Things are definitely looking up in West Point, as Boss Ross (with the help of son and offensive coordinator Kevin) has increased the program's win totals by two in each of the past two years. The Todd Berry bagel of 2003 became a two-win 2004 in Ross's first season, and that pair of wins was doubled in a four-win 2005. This season, the Army football family would love yet another two-win increase: a six-win ca mpaign would translate into a .500 year, a sweet taste this progam hasn't experienced since the Independence Bowl year of 1996. In fact, since the decorated tenure of Jim Young ended after the 1990 season, Army football has enjoyed only two winning seasons, in '96 and also in 1993, both under Bob Sutton. Six wins would be a major achievement for the Black Knight program, and the surest sign yet that Bobby Ross will succeed in his attempt to revive one of college football's most storied traditions.
But with all that having been said, it's a long way to Tipperary for Army on the road to six wins in 2006: the difference between wanting victory and actually achieving it is night and day, and when you're a program not accustomed to winning, the jump from four to six wins is much harder than the climb from zero wins to two (as was the case in the 2004 season).
With that thought in mind, the bank account metaphor must enter the picture for Army football this season, with Arkansas State looming on September 2 at Michie Stadium.
With each passing year, I learn more and more about sports--the athletes involved, and the ebb-and-flow of individual games. And what remains fascinating about sports--especially at the collegiate level--is how huge a role emotions have in a day's (and a season's) proceedings. The mindsets of college athletes, these 20-year-old hormone-dominated bodies flying around a field with hurricane intensity, are incredibly fragile. The smallest incident or individiual play can create powerful momentum shifts that override the levels of talent on the field. The world of emotions is where fresh opportunities can be created by the underdog, and expectations of success can be dashed for the favorite.
This is where the bank account metaphor comes into play.
Talent is a natural thing, a gift that some athletes have more than others. Yet, talent is often wasted, too--the innate ability of a player means little if it doesn't translate into peak performance. Moreover, talent is often wasted when an athlete meets with adversity in the course of an event. The pressure overwhelms the brain, and the body doesn't perform the way it should. Instead of digging deep to find the concentration needed to supplement good effort, the talented but underachieving athlete crumbles in tense situations that press the emotions.
Think of a football game, then (you could use this for any sport), as a well-stocked bank account. Two teams have their own fair share of talents and capabilities spread out over three units: offense, defense and special teams. When one of these teams is in trouble, these units need to go to the bank and make a withdrawal from their account. Some players will withdraw extra concentration and mental discipline from the bank; others, an extra burst of speed or physicality; still others, a new and creative move to fake out an opponent. These various talents won't be sustained for 60 minutes--extra injections of performance are reserved for the peak moments when the margin for error is gone--but they are withdrawn from the bank account when needed. The "withdrawal" element of the bank account analogy is therefore the easy part to explain.
The harder part to explain is the idea that a player or team can make a deposit into its account. Here's the simplest possible summary of how a team can deposit assets back into the account it uses during a game:
If talent can be wasted, it can also be maximized as well. While teams in trouble make withdrawals, teams make deposits not necessarily when they're in trouble, but when they encounter fragile points in a game when an emotional advantage is waiting to be seized. Games start out on an emotionally neutral level, but if one team plays poorly enough for a sustained amount of time, the opponent--recognizing this weakness--can pounce and go in for the kill. When one team plays well, the other team needs to make a withdrawal; but when one team plays poorly, the other team has a chance to make a deposit, because it discovers that it can play--and succeed--at a level it might not have thought possible at the beginning of the game.
As you can probably see, Army is the kind of team that--while needing to make timely withdrawals in the games it figures to win (such as the Arkansas State opener)--is a team that will definitely need to make deposits in games where it's the underd og. And given that the Cadets are still in search of a winning season under Bobby Ross, they'll need to make more deposits in games if they're going to maximize their talent.
As stated above, maximizing performance is the goal of coaches... at any sport and any level. Bobby Ross isn't yet bringing blue-chip studs to West Point, but he's certainly four games better than where the program was two-plus years ago. He's making progress in terms of maximizing the talent he has at Army. If Ross wants to maximize his talent even more, though, he can't just encourage his team (though he's done so very well) or instruct his team (though Ross is a superb football technician). Ross has to make his team aware of what it can achieve... in a moment, a game, a season. While the need to make timely withdrawals from a bank account is evident, Army football needs to make timely deposits if 2006 is to be a big year on the banks of the Hudson River.
Last year's encouraging b ut not-quite-there-yet 4-7 season offers proof.
The Baylor, Iowa State, Central Michigan and Navy games were all contests in which Army's opponent was vulnerable at one time or another, and failed to make a withdrawal in a delicate moment where the trajectory of the game hung in the balance. Army, however, could not take advantage by making a deposit in those same moments, which would have enabled the Black Knights to discover a new level of excellence when momentum--and a clearer path to victory--were within their grasp.
One final point on this whole subject, which--remember--is the biggest overall key for Army in this 2006 season.
You might think that this is a ridiculously long and unnecessary way of saying something much simpler: namely, that Army needs to make timely plays, the plays made in the Akron win and other games in which statistics and yards didn't paint an accurate picture of how close the game was. Yes, timely plays will certainly tell the story for Army in 2006. But that's just the outline of the story and its main chapters; it's not the whole story, which is made of paragraphs, sentences and words.
With the talent Army has now, another four-win season--with good levels of concentration and effort combined with solid coaching and strategy from the Ross braintrust--seems to be a likely result. A season full of timely withdrawals against equally strong or slightly weaker foes will give Army the victories it's expected to attain. That wouldn't be too bad; any year in which Army doesn't take a step backward is a decent year at this point in the life of the program.
But if a step-up, six-win season is the goal, timely plays will have to be made a little more often against the better opponents on the 2006 schedule. And if you're going to make timely plays at a very high rate and on a very consistent basis, that's what it means to make deposits into an account, to add to one's net worth as a season progresses. Reaching a higher level--maximizing your talent to the fullest possible degree--demands more than withdrawals in moments of trouble; it demands deposits in mome nts where a game's momentum is waiting to be claimed. You could say that Army had four-win talent last year, but with some timely deposits into the bank account against Iowa State and Central Michigan in particular, six wins could have been achieved. (One could say that the Air Force win from 2005 involved some major cash deposits, not just some timely withdrawals; perhaps the fact that it was a Commander-in-Chief game enabled Army to find the proverbial next level, and play a notch above its normal talent level. That point shouldn't be lost on anyone who follows Army football.)
Army is very likely to make the timely withdrawals from its account of talent, concentration and effort this season. A four-win campaign and the maintenance of some newly-formed standards are likely to result from this season. Such an outcome would not be bad after two seasons in which the win total in West Point has grown by two games apiece and four overall.
But if Army wants to reach an even higher plateau and have its first non-losing season in a solid decade, the Black Knights can't just make withdrawals when in trouble. They need to make deposits when a game's momentum hangs in the balance. With this kind of stage presence, the Black Knights could maximize their talent and fulfill more of the hopes and dreams Bobby Ross has for this growing and improving program.