Given Away: Army's Familiar Lamentation
CONTROVERSIES AND NON-CONTROVERSIES:
2013 ARMY-NAVY IN REVIEW
Some events in life give rise to genuine controversies. Other events are the sources of manufactured controversies that really shouldn't gain any traction whatsoever. Still other events aren't controversial at all. In the wake of the 114th edition of the Army-Navy Game, a small controversy pales in comparison to an entirely uncontroversial reality.
Football fans are fairly split on the following point: Is taking a knee or trying hard to score in the final minutes of a blowout the more respectful and appropriate course of action? Both sides have a point.
The "knee" group thinks that the public gesture of not tacking on more points conveys ultimate respect to the opposition. The show of restraint tells the opposing coach that winning with decency matters just as much as winning itself.
The "try hard" camp would counter with the reasonable claim that you respect your opponent by competing vigorously for the whole 60 minutes, and it's the opponent's job to stop the plays you run. Playing the sport with an intent to accomplish normal goals on each and every play tells the opposing coach that competition is valued in every situation.
Reasonable minds can disagree on this point, and the way the final minutes unfolded in Philadelphia will probably remain a major discussion topic in the coming weeks, possibly the offseason. However, whether you approve of Ken Niumatalolo's actions or not, a less controversial reality now exists in West Point: The fact that Navy won by 27 points and not a much closer margin (13 or 10) will only make it that much more important for Army coach Rich Ellerson to produce a solid 2014 season, one in which the Black Knights make substantial forward strides after this 3-9 failure. Navy's ability to add a few late touchdowns – and Army's inability to prevent those touchdowns from being scored – will place a measure of added political pressure on Ellerson's back in 2014. One controversy in Philadelphia could lead to a coaching controversy in West Point 12 months from now, if nothing changes for Army football.
Indeed, when you get past the final few minutes, the incontestable and wholly uncontroversial truth is too real to ignore: Navy and Niumatalolo are far superior to Ellerson's Army outfit, and there is no real indication that the dynamics of this rivalry are going to change anytime soon. It's not just that Navy has Keenan Reynolds and Army doesn't – that's too simplistic an explanation for the Midshipmen's iron grip on Saturday's game and the last 12 installments of this series.
Navy's 12-game run is the longest such streak of success in the history of the Army-Navy Game. This also means that Army is enduring the most extended stretch of disappointment in this rivalry. Todd Berry began to be dominated by Paul Johnson in 2002. Bobby Ross couldn't change the equation. Ellerson has come close, especially last season, and to be fair to him, he has put his team in position to win on a few occasions during his tenure in West Point. He deserves to be given that measure of credit. Yet, as "The Streak" grows and grows, it becomes more and more important for the Army staff to find ways to produce some magic in tipping-point situations, and for yet another year, the Black Knights really didn't have much to offer Navy. This is about so much more than the quarterback position.
For one thing – and it's really the most important aspect of Navy's continued dominance in this series – Army continues to make more mistakes than Navy. Moreover, the Black Knights once again committed basic unforced errors, as opposed to the kinds of errors that are brought about by suffocating pressure or brilliant play design from an opponent. Three 15-yard penalties were completely avoidable. One 15-yarder is frankly too much for a service academy team, but the Black Knights lost their focus on three separate plays – two for inexcusably late hits or shoves, and one for a hit on Reynolds that simply didn't have to be that high.
Army continued to treat the football like a hot potato against Navy. The Trent Steelman fumble could have served as a call to arms for Army, or more precisely, a call to tuck the ball away with two arms. Yet, the Black Knights dropped the pigskin on Lincoln Financial Field's snow-covered surface. Navy, being a bowl-caliber team, made Army pay dearly for those miscues, as it always has since 2002.
Yes, the snowy and windy conditions on Saturday limited the playbooks and narrowed each coaching staff's range of options. Yet, the weather made it that much more important for each team to protect the ball. This Saturday and for the past 12 years, Army has not been able to play a mistake-free game against Navy in critical situations. Take note of that last phrase, "in critical situations." Army doesn't need to be literally perfect against its rival from Annapolis. A five-yard penalty on second and 6 from midfield with 10:51 left in the second quarter is a mistake, but it doesn't carry an overwhelming degree of significance in the bigger picture. The point to emphasize is that over the past 12 years, Army has not been able to play a full game against Navy without giving the Midshipmen a major gift at some point in the proceedings.
A fumble, an interception, a false start on third and one, a personal foul, a dropped pass on an important drive – Army simply hasn't been able to clean up its act in any important, high-leverage circumstance against Navy over the past dozen years. The fact that the Black Knights are still looking for their first win over Navy since 2001 is in no small part a result of the fact that Army gives at least some points to Navy in every game. If Army could just get through one Navy game without giving the Midshipmen some hidden points (enabling Navy to score because of a defensive miscue, or failing to score because of an offensive slip-up), the Black Knights might be able to notch a win with the help of a Navy turnover or a special teams play. Yet, that basic formula – give nothing away and get at least something from the opposition – has never been realized against Annapolis since 2001.
Ellerson's inability to coax a minimalist masterpiece from his team will always leave him short against Navy. The Midshipmen, with Reynolds under center next season, are highly likely to own more playmaking potency than West Point. Army will have to be able to win by conceding zero hidden points – even now, that statement can be made with great certainty. Yet, does anyone on either side of the divide in this rivalry think that Army is up to the challenge?
Some of Navy's 12 consecutive wins over Army have been blowouts. Others have been close games. Yet, through all of those contests, one thing has remained the same: Army has helped Navy in crucial moments. As the years go by without any sign of change in this regard, it becomes harder to imagine how the longest streak in Army-Navy history is going to come to an end. This is wonderful news in Annapolis, but it's going to make the chill of winter that much more uncomfortable on the grounds of West Point.
That's not a controversial point in any way, shape or form. Navy's tack-on touchdown this Saturday wouldn't have obscured or altered it, either.
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