Nov 12, 2013

The Unnecessarily Necessary Zombie Defense of Brian Kelly

I’ll admit, I’ve been late to the game on this whole The Walking Dead thing.  Out of boredom or insomnia, I got into it one night.  It’s entertaining in a sick, morbid kind of way.  There’s nothing terribly shocking about it, and I have no clue how this ends happily (Yes, I’m aware there’s some graphic novel that it’s based off of.  No, I don’t know how that ends up, nor do I care).  For the unanointed, there’s nothing terribly complex about the plot:  It’s the end of the World, Zombies are everywhere ready to devour the living, the men have a remarkable ability to keep a trendy, stubble look despite the lack of society, and the women who do survive are just attractive enough to keep you interested.

The best way to avoid the zombies is to keep hidden.  Sounds, lights, basically any sort of stimuli results in a herd of the (un)dead descending upon the location, ready to ravage the weak or unprepared.  Outside of that, the zombies just kind of go about their business, to the extent that exists, without much rattling through their brains.

So, what does this have to do with ND football?  Well, I’m increasingly discovering that a large portion of the ND fan base may already be rightfully counted among the walking dead.  The shock I have at the lack of thought rattling through this collective group’s brain is only surpassed by their swarming nature the moment any external stimuli awakens them from their sleep walk through existence.  Perhaps this is harsh.  However, it’s no more harsh than the visceral spewed at student athletes in the wake of sub-optimal performances.  It’s far less than the irrational calls for Brian Kelly’s job.  I could call them hate spewing sub-species….kind of like those dinosaurs that killed Newman in Jurrasic Park.  Heck, at least that dinosaur had the decency to go extinct.  No, I won’t wish such things.  Instead, I’ll happily imagine that these folks are just poor, disease ridden individuals who’ve lost the ability (rather than just the will) to experience rational thought and empathy towards a team they claim to love.

I have no issue with healthy criticism of a team.  While “entitlement” doesn’t quite feel like the appropriate word, I can accept that the code of fandom permits a certain amount of latitude for folks to express unhappiness with their team without falling ill to the zombie world.  In the college realm, I can accept comments on a player’s on field performance so long as it doesn’t degrade into a personal assault upon an 18-22 year old kid.  Notre Dame’s fan base is an interesting one.  There is an army of great, devoted fans of the team who have no affiliation to the school.  The school owes its prominence and in some respects success to the great subway alumni association.  The alumni supporting the school couldn’t fill a single car of the metaphorical subway train upon which the fan base rides.  However, I find it exceedingly difficult to explain the demands the University places upon all of its students to folks who didn’t go there.  My first plea to the zombies, should they find a cure, is that they lay off these student-athletes.  Notre Dame’s one of a diminishing group of universities that still sees this principle as a worthwhile endeavor.  To comment upon these men as individuals is appalling.

However, this post is not about the student-athletes.  That’s really a topic all to itself.  Instead, my ire, the zombies I want to put the shovel/foot/gunshot/knife/fist into the head of (in the metaphorical sense just in case I be accused of promoting violence) are those calling for Brian Kelly’s head.
This is sad to even be addressing this, and probably even more sad in that my intended audience is likely to say “well, no shit.”  However, there’s this small tiny hope that perhaps we can somehow forward the dialogue by discussing it.  My god, it’s like I haven’t watched The Walking Dead at all.  YOU CAN’T REASON WITH A ZOMBIE!!!  Well, perhaps I can at least de-sensitize some of their more ludicrous stimuli.  Slather them in the blood of the dead so they don’t quite create the feeding frenzy that every loss, every play that doesn’t go well, every personnel decision made ahead of time that they don’t agree with goes wrong.

Myth 1:  Brian Kelly’s a mid-conference, gimmick coach who can’t compete with the big boys:

I start with my pet peeve because, well, it’s my pet peeve.  The perception of Brian Kelly as some sort of spread-gimmick coach I assume comes from his Cincinnati days.  I say this because I’m quite sure most of us (myself included) didn’t really follow his career while at Grand Valley St. or Central Michigan.  Kelly first made his national name by taking the innocuous Cincinnati Bearcats program and turning it into a nationally recognized program.  His offense was up-tempo, unapologetically so.  When he took the ND job, I think most expected him to bring that speed and tempo to ND as well.

We’re in year 4 of the Brian Kelly era, which is longer than he was at Cincy, and yet, he hasn’t been able to shed himself of this image.  That offense has never truly been seen at ND.  The zombies have concluded that’s because either 1) That style of offense just can’t work game in and game out at the “big boy” level (Oregon, Baylor, and others would certainly love to challenge that), or 2) That BK is incapable from a coaching standpoint of doing so.  Can we just go ahead and dismiss point 1 with my parenthetical?  K, good.  Let’s address point 2.

Many in the ND fan base, and this really goes beyond the zombies, fail to recognize what Brian Kelly does.  I posted this on Twitter last Saturday, but I think it’s the correct assessment:  Brian Kelly does what Charlie Weis wanted to do by exploiting personnel match-ups, but he’s a far better game manager, and understands the necessary offense/defense balance necessary to excel at the highest levels.  The fallacy has been for sometime that Brian Kelly is a “spread system” guy.  He is not.  Kelly utilized the spread at Cincy because he realized that his offensive match-ups in the spread in a conference like the Big East could overwhelm the relatively shallower defenses his competition could offer.  Kelly didn’t care how quickly his teams scored because he understood his best course of attack was to go fast, go spread, and pick on secondary problems that lower-level competition generally can’t address.  It was then, as it is now, a numbers game to Kelly.  It was a sign of a remarkably gifted offensive mind disguised as being a “system” guy.

Since coming to Notre Dame, there’s no doubt that Brian Kelly’s general aggression and perfectionist mentality would prefer to be more up-tempo than his predecessors, but he’s never intended that to be an end goal.  Let me reiterate that, he…does…not…intend…to…run…up-tempo…spread.  As a wrinkle, he’s adopted it from day 1.  However, Kelly’s been more than willing to run the ball out of his variation of the power formation when he felt the match-up called for it.  He’s been willing to adjust the general offensive strategy to his quarterback’s strengths.  The zombies have seen this as a sign of weakness.  I’ve viewed it as a sign of strength. 

The core of Brian Kelly’s offense is efficiency.  I suppose that’s somewhat of a truism because what coach’s goal isn’t efficiency, but efficiency is his offense.  When purple exploding “Violet you’re violet!” Kelly comes out, it’s generally because he’s seen inefficiency from his offense.  Not because they haven’t been explosive enough.  During the 2012 season, Kelly frequently preferred a game management strategy to a 45-point-a-game strategy because he understood where his strengths were.  Yes, an Everett Golson, (theoretically) Malik Zaire, or (alternate universe) Dayne Crist is probably closer to his ideal QB because of the additional options it provides to a Tommy Rees, but it’s not (necessarily) to implement the spread-option of the UC days.  That’s the fallacy.  Kelly will do whatever he feels his offense is best equipped to do.  He’s yet to shy away from attempting a new wrinkle if he thinks it’ll work, and he’s generally been successful.  No, he doesn’t utilize a fullback, but he’s far from the “system” man the zombies believe him to be.

Myth 2:  The 2013 season has been an extraordinary step back:

Sure, it’d have been nice to beat Michigan and/or Oklahoma who have turned out to be exceedingly ordinary.  Yeah, the Pitt loss was bad.  Though, was the Pitt loss any “worse” than the Pitt win was last year?  I’m not sure either were either earned or not earned. 

