There is a unique moment that occurs with almost every client with whom I work and I can see it coming from a mile away. It is the moment when, after we've spent two days disassembling their goals and ambitions, we get to a very raw moment of finally confronting their strategy. This is my goal in the work all along, and I'd just as soon get to it on day one, but there are layers of challenges that form a patina over their thinking that must first be carved off.
In the same way, when we try to engage in a broad level report card of the Longhorn football program in 2012, we must look at the real factors of their mortality and not just their goals and desires. You can learn a lot about the team's ambitions by watching their "R.I.S.E" campaign. But you can learn about their strategy by seeing how they specifically attempted to leverage their advantages against their competition, regardless of what their campaigns proclaim.
At a basic level, to pull apart the pieces in this report card, we need to consider a few individual strands contained within the woven cord of the season. We need to see how well the program confronted the realities of their playing field--their real environment in the Big 12. We need to see how the program made very specific assumptions and policy decisions in order to engage the real obstacles that were presented by their environment. Finally, we need to consider how well Texas actually leveraged its advantages--and defended its disadvantages--to generate results that matter for the program.
I will offer my grades in each category, but there is no question that others may read it differently and good arguments can be made on all sides. Reviewing strategy, and not just execution, is a worthwhile exercise but also fraught with difficulty and bias as humans are given to making all sorts of wild attributions for outcomes after the fact. It is also a longer exercise as you must consider the full configuration of all of these factors as a whole, not in isolated ways. For that reason this piece will be a longer read, not meant to be a brief topical treatment of the subject.
I will try to avoid specifics from individual games on the schedule. Each team provides unique obstacles and ways to use our strengths against their weaknesses. And we have good individual games in this analysis (Texas Tech), as well as some shocking strategic defeats (OU may have been the most single sided coaching defeat witnessed in the BCS era for Texas). The goal of this treatment is to look more at the broader canvas of the season.
The decisions the coaches made at every level of the program reflected assumptions made by program leadership. Assumptions were made that led to the hirings of Harsin and Diaz. Assumptions were made that determined which QB started, and which running backs were assigned playing time and in what order.
Many of these assumptions were implied, and others remain hidden to outsiders. All of them, however, directly affected how Texas would create policies, plans, and actions to overcome the obstacles they assumed they would face across the season. Which assumptions did Texas get right, and which did they get wrong?
I kept a rolling list of assumptions made by the staff, insiders, and journalists, in order to inform my thinking and writing over the season. Almost all success or failure can be traced back to assumptions. They are the atomic particles of the careers of the players and the coaches.
Here are some of the more critical entries from my list, that I believe began ordering the actions and behaviors within the program:
*If Texas is a 9 or 10 win team, they will show progress and the fans and media will recognize the surge as a positive step back toward relevance.
*With a vulnerable OU team, the loss of Robert Griffin, the loss of the OSU offensive playmakers, and the emotional fatigue of TCU down the stretch, Texas has the opportunity to be a dark-horse contender in the conference and on the national stage.
*If David Ash simply plays as a "bus driver" and plays at a steady level, Texas could be very, very good. A critical cog in assumption is a loaded backfield with Bergeron, two five star backs, and three olympic level specialty players.
*The Texas defense is the best squad in the Big 12, one of the best in all of college football, and will be improved in 2012.
*A&M will struggle heavily in the SEC, TCU will wilt down the stretch (as most new league team tend to fade), and Texas Tech will continue to struggle. That leaves Texas wide open to regain the sole title as "best team, and best velocity program, in the state of Texas". The struggle of these teams in the state will lead to a strong recruiting class for Texas, which will renew the program strength.
*Texas may not get there in 2012, but they are well positioned for a National Championship run in 2013.
*In order to win the Big 12, Texas must continue its course away from Spread football, and instead must dominate teams from the trenches-out, using our rushing attack to control the sequence of the game.
GRADE OVERALL: F
This may be the single greatest reason that fans are livid at the program this season, and why Mack and Deloss feel pressure as never before in their tenure at Texas. There were many assumptions at play in this program and we could detail, literally, hundreds more. But the few on this list were entries that I had highlighted BEFORE the season as things Texas must get right or else it could lead to epic levels of anxiety. Texas only plays 13 hours of football a year. That is it. For the remaining balance of time in the year, the other 8,750 hours or so, they are building the program based upon assumptions. They are managing these assumptions, building game plans and careers around them, and recruiting based on these.
Texas missed on most of these. After the horrific coaching defeats at OU and TCU, even a 9 or 10 win Texas fan base is wound tighter than a bad Chicago neighborhood during a month long heat wave. The emotional composition of the insiders, boosters, fans, the team, and the staff appear to be hair trigger and explosive, and you get the feeling that anything could set off a cascade of negative results at any level of the program.
The Big 12 was stronger this year than last year, overall, and Texas was provided with more direct competition and not less. The future looks competitive in the league. A&M has surged and is pushing for record levels of attention and momentum going into 2013. Texas is ranked #3 out of 4 among the major programs in the state this year. Our defense has been, statistically, one of the worst in Texas history and next year is anything but a layup National Championship run. Finally, though Ash has well over-performed our expectations, our dominant backfield failed to emerge and currently stands as the #49 ranked rushing attack in the NCAA, at under 200 yards per game.
The Playing Field
Going into the season, Texas had a few specific obstacles to overcome in their environment.
Obstacle: A&M and the SEC
A&M, a direct head to head recruiting threat, was joining the SEC with a new coach. Failure by A&M to perform may tilt the momentum of the new coach in an unfortunate way, and could lead to a resurgence of Texas' advantages in recruiting for years to come. Success for A&M could put a permanent wedge in the fertile Texas recruiting grounds for the SEC, and may complicate Texas' efforts to recruit their way out of the slide.
Texas needed to surge this season and to see A&M underperform. This did not happen, and as of November 2012 A&M has a full recruiting class that includes many of their targets while Texas has faced some major decommitments. Further, it appears Sumlin is going to be a continual and rigorous flanking pressure on Mack's recruitment in the state for the next few years.
This recruiting year isn't over yet, and things could still surge or unravel for either side. But as of now, it appears that Texas is not controlling their fate in this new challenge as much as they would have preferred.
Obstacle: WVU and TCU join the league
The Big 12 got a facelift in the off season, and added two new "mid-major" players that had the attention of the media and writers all over the nation. Further, TCU represents an in-state threat to recruiting. For Texas to prove they were successