As I write this, the 2008 Cal football team is checking into camp and will kick off practice tomorrow evening. Exciting times for Bear fans as hope springs eternal. But before we turn our thoughts to what this Fall will bring, it's worth taking one last look back at the debacle that was last season's football meltdown.
Much has been written about the team’s lack of leadership, the quarterback controversy and even Jeff Tedford's epiphany about giving up play calling duties. It's impossible to know exactly what happened, but based on some insights gleaned from folks who should know, a few things feel obvious:
1.) For whatever reason, the teams psyche was very brittle. Once the Bears lost to Oregon State, the team went from believing it was bullet proof to wondering if it was good at all. Moreover, the team had some sort of perfectionist death wish. The one loss was interpreted as the end of the world by the players as opposed to a speed bump. If you go back and watch the UCLA and ASU games again, you see a team pressing, one in which players weren't trusting one another (as evidenced by guys freelancing) both of which led to a host of mental mistakes. It was as if the team was defined more by arrogance than confidence. Confidence welcomes adversity and arrogance pretends it doesn't exist
2.) The leadership issue has been beaten into the ground but almost all of the discussion seems to leave out the specifics. The truth is that leaders are the best players on the team, the guys whom everyone else looks to when times get tough. For Cal last year, the clear best player was DeSean Jackson, who personified arrogance. Not only could the team not rely on him to step up when times were tough (save for his wonderful performance in Eugene), he was a catalyst to exacerbating problems by criticizing teammates without cause and furthering the quarterback controversy to the point where it divided the team. The most important player on defense last year was a guy who could not stay on the field, Matt Malele. When Malele was healthy enough to play, Cal stopped the run, when he was on the side line, teams ran against us at will. It wasn't just the talent disparity between himself and other DTs on the team (the gap was wide) but the lack of confidence the team had in any one else playing the position.
3.) A football team is defined not by its best player but its worst. A weak link in football gets exposed more often than Lindsay Lohan. Cal had two glaring weaknesses, at DT when Malele was not in the game and at place kicker. Our inability to stop the run was embarrassing as was Jordan Kay's propensity to hook half his kicks. If Malele plays healthy for the season and Kay hits 75% of his kicks instead of 50%, this team finishes with 9 or 10 wins. It really is that simple.
4.) What about the QB controversy? Longshore had a very good sophomore season and was playing well (albeit not as well as the season prior) in leading Cal to an undefeated start last year. When he got hurt, the Bears were in a tough spot. Riley had beaten out the more experienced backup Kyle Reed, who subsequently transferred, but beating out Reed does not equate to earning his head coaches full confidence. Riley is clearly a mega talent, greet feet, quick release, strong arm, all kinds of intangibles. But last October, he was a young man who the coaches perceived as cocky and unprepared. Riley was not a film fanatic nor was he the first to arrive or the last to leave for QB meetings. His grasp of the offense was more limited than fans understand. Despite that, he played well against Oregon State, including the spirited 4th quarter comeback. At least, that's how it looked to fans. The coaches had a different view. Riley did not do a good job with his progressions and reads. He flat out called the wrong play on several occasions and further cemented the coaches perception that he was talented but not well prepared. The choice was now a hobbled QB who knew the system cold and was a proven winner vs. a very talented and healthy young QB who had yet to show the maturity or the grasp of the system that is often so essential in college football. Tedford chose the former and thus we were all treated to Nate playing poorly and the team’s wide receivers going into open revolt over Riley not being on the field. Might the team have performed better if Riley had played all the games after Oregon State? Who knows? regardless, it wasn't nearly as easy a decision as fans wanted it to be. To Riley's credit, the light went on for him after the Stanford loss and he responded by buckling down and acting like a starting QB prior to the AF game.
I find ALL of the above very disturbing about what it says about our program. Let me preface this by saying that Jeff Tedford has to be recognized as a saviour to the football program and while he's not above criticism, it needs to be done with the relative understanding that we wouldn't even have the high class problem of watching a #2 ranked team melt down without him. If he were to leave this program, Cal would go so fast in reverse you wouldn't have time to say "tomholmoekeithgilbertson" before we were looking at 5 win seasons as a huge success.
With that out of the way, there are reasons to be worried. I'm concerned that a team as talented and experienced as last years team with a coach as accomplished as Tedford could literally give up against UW on its way to six losses in seven games. I'm concerned about the apparent lack of awareness of the leadership problem before the season began and moreover, the inability to address it when it made itself so abundantly clear during the season. Is the staff so stubborn and/or so wedded to a system of teaching and managing these kids that it cannot react whatsoever when the unexpected occurs? When you have wonderful talents with huge attitudes like DeSean or a complete lack of depth at a critical position (as we did at DL), can we see these proactively and manage them in a way that may not get us a perfect season but avoids the team playing WELL below its potential? I don't know if any of these issues are endemic to the program. I choose to believe they are not. Tedford's decision to give up his play calling duties speaks to a leader who understands he's too far into the details and not minding the pulse of his team. The right players this year are speaking about leadership - Follett, Davis and Mack are clearly three of the cornerstones fo the team as the best and most important players on the field and they are on record that they want to be looked at when things go awry. Tedford's off season reading included books on finding criteria more important than pure talent to judge players which may be a reaction to his mismanagement of DeSean. Tedford is a high integrity figure who knows how to teach football players to excel, who has recruited tremendous talent despite our woeful facilities and whose players graduate. He is hyper focused on succeeding and I believe will do whatever is necessary to overcome his own shortcomings. I hope last year stays with JT and his staff for the rest of their lives. Mistakes are always more instructive than success and the learning opportunity last seasons disappointment presents is huge.