This was not a coaching loss for Army.
That needs to be said after previous Saturdays in which timid coaching decisions cost Army leverage or pride, or both.
Full credit must be extended to Jeff Monken for the way he approached the Green Wave -- and the moment -- on Saturday. With roughly two minutes left and a game waiting to be won, Monken faked a PAT, trying to snare a 32-31 victory. The play was successful, yet called back by a penalty. Even though a mistake was made on the play -- Army made a lot of them on Saturday, enough to lose at any rate -- the mere act of being aggressive in the pursuit of success was and is welcome. The fact that Army had just completed a long 87-yard drive left Tulane in that mentally fatigued state defenses acquire after being defeated by a patient offense (regardless of style). The time to pounce with a surprise was perfect.
Monken's choice was an inspired one not just because he was going for the brass ring, but because he properly calibrated a larger situation. His instincts matched a moment not in a numerical sense, but in terms of reading the body language of an opponent and also knowing that his team had suffered a last-play loss at home to Wake Forest in a tied game. Monken wanted Tulane to feel added scoreboard pressure, which would have weighed down the Green Wave had they trailed by a point. That small but substantial detail could have become a tipping point in Army's favor. The result of the penalty which nullified the 2-point conversion is that Army lost the element of surprise. It could still have chosen to go for two, but with Tulane getting a second chance, kicking the PAT became more sensible. Surely, no one could fault Monken for that move under the circumstances. Results and process are not one and the same thing. The former can be good and the latter bad, or vice-versa. Had the fake PAT not worked, it still would have been a good choice, much as the 19-yard field goal against Rice would have been a bad decision even if the Black Knights had won.
Coaching -- at least as an extension of decision making -- was not the problem on Saturday. That's important, partly because players are still going all-out for Monken, an excellent sign. No one gave up hope when the Black Knights fell behind by a 28-7 score in the second quarter. It's even more important because the ability to evaluate a program needs to involve a segmentation between players and coaches. If there's a question about the coaching staff's ability to teach, motivate, and strategize, that uncertainty clouds one's subsequent judgment of the players. It doesn't help in the evaluation process, and it places more up-front heat on the coach. (This is why the Rice and Air Force missteps were so discouraging at the time.)
Conversely, when the coaching staff fundamentally approaches a game the right way, it's easier to view the players on the merits of their performances, without getting dragged into the coaching conversation. With Monken improving on Saturday, the players themselves became more central to the drama. A brief survey of this game against Tulane points the way to the program's foremost need in 2016.
The Army offensive line just doesn't blow open holes against opposing defensive fronts -- not, at least, with the consistency a triple-option team expects and craves. An accumulation of 216 yards is good for a lot of teams, but it's not in Army's sweet spot. As a point of comparison, Army gained 378 rushing yards against Rice. Yet, the Black Knights accumulated well under 216 yards on the ground against Air Force. That a 216-yard rushing day falls somewhere in the middle of this team's weekly outputs is a bit concerning. What also has to concern Monken is that his offense -- taking away a special-teams touchdown and a field goal set up by the defense, planting the offense on the Tulane 37 -- scored only 21 of the team's 31 points on its own, without any real help.
Skill-position execution certainly matters -- too many mistakes littered Saturday's loss -- but that's a question of technique, something this coaching staff will have a chance to refine in time. Moreover, with an unsettled quarterback situation this season due to injuries, it's not as though Monken has had the right pieces in place. Circumstances have taken the ideal scenario away from him, and whereas the likes of a Baylor or an Alabama should have a backup quarterback of considerable caliber, that can't be expected at Army -- not yet. Skill positions can be developed.
Where this program needs a big upgrade in 2016 is on the offensive line. That's not just priority number one; it's priority four and seven and even nine. This is the one unit on the team Monken has to get right, in order for everything else about the program to fall in place.
Is this a question of player development or recruiting? It's both. Just to be clear about this, Georgia Tech -- which runs the triple option (Paul Johnson's offense is no stranger to Monken, since he worked under Johnson at Tech, Navy, and Georgia Southern) -- returned four of its five starting offensive linemen this season. Quarterback Justin Thomas returned, but the backs and receivers were different. The offensive line, for all its experience -- and for all the good work it did last season -- has not performed anywhere close to its 2014 standard. Did Johnson fail to coach these players properly, or did they regress? It's hard to say, especially since Johnson certainly coached them properly in 2014.
Johnson didn't start coaching a new offense with new blocking techniques. The operation spun sideways. It's not easy to say, definitively, that Georgia Tech slipped this season because of poor player development (or poor recruiting, take your pick). Did the new skill people make the offensive line more hesitant? Did ballcarriers not know how to set up blocks? Georgia Tech's fullbacks seem to be guilty of that, but not the halfbacks -- they've struggled in terms of ballhandling and positioning relative to the quarterback, as shown this past Thursday against Virginia Tech and two months ago at Notre Dame. It's a case by case basis, and with that, it's best to refrain from making too narrow a statement if the evidence can point to either answer.
What Army and Monken can know for sure is that the offensive line must get a lot better if this program is to take the next basic step in its evolution, enough to beat the Wake Forests, Tulanes, and Rices which appear on the schedule. Yes, I do think the passing game needs to be better (it was against Tulane), but that didn't carry Army across the finish line this past Saturday. The hammer Army needs is found up front, and until radical improvement occurs on the offensive line (the defensive line's performance has been quite solid this season), the Black Knights will remain stuck.
This is a thought raised in a context of uncertainty, but it's a thought also raised in a situation where we don't have to talk about the quality of coaching for a week.
That's progress... even though the scoreboard won't indicate it.