The 2011 season is hard to ignore as Navy football prepares for the 2016 campaign.
The 2011 season is the very thing Navy wants to avoid, and the scary part is that as much as Ken Niumatalolo... and Dale Pehrson... and Ivin Jasper... and the rest of the coaching staff might feverishly work to ward off a 2011-style decline, it might still happen.
It's disconcerting and counterintuitive, but real: The lesson of the 2011 Navy football season is that sometimes, there are no lessons to learn. Life simply happens. All Navy can do in 2016 is work hard, and let the chips fall where they may.
The 2011 season, even before it began, was a season Niumatalolo knew could descend into difficulty. It was the season following the Ricky Dobbs era, a highly fruitful period in the life of the program. We hadn't even known Keenan Reynolds at the time. He had not yet played a game in Navy colors. He hadn't yet offered a glimpse of what he would become. He was the future, not yet visible over the still-distant horizon.
In that 2011 season, before Reynolds arrived and after Dobbs left, Navy had to make do with the very unlucky Kriss Proctor, whose greatest sin was nothing more than not being Reynolds or Dobbs. Special players make the handful of plays which turn narrow losses into close wins. Dobbs and Reynolds became those kinds of players, and Proctor didn't. Navy lost five games in 2011 by three points or fewer, and to a certain undeniable extent, Proctor failed to capture a number of the opportunities which lay in front of him. If Navy lived on the right side of close margins under Dobbs and Reynolds -- verily, throughout the Johnson and Niumatalolo Golden Era -- the program fell through the cracks in 2011. The quarterback will inevitably bear at least some share of the blame for a one-season downturn under such circumstances.
Yet, the misery of the aberrational 2011 season for Navy football was a product of forces far greater than Proctor. The quarterback could not control a number of the events which sabotaged that 2011 campaign.
The 2011 season was the year of horrible officiating, specifically the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in overtime against Air Force which created a difficult extra point, one Navy subsequently failed to convert. That missed PAT in a Commander-In-Chief's Trophy game was but the first of several kicking-game episodes. The loss to Rutgers was also marred by special-teams catastrophes. Proctor obviously could have made a big play at another point in a 60-minute struggle to prevent Navy from needing a little help in the kicking game. However, that's precisely part of the point, is it not? Without Reynolds (2012) or Dobbs (2010), Navy needed all units and all facets of its roster to pitch in. Proctor needed a lift from his teammates in order to continue Navy's uninterrupted string of bowl appearances.
He didn't get it. He also didn't get any assistance from the officials or from the rulebook. A complicated and ultimately unfair rule regarding legal possession of a pass in the end zone denied Navy a touchdown in a 38-35 loss to East Carolina. Every time Navy arrived at a 50-50 moment in 2011, the Midshipmen drew the short straw. The team occasionally failed to do something within its control, but it just as often fell victim to the fickle finger of circumstance, a nasty plot twist which stood in its way.
Proctor could have been better. Navy could have been better. The kicking game could have been a lot better in 2011. Yet, a lot of weird and unpreventable events -- including some bad calls -- just happened to emerge at the specific moments when Navy had no margin for error.
The Midshipmen will work as hard as possible to lead by nine points and not six if the opponent is driving for a last-minute touchdown this year. They'll try to make sure that they can exist outside a margin for error this season, with Keenan Reynolds no longer able to rescue them from difficult situations. They'll put in all the hard yards... and will try to gain the hard yards on fourth down.
However, as much as the players might fight and the coaches might strategize, this precarious season could do to Tago Smith what it did to Kriss Proctor.
No one hopes for this, but it could happen.
It wouldn't be a negative reflection on the coaching staff -- we saw how great that staff has been since 2011, and how great it continues to be today. It would simply be the kind of year which exists on its own terms, the kind of season which doesn't allow for larger meanings to be gathered.
This could be the path for 2016 -- don't expect it, by any means... but be emotionally prepared in case it unfolds. This might seem cruel, but it's meant to be just the opposite, to provide safe space in case the ghosts of 2011 return to Annapolis.