Have Fun... Or Else: A Strange Season in Annapolis

After the 10-2, bowl-winning, Army-thumping joyride that was the 2004 season, Navy Football is now enjoying a very high profile. With this new level of exposure and success come all the familiar obstacles to the continuation of that success: expectations, pressure, raised effort from opponents, emotional adjustments, increased media scrutiny, and more.

Yet, Navy finds itself without trusty veteran quarterback Aaron Polanco, who so beautifully rounded into form last Autumn, and stalwart fullback Kyle Eckel, who made the triple option work with his power running threat and devastating effectiveness in short-yardage and red zone situations.

The bulk of good players for the Midshipmen lie on the defensive side of the ball. That's all well and good, but the bread and butter of a Paul Johnson-coached team is the triple option and its ability to ring up big numbers while, on other occasions—and we saw this in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco last December—controlling the football for 14 minutes and 26 seconds. The unpredictability, nuance and diversity of the triple option make it both a potent weapon and a ball-control safe haven for Navy. If the triple option is going three and out (and Notre Dame made that happen in last year's Meadowlands Massacre), Navy just isn't going to win. Its defense, while good, is not exactly laden with the raw physical talent or depth of an upper-tier SEC defense, let's say.

The offense, then, needs to remain the straw that stirs the drink in Annapolis. But without Polanco and Eckel, tough times could be ahead for the 2005 edition of the Johnson Boys.

It is for this reason that, amidst heightened scrutiny and increased expectations, Johnson and his staff need to make things fun this season.

Last year—coming off the Houston Bowl loss to Texas Tech—there was a rightful sense of urgency around the Navy program. There was the widely-shared belief that 2004 could be special, and therefore needed to be special for Navy football to be healthy. The ingredients for a big season were there, but they needed to come together on gameday, with Polanco being the main part of the recipe for success. Sure enough, the senior quarterback—after waiting his turn behind Craig Candeto—came through in a big way. As a result, Annapolis football had its best overall season since 1963, all things considered.

But unlike then—the last time a service academy tussled for a really big college football prize in a showcase New Year's Day bowl game—academy football isn't the locus of college football royalty. This isn't a Doc Blanchard-Glenn Davis-Pete Dawkins-Joe Bellino-Roger Staubach kind of world anymore. For all that 2004 delivered, Navy is not going to be a contender for a BCS bowl bid in 2005. Folks around the program—not to mention Naval bases around the world—need to keep that in mind, just in case they're harboring the expectation that this program can become a 9- or 10-win monster with regularity. It just isn't going to happen; not because of anything Paul Johnson can or can't do, but because it's the nature of the sport, of the industry, today.

So with all that in mind, the biggest key for Navy Football this year is to focus on fun. Last year, Johnson pushed his team, knowing there were significant goals within reach. This year, though, things are different. While the fresh memory of a 10-win season might seem to merit higher expectations, such expectations can: A) create a lot of weighty pressure that only drags down the team; and B) be unreasonable when balanced against the skill-position losses the Midshipmen have suffered on offense.

The right mental attitude—the one that will enable the Johnson Boys to have a winning season (and with their schedule, 6-5 would be one heckuva year in 2005)—will be a loose, free and totally relaxed mindset. Last year, there was pressure, as there must always be when something lofty is attainable. Sure enough, a driven team fought through September struggles to win close games and set up a big, history-making season.

But this year, it's gotta be about fun. The fun of being doubted in some quarters. The fun of having to prove yourselves anew with new leaders such as quarterback Lamar Owens. The fun of playing Notre Dame without the expectation of victory, which clearly squeezed the Johnson Boys too tightly last season.

Fun—and a "what, me worry?" approach—will newly create a culture of excitement and enthusiasm that will keep this team mentally fresh, and in good position to win the games it's supposed to while perhaps surprising a team with more talent. The Stanford game in week two offers just such an opportunity, as a Cardinal team that struggled in '04 will still be looking to find itself under new coach Walt Harris. An energetic effort from the Johnson Boys could create an Annapolis Ambush that, if followed up by wins on the expected occasions, will ensure a winning season and another bowl bid for the Midshipmen. And if that happens, Coach Johnson will have pulled off a season almost as impressive as the last one. That will be saying something about the man and the higher-profile program he leads into 2005.


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