3rd Year the Charm? Turning the Page on the 2011 Season

It has been a few weeks since my last post and despite traveling for the holiday, the real reason is that I had to get away from a ton of negativity before I posted again.

I have had several heart-to-heart talks with members of the Pirate faithful, ranging from those in the “Fire Ruff” camp to those in the “In Ruff we Trust” camp. Regardless of their leanings, what my crew all agrees on is that this season was a resounding disappointment. And, what most agree about is that there is some pretty nice talent among the youth on this team. Where the tensions rise is when the conversation turns to the reasons for the disappointing results on the field.

My personal bent on what I saw on the field is pretty well documented. My faith in this staff is a bit shaken and my emotional connection to the program is being tested. On the surface, all of the excuses being tossed about by the program apologists are legitimate and deserve fair analysis. Injuries riddled the offense from the jump. Losing Justin Jones in fall camp – in hindsight – simply killed this offense. Losing Hardy a few games in didn’t help either. The offensive line, even at its best early in the season, was inexperienced and lacked cohesion – something that many of the “In Ruff we Trust” crowd cautioned against way back during spring camp, despite a constant confidence espoused by Coach Riley. The running back position was thin – so thin – in spring camp that Torrance Hunt – who finished as the starting back – had to be moved from his wide receiver position. This was another point that the diehard supporters were pointing out early on when trying to temper expectations.

Then, there were the defensive issues. The apologists have said over and again that former Coach Skip Holtz recruited so poorly that the front seven had no chance in 2010 and would barely improve in 2011. To their surprise, the defense was not the issue this season. Stellar? Not even close. Horrible? Well above that line.

Still…below the obvious deficits that were known to all of us whether we were 1/2 full or 1/2 empty types, deeper issues appear to exist within the program. Specifically, on the field, our coaches sometimes appear to be inflexible, ill-prepared, incapable of adjusting, and not overly – at least outwardly – concerned about what many see as obvious lack of fundamentals, passion, and pride in the players on the field. There is a seeming lack of urgency.

It is these points that give a good reason to hear out those who may lean toward the other end of the spectrum – the near “Fire Ruff” crowd.

One need look no further than the final four games. Each game, starting with the USM game, offered a huge prize for the Pirates should they win and they failed epically in 3-of-4 opportunities. Against USM, the C-USA East Division was on the line and lost. Against UTEP, a winning season was on the line and lost. And, against Marshall, a bowl bid was up for grabs…and lost. Yet in each of those games, a casual fan could see the mistakes being made, the inability to make adjustments when needed most, the lack of preparation and discipline…all the things that usually give way to raw want power and that adrenaline-driving championship edge that carries teams when everything is on the line. And what is more disconcerting is that many of the guys on the roster were part of those championship teams in 2008 and 2009 – they were winners who have become losers (in regards to W-Ls which sometimes is the hallmark of failed leadership).

So, like many things, does the reality fall somewhere in the middle?

On the one hand, I think it is fair to give Coach Ruff his 4-5 years. Watching the offense when it is on its game, is exhilarating and Coach Riley brought that to us. Watching some of the talent that is emerging on defense and watching what one season of focus from this young unit has me eager to see what Coach Mitchell can get out of them one year older in 2012. Most of the young coaches are easily accessible and willing to dig in and put in the effort to improve. There is Jeff Connors – who is like a Godsend for this program and will at least squeeze every ounce of competitiveness and passion out of the rising young Pirates. And, Ruff is so affable and is one of our own, you can’t want anything less for him to be the man who takes the program to the next level.

YET…

On the other hand. Football is about competition and the only acceptable goal is victory. Yes, you want to do it with dignity and fairness, but winning is the only thing. The offense fell apart this season. Pressure or no pressure, a seasoned QB with a 3:1 TD to INT ration in his junior season would be expected to improve on his numbers. Our OC said again and again that we were deep in talent at the WR position (which, in part was a very true statement) but all that young talent also turned the ball over by not being able to execute the “routine play.” The “more talented” offensive line played more like the inexperienced line than the talented group that had been in the system for a year already. And to hear more than a few of our opponents openly discussing how easy it is to read our audible signals, to breakdown our QB’s progression and get a jump on our plays and see no adjustments, is really alarming. The offense repeatedly put the defense (just like the final 6 games of 2010) in short fields to defend and the pick 6 has become not only a staple for our opponents but the regular catalyst that signals the offensive meltdown we see all too often.