The biggest problem with this logic is also two-fold.  First, the success of the 2012 team overinflated expectations for this team.  If I internally question why my head is spinning about Notre Dame football, I guarantee the unexpected success of the 2012 team is the reason for my Vertigo 10/10 times over the 7-3 start of this team.  The myriad of things that went right to make 2012 end up in Miami is mind-boggling.  It was like the Ty Willingham 2002 team on Meth.  Yes, the 2012 team was far more talented and better coached than 2002 team, but the pairing of fortunate circumstances is pretty darn close.  Strong defense, timely offense, even more timely miscues by opponents all resulted in a magical season that those of us who are long-time fans will not soon forget.  However, the cracks were all around.

No doubt that the 2012 team was defined more by its defense than any other.  It was good enough to get Manti Te’o legitimately into the Heisman debate.  It was also good enough to make Bob Diaco the assistant of the year and a hot coaching commodity.  However, the defense, despite its statistics was opportunistic.  The bend don’t break philosophy essentially worked to max value.  ND gave up its share of yards, just not big plays.  It’s goal line defense was nearly legendary.  Grantland Rice would have had a word or 2,000 for it.  However, these were not repeatable qualities, and the 2013 team has been the victim of regression as much as anything else.   It didn’t hurt that the team didn’t face many great offenses and saw several of the offenses it did face at their respective lowest point.

This is not a knock on the 2012 defense.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching them, but any realistic assessment has to acknowledge that the team could not have performed any better top to bottom. 

The import of Manti Te’o cannot be overstated either.  While middle linebacker may be a de-valued position at the NFL level, it’s perhaps the only position at the collegiate level that is difficult to neutralize.  Alabama did a very good job, but even then, miscues were as big a factor as ability to take him out of the game.  Te’o’s performance in pass coverage and run support was as good as it gets.  No, he was not Jarvis Jones coming off the edge for a sack, but he effectively made up for every other deficiency the ND defense suffered from.  Without a player or leader of his caliber on the defense this year, the defense has seemed more pedestrian.

That really leads into the second point, which is, many thought that there would be greater carryover from 2012 to 2013.  It was unrealistic to assume the team could just replace someone who had the performance of Te’o last year.  Add to it the countless injuries the defense has taken on, and Notre Dame’s depth has been challenged to a near insurmountable degree.  I’ve actually been impressed overall with the defense’s ability to adapt to the multitude of injuries even if the squad on whole hasn’t been as solid. 

At Notre Dame, there is no such thing as an off year, and I appreciate that.  Success is expected to snowball as opposed to come and go, and that’s fine and well.  However, comparing the near-Cinderella-like run of 2012 to 2013 is just an unfair comparison.  If 10-3 to 8-4 or 9-4 is a significant fall off, then I’ll listen to the argument.  I just won’t listen to it in its absolutist form.

Myth 3:  Brian Kelly doesn’t care about “tradition”:

Yes, this is the part about jumbotrons, and field turf, and alma maters, and everything else viewed by the zombies as BK not embracing the Notre Dame way.  All I’m going to say about this right now is that Notre Dame for DECADES was a revolutionary program, NOT a traditionalist program.  I’m going to leave it at that because I intend to address this topic in near exhaustive detail in the off-season in a series I’m calling the “ND Book Club.”  To that effect, I’ll be looking for some folks who might be willing to keep an open mind and remember how to read to go down that path with me.  So, let me know if you might be interested.

For this post, the point is simple:  Stop it.  You don’t know what you’re talking about if you assume that ND must rest on its laurels and simply let the ways of the World pass them by in the name of purity.  There are some aspects of the program that I think should and hope do, remain the same.  However, embracing other novelties and possible advantages of modern college football is not something new to ND, and in fact, change is part of the tradition.  In case you’re wondering, NO, I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THE FORWARD PASS.  Got it? Good.

I stare down at the word count and see it rapidly approaching 2,500.  With that in mind, I’ll put this rant to an end….typos, wordiness, pulpit-i-ness, and all the fodder included.  I’ll post before I think because, after all, that is the zombie way.

- Moons

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