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5 ugly truths about Texas HC Charlie Strong's offensive decision-making

If Strong's ability to make the right choices offensively doesn't improve, his tenure in Austin will be a failure.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong understands that the ultimate accountability in his program rests with him. So although Shawn Watson took the fall on Tuesday for the offense's failings in the season opener against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Strong still deserves a great deal of blame for hiring Watson in the first place and then declining to repace him after the 2014 season.

If allowing wide receivers coach Jay Norvell to run the offense doesn't work out, Strong could quickly find himself on the hot seat. And deservedly so.

Even if it does work out, the ongoing offensive debacle in Austin reveals some ugly truths about Charlie Strong and his efforts to produce effective offenses.

1. Strong has a history of making poor offensive hires

When Strong took over at Louisville for the 2010 football season, he hired failed UNLV head coach Mike Sanford as his offensive coordinator coming off of 16 wins in five years with the Runnin' Rebels. Sanford had some experience with the spread option after working under Urban Meyer for two years at Utah, receiving some credit for helping develop quarterback Alex Smith, but didn't have a clear coaching lineage other than that connection.

When Louisville started the 2011 season 2-2 with losses to FIU and Marshall in which the Cardinals scored only 30 points combined, Sanford didn't travel with the team for the road game against North Carolina and mutually parted ways with Strong a little more than a week after receiving his demotion.

So at least Strong is a little bit more decisive these days, but he already has a signfiicant track record of failed choices offensively at Texas, too.

The decision to keep longtime tight ends coach Bruce Chambers didn't make sense and Strong quickly got a sense of how Chambers operated on the recruiting trail when the position coach scheduled a lunch during a busy day of visits that Strong had to cancel in favor of actually doing his job. The lone holdover from Mack Brown's last staff, Chambers did a poor job developing talent at his position and time made his recruiting connections in the Dallas-Fort Worth area quite stale by the time that Strong arrived.

The decision to add Texas alum Les Koenning as a wide receivers coach made a little bit more sense than keeping Chambers, but hardly seemed inspired. The son of a famous high school coach in the Houston area, Koenning's recruiting ties were similarly stale, resulting in his termination after only one season.

Now Strong had to admit another mistake with Watson only 14 games into his Texas tenure and one game into the 2015 campaign. How many other current head coaches have twice had to make play-calling changes over the course of five seasons?

2. The Teddy Bridgewater question is looming even larger

The overall track record of success for Strong developing players from his 2011 class is inarguable. However, there is a debate about the extent to which Strong depended on his star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for his offensive success at Louisville, an argument recently advanced by SB Nation's Bud Elliott. To be sure, it seems too early to make conclusions due to the limited sample size of just more than two seasons without Bridgewater. But now the answer to the question of whether Bridgewater individually allowed Strong to earn the Texas job is a little less clear than it appeared a few days ago.

Maybe Strong is a mess offensively without Bridgewater.

3. Some recent analogues for similar decisions are not heartening

Back in 2013, Mack Brown faced a make-or-break season at Texas and opted to keep embattled defensive coordinator Manny Diaz instead of firing his young assistant, in part because Brown didn't have many appealing options due to his own uncertain job status.

So Brown hedged his bets by hiring Greg Robinson as a football analyst, elevating the former Texas defensive coordinator to his old position when the Longhorns defense melted down in spectaular fashion against BYU in Provo and it . Two games into a crucial season, Brown had to admit that he made the wrong decision and while Robinson's promotion helped orchestrate a turnaround, it wasn't enough save Brown's job.

Down in Gainesville, Gator fans are still recovering from the abject train wreck otherwise known as the Will Muschamp Era. A massive malfunctioning of Muschamp's neurons somehow convinced the new head coach to hire Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator. Remarkabl enough, though, Weis actually experienced enough success to land the Kansas head coaching position and bolted from Florida after leading the nation's No. 33 offense in S&P+.

Muschamp then took a page out of Mack Brown's playbook in attempting to install the Boise State offense when he hired Broncos offensive coordinator Brent Pease after the departure of Weis. Pease experienced even less success, ultimately contributing to the school's first losing season since 1979 before he was fired following a 2013 season that featured the nation's No. 100 offense in S&P+.

Given one final opportunity to make progress, Muschamp hired Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper after he was a Frank Broyles Award finalist under David Cutcliffe. That union didn't work either, and Muschamp was out in Gainesville after only four seasons.

Now, this isn't to suggest that Charlie Strong is in the same situation as Mack Brown was in 2013, but parallels to Muschamp's tenure seem compelling. And not favorable. Even the situation with Brown and Diaz two years ago seems pertinent because it reflects the desperation and failed decisions inherent in such in-season moves.

4. The Texas offense now has little to no long-term direction

What happens now after the season? The two-year contract for quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson will be up and it's hard to imagine that he sticks around after taking a demotion. Regardless of what happens with Watson, Norvell doesn't seem like a long-term answer as the play caller unless he can somehow turn around an offense that doesn't have a proven quarterback and is starting two freshmen on the offensive line

The standards for achieving more success aren't exactly sky high following the disastrous end to the Shawn Watson era, but unless Norvell achieves more success than his track record suggests is likely given the lack of spring practice or fall camp for him to fully implement his ideas, it's hard to see Norvell even getting another opportunity next season.

The pressure will simply be too great for Strong keep Norvell in that role.

If Norvell doesn't stick as the player caller, Strong would have some serious decisions to make about the entire offensive staff that could result in more wholesale changes. In such a scenario, it's not inconceivable that Strong could turn over every assistant on that side of the ball in two years except for running backs coach Tommie Robinson.

5. Strong wasted another offseason on Watson

The failure of Watson as the Texas offensive coordinator doesn't come as a surprise to many who panned the hire in the first place. In an effort to be charitable, however, let's grant Strong the benefit of the doubt for last season, when Watson had to deal with the loss of quarterback David Ash and his two most experienced offensive linemen.

Still, that doesn't excuse what happened this offseason -- the attempt to have Watson helm a spread, up-tempo offense was a clear failure after one game. Even Manny Diaz made it through two games in 2013. Just like firing Chambers and Koenning and changing the offense after one season was Strong admitting that he made mistakes in hiring them, demoting Watson is just as big of an admission of failure from the Texas head coach. Even bigger, in fact, because of the greater magnitude.

So when Strong asserted that the team didn't waste the offseason with Watson remaining as the play caller and apparent offensive architect, it rang just as hollow as his claim that Texas was a better team than it showed against Notre Dame, an all-too-common refrain dating back to last season.

Strong absolutely made the wrong decision when he let Watson install an offense with which he was not familiar instead of hiring a new play caller with clear expertise running a successful spread offense.


One final bonus truth...

The length of Strong's tenure as the Longhorns head coach depends on the extent to which he can improve the results of his decisions on offense. Right now, his track record isn't exactly sterling overall and looks about as abysmal at Texas as the results on the field.