Defensively, we improved quite a bit from dead last and that was a relief. BUT, it is not like we shut people down and among the out of work coaches are a host of guys who could probably come in here and bring us up to near great again in a season. We gave up way too many big plays in the clutch and didn’t force turnovers. And, my own speculation is that as much as the turnaround was spearheaded by a change to the 3-4, I can’t help but think that letting Coach Wiley roam the sidelines with the team while Coach Mitchell sat upstairs, had as much or more to do with it.

Special teams was so horrendous that if a coaching change (even if it is to reassign rather than let someone go) is not made there, then it is very appropriate for fans at large to question the decision-making going on in the program. Can’t say anything else on that one.

My hope is that Coach Ruff does some solitary, non-personally biased analysis on this past season. That he makes some of the hard decisions that need to be made. All the coaches need to be held to the same standards regardless of resume or age. I am for the love them up, coach them up theory, but I can’t help but see our team as group in search of an identity. The players seem to possess neither the chip that the ’91 bunch had nor the swagger of the ’08 and ’09 editions of the team. The program seems devoid of a intensity. You sense it with the fans, but you don’t see it with the team. Passion has always carried our successful teams. We are not good enough nor do we have access to the funds and players necessary to win every game without that passion.

What is great about football is that there is always next season and for that, I am thankful. And, I will be there pulling for Coach Ruff to right the ship and for our young talent (players and coaches, alike) to rise to the occasion. And maybe, just maybe, their 3rd year will be the charm. Regardless of which camp you are in today, it is probably a safe bet that season 3 will be the one that unifies the fan base either wholey in or wholey out with this staff.

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9 responses to “3rd Year the Charm? Turning the Page on the 2011 Season

  1. Chris

    well said Ron… I too needed to separate from the negative emotions of an extremely disappointing season and do an almost zen-like reflection on what I’ve witnessed over the last two seasons. I was one of those who was saying, “Why not Ruffin McNeil?” even before he was announced as a candidate for the job nearly 2 years ago. No matter what side of the fence you are on now, there is not a single Pirate fan who didn’t wish and pull for Ruffin to be successful. Not just because he was leading our team, but because he himself was a Pirate and the way he carries himself with the press and his players. When a coach like that beats you, it’s hard to hate him even if you’re a UCF or USM fan.. But as I look at how things have progressed, those qualities of integrity, loyalty and compassion I admire so much in Ruff may now work against him and the program I love so dearly. At the end of the day, you HAVE to win. And if you’re not winning, you have to be willing to make the hard decisions that are necessary to win as soon as possible. As much as I despise George O’Leary, he didn’t hesitate to fire 3 of his closest assistants to save his own skin after a disappointing season in Orlando. I don’t think Ruff would do that, and that will be his ultimate un-doing in Greenville I’m afraid. If there is one man at ECU athletics that understands the importance of winning, it’s Terry Holland, and he will not stand idly by and watch the program fizzle out to anonymous mediocrity. The final thought I’ll leave you with is what I do for a living is study performance metrics. The thing anyone in my line of work will tell you is the best indicator of future performance is recent performance trends for different elements of the operation. Applying that to our Pirates, I see positive trends on defense. I agree they are not where they need to be, but alot of their problems this year was an offense that either couldn’t move the ball or keep it. I think it’s a very safe bet that the defense, with the returning personnel will be better next season than they were this year. It’s the other two sides of the ball that worry me. Special teams at the top of that list and offense second. We need to see significant positive trends on those two sides next season or I am joining the “Fire Ruff” crew. It starts with the QB, and no matter who it is he will have very limited if any college experience. Maybe Rio is the guy, but I am looking forward to hearing how this kid Shane Carden will perform as he was being recruited by Riley and co. way back during their days in Lubbock. I hope for everyone’s sake, we find a good leader for this offense.

