For Once, a Ross Loss

After a season and a half of football in the Bobby Ross era at West Point, the focus has fallen on the players who have needed to find the right combination of mindset, focus, performance, and crunch-time excellence. Up until now, the emphasis in and around the Army football program has necessarily centered around player development—attitudinally and physically.

But after this downpour-drenched downer of a Homecoming against Central Michigan, in a 14-10 loss that was as depressing as it gets, the focus on the banks of the Hudson River—for the very first time—needs to shift to the head coach.

No, this isn't an SEC program, so there's absolutely no need to call for Bobby Ross' head anytime soon. He's good for Army, and Army's been good for him. We're not talking at all about breaking up this marriage at any point. It's a marriage that was, is, and will continue to be good for West Point football. Just as Mack Brown has ultimate security at Texas and Joe Paterno has reaffirmed his comfy place as Penn State's coach, so it also should be that Bobby Ross can stay on as long as he wants as Army's boss.

So with that having been said—and with his office chair in Michie Stadium just as snug as it was before this past Saturday's game against the Chippewas—let's engage in some gentle but constructive criticism of the head coach, a guy who's been given the benefit of the doubt up to this point.

Saturday, there was a real disconnect between theory and practice, between potential and reality, with respect to Army's game plan and the situational decisions Ross made.

On the third play of the game, Zac Dahman completed a 27-yard pass. But then, Ross and his offensive staff consciously went away from the passing game for the rest of the contest, continuously asking Dahman to throw in third and long situations. True, the conditions were horribly sloppy and wet. And it's true as well that Wesley racked up a lot of yards (144). However, Wesley never broke any long plays and couldn't provide the scoring punch the Black Knights need above all else. This football team needed an extra ingredient that Dahman provided with that early 27-yard pass.

It should be apparent to Ross and his staff (actually, it should have been apparent long before) that if Army is to acquire a top-flight offense without the triple option or wishbone that Navy and Air Force—the other smaller, normally outmanned service academy programs—use with great success and effectiveness, it stands to reason that the quarterback has to be the man. In a fairly traditional pro-style offense, the quarterback has to be a competent dropback passer who can be relied on to make defenses pay for loading up the box against runners like Carlton Jones and, in Saturday's case, Wesley. Army needs to get defenses on a pendulum, keeping defenses off balance because they won't know whether to expect run or pass.... kinda like Central Michigan's winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, which mixed Kent Smith passes and runs to provide a change of pace on almost every play.

It was weird to hear Ross say, in his postgame remarks, that he didn't want to pass on that final, fateful 4th and 8 play from the Chippewa 21. If this was true, then how come Ross—on an earlier 4th and 5 from the CMU 24—decided to eschew a field goal (which would have put his team up six points instead of three) in favor of a Dahman pass that fell incomplete?

And shouldn't Ross have kicked that field goal anyway (it would have been 41 yards), in light of the fact that Justin Koenig had banged in a 39-yarder earlier, not to mention the fact that Army would have prevented Central Michigan from being able to tie the game with a field goal? When Ross gambled for the first down, he sent a message to the visiting team that he desperately wanted to finish them off. When the play failed, the Chippewas got a big surge of confidence and momentum. They knew they could tie the game with a field goal, but they also knew that Army was a little bit on edge and emotionally ripe for the plucking. A field goal might have been boring, and it might have left Army still vulnerable to a defeat with a touchdown, but make or miss, a field goal would have given CMU less momentum than that fourth-down failure did. It's hard to deny that the decision—and then the failure of the play—contributed heavily to Central Michigan's win.

From scheme to game plan, from run-pass balance to quarterback development, from situational strategy to play-calling creativity, Ross and his offensive staff did a plainly poor job. It's the first time in the Ross era that coaching really served this team poorly. Up until now, it's all been about the players in their long-term struggle to learn and grow as Division I-A football forces. But on Saturday, Boss Ross truly lacked a steady hand. As Army football tries to grow—and shake off the parades of losses that just won't go away—a coach needs to patiently put the pieces together and come up with smarter, more creative stuff, putting Dahman in positions where he can succeed. Unless Army wants to go to the triple option, Ross better start focusing on quarterback development—and a lot of other things in his offense—if this program is to begin to turn things around.

There's no rush to do this—that only applies to LSU and Tennessee. But it does need to start happening, piece by piece.

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