I feel like I'm riding the Master Blaster at Schlitterbahn that goes up, down, in the dark tunnel and back out. And after week 1, the tube I'm riding just plummeted down a hill. But as most of us know by now, Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong made the decision on Tuesday night to yank play-calling duties from Shawn Watson (hallelujah), giving that responsibility to wide receivers coach Jay Norvell, who has previous experience as an offensive coordinator. This happening after just one game is a pretty big deal.
I'm going to attempt to organize my thoughts below.
1. Like it or not, this change was necessary and overdue. Shawn Watson had numerous chances, (too many chances if you're asking me) to put together an offensive scheme that would put points on the board. And no one said it had to be a scheme that would blow teams out of the water (though that would be very, very nice). But the offense had to help the team win. It had to be better right from the start of the season and it wasn't. It was just as bad as it was against Arkansas. And it was still that bad after nine months of off-season preparation. That's simply unacceptable for a team like Texas.
2. Though there is still a lot to like about Charlie Strong, it's pretty evident that he is very much a defensive-minded coach. And that's not necessarily a surprise given his coaching history. But I think I speak for many people when I say it was expected that Texas would at least have the right staff in place to run a successful offense from the beginning.
Unfortunately, so far, he's whiffed three times and had to bring in a new wide receiver's coach, a new tight end's coach, and choose a new play-caller all after just one season and one game. If you're keeping track, that's like batting 0-3 in a baseball game and having one last at-bat coming up at the end of the game. He doesn't need to hit a home run with Norvell, but he does need to find some success and at least get on base to stay alive.
3. Though I do think the "Is Charlie Strong right for Texas?" question is still very much premature, I do understand the concerns fans have of having a defensive-minded coach captaining the ship. The idea that "defenses win championships" doesn't hold nearly as much weight in this era of football as it used to. Sure, having a solid defense is necessary for most teams to succeed. But I'd argue that having a good quarterback and a sound offense has nosed ahead in importance compared to having a strong defense.
Even if you don't buy that, you can't deny that there has been an increased focus on improving offenses. It's been evident in college football all over the place in the past couple of years. Nick Saban and Gary Patterson, two notable defensive-minded coaches, both realized this and brought in quality offensive coordinators (OC Lane Kiffin-Ala, Co-OC Sonny Cumbie-TCU). And Saban made his change at offensive coordinator not too long after winning multiple national championships.
Add that with the facts that A) Chip Kelly was promoted to the NFL almost solely because of the success he had due to the offenses he built at Oregon and B) Art Briles has elevated Baylor football (on the field...) to a high level largely because of the offenses he has orchestrated each season in Waco, and you see the full evolution that's taken place on this side of the ball that begun a handful of years ago. Chop it up any way you want, but a good defense alone will no longer insure a championship or constant success.
If Charlie Strong is to remain the coach at Texas, then there's no question he will need to follow the blueprint that Saban and Patterson used. Strong will need to find a high-quality offensive coordinator that understands the spread offense and the play-calling that goes with it to make it successful. (And I say "spread" specifically because that is the direction Charlie Strong has said he wants to go in. That's what I will go with until we hear otherwise.)
4. By now, you've probably realized that I'm saying Jay Norvell likely isn't the long-term solution. I don't expect him to be at this point unless he really can clean up this mess to an extent that blows everyone away. But that's a tall task for a guy who currently has no proven quarterback, is working with an offensive line that still has a long ways to go, and he doesn't have the luxury of an off-season to implement all of the changes he may want to make.
Also, let's not forget that even though he has experience as an offensive coordinator -- there was a reason he was only hired as wide receivers coach. A more realistic "best-case scenario" we can hope for right now is something similar to when Mack Brown brought Greg Robinson back in after Manny Diaz was relieved of his duties. No one should be expecting Norvell to create the greatest show on turf (or grass). But I know Charlie Strong is hoping Norvell can at least get the offense headed in the right direction enough to hold all of this together until the off-season when the offense (including the offensive coordinator position) can be re-addressed. Again...
5. When I heard the news out of Charlie Strong's mouth on Tuesday evening that Norvell would be taking over play-calling duties, I instantly wondered about the other offensive coaches on staff. Why wasn't Wickline given a shot to actually call the plays on his own? And what role does tight ends coach Jeff Traylor have, if any, in the play designs and schemes of the offense? But Strong did address Wickline's situation a bit by explaining that the offensive line needed as much attention from him as possible. I can't necessarily argue that answer.
This offense will continue to struggle if the offensive line doesn't improve. But I can't help but wonder what a Texas offense would look like if Wickline were calling the plays. And the same question remains for Traylor, the former high school head football coach who won three state titles at Gilmer. He, like Wickline, is familiar with a style of the spread known as the "spread-to-run". Now that Watson is no longer leading the way on offense, will Traylor have more of a say? Unfortunately, that's an answer I don't have right now. But relieving Watson of play-calling duties may have just made Traylor's hire that much more important.
