As the skeleton crew of media and sports information personnel ground out their postgame pieces in the Stanford Stadium press box, the rain fell hard and without warning, the lights went out. Just like that, the 2016 regular season was done. After crushing yet another overmatched opponent in the Rice Owls, darkness and uncertainty fell as the Cardinal entered the limbo status of a team with a myriad of possible postseason destinations.
What we know for sure is that Stanford finished 9-3, a record many (including myself) predicted. And yet, there has been an unmistakable pall of disappointment for many Stanford fans. The Cardinal secured a nine-win season, and in the 121 seasons of Stanford football, that feat has only been matched or surpassed on only 20 other occasions. The Cardinal closed with an undefeated November and beat USC, Notre Dame, Cal, and Oregon. And yet…..
Stanford played over 1,000 snaps in 2016, and one of the big contentions I make over and over is that games and seasons are the product of the entire body of work, and should be evaluated thusly. Touchdowns scored in the first quarter are worth the same as ones scored in the fourth. Wins in September move the tally up one, just as they do in November. The defining principle behind all of the advanced statistical data I champion is that validity is determined by the largest sample sizes. And yet….
As I sat in the press box, all I could think of one play. One play has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and if I’m going to single out one play above all others in 2016, this is the one. Let’s go back, as unpleasant as it may be, to October 22nd. Stanford trailed eventual Pac-12 South Champion Colorado 7-3 and for the fourth straight game, had put forth as limp and ineffective an offensive performance as could be conceived given the talent on that side of the ball.
At 10:34 of the fourth quarter, Stanford had temporarily turned the tables and matriculated the ball to the Colorado four yard line. Ryan Burns called for the ball, Jesse Burkett sent it up off the turf, but Burns couldn’t grasp it cleanly, fumbled and could not recover. Colorado would go on to win 10-5 and put the Cardinal’s season at its nadir.
We can’t say for certainty that a touchdown would have won the game for Stanford, but a fourth quarter lead would have certainly shot Stanford’s win probability up the charts, especially on a day when Lance Anderson’s defense once again played so ferociously and effectively. What we can say is that the loss to Colorado took any shot at the biggest stakes of 2016 off the table and relegated Stanford to playing its schedule out in a series of nationally and Pac-12 irrelevant games.
I don’t think there was any way Stanford was beating Washington and Washington State given the injuries, the state of Stanford’s offense, and how well both the Huskies and Cougars played on those nights. However, Colorado was beatable. A home game in which all Stanford had to do was score a single offensive touchdown to have a chance to play for overtime or a win? You have to take that every time.
Coach Shaw has shown a willingness to defend his quarterbacks in wins, even if the numbers don’t necessarily reflect a great performance. There was no defending Burns in the postgame presser, and overall he was not great. However, it’s hard not to think what might have been had Burns simply been able to hold onto the ball. Before Kevin Hogan was a the maestro of 2015, he was a player who didn’t put up gaudy numbers, but was lauded in wins for just doing enough. If Stanford gets by Colorado, it’s not a stretch to think Coach would have similarly defended Burns.
And that’s it. If you grant the premise, so much came down to one play, one moment, one mishandled snap. And there is no rule that says you can’t be upset about that one play and happy that Stanford won the Axe, roasted the Ducks, and outfought the Irish. They didn’t give up and they didn’t lose focus which can happen against a string of overmatched opponents. Cal and Oregon are terrible, sure, but Utah and UCLA both demonstrated that wins against them should not totally be discounted.
Coach Shaw said after the game, “…where we are right now, 9-3, we earned it. In the negative way and the positive way. We earned our way to where we are.” He also dismissed the value of looking back, which as the coach of the team is absolutely the right mindset. Here he his after the win over Rice on this very subject:
“Wasting time worrying about what could have, should have, it's a waste of time, it's a waste of energy. I look at, I constantly look at where we are and I go back to my conversation with Dabo Sweeney two years ago and our conversation talked about living life in the
windshield. You look and see where you are. Wherever you are, that's where you deserve to be,because that's just where you are.”
The season unfolds and the team is on the clock. For those who have invested so much in this team from the outside, however, there will always be that tendency to indulge. When Stanford fans look back at what could have been in 2016, it’s gonna be hard to wipe the image of one particular play from the rearview windshield.