Oct. 25, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
The “observations” are all over the place in location if not in tenor, where quite a few – but not all — Georgia Tech football fans are antsy, agitated and apprehensive. At some point in all this, a toilet bowl comes into play.
Message boards, call-in shows, and sidewalk Sallys and Sams are alight with thoughts on what ails the Yellow Jackets.
Opinion is sometimes part of what you read here, although it’s usually tempered.
Unable to attend head coach Paul Johnson’s meeting with the press Tuesday but having seen what he had to say, I’ll roll out some thoughts and point out where the boss seems to agree and perhaps where he does not. It would be great if you’d throw in your two cents, although comments may not see future light.
The two most notable spots of alarm have come in an enormous slide in offensive production, and special teams play that is as unpredictable and often as poor as can be imagined.
Tevin Washington’s struggles at quarterback have been central to the Jackets’ collective mood swing. He is not playing remotely like he did the first few games of the season, and that goes beyond the numbers to actual performance.
Washington looks the complete opposite of confident. When he drops back to pass, he doesn’t appear as comfortable as he did earlier in the season. When he throws, his form scarcely resembles that of September. His decline in accuracy has been astounding, and – this is more difficult to say with certainty, but we’re opining here – his decision-making in the option game seems to have regressed.
Receivers have in recent weeks dropped more passes than earlier in the season, and Tech’s pass protection has slid against an uptick in competition. Yet to suggest that those two factors should add up to and explain Washington’s work wouldn’t be right.
Asked whether his quarterback’s hiccups have been more a mental manifestation or a physical problem, Johnson said both. Really, though, unless he’s injured Washington’s recent work rate is a reflection of the way he thinks of himself. As senior golfer James White said to me earlier this week, “You can’t out-perform your self image.”
Here’s Johnson’s take: “I think it’s some of both. Anytime that you’re struggling I think that it’s hard to separate the two and it’s not all Tevin. Certainly, he can play better, but the guys around him have to play better, too.”
In recent weeks, the coach has suggested in several ways that he and his staff must do a better job giving Washington and the entire offense plays that they’re more comfortable with, that they have a better chance of executing.
Perhaps the play calling hasn’t been perfect (how often is it, really), and even without being more of a football scientist it seems reasonable to believe that coaches can more often put players in position to succeed. “We just got to do a better job of executing and have a better plan that they can do,” Johnson said.
That would only address problems to a point. Johnson said last week that it would be important at Miami to give Washington some easy passes to complete. The first play against the Hurricanes saw Orwin Smith wide open over the middle. The protection was sufficient, and the pass missed by a longshot.
The offensive line is not succeeding often enough. The loss of center Jay Finch on the first play last week (he appears extremely unlikely to play against Clemson Saturday, but may return at some point) hurt, but the O-line was scuffling before that.
Johnson’s comment after the Miami game that sometimes the Jackets were blocking four defenders with five Jackets but the four were sometimes winning was not coach speak. It was the truth. This, by the way, makes play-calling more difficult.
While David Sims’ transition from quarterback to B-back in just a few months birthed a story of admiration, Tech is not as potent in this critical position as in Johnson’s first three seasons.
That has a trickle-down effect on the offense. This was negated earlier in the season by a passing game that was explosive, and the Jackets’ ability to run wild on the perimeter. Neither is happening much lately. Wide receiver Stephen Hill has become an afterthought. These factors also make play-calling more onerous.
The defense continues to climb. Tech is now No. 1 in total defense in conference-only games (344 yards allowed per contest), and No. 3 in scoring defense (25.4 points allowed). The Jackets are going to need to play some D against Clemson, which is No. 1 in both total offense (458.4) and scoring offense (41.8). Tech is now No. 11 in total offense, and No. 9 in scoring offense in ACC action . . . nearly unthinkable concepts four weeks ago.
With a few exceptions, Tech’s special teams have been a source of indigestion for at least the past five years. Most seasons one or two units cause despair. This season, all of them have played castor oil.
Johnson’s been harassed in recent days about not having a special teams-dedicated coach, someone committed only to teams. He said that’s rare in college football. I’m not busting out media guides to check; I believe him. I know this, though: something’s gotta change dramatically, and it needs to start with the way Tech’s punters punt, its kickers kick, and its returners return. Other than that . . .
“I hesitate to get into it because every time I try to explain what happens I’m throwing somebody under the bus,” Johnson said. “I don’t care who’s coaching special teams, if you punt the ball 13 yards it’s not good. If you can’t kick the ball to the end zone, it’s not good.
“We’ve tried two to three different returners, we’ve tried people in the back wedge, we’re running the exact same kickoff return the Atlanta Falcons run because [head coach] Mike [Smith] and I are pretty good friends and we went up there and spent most of the day and got his stuff. We’ve got to do a better job coaching it I guess.”
The Jackets lack swagger. There is no shortage of leadership on this team, but that doesn’t mean all types of leadership are represented. It looks to me like Tech would benefit from a few forceful and loud personalities. Tashard Choice comes to mind. Sometimes, his shtick was an act. So what? His energy was real, and it was contagious.
Lastly, trite as it sounds, all this can change. There’s still time. The Jackets can play their way into the ACC Championship game, but their margin for error is nil.
This time a month ago, you could go to all the same message boards, street corners and radio stations and find people griping about Al Groh’s defense.
There’s evidence that the Jackets can produce. It’s going to take an aggregation of chutzpah and tactical moves to make it happen.
It’ll all start, as White suggested, with faith.
“Our guys are excited about playing. Roddy Jones talked to the team yesterday and he goes, `Hey guys, we’ve still got a chance to win 10 games or 11 games. There’s a lot to play for,'” Johnson explained.
“Now, have we dug ourselves a little bit of a hole the last few weeks? You’d be lying if you didn’t say you had, but you’ve got to flush it and move on.”
Argh. This is like trying to pass a kidney stone. Thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.