Army's Mystery Theater

It's clear that Army will fight hard, and that running the ball offers a better way forward than the passing game. Beyond those obvious realities, the identity of Rich Ellerson's first West Point football team is even more of a mystery, two games into a season that has yet to find some deeper and more defined answers.

Okay, okay: After this 35-19 loss to Duke in the home opener at Michie Stadium, no one has to inquire about run-pass balance, or about the effort level put forth by the Black Knights. Two late pick-sixes thrown by Carson Williams can't mask the modestly pleasing fact that Army competed vigorously; in fact, even when the visiting Blue Devils used their two defensive touchdowns (by defensive back Leon Wright) to snag a 35-13 lead with only 92 seconds left in regulation, Williams and his teammates managed to drive downfield and stick the ball in the end zone on the game's final timed down. Of all the issues this team faces, "want-to" is not on the list. Quitting is not in question for the Black Knights; no one on the home sideline ever stopped playing on Saturday against coach David Cutcliffe's crew from Tobacco Road.

The mystery that is Army football in year one of the Ellerson era need not be tied to attitude, because that component of competition has been largely solved by the new coaching staff. No, the uncertainty surrounding this season comes down to execution and quality, the enduring concerns for any program.

First, a word about execution, and a reminder about the economy of football: There's a difference between an optimal performance and a clean performance, even though the two notions might first appear to be one and the same thing. An optimal performance showcases a ballclub firing on all cylinders, moving the ball at will, and socking the living daylights out of an opposing offense. Optimal performance involves a team's talents spilling out into full flower on a football field come Saturday afternoon.

In contrast, a clean performance merely means the elimination of big mistakes. Teams can get whipped at the line of scrimmage and get overwhelmed or outplayed due to an inability to withstand an opposing team's defensive front. Yet, such a reality can coexist with a turnover-free and low-penalty stat sheet. In fact, Army football has encountered that kind of scenario in recent seasons. Nevertheless, the point remains: One can play clean football without playing at an optimal level. It's important to keep this distinction in mind when talking about the 2009 Black Knights.

Turnovers are so irritating to coaches not just because they represent a foremost obstacle to victory; for Ellerson or any other coach who is trying to rebuild a program and transform the identity of the locker room, turnovers prevent a team from being measured accurately. When a team plays clean football, win or lose, a coaching staff can relatively easily discern the talent level and skill sets on a roster. The clarity of the evaluation process enables the coaching staff to then make even better, more focused, and more targeted adjustments in formations, personnel groupings, and the other nuts-and-bolts aspects of situational football. Such freedom and flexibility, made in an informed manner, usually produces better performance and results over time. This is why clean football is a foundation for success, a basic starting point for a rebuilding program and a steppingstone toward optimal performance in the future.

This Duke loss leaves a cloud over Army's forecast for the rest of the season because the Black Knights committed four turnovers. If Trent Steelman and Kingsley Ehie hadn't put the ball on the carpet, Duke wouldn't have (in all likelihood) held an eight-point lead heading into the game's final two minutes. And if Duke hadn't owned that 21-13 advantage in crunch time, Army wouldn't have felt the need to resort to the passing game, which produced two more turnovers under unique circumstances. The first two turnovers—the fumbles—were unforced errors made in "regular" football not tied to the two-minute drill or overly pressing scoreboard considerations. The last two turnovers—the pair of pick-sixes—were "forced errors" attributable to Army's quarterback switch and the need to use an distrusted passing game under fire. So, while one could make a clear distinction between two pairs of Army turnovers, the bottom line is that the four overall miscues make it harder to evaluate what this team is really made of.

Going forward, the need for clean football—which always exists in football, sure, but which proved to be a nagging bugaboo in the Bobby Ross and Stan Brock coaching regimes—has to be priority number one as Mr. Ellerson tries to learn more about the players at his disposal. With a commitment to cleanliness (and we all know what cleanliness is adjacent to, don't we?), Army football can acquire more divine dimensions and attain loftier heights before this season's through.

Before putting this game in the rearview mirror and moving on to week three, one more point needs to be made on the mysterious aspect of Army's season to date: Did the Duke team that won in West Point on Saturday represent a vastly-improved ballclub that worked out the kinks after a bad week one home loss to Richmond, or will Duke remain a doormat in the ACC Coastal Division? Moreover, did the Eastern Michigan team that Army whipped in week one suddenly become a lot better in a narrow road loss to a decent Northwestern club, or is Northwestern overrated? Not only do we not know all that much (not yet, anyway) about Army; we don't know a lot about the evolution of the two teams Army has played this season.

So, while keeping your eyes on Army, don't forget to follow the fortunes of Duke, Northwestern, and Eastern Michigan in the coming weeks. But while reading those out-of-town scoreboards and the tea leaves they might offer, the foremost point of concern for the Brave Old Army Team has to be the cleanliness of its everyday execution. Indeed, on the road to optimal performance—the gold standard for gamedays--Army must first clean up its act. If the Black Knights can make that one foundational breakthrough, a season of "mystery theater" will give way to more clarity and, eventually, more prosperity.

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