From Aaron Polanco's clutch passing to some above-average pass catching; from Kyle Eckel's punishing yet fumble-free running to a sound defense whose instincts and reads were extraordinarily sharp, Navy football really maxed out as 2004 came to a close. The nine wins—with a chance for ten—met team goals, and the final two performances—against Rutgers with bowl scouts watching, followed by the Army game, with the whole WORLD watching—revealed a team that brought it's "A" game when the stakes were stratospherically high. It's hard to say what's more satisfying: the fact that this team fulfilled its potential on the field, or the fact that it did so precisely when the pressure was at its hottest, most intense level. No matter how you slice it, this season has satisfaction written all over it in Annapolis.
But while Rutgers and Army left people saying, "Now THAT's the team we all expected," one must give this team a substantial amount of credit for those not-so-easy days in September.
September: you remember, right? That long-ago time when Polanco was unmistakably finding his way around the Navy offense as its anointed leader? That ancient month when Eckel struggled holding onto the ball? When the likes of Duke, Northeastern and Vanderbilt (along with Air Force, but that was supposed to be a dogfight) tested the Midshipmen? Yeah, that month.
The important thing to remember about this season—finished off so spectacularly in recent weeks—is that without a lot of grit, resilience and resourcefulness, the 9-2 reality being celebrated today in Annapolis would not have come to pass. Had a struggling team dogged by mistakes and various rough edges not been able to overcome its weaknesses in September, a New Year's Eve-eve trip to San Francisco would not be in the works.
Think of Navy's season as that of an old but still formidable major league pitcher. In the cold of April, fresh out of Spring Training, the best pitchers in northern cities struggle. But they still manage to win games on shrewdness, guile, experience, and stage presence. Then, in summer, they begin to approach full form and, as the season winds its way toward a crescendo, they combine their native savvy with technical excellence cultivated in midseason. Bringing the whole package of both resourcefulness and quality, both mental strength and physical prowess, pitchers save their very best for the biggest games at the end of the season.
Sure, Navy blew away Army (and also Rutgers) with big-league boldness. But back in September, when coach Johnson and everyone in Annapolis was much less certain about the nature of this team, Navy gutted out win after close win. Each Saturday might not have witnessed maximum execution or technical excellence, but each week and each gameday certainly saw Navy do what it needed to do when it needed to do it. That's the mark of any champion in any sport at any level of competition.
September was just as much a part of this tremendous season as the last two games proved to be. Without September, this season would not have been the fabulous success it became for Paul Johnson and an ascendant Navy football program.