It's a time to ask questions if you're heavily invested in the success of Army football.
Remember the pursuit of a replacement for Rich Ellerson? A lot was made about whether or not the Black Knights should pick a successor within the triple-option family. Many people debated whether Army was ready to go beyond that structure in search of the most competent person who would be willing to take the job.
The decision was obvious, and it was quite reasonable: Let's keep it "in the family" and stick with option football. Jeff Monken was chosen to be the next head coach at West Point, and with that came an understanding that this would not be quick fix. At least three years would be needed to see if Monken could turn things around. Four years -- even now -- would remain a thoroughly reasonable and appropriate allowance of time for anyone who chooses to take over this program. Indeed -- let's move one step beyond the introductory paragraph and establish that Jeff Monken should be Army's coach through 2017, not just 2016.
Having said that, one must express vigorous and profound concern about the direction in where this program is headed. Monken doesn't seem to trust his players, which is the last thing we should be talking about in November of his second season.
Don't buy the argument? Maybe you could advance the case that Monken is trusting his defense to do something. Those are players too -- it is true. However, if Army really was investing in the triple option when it hired Monken, the question has to be asked of Army's head coach: If you're not going for it on fourth and two inside the opponent's 43-yard line, are you trusting your offense and your system?
We don't need to discuss the particulars of Monken's two punts on short yardage inside the Air Force 43 on Saturday, because the dynamics of those situations were already fleshed out in our discussion of the Rice game. What's worth discussing is this: Why have a triple-option offense -- an offense specifically made for fourth and two, for ball-control opportunities and the ability to relentlessly carve out three or four yards a pop -- if you're not going to go for it on fourth and two?
Navy, on Saturday against Memphis, put itself in the hunt for a big January bowl by running for 374 yards. The bitter irony for Army is that the Black Knights ran for even more than that -- 378 -- against Rice, but Monken didn't trust his team to get the two additional rushing yards which would have mattered most. This past Saturday against Air Force, Army gained only 169 total yards and had to labor to cross 100 rushing yards in Colorado Springs. That reality is the product of Air Force simply having better, stronger players -- Monken, in year two, can't be held entirely accountable for that reality. It's in the collective realm of recruiting (with its resources and reinforcements) that Monken had no advantages when he took over the job. It's most centrally in recruiting where it becomes apparent that coaches need four seasons at a lower-tier job in order to prove themselves. Monken deserves a very wide berth in this respect, and anyone sensitive to the coaching profession's limitations should understand that. I'd like to think I've made myself clear on that very topic just now.
However, while recruiting-related matters should cut Monken a lot of slack, some issues should create a very alarming feeling in and around West Point, and right now, nothing else comes close to the Army coach's consistent propensity to not use his triple-option in down-distance-field position situations made for that particular offense.
Monken said after this loss to Air Force that this was a field-position game. Okay... and?
It's a field position game in which you lost by 17 points and -- if we're really going to be specific about field position -- never crossed the Air Force 20-yard line.
Again, a lot of this (most of this) is Air Force simply being better, something which can only be corrected with time, recruiting, and more patience. Anyone sympathetic to Monken's position would agree; anyone sympathetic to coaches and their challenges would also agree.
However, the word "patience" -- while certainly applying to Monken or other coaches in similar situations -- cannot be used as an excuse in terms of gameday decisions. This goes to the introduction of today's essay and how two parties can suddenly discover that the value they claim to share is manifested or defined in very different ways.
Patience -- as a manifestation of offense and offensive tactics -- can sometimes mean that you live to fight another possession. You punt so that you'll get a BETTER CHANCE NEXT TIME. Yes, capital letters are merited there, because that's the point of punting: Giving up one possession so that the next one will be better. Monken even acknowledges this when he refers to the importance of field position -- that's what punts are supposed to achieve. They leverage field position. That is their goal. You punt on fourth and eight so that you'll get a better bite of the apple next time.
Patience -- thus defined -- does NOT mean that you punt on fourth and two at the Air Force 37 or 42. With a triple-option offense, those are situations coaches should WANT to have. Those are situations in which offensive players are supposed to be trusted to get two yards. Teams with notoriously bad running games or weak run-blocking offensive lines are the ones who should punt on fourth and two a little more readily than others. (They could, of course, throw short passes, but the key insight is that they can legitimately claim to be in a bad position to convert the first down with the run.)
Jeff Monken thinks he's being patient with his decisions, but given how hard it was for Army to move the ball all day long against Air Force, getting the ball to the Falcons' 42 or 37 WAS (objectively, not even subjectively) about as good as Army had a right to expect in terms of field position with the football. Monken's decision is therefore self-contradictory; worse, it is an expression of fear: fear of failure; fear of getting stopped; fear of giving up the ball without pinning an opponent inside the 15; fear of, basically, losing.
Coaches can't coach scared.
It really shouldn't require a conversation, but it does for Jeff Monken: Everyone in a room can see that punting on fourth and eight with this offense makes all the sense in the world. Fourth and six, even fourth and four -- sure, no problem, that's a long way to go with this group of personnel.
Fourth and TWO, though? A program in search of a spark; players who are in fact playing hard every snap; a defense which is busting its butt and doing genuinely well; a community wanting to become more successful in the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy series -- they all want to go for the brass ring. At the very least, losing because you tried and failed is a million times more honorable and satisfying than punting on fourth and two from the opponent's 37.
Patience, in the context of the triple option, means "being content with three yards per play on a series of downs, knowing that if you get 3 on four snaps, you've made a first down... and can then wear out the defense in the next series of downs, when you can then break the big one and score." THAT is patience, properly defined, for Army or a team with Army's aspirations.
Jeff Monken's definition of patience is what you see from NFL coaches, especially those who punt when down 13 or 14 points with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Coaching not to get embarrassed (i.e., lose by a large margin) becomes more important than coaching to win.
That's not what Army's here for. No one was ever under the illusion that this process of restoring the program was going to be a quick fix. If two years of lopsided losses (based on appropriate fourth-down decisions accompanied by failures) give way to a tougher and more confident team in years three and four, it's worth it.
One fails to see how Monken's consistent lack of risk-taking -- in a 38-31 game against Rice, and in a 20-3 game against Air Force, two very different kinds of contests -- is improving this offense and this group of players, sharpening them for what's ahead in the next month, the next year, and the next two seasons.
Monken's definition of patience is not the definition many others would also apply to the term. When a gulf like that emerges, it's time for a sit-down from relevant leaders in the athletic department.
It's time to trust a triple-option offense a little more. If Army and Jeff Monken can't agree on that point, this team and this coaching tenure will not begin to head in the right direction. If that's alarmist in a premature kind of way... well... Jeff Monken can refute the point by at least trying to win games, instead of avoiding the slightest bit of risk at every turn.