Morning Coffee Talks Strategy

Tim Tebow wants an embedded journalist. I approve. When earlier today I heard Thom Brennaman’s boyfriend is coming back for his senior season, my first thought was, "Damn…. Maybe Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes will decide to come back, too, setting up a repeat run for the Gators reminiscent of their 2006-07 national title run in basketball." But as I sat down to write this morning’s notes an entirely different thought popped into my head: Oh this could be good for Texas... Real good.

Talking to Big Roy on the phone earlier tonight, we were discussing some of the similarities between 2004 and 2008, and whether any of them suggested for next year’s Texas team a season like 2005. Though it didn’t occur to me until just now, I have to say: Tim Tebow’s announcement may just set up yet another impossible-to-ignore parallel. The Gators are now all but guaranteed to start the 2009 season the consensus #1 team in America, a strong start will guarantee talk early and often about the Gators' potential to be the Best Team In The History Of Ever, ESPN's Shelley Smith may just find herself issued a season-long set of blue and orange knee pads, and Texas... could find itself the #2 team in hot pursuit. I've read this story before.

Did I mention that next year’s title game is in Pasadena?

Mysticism aside, Mack Brown hasn't over his career proven himself a particularly strong front-runner. Tim Tebow’s return could do wonders to prep both Brown's and the 2009 Longhorns’ attitudes for a get-nasty, prove-‘em-wrong title run like that which we saw last the last time college football's champion was crowned at the Rose Bowl.

The game behind the ganme. While reader Longhorn In Canada probably overstates my case, I can agree that the Titans’ loss on Saturday presented an excellent reason to revisit my December post about Jeff Fisher’s usage of Vince Young. Though a day after my article Kerry Collins made untenable the idea of being aggressive with Vince Young’s assignments (say, inserting him as a starter), there was little in Tennessee’s win over Pittsburgh that suggested to me the Titans were so set on offense that they could or should rest on their laurels.

I don't dispute at all that on Saturday Tennessee was doomed by bad luck with red zone turnovers and may well have won the game had Chris Johnson not been injured in the second quarter. Even so, I re-raise this issue not in defense of myself but to point out how the original strategic point bears relevance to Texas football fans looking forward to 2009 and beyond. In particular, I’m interested in how the Titans’ Saturday struggles speak to why Jeff Fisher’s passive approach towards offensive improvement was a failure.

Even where we can all agree that Kerry Collins as starter was the right move, in moving beyond that Jeff Fisher essentially had two options: (1) Continue conservatively by banking on the status quo, which was heavily dependent on A+ defense, Chris Johnson, and mistake-free football from Collins, or (2) Aggressively try to improve that status quo by finding useful ways to deploy Vince Young, who -- for whatever his flaws -- cannot reasonably be limited to "Starter instead of Collins" or "Not used at all." Fisher (predictably) chose the first path, the Titans caught a few bad breaks against the Ravens, the team scored just 10 points, and the group’s outstanding regular season was squandered in a home loss. Hindsight may be 20-20, but the point was never that Jeff Fisher needed to turn to Vince Young unnecessarily, but that they’d be better prepared for the playoffs if they did so at least in some capacity: Either the Titans thrive as Kerry Collins plays great football, the defense dominates, and Vince Young as an offensive supplement winds up a luxury Fisher doesn’t need to deploy, or.... During the playoffs the Titans find themselves in a particular situation in which Young’s well-established talents are of use and the Titans are better for it.

While we don’t know whether strategically working Vince Young into the offense would have rescued the Titans from the misfortunes which plagued them against Baltimore, we can say that Jeff Fisher’s unwillingness to adopt a proactive "improvement strategy," as I’m calling it, foreclosed the option when the nightmare scenario in fact unfolded with Chris Johnson’s second quarter injury.

Sound familiar? While both Fisher and Collins are to be commended for their 2008 seasons, the failure to think aggressively about ways to use what Vince Young can offer (and working to implement those talents in support of the offense) is exactly the kind of mistake I was talking about when discussing opportunities I didn’t want Mack Brown and Greg Davis to squander. And just as hyper-defenders of Brown/Davis miss the point when pointing to what we’re already doing well, so too do Titans fans who only talk about why Fisher was right to go with Kerry Collins as his Main Guy. The victory is shallow, because a team'sultimate success will be measured by its ability to beat the best, when it counts the most. And in that regard, settling for good and hoping for the best is a strategic failure.

Leave no doubt. Let’s finish this point, because it’s an important one for framing how we talk about what (even indisputably successful) football coaches need to do better. One of the smarter moves I thought Jim Tressel made in the Fiesta Bowl was his aggressive attempt to use Todd Boeckman against the Longhorns. While Boeckman’s general mediocrity hardly allowed him to punish the Texas defense, the strategic impact of the tactic helped the Buckeyes in not at all insignificant ways. Consider the domino effect:

  1. Boeckman's competent passing ability forced Texas to honor the pass as legitimate option.
  2. Texas was therefore less able to hone in on the Buckeyes' ground attack.
  3. Texas' defenders were critically hamstrung in their efforts to get used to Terrelle Pryor as a runner (OSU's best offensive plays of the night). OSU's diversity made adjusting to the unique angles a defender has to take on him all the harder.

In evaluating Tressel's offensive game plan, then, the point is not that Pryor was clearly the more effective offensive player, but that Jim Tressel (by strategically using Boeckman as a legitimate passing threat) succeeded in making the task for Will Muschamp's defense more difficult. At that point in Pryor's young career, an offensive attack exclusively featuring TP under center would have in important ways helped both Will Muschamp (play caller) and his defenders (pursuers). Etc, etc.

Though OSU's offensive game plan wasn't a masterpiece, for the purposes of the point at hand the key takeaways for Mack Brown, Greg Davis, Jeff Fisher, or anyone else lies in appreciating, first, that aggressively seeking improvements in your offensive strategy is imperative, and second, that doing so should be a consistent, sustained, season-long process. Failure to do so at all (The NFL in general/Jeff Fisher) is indefensible. Doing so only as a last resort (Tressel) renders the effort suboptimal. And only doing soin full force against the best (Davis/Brown) misses a crucial part of the point in doing so at all.

As you start to think about a 2009 title run to Pasadena, let that sink in, Texas fans. This issue isn't black and white -- Mack Brown and Greg Davis had an indisputably terrific season in almost every regard. But where we can dismiss the "sunshine pumpers" vs "haters" debate is that point where I can high five a fellow fan for what we did accomplish and point to those things which didn't work out and need to serve as lessons for summiting the mountain heading forward. The OU game plan was an absolute gem; the tentative approach during the first half in Lubbock needs to serve as a lessoned learned... The 12-1 season was one for the ages; the erosion in "strategic attack" (once we became favorites) must inform our approach as frontrunners in 2009.

Assume nothing, settle for nothing -- whether underdog or favorite. Losses are losses and bad luck is bad luck.... but never leave oneself open to the criticism that more could have been done. Balls to the wall. Be all you can be. Whatever it is... take it to heart: Start in the spring, carry it over at 7 a.m. throughout the summer, and ride it hard from the first game to the very last, whether it's Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas Tech... or Tim Tebow himself.

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