A Fragile Superiority

In so many ways, the story of the 2010 Navy football team – a story that will encounter its most important chapter this Saturday in Philadelphia – is and has been a narrative defined by the burden of being successful. When the Midshipmen stare down the Army Black Knights in a revered college football classic's latest renewal, the adrenaline of gameday needs to obliterate a team's fears.

They might not say it – actually, they damn sure won't say it – but the young men who play football for the United States Naval Academy have been a little passive this year. No, not in the sense that they've been afraid of physical contact or reticent to throw themselves pell-mell into the fray for 60 minutes; it's deeper than that. Coach Ken Niumatalolo's guys haven't been passive in any of the outwardly apparent ways that one commonly thinks of during a football campaign. Players are trying hard; they're not withholding effort or drifting through the motions. However, the Mids have been burdened; they've consciously felt the weight of great expectations.

The boys of Annapolis realized they had an opportunity for an 11-win campaign, and they certainly heard enough chatter about it in the offseason. Being human, the Men of Ken – even if they consciously realized they had to freshly earn their pigskin prominence and Saturday superiority this season – have subconsciously sagged by slight but telling measures over the course of this year. That's the appearance from this vantage point, at any rate. It's simply a part of the intangible physics of sports.

At all levels of competitive sports but especially in the college ranks, it's hard for a team or program to maintain the exact same outlook each and every season. Even though Navy's had Ricky Dobbs as its dependable signal caller the past few years, other pieces of the Mids' puzzle have shifted around on both sides of the ball. This has changed the emotional composition of the team. Niumtalolo and the staff have done their level best to incorporate the same values, principles and attitudes into their players, but no matter what the coaches say, the players still have to find the answers on gameday.

The intangible aspects of sports tell us that no team is going to find the magic brew, the perfect potion of chemistry, each and every season. Some years, the ideal mixture just won't emerge. You can't assign copious portions of blame to anyone; in sports, you're not going to win big every year. All runs come to an end; look at USC under Pete Carroll, or Florida in this season after chemistry major Tim Tebow left, or Texas once Colt McCoy left the ranch. This stuff happens, especially in college sports. At the pro level, a few great players can hold together a locker room – Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter – and generate relentless yearly consistency, albeit while pacing themselves through the grind of the regular season. In the college game, no matter the sport, rule number one is that players will leave in four years. Rule number two is that coaches can't change rule number one.

It's not any great sin or shortcoming we're pointing out here; Navy was never going to relent, to fight with less energy or compete with less passion. The Mids' track record of overachievement was going to fade, if not end, due to mental fatigue more than physical or tactical deficiencies. In 2010, Navy football has clearly looked like an operation that still has a great skipper (Niumatalolo), a fine set of captains on deck (Ivin Jasper and Buddy Green leading the way), and a great crew all the way around (another terrific bunch of kids). The mix just hasn't been the same, and somewhat amazingly, all this is being said for an 8-3 team. Warts and all, the Mids will still take a very solid record into their bowl game; that's how high the bar has been raised in Annapolis. Nevertheless, it remains that these Midshipmen have betrayed signs of mental weariness.

Recent Navy teams from the past few seasons would have found a finishing kick at Air Force. Recent predecessors of this year's ballclub would have smothered Central Michigan instead of letting the Chippewas back into contention in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Recent Navy teams would not have allowed Duke quarterback Sean Renfree to look like Phil Simms in Super Bowl XXI for the New York Giants. Recent Navy teams would not have eked out a one-point win over a bad Wake Forest club; they would have dispatched a 3-9 team with much more conviction. Yes, Navy has pulled white-knucklers out of the fire on more than one occasion, and that's certainly not a sign of mental fatigue; the real heart of this team's tiredness has not emerged in the final few minutes of games, but in the second halves when advantages must be consolidated or tight games must be busted open. Navy has done neither with all that much consistency. Quality has been abundant, yes, but more elusive; excellence has emerged but it has been more prone to dissipate just as readily. The flame of concentration flickers a little more instead of remaining steady.

All this points to feeling the weight of potential glory, glory not yet fulfilled but held out as a tantalizingly available promise. Navy has seen the prize in broad daylight from the very start of this season, but that vision has clouded the minds of the young men on this roster. As a result, the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy is in Air Force's possession. Maryland owns in-state bragging rights. Duke affirmed the ACC's control of Navy this year (the league went 2-1 against the Mids). Outcomes Navy fans did not expect have interrupted the feel-good vibe of overachievement that permeated past pigskin processions for this program. A little mental fatigue is all it took.

This Saturday's game against Army, then, is everything that an Army-Navy Game always represents, but it's even more, if it's humanly possible to say so. This contest is, of course, the most global and far-reaching college football rivalry of them all, the one most steeped in tradition, emotion, and in the poignancy of knowing that the participants won't lead the NFL one day, but America. This game is everything you know to be true, beautiful and good about college football. It's also, however, a special proving ground for the 2010 Men of Ken. Gifted with two bye weeks, the Mids should be mentally refreshed for this duel with the Black Knights of the Hudson. Navy should no longer bear the burden of preseason hopes and grand longings for an elite bowl bid. The team knows it will play in San Diego against a rowdy bunch of Aztecs; that distraction has been removed from the books.

This Saturday in Philadelphia, Navy can just do the one thing that really matters: BEAT ARMY. Satisfying fans or living up to hype can recede into the background. This game is for Navy's players, a close-knit group of comrades blessed with one more afternoon in the arena, one more day between the painted white lines against the rivals from West Point in a celebrated American sports showcase. The Mids, to a man, don't have to worry about the outside world; that will be thrust upon them when they graduate from the Naval Academy. Saturday, it's about winning one game, the one game that counts. With inexhaustible resolve and newfound mental toughness, Navy can land one punch against Army and then land more punches without stopping. There doesn't have to be a mid-game lull due to the rigors of a full season. Two bye weeks have replenished this team's tank… or should we say "fighter jet engines?"

It's time for the unintentional but real passivity to exit stage right. It's time for a mentally refreshed Navy team to wear its superiority in this series, freed from the sense of frailty that defined the first 11 games of this unusual season in Annapolis.

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