have been integrated in, and it's a new "team". Only once this is done can you expect a unit to deploy and be successful. To deploy them without this is setting them up to fail.
What's the point of my very long-winded example? Well, first off, every year a football team goes through the same thing A Company does when they come back from deployment. Seniors graduate. Freshmen come in. The team has to work hard to get everyone on the same page, knowing their assignments, trusting others to do theirs, and get ready for the season. Now, I'm the last person to make a "war" analogy with football, and that's not what I'm trying to do. But the training aspect of it is very similar, and actually harder for the football team, because they don't get a pre-season, which would be the same as going to the training center etc.
My own thoughts are that this team has been in "walk" mode for so long, that they think they're "running" when they're actually "walking". Weis didn't get this concept at all--by not teaching and stressing fundamentals with new kids coming in, he completely ignored the "crawl" phase that's necessary to develop players and get them ready to walk. He threw them immediately into "walk" phase, and they didn't succeed, so never got to the "run" phase. Think about it--when could he get to "run" (ie, BCS games)? He when he had players from the Willingham regime. (TW never got his players out of the "crawl" phase, but at least they got to "crawl").
The GOAL never changes: RUN. RUN=Be a BCS level team. Dominate the teams you should, that you are clearly better than. Compete and win against the teams who are good/elite level. When we can do this consistently, we will be able to match up with the best around the country, and will be able to take that next step. Are we there yet? No. But we have to walk before we can run.
The team is still learning to walk. The problem is that Kelly has to not only teach them to walk, he has to teach the to crawl at the same time. In the past, we played down to the level of our competition, and you couldn't tell we were the more talented team when playing Navy, or Syracuse, or whomever. This year, okay, we lost against USF. But no one who watched the game or looked at the stats would think we were even with them. If we played them now, we'd be a 20 point favorite, easily. We didn't lose to USF. We lost to ourselves. Michigan? Same thing. You can simply look at won-loss record and determine we're not progressing. And that's your prerogative. But we just destroyed a team that has won 3 out of 4 and consistently given us trouble on defense. We did it with freshmen playing D-line. Am I pissed we didn't do better against USC? You're damn right I am. But from Game 1 this season to now, we've improved. You HAVE to crawl before you walk, and you have to walk before you can run. We can't take the next step against teams like USC or Michigan until we're handling business against Air Force and Navy. We SHOULD win the next three games. In previous years, with previous teams, SHOULD didn't mean anything. IF we can win the next three games, and in convincing fashion, then that's a significant step forward. Nobody wants to hear it, because based on the GOAL of being BCS level, we all think that's something that should just happen. Well, it doesn't just happen--it's something you have to CHANGE. Just because we all THINK it should be a given doesn't mean it is, and it hasn't been. If I come in as a new commander, I expect my unit knows how to shoot and so forth, the basics of what they need to do. But my expectation doesn't make it so--it's my job to fix it if they don't know how. That's where we are at with ND.
If this year, we can finally learn to walk, if we can finally play like a dominant team when we're supposed to, we can beat the Navy, the Air Force, the Wake Forests, etc., then that's progress. If they can learn to get up off the mat when they're down, like they did against Michigan State, like they did this week against Navy, that's progress. Does it mean lowering our standards if we accept this as success? No, no it doesn't. You can't run until you can walk consistently. You can't walk until you can crawl. Last year, we learned how to crawl. This year, we're finally walking consistently. You can't expect the team to raise their level of play for the big games until they can handle the games they should dominate.
Dominate the next 3 games. We should destroy Wake Forest, Maryland, and BC. We should BURY all of them. In the past, we might win all three, but it'd be close and by the skin of our teeth and wouldn't give us any momentum, and sense of success. If we can destroy the next three opponents, then we're set up to test ourselves against Stanford. Do I think we'll beat Stanford? No, no I don't. But I will not look at the team as failures if they don't beat Stanford. It's simply a barometer to see where we are, to judge progress in the greater scheme of things. Win the next three convincingly. Compete against Stanford. Raise your game and give yourselves a chance. Win the bowl game. THIS is success. THIS will demonstrate progress. Next year, we'll see if we can translate this ability to walk into being able to run. But we have to show we can walk. That will give us the confidence to run, to get back up when USC or Michigan punches in the mouth, and THAT will get us to where we need to be.