    • Where to start, Chris? There is a lot of meat in your post and you said it all with considerably less verbiage then I tend to put down. I agree with the assessment wholeheartedly. I am eager to see the QB battle this spring. I thought Wornick was pretty decent in his few chances. I admire Rio for sticking it out and working hard, but am not blow away by him. I am hopeful Carden is that special guy. I like Cody Keith, but honestly am not sure how to feel about him. He has unquestioned desire, but somewhat – by all accounts – bought his way to elite status recruiting-wise. Texas Tech has made a living on one-year, system QBs, so I like Wornick’s chances, but I am not sure we have a true system yet. My forward view is really messed up by the fact that I have fallen in love certain players on our team, but am not jazzed up about our team overall. I really like Grove and Geary – two real old schoolers there. I love Johnson and how he has become good. I like Magazu and Milner and love Brooks. Same said for Wiggins and Hardy and Jones and Elsawi and Simmons. But as a collective, I don’t know what we have really and that is worrisome.

      Thanks for your ongoing commentary…I love talking ECU football.

  2. I think we need to make a change. I have never played nor coached football but even I (and my 14 year old son), in my living room screaming at the TV, knew what play was coming next. How often did we run the ball up the middle on first down? I bet it was around 75% of the time. If the QB keeper worked well once on 2nd down, we’d run it on that down on at least 6 additional series. I won’t even go into the turnovers but…just awful. I’m not sure if it’s a reflection on the inexperience of the OC but something has to change there. From where I sit, it’s really hard to see Ruff dropping the hammer on the Special Teams or Offensive Coordinators. It will likely take a chat with TH that ends with something like, “make a change or there’s the door”. –sorry, I guess I didn’t wait long enough as the negative emotions are still running pretty high.

    • I share the same concern on what it will take to have a change made. As others have said…I think Ruff’s loyalty could be his undoing. What is also disconcerting to me on the offensive side beyond the predictability of play calling, is that our guys seemingly can’t make the routine play. We have heard for two years now how all we do is work on our fundamentals and the routine play…yet, we see so many errors that kill us. My son’s flag football coach stresses over and again, “after you catch the ball, you tuck it securely” yet our guys seemingly forget those things. Even on the improved defense, our ability to create turnovers is atrocious. How is it that only one player (Magz) seems to have the instinct to look for the football? Trust me Ed, the negative feelings are still swirling around…but I do have a strong faith in Coach Holland to get things righted here. I can take seeing our team beaten by a better team, but my faith is shaken when I see a team that can’t seem to get out of its own way.

  3. Chris

    I can’t argue with any of his concerns. My only reply is sometimes giving someone another year is a better option than starting over again with a totally new staff and scheme. I will point out to everyone that down the road there are some folks in Tampa calling for their coach’s head after he was unable to lead their team to a bowl game. That coach is none other than our golden boy, Skip Holtz. What would we tell their fans? I would tell them, give him time, he will build it into a winner. Hey, I’m as upset as everyone, but a coaching change puts us right back to square one and i’m not ready for that yet. Unless USF wants to swap coaches…hehehe Seriously, lets give them one more year and if we don’t see improvement across the board, I will personally lead the posse to run them out of town.

  4. pirate r

    Great post and glad to see it after a little post-season decompression hiatus. It has been forwarded as new thread on the HTC website (hoistthecoloers.net) with a little comment. The more the merrier!

  5. Chris

    Well, this may serve to clean house for Ruffin whether he likes it or not…

    http://www.reflector.com/sports/ecu/reports-ecu-loses-assistants-wsu-791951

    • Thanks for the link Chris! Saw that, too. Spoke to a staff member this a.m. for a Bonesville piece I am doing…we are going to be fine and perhaps gain from it. Makes it easier on Ruff, too. I am eager to see who they bring in for STs. Remember that Clay was not originally going to run STs for our team and was a “have to” in that regard following the forced resignation of our original hire two years ago.

      Eager to see who we hire.

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