6. What now for Watson? And how did it go so wrong? I'll answer the second question first. Obviously we know that play-calling was Watson's Achilles heel that cost him that duty. But in some regards, I'm almost dumb-founded that a D1 offensive coordinator was unable to truly change and improve an offense for the better. With that said, I remember exactly how confused and skeptical I instantly felt right before the season started when either Watson or Swoopes (I can't remember exactly who it was) said that the offense hadn't changed, "it's just faster"... I remember hearing that quote and thinking, "So it's still the same offense but just faster? That doesn't sound like the change we have all been expecting."
And from that point on, I wasn't sure what to expect, but looking back I know I wasn't feeling as optimistic as I had been the months previous. And sure enough, just like the bowl game that Watson had over a month to prepare for, the Texas offense laid a dinosaur egg on the field in South Bend after nine months of off-season work that was expected to improve that side of the ball. The nightmare I tried to talk myself out of before the season became a reality. But why? Why wasn't Watson able to get anything going on offense after nine months of preparation?
The words that kept circling around my head were "stubborn" and "narrow-minded". It's as if Watson was so set in his ways on offense that he kept trying to force his plan work regardless of the personnel he had instead of trying to implement a scheme that would fit the players on the roster (like we were all expecting after the bowl game last season). And this stubborn, narrow-minded approach backfired. Again. Just like it did towards the end of last season.
As for Watson's ultimate fate, a safe bet would suggest he won't be brought back next season. He's on the last year of his two-year contract. And with Charlie Strong likely bringing in a new offensive coordinator after the season is over, Watson will need to be removed to make room for the new offensive coordinator who will almost certainly also coach the quarterbacks.
Will I be sad to see Watson go? No. Will I be sad if it means Texas loses out on quarterback commits Shane Buechelle and/or Sam Ehlinger? Yes, that will be a punch in the gut. But at this point, though it is something that should be monitored, I'm not worried about losing Buechelle or Ehlinger. It sounds like both of these guys want to play for Texas more so than they want to play for Shawn Watson. And heck, whoever Charlie brings in could attract even more excitement from recruits compared to Watson and the offense he was trying to run. Regardless, Watson likely will be sent packing -- which can't be easy for Charlie to do since the two are apparently good friends. But in the end, Strong has a job to do. And he'll either do his job or be out looking for a new one with Watson.
7. I touched on this earlier, but it's not like Norvell is inheriting a Ferrari on offense. Instead, he's just been given the keys to an old, beat-up Camaro. There's potential in the car, but the thing could also be on blocks in your redneck uncle's driveway if it doesn't get a much needed tune-up soon. At quarterback, Norvell is left with the decision of who to start. The consensus by fans seems to be Jerrod Heard. And personally, I want to see Jerrod Heard start as well. The offense needs a new personality and new energy. It needs live breathed back into to. And quite frankly, I'm not even exactly sure how Jerrod Heard will perform at this level of football given his skills and limitations. But I do know he won in high school at a high level. And I've seen enough of Swoopes to know I'm ready to gamble with Heard at the craps table. Show me 7's kid, I just want 7's.
Aside from quarterback, Norvell's other main challenge will be the offensive line. Not that I'm trying to defend Watson, but he never had the strongest of offensive lines during his entire time calling plays. And a change in who's calling the plays won't change how the offensive line performs. Only playing time and coaching will help that unit -- a unit I'm still optimistic about. But changing what plays are called can avoid putting the line in positions that exploit their weaknesses, which right now is mainly pass-protecting. Either way, for the near future, the struggles and growing pains with the offensive line will be a handicap Norvell will have to work with.
8. What to expect? I'm really not sure. When I picture Heard in the game at quarterback, I picture an offense that is a shotgun-style offense that uses option-reads, short-to-mid passes that don't include many advanced throws, and the occasional deep ball built on play-action. And I expect more running plays (I hope) for Gray and the running backs. But from the looks of it, that's not exactly what Watson was implementing during the off-season. And there isn't enough time to completely retool the offense. So again, I'm not exactly sure what it will look like. I do know that if Heard is the quarterback, it won't be an offense that will be slinging it all over the field. And I also know what the offensive line can and can't do should also regulate the plays Norvell calls. Regardless, I'm hoping it's one that utilizes what Heard is good at (using his legs to make plays that could then open up some passing plays and forces the defense to make more decisions).
9. Before the season, I had the Longhorns heading into a bowl game with a chance to win their eighth game. For now, I'm still sticking to a 7-5 regular season finish. Though it may not be the prettiest game, Texas should beat Rice on Saturday. God help us all if Rice leaves Austin with an upset. The burnt orange melt down will be in full effect. But even if means Texas has to run the ball off 40 times on Saturday, they should be able to notch their first win of the season.
10. The trickle-down effect with recruiting will definitely be something to monitor. Obviously, if things keep going south this season for Texas, then all bets are off for which committed players will actually sign come February. But at the moment, Texas is still in good standing with the recruits they have on board. And moving forward, for obvious reasons, I'll be monitoring the two quarterbacks (Buchelle and Ehlinger) first and foremost.
It feels like déjà vu from a week ago as I sit here not knowing exactly what to expect on offense. But whether you want to call it an act of desperation or an act of necessity, the change from Watson to someone else was without a doubt one that had to be made. Hopefully Norvell (and Traylor) can give this offense the tune up that it needs. Hopefully, after Saturday, Texas fans will not have lost all hope for this season.