Cushions Yes, Guarantees No
After eight straight bowl-bearing seasons, the laws of averages – as much as anything else – caught up with Navy in 2011. No, it wasn't expected that the Midshipmen would fall short of a bowl game last season, but on a larger level, their run WAS going to end at some point. That's merely the cycle of life at work. Pete Carroll lost four games at USC in 2009; his dynastic run finally met its end. Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams eventually did lose in the late 1950s after winning 47 straight. Miami's glory days in the mid-1980s didn't last forever. Nebraska is no longer a heavyweight, despite its brand name. Texas now sees the college football world from a diminished place (though maybe not for long, once it regains a quarterback of considerable quality). It's fair and reasonable to say that Navy's 2011 was not an unacceptable event; it was merely a part of life's inevitable ups and downs, an occurrence that should make Midshipmen fans that much more appreciative of the 2003-2010 bowl bonanza.
With that having been said, however, the 2011 season does make 2012 more than a little important. If one's an accident – a part of being human and therefore subject to the caprices of chance – coach Ken Niumatalolo's club cannot allow two to be a trend. Losing seasons will emerge from time to time; they can't once be permitted to become a way of life in Annapolis. Not again… not after eight years of distinguished performance and substantial results.
In this pursuit of renewal, this quest to return to excellence, Navy's players know that they have to be more airtight, more sound, more attuned to the basics of execution and technique. The turnovers, defensive breakdowns, and kick-protection lapses that marked a 5-7 season must naturally be weeded out or, at the very least, minimized. Everyone in Annapolis knows as much. The key insights for this season (the ones that transcend the realm of the obvious) concern the ebbs and flows that are part of big-time athletics… in terms of individual games, yes, but also the long run of history. We'll start with the ways in which single sporting events are won and lost.
Players and teams are always victimized by a bad call or an unlucky break; twists of fortune and the imperfections of human persons infuse unpredictability into competitive athletics. One of the key lessons for competitors, then, is that if you have a chance to establish a cushion, you need to cash in, because you never know if that bad call or unlucky break will jump up and bite you at the wrong time.
The Boston Celtics were victimized in Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Finals this past spring when Rajon Rondo was fouled late in the contest, only for the foul to go uncalled. The Miami Heat scored on a subsequent fast break and were eventually able to win in overtime. Boston got jobbed in a narrow context, but the Celtics owned a double-digit lead for much of the game and failed to sustain that lead by the time the no-call on Rondo occurred. Had Boston led by 10 at that point, the Celtics would have been able to withstand the bad call. A cushion would have saved them.
Here's an example of how an unlucky break carried a cruelly large amount of weight in a sporting event: In the 2012 London Olympics, American tennis player John Isner was playing Roger Federer on very even terms in a quarterfinal match. Federer, at 6-5 in the second set tiebreaker, hit a slice backhand return that clipped the top of the net and softly fell over, out of Isner's reach. Isner was not smiled upon by the fates, but the instructive takeaway is that he was in position to lose the match on a bad break. Had he produced a few more high-quality shots earlier in the tiebreaker, he might have been leading 6-5 instead of trailing 6-5 when luck turned against him. Isner could have withstood the bad break, served at 6-6, and gained a set point.
One could go on and on. The point is plain: If a bad call can cost you a touchdown, lead by nine points instead of six. If a bad break costs you two runs, lead by three instead of only one. In other words, cushions matter. This is such an important point for Niumatalolo and the rest of the coaching staff to imprint upon their charges this season.
So often, in the run of glory from 2003 through 2010, Navy lived on the edge – without a cushion – and managed to win anyway. A Russ Pospisil fumble return against Temple here, a Houdini against Southern Methodist there, a blocked kick at Air Force over there… Navy found so many ways in which to steal close wins against determined foes. This became a way of life for the Midshipmen, and fans became accustomed to the idea that Navy would usually find a way to dig out a nail-biter… enough to punch another bowl ticket and claim another Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.
Last year, though, Navy's life on the ledge didn't work out so well. The pendulum swung against the Midshipmen. The clutch plays, the timely responses to pressure, the sprinkles of good fortune did not emerge. If this program thought it could always walk over the hot coals of photo-finish Saturdays and walk away victorious more often than not, last year provided a healthy and sobering splash of reality: Living on the edge is not a recommended way of living. Navy needs to build 10-point leads in fourth quarters and play with just as much urgency in first halves as in second halves. Last year's Air Force game offered just such an example. The terrific second-half comeback was great, but when that bad unsportsmanlike conduct call against Kriss Proctor reared its ugly head, Navy was not in a position to withstand that plot twist. Navy's offense performed admirably against East Carolina, but because of the defense's struggles, a controversial call at the end of the game meant the difference between victory and defeat, not the difference between a two-possession win and a one-possession win.
Cushions matter. That's half of the battle for Navy in 2012. Now, we turn to the other half: guarantees don't exist.
When Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins made Super Bowl XIX at the end of the 1984 NFL season, it seemed as though a great quarterback was going to begin a long string of marches to professional football's ultimate showcase. Marino, of course, never made it back to the Super Bowl.
The Atlanta Braves won the 1995 World Series and seemed almost certain to win another world championship if not three or four more by the time Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz were done. The Braves never did claim another World Series crown.
Florida State and Miami were supposed to lord themselves over the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference in football. Only once (in 2005) has one of those teams claimed an ACC championship since the league moved to a split-division format with a conference title game. Miami hasn't even won so much as a single division title.
If Navy thought, entering 2011, that a bowl game was a birthright and that a winning season was simply a part of the oxygen the team inhaled every day, such notions can no longer persist in Annapolis. There are no guarantees of eternal success in sports. If Navy wants to earn a bowl bid and take back the CIC Trophy in 2012, it will have to earn those prizes. The slight measure of extra urgency that was missing from last year's team must appear this upcoming autumn. Said urgency is precisely what can enable the Midshipmen to create 10-point cushions in fourth quarters and surmount the misfortune that plagued their 2011 campaign.
That's your 2012 season preview, everyone. We'll see if a tale of redemption – of cushions gained and warnings heeded – will be authored by the Men of Ken.
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