Making the Most of Your Options: Army in 2008

Sports, as we've learned again from the Olympic Games, can work in mysterious ways. The difference between winning and losing can be smaller than you think. It is with this knowledge that Stan Brock's second Army football team can confidently take the field in 2008.

One of the quirky aspects of many Olympic events is the presence of multiple qualifying heats that don't demand perfection, only the ability to advance. You don't have to be at your best in early rounds when the finals of certain competitions take place on another day. Tuesday's ho-hum performance in a qualifying round is fine as long as you make it to Wednesday's final, when you can then summon up all the excellence in your arsenal.

This is all a way of saying the following: in sports, you can make mistakes (partly because you will--after all, you're human), as long as you know how to survive them. You don't have to have a perfect plan, but you need to understand how to benefit from that plan so you can adjust your mindset accordingly. You don't have to even have perfect execution, but you need to be aware of the moments when your execution matters most. This is all part of the winner's way, the way that isn't perfect... but is very close to perfection when it has to be.

That's what Army football has to try to do in 2008: not be great, but merely great when it has to be. For a program in search of a winning identity, the goal is attainable. What has to be added to the mix? A simple willingness to stick to the plans put forth by Coach Brock and his staff, who have committed to use the option offense to a certain extent.

The irritating part of the 2007 Army season was that the Black Knights' offense was both turnover-prone and ineffective. To be more specific, the Army offense was unable to meet the strategic and tactical demands of almost all the games it played. In games where Army needed to emphasize ball control and not scoring, the Black Knights couldn't control the ball, coughing up critical turnovers. And in games where Army simply needed to ring up points--even if a few turnovers were part of the bargain in a more high-risk approach--the Black Knights couldn't find a higher gear. Only against Temple and Tulsa did Brock's offense find a noticeable finishing kick.

When anyone--not just a college football coaching staff--devises a plan in life, that person accentuates certain goals while bringing unique risks into the given endeavor. Not every approach has the same kinds of risks, or the same likelihood of success. Different plans demand different points of emphasis. In football, then, an offense can take one of three primary forms: 1) a scoring offense that risks turnovers and disregards the importance of ball control; 2) a ball-control offense that places a premium on ball security and worries less about racking up points; 3) a hybrid offense that tries to pick favorable opportunities to strike, but which is rooted in ball-control fundamentals and likes to have one foot in each door. The use of the option--which is run-based but able to gain big chunks of yardage if executed properly--represents an attempt (and a wise one at that) to find this hoped-for hybrid.

Where is Army's option offense with respect to the above descriptions? That will be the fundamental question of the entire '08 campaign, and Stan Brock hopes that at each and every "campaign stop" for his ballclub, he'll be able to approve the message the Black Knights send to the college football world. Finding the third kind of offense--an attack that brings both potency and ball security to the table--is clearly the goal Brock has in mind, but based on the 2007 season, it's clear that Army merely needs to develop ball security before the potency can emerge on the banks of the Hudson River.

From a purely conceptual standpoint, it's much easier to develop ball security before potency. Learning how to protect the ball as a ballcarrier, and avoid interceptions as a quarterback, are connected to football's foremost fundamentals, the basic building blocks of the sport. The tricky part, then, is sustaining fundamentals while taking risks in terms of the offensive system that's employed. The more Army tries to break out of a conventional mold on offense, the more Carson Williams--and any other quarterback who sees action in 2008--will need to be aware of the consequences of Coach Brock's option-based attack. If Army needs to be more freewheeling, the offensive unit has to be more mentally liberated, with the quarterback and tailback willing to do things that wouldn't characterize a more buttoned-down ball control approach. But if ball security and time of possession are needed in a given situation, Army's option offense needs to focus on the basics, emphasize the fullback plunge more than the wide runs to the boundary, and generally play football with a lot more patience and discipline.

The greatest frustration of the 2007 season for Army can be the source of the 2008 team's ascendancy. The maddening combo of mistakes and impotence--of being unable to execute any kind of game plan--can give way to a perfect balance this season.

Consider last year's Navy game, painful though it might be: Army dominated the action for the first 20 minutes, solidly outplaying the Midshipmen and whipping them at the line of scrimmage. In those first 20 minutes, Army displayed the ability to maneuver effectively as a ball-control offense that could keep the pigskin away from Navy's vaunted triple option attack. The Black Knights weren't perfect, but they converted third downs and showed the ability to play opportunistic football.

In those early minutes against Navy last December, Army imitated the Olympic runner who--though sluggish in his qualifying heat--managed to survive for the next series of competitions. Converting third (and fourth) downs is a lot like that: you can be ugly on first and second down, but as long as you make the big play on third down, you qualify for four more downs and the continuation of your journey, your pursuit of ultimate success. Army tasted this feeling for a brief while against Navy.

But then, after getting the ball deep into Navy territory (yes, the memory has to sting, but it needs to be mentioned to get the point across), Corey Anderson dropped a huge touchdown pass on third and goal from the 10. Kicker Owen Tolson missed a 27-yard field goal on the next play. A few series later, Army's offense got stopped again on a third-down play (3rd and 4, to be precise) from the Navy 10. A long stretch of domination at the line of scrimmage added up to a mere three points, and when the Black Knights committed one coverage bust on a kickoff, and one turnover inside their own red zone, Navy quickly built a 21-3 lead. Stan Brock coached that game well in the first 20 minutes, and Army didn't commit turnovers during that period of time, but without potency--or at least, potency in the handful of moments that demanded it--no plan devised by Brock was going to succeed.

The idea of having a plan and sticking with it is applicable to Army's 2008 season on two basic levels: 1) Army will need to play some games in accordance with safer plans, and other games in accordance with higher-risk plans. 2) Whenever Brock commits to one plan over the other, Army's offense--which certainly doesn't have to be perfect--merely needs to know when it has to rise up. All passes, all play selections, and all drives are not created equal. Whatever maintains a gameday's given goals, and whatever advances the larger cause at the time, is all the Black Knights need from their offense. Turnovers are fine if the firepower and big numbers exist to overcome them. A lack of potency is okay as long as Army's offense can control the clock and put the defense in good field position.

Think of every Army football game in 2008, then, as a division between the first three quarters and the fourth quarter. The first three quarters are the three qualifying heats for a track and field final. The final race, of course, is the fourth quarter. This kind of a journey doesn't demand being at your best all the time. It only means buying into Stan Brock's plan and doing the things the plan requires.

Stan is making a new plan this year, now that he has a greater feel for the team and program under his guidance. If Army's option offense can work with that plan, the winning identity that's been missing from Michie Stadium could make a grand and bold appearance this Autumn. And to emphasize the point one final time, such a development is entirely within reach--any of the improbable Olympic champions (or equally improbable Olympic disappointments) could tell you as much.

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