Friday, October 26, 2007

Weis Exposure Lens | by Pete

"Get your shots in while you can," said the 1-7 head football coach.

They certainly are.

The sports media and the Internet alike are abuzz about this year's abysmal season. Never before has Notre Dame struggled in such an epic, fruitless fashion, tallying blowout loss after blowout loss while crafting an offense that could go down in history as one of the worst ever produced, if not THE worst.

In fact, we here at BGS got called out in a recent piece on Slate. The article mentions our season predictions posted here in August, which averaged out to about 9-3. Nobody predicted worse than 8-4. One brave soul even ventured into 11-1 territory. They were, shall we say, 'optimistic.' Of course, our poll of Notre Dame fans found results eerily similar to ours, with the vast majority of predictions still falling between 8-4 and 10-2. Out of 2000+ predictions, only 10 brave, depressing souls predicted our potential, hopefully final record of 5-7.

We're a bit worse than predicted this year. We've been hailed as a symbol of the delusional Notre Dame fanbase drowning itself on the Kool-Aid that is the overinflated Charlie Weis. He is our Kool-Aid man, and this year there's been a serious lack of destroyed brick walls. Oh, no.

The piece is entitled, "Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, the worst football coach in the universe." Obviously, the writer and the deluded masses here at BGS are coming from slightly different viewpoints on the whole Notre Dame thing. We like Notre Dame. He doesn't. (Full Disclosure: The author of the piece is a Michigan alum. I'm obviously a Notre Dame grad. We may have to agree to disagree here.) But I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Charlie Weis may not the worst football coach in the universe.

There's been a lot of talk amongst the naysayers this year about how Weis has been "exposed." The New England Patriots didn't seem to miss a beat following the absence of the offensive mastermind, although much of that is skewed due to their recent obscene success, which also can be attributed a bit towards their now current possession of perhaps the greatest wide receiver of this generation. In fact, the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl without Weis, and if I were a shortsighted columnist with an agenda, I could skew that to suggest that the Patriots couldn't win the big game without him, and that the organization has been exposed since his departure.

And Notre Dame hasn't been the same since our own Brady left. It's apparent now that Weis can't win unless he's got a hunky guy named Brady under center, what with eight whole games of relevant data available for extrapolation.

But while the haters hoot and holler about their uncovering of Weis's ineptitude, they make a single, seriously flawed assumption: that the artifacts they're uncovering are frozen in time. Quite to the contrary, Charlie Weis is very much a work in progress, and any "exposure" of him relies on the fact that he will continue to be the same coach today at 1-7 that he will be years from now, hopefully and probably far removed from this nadir.

Make no mistake about it, Charlie Weis has made some serious missteps leading up to and during this season. He overlooked the desperate need for fundamental development for this young team, working to add wrinkles and tweaks to his offense before the team had fully learned how to block, catch, run, and tackle. Despite early signs of epic ineptitude, Weis continued to scheme his way to blowout losses until the disastrous Michigan game, after which he was forced to take the team "back to training camp." Some can point to Willingham's lack of recruiting as a large reason for this season's struggles (fans close to the program were concerned about the 2007 season the minute Weis was hired), but no lack of talent can explain this tragic road to 1-7.

But just as we can't be too harsh on some freshmen and sophomores forced into early playing time and making mistakes indicative of their youth, so too a level of perspective must be attributed to Weis's struggles. Ara Parseghian famously said he needed every day of his previous head coaching experience to properly prepare him for leading Notre Dame. Weis doesn't have that luxury.

Prior to overseeing Notre Dame's football team, the last time Charlie Weis was a head coach was when he coached a high school squad. The last time Charlie Weis coached a college team, he was a graduate assistant with South Carolina in 1985. Now he's the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame, decades removed from any head coaching or college coaching experience. There's a bit of a learning curve to be had there.

But people will point out that Weis is now in his third year as Notre Dame's head coach, that mythical third year where frogs turn to princes or just keep on croaking. Shouldn't he have figured the college head coaching game out by now?

I think this year marks the first time during Weis's tenure here that he's been forced to acknowledge errors in his approach. If you look back at the Notre Dame roster the last two years, it was pretty much custom-made for Weis's skill set. A confident QB with great decision making and competence running a complex playbook, a WR corps that can make the tough catches, and a RB that can catch balls out of the backfield and provide a great change of pace. While Weis played an essential role in coaxing the potential out of that offense, the experience at key positions allowed him to remain focused on game plan and scheme, knowing that, as in the big leagues, the fundamentals had already been addressed. He really didn't need to change much as far as coaching goes those first two years, as all missteps were blamed on talent deficiencies and Rick Minter. For all intents and purposes, this is the first year of Weis learning how to be a head coach.

For the first time, Weis's tried-and-true practices haven't been appropriate for the situation he's been given. While not excusable, it's likely Weis has spent so much time in the pros and the last two years with a veteran team, he completely took for granted the little things, those little things we're so, so bad at doing right now. He missed it, and the team is paying the price for that error this year.

But we can at least take solace in the fact that Weis has been owning up to his errors, and is making steps towards fixing them. A return to more physical practices, an increased focus on fundamentals, and a broader perspective towards building a program over the years, rather than his previous attitude of seeing his most immediate game as his only concern. The mere fact that Weis will acknowledge his failings is a huge step forward from Ty "I've never had a bad day" Willingham.

