Army's 2015 football season was littered with the frustrations of a program trying to find itself.
This wasn't an unacceptable autumn -- life as a rebuilding program will inevitably involve the kinds of setbacks and false hopes Army encountered last year. Positive transformations are not painless processes free of adversity and searing doubt. If 2016 moves the program several steps forward, 2015 won't be seen as a missed opportunity; it will be perceived -- rightly and accurately -- as a catalyst for improvement, a springboard to a better existence.
What must Army do to make sure it wins more of the close games it couldn't capture last season?
The short answer is to get both units to play well at the same time. The longer answer is a little more complicated.
Fordham. Rice. Tulane. Army scored at least 31 points in all three contests from 2015... and lost.
Connecticut. Wake Forest. Penn State. Air Force. Navy. Army allowed no more than 22 points in those five games from the past season... and lost.
If Army had merely won one of the three 31-point games, and three of the five 22-point-maximum defensive games, it would have posted a .500 record. We'd view the team and the state of the program in a very different light. Narrowly viewed, both sides of the ball need to pick each other up. From a distance, it might seem to be nothing more than a matter of motivation and player development, getting each young man to be a little better this year than last year. That's not necessarily an inaccurate statement, but it rates as an incomplete one.
The hidden key to a seemingly simple metamorphosis in West Point is for Jeff Monken and his coaching staff to unearth opportunities from gameday situations. To an extent, this is a matter of motivation and development, but on a few occasions this upcoming season, it will be up to the coaches to find some slivers of daylight in which they turn a fragile -- and perhaps neutral -- situation in Army's favor.
A classic case of this comes from Monken's worst 2015 moment, the day when he made a particularly poor decision in Houston.
You'll recall that in the 38-31 loss to Rice, Monken kicked a field goal from the Rice 2-yard line to create a 31-31 tie, instead of going for the touchdown and the lead. Quite literally, Monken valued "not losing" (31-31) over trying to win.
A large reason why that decision was so deficient is cultural. You teach a team to win by making decisions which manifest the aggression and boldness you want to see in your players. Monken's decision was culturally and attitudinally lacking. However, in relationship to this larger discussion of getting two sides of the ball to play well in the same game, Monken's decision rated as a failure for a simpler reason: It didn't match the flow of the game.
In a relatively high-scoring contest, it only stands to reason that aggressive decisions should be more commonplace. In a low-scoring game, coaches need to look for openings in which to make bold moves, but they almost certainly have to pick their spots with more discernment and care. When points are (more) at a premium, ceding a possession at one's own 42-yard line in pursuit of a fourth-and-two conversion is not as sensible.
This is part of the equation for coaches. They want both sides of the ball to flourish on the same day, but if they see that one half of the loaf isn't measuring up, they must become more attentive to the need to enhance the better side's strengths and minimize the inferior side's weaknesses. This situational response to game flow was not in evidence against Rice, and it wasn't apparent in some of the other games mentioned above.
Coaching decisions won't solve all problems or fill in all gaps. As said above, motivation and player development have a lot to do with solving the riddle of gamedays in which only one side of the ball shows up. However, let's reiterate the basic point of emphasis: A few occasions will emerge when motivation (40 percent, he said unscientifically) and player development (40 percent) solve only 80 percent of Army's problems. Decisions and tactics will fill in that remaining 20 percent, and that ability to bridge the gap could ultimately make the difference between a 4-8 season and a 6-6 campaign.
Yes, both sides of the ball need to play well at the same time. The desire for improvement is simple. How Army and Jeff Monken get there is the truly fascinating journey underneath the surface.