Army 2013 Preview: Two Relief Routes

There are two fundamental paths to relief – and redemption – for Army on the gridiron this fall. The Black Knights can either take the long route or the short one. The long route is not a worse option, though, and the short route is not going to be arrived at by shortcuts.


2013 ARMY PREVIEW:

WHATEVER IT TAKES: PERSISTENCE, POTENCY, AND ANYTHING ELSE THAT WORKS


One of the enduring and iconic images produced by the 2012 college football regular season came in its final moments.

Army-Navy, the last game of each regular season in the Football Bowl Subdivision, twisted and turned its way to the closing minutes of regulation with Army driving, driving, driving, on the doorstep of a glorious and transformative triumph. The Black Knights were in the red zone, slowly but powerfully pushing through Navy's sagging defense. The Brave Old Army Team really did seem to be on its way to slaying the demon known as the decade-long losing streak to the boys from Annapolis. Yes, the Black Knights were just 14 yards from registering an achievement that would have electrified the program and given a fresh dose of optimism to anyone and everyone who cares about West Point football.

But then it happened.

Fumble-itis, a disease which has infected Army's program for most of the past three years, raged its ugly head again, and in a heartbeat, Army hearts were not just broken, but crushed into fine powder. CBS cameras, naturally in search of good visuals, fixed their sights on Steelman, who cried the manly tears of a formidable competitor who just couldn't summon up enough clean plays to finish that drive. Yes, CBS lingered on Steelman a bit too much, but the image was unforgettable just the same. Effort – never a problem for Army – was not the reason the Black Knights had to sing their alma mater first once again in Philadelphia.

It was, as usual, execution – perhaps by a smaller margin this time, but the notion of "smallness" doesn't really hold much value in an event as large as Army-Navy.

Steelman – who gave everything to Army football – will not don a helmet for the Black Knights this season. New players will step into his place and into other positions as well. Yet, even though players come and go in rapid succession in college sports, it remains a point of fascination that programs can retain the same characteristics over an extended period of time. Over the past 10 years, Army has continued to manifest many of the same bad habits and tendencies, while Navy – 2011 excepted – has managed to consistently find winning formulas in crunch time more often than not. Army can't worry about Navy's ability to do well, but the Black Knights can certainly change their propensity to fall one or two plays short.

How does Army climb the hill? How does Army get over the hump? How does Army find sweet, transformative relief in 2013?

There's the long way, and there's the short way. The long way, though, is not a less desirable path – not if it gets Army where it needs to go. The short way is not a "cheap" ticket to prosperity, somehow gained with less than substantial effort. It's rather simple to unpack these two concepts and what they mean for head coach Rich Ellerson and company.

The long way and the short way are nothing more than references to the kinds of scoring drives a football team can produce. The long way is the 15-play, 80-yard drive. The short way is the 70-yard run or the 40-yard pass. They're both good – one really isn't better than the other – but the key is that Army finds a way to reach the end zone by at least one of the two paths when it really matters.

The long way is valuable to Army because it keeps the opposing offense on the sidelines and rests the Black Knights' defense. The long way is also important to this program because the triple option is supposed to slowly sap an opposing defense of its stamina, intensity and concentration. The triple option is meant to unnerve a defense and then – as a result of said unnerving – hit the big play precisely because a linebacker or safety gets mentally tired of playing sound assignment football. It is well within Army's ability to use "The Long Way" to its advantage, but as the Navy game and also the Rutgers loss showed in 2012, the Black Knights could only travel four-fifths, three-fourths, or two-thirds of the field before bogging down. Slow, drip-by-drip drives rarely ran their course. The red zone – not the goal line – is where all too many Army drives died last season. Using "The Long Way" means that Army has to get those final 15 or 10 yards this season. You don't know which game will bring forth this need for the Black Knights (though Navy is a likely candidate), but you do know that the need will indeed arise at some point.

However, if the long way isn't always taken by the Black Knights, the short way will work just fine, too.

One underrated way of dealing with red-zone problems is, of course, to complete a 40-yard touchdown pass or bust off a 50-yard touchdown run. Army's problem here, of course, is that it typically lacks the breakaway speed in the backfield to produce such runs. The team's triple-option attack is not a snug and comfortable home for polished pocket passers. Yet – and this is something that gets talked about each and every season – the reality of the triple-option offense is that the constant use of the running game sets up the possibility of an unexpected deep ball. Army, if it wants to beat Navy and produce a .500 season in 2013, has to find this little bit of big-play lightning at some point – not in every game, but certainly in some situations.

It's a bit too extreme to say that Army (or any college football team) has no options. Teams in the modern age of this sport always have options; they just have some options that are strengths and some that are weaknesses. Army's strength is clearly closer to The Long Way than The Short Way. However, winning teams find ways to enhance their weakest points. Winning teams find ways to win with different styles of play, because on some days, the preferred mode doesn't click, thereby requiring the use of a backup approach.

If you go back 100, 90, 80, or even 50 years ago, college football offenses were just not as developed, layered, or quarterback-centric as they are now. As Ralph D. Russo of The Associated Press and many other top-flight college football writers have been saying over the past few years, this is a time in the sport's history that is ruled by offense. We have seen waves of innovation in the sport since the mid-1960s and especially the past 10 to 15 years. If you're not finding ways to pry open opportunities on offense – via the long way or the short way – chances are you're not winning.

Army has to find more ways to score touchdowns in 2013. By itself, that statement is not a revelation. Hopefully, though, the explanation given above will enable you to appreciate why this notion of having multiple ways of scoring is so essential for West Point football this fall.

That's the long and short of it.

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