Following the 38-0 loss to USC, it's safe to say we aren't quite seeing a return on those investments yet. So while Weis appears to be able to recognize his mistakes, can we have any sort of confidence in his ability to correct them?

For some sense of the future, we can look at the area where Weis has already been forced to tackle a learning curve: recruiting. Weis had literally zero prior experience convincing high school athletes to hop on board his program, and given the aforementioned failings of his predecessor, he very much had to learn how to reload the depleted roster on the fly. While he did garner some early successes on the trail, pulling in the 5th ranked class in 2006 and the 11th ranked class in 2007 according to Scout (for purposes of edification, Willingham's classes: 5, 30, 27), he also was burnt by a couple mistakes. Those who criticized the first two classes noted that Weis perhaps banked too heavily on hitting home runs with stud recruits while letting very talented triples interested in his team go elsewhere, and his second class in particular fell victim to several late defections, as rival head coaches continued recruiting Notre Dame commitments in the shadows.

Following each season, Weis noted areas for improvement and set out improving them. After being left wanting at the fax machine last year by a couple recruits, Weis adopted a new recruiting philosophy that emphasized early evaluation and offers, and the "If you're looking, we're looking" mentality, which emphasized the need for recruits only to verbal once they truly had finalized their decision, and any reopening of their interest meant a reopening of Notre Dame's.

Weis's adjustments appear to be paying off, as he currently holds the #1 recruiting class in the land, and continues to pry away top notch recruits from the likes of USC, Florida, and Michigan, despite the despicable current product on the field. The class is certainly buoyed by new defensive coordinator and recruiting wunderkind Corwin Brown, who has been the lead on several significant commitments, but Weis deserves credit for making the hire. It appears that, as far as recruiting is concerned, there is a positive trend of identifying mistakes and correcting them.

Does this guarantee Weis will improve as a head football coach? Not necessarily, but a positive trend is a positive trend. And when you look at Weis's resume as a whole, there's a lot of evidence to suggest that our current struggles are more the exception than the rule.

It includes a state title as a high school coach, helping South Carolina reach bowl games in 2 of his 4 years there, winning a Super Bowl as a member of the Parcell's N.Y. Giants staff, coordinating one of the best offenses in N.Y. Jets history -- led by Vinny Testaverde, no less -- to their first division title, helping establish the careers of Ben Coates, Curtis Martin, Terry Glenn, and Vinny Testaverde, and three more Super Bowl wins leading the Patriots's offense and bringing Tom Brady from sixth-round draft pick and co-starter with Drew Henson at Michigan to one of the greatest quarterbacks ever in the NFL. Simply put, Weis has been a success at every level of his coaching career, including stints coaching special teams and defenses.

Of course, Chait and the other "exposers" would have you believe that Weis has simply been fortunate enough to be around the right players and coaches at the right time, riding their coattails all the way to success. After all, a guy has to be lucky if he just so happens to be around Tom Brady and Brady Quinn when they both suddenly decide to become some of the top players at their position -- a development that happens entirely in a vacuum, don't you know -- and fortunate enough to happen to be standing along the sidelines when teams decided to go out and win four Super Bowls and qualify for two straight BCS appearances. That's a Mr. Magoo-level of blind luck, far beyond any level of rational comprehension. It's like saying a metal detector happens to be fortunate enough to beep randomly when it sweeps over some spare change.

Critics will also point to Weis's record and Willingham's record at this point, and note the similarities: near-identical records, capped with blowout losses to rivals and highly-ranked opponents. If Notre Dame fans were so quick to turn on Willingham after his third year, so too should they ride Weis out of town after this year.

But the critics aren't giving us Notre Dame fans nearly enough credit. Willingham had done absolutely nothing over his career to suggest that he could do better than lead Notre Dame to a .500ish record. His lackadaisical recruiting suggested it, and all of his records at previous head coaching positions suggested it. What we saw with Willingham during his third year was a team settling into his established state of mediocrity, a state that we simply cannot accept.

Weis's third year is an entirely different animal, as his current product seems inexplicable when one looks at the positive indicators surrounding it. Recruiting is reaching an elite level, and Weis's resume suggests that he is, indeed, a talented coach. The situation shows that this year's struggles, unlike Willingham's, are less about the coach than the situation surrounding him. A historically inexperienced team, a brutally unbalanced schedule, and a major lack of talented upperclassmen. While Willingham's third year went exactly as it should, Weis's third year is an astounding exception to an otherwise illustrious career.

Chait says in his article that no great coach has ever underperformed at such a level as Weis, so therefore Weis is not a great coach, and may even be THE WORST COACH IN THE UNIVERSE. However, I would like to see the naysayers point to another coach who, without any relevant previous head coaching or college coaching experience, lead an incredibly high-profile team to levels of comparable achievement. Nearly all coaches refine their head coaching chops at smaller programs with lowered expectations and little to no microscope, and ascent to the premier positions after achieving near perfection of their technique. Weis's situation is unprecedented.

Is Charlie Weis the worst coach ever? Not even close. Is he the greatest? Not very likely. In fact, it's impossible to even close the book of judgment on Weis yet, because he's still very much in flux. There's no guarantee he can fix the problems he's identified, but is he not smart enough to figure it out? Not a hard enough worker? Not driven enough?

The talent on the team is getting better, and the coaching is in the process of getting better. Get your shots in now, and relish your epic exposure of the fraud that is Charlie Weis. While you're busy patting yourselves on the back, we're busy getting better as a football team and coaching staff. See you at the finish line.