Use Your Delusion II

You had to be in the room to truly appreciate it. Coach Shaw walked into the tiny bunker of a media room just outside the Stanford Stadium tunnel and sat with shoulders more slumped than at any point this I’d seen this year. He gave answers bereft of most of the stubborn defiance so many had grown accustomed to all year long.

Through the thin walls that separated us from the locker room, Young Flacco’s cascade of F bombs rained down and created a truly bizarre atmosphere that only underscored the coach's despair. That tirade stole the show for most of the assembled media, but for me, it was all about Coach Shaw. He gave some evasive non-answers, and he started in full-throated defense of his choice to punt from the very same 34-yard line from which he would attempt a field goal in double overtime. Not long after though, he was looking down, avoiding eye contact more than I’d ever recalled, and epitomizing the posture of a beaten man. And in this moment, I was stirred to a reaction I did not at all anticipate: hope.

As the sky falls down figuratively in advance of the literal downpour awaiting Stanford Saturday in Berkeley, I find myself grasping onto a conviction I cannot rationally justify, but which nevertheless remains intact even as consternation abounds about Coach Shaw’s comments about Kevin Hogan’s future and the future of the quarterback position moving forward. It started Saturday night in the press bunker. For the first time, Coach Shaw struck a balance between holding his players accountable and defending then by inviting accountability himself. This is part of the conclusion of Coach Shaw’s opening statement: “Yes, it was a tough, physical game. But I gotta find a way to make us play better. That's the bottom line.“

There have been other times this year when Coach Shaw took ownership for the problems in the Red Zone, and for the overall difficulties with the offense. But there was always this notion that whatever the problems Stanford had, it wasn’t a matter that necessitated change. As he sat slump-shouldered throughout most of the conference, as the profanity pierced the wall behind him, there was a sincerity to his situation that didn’t require any further speech. I thought to myself, “He knows. He absolutely knows.” Seven points on your home field in regulation, regardless of the merits of the opponent, cannot be talked away. It can’t be dismissed. On the game’s first play, Kevin Hogan was blitzed to his blind side, the back in the game failed to even notice the blitzer, and Andrus Peat was occupied with a defensive end. An overload blitz just like the one that ended Stanford’s comeback hopes against USC. The difference in this case was that the blitzer didn’t get home before Hogan could fire, completing a nice pass to Rector. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether Hogan failed to slide the protection correctly, or Remound Wright made the wrong read, or Peat failed to slide over. The team made the same mistakes that it’s been making all year long. The dropped passes that Coach Shaw lamented later in the press conference have been a season-long plague too, as have the penalties and the inconsistent passing. Coach Shaw was describing a football team that had not been sufficiently coached, and he knew it. Saturday night, he had moved past denial and had slid into an unmistakable acceptance. Now, this was right after the game, and I know that over the course of the week he has to a certain extent regained some of the defiance and willingness to deflect that has frustrated many, but I can tell you, there was no hiding in that press conference.

So what does it matter? It matters because the person who is going to have the biggest impact on the future of Stanford Football is Coach Shaw. College coaches are the auteurs, the CEOs, the architects of everything you see from a program. David Shaw is way too intelligent, way too knowledgeable about football, and way too invested at this point not to see that change is necessary. However it manifests itself over the coming weeks and months, I believe firmly that change is coming. I understand why after the past few years of stonewalling many doubt Coach Shaw is capable of change. I believe he is. Reality had sunk deep into his heart by the time he stepped to the interview table last Saturday night. Rare is the coach willing to say the following: “You know what, if I knew exactly what the team needed, I'd give it to them right now.” Look at those words. It’s rare to find anybody in a leadership position to admit to being lost like that. Rarer still to hear that from a football coach, and even more so from this football coach, who has exuded a certainty and purpose through thick and thin, even when the results seemed to defy his words. There was a humility, but there wasn’t any quit, despite the fact that he was clearly frustrated.

Look, it’s entirely possible I saw what I wanted to see or felt what I wanted to feel in that press conference last Saturday night. Again, the totality of what we’ve seen from Coach Shaw seems to defy any admission that change is necessary. But things were different after that Utah defeat. Things are different. This team still isn’t bowl eligible, after starting the year ranked just outside the top 10, and predicted to be a playoff contender by many, including those who utilize advanced metrics. We shall see, but for the first time in a while, I have faith that the leader of this football team has accepted what needs to be done. He knows that you can’t go up to Eugene, Oregon and spot the opponent 95 years in offensive coaching experience. He knows you can’t be the worst offense in the conference and return to what produced those results. And as he proved two years ago, he knows that you can’t be hamstrung by subpar play at the most important position on the field, regardless of seniority. I don’t care what got said this week. I understand the doubt. I understand the doom and gloom. And this may be more delusion from the author, but I am going with my gut on this one. It certainly won’t happen within the context of this season, but change is coming. And nobody has more riding on said change than the one most directly responsible for making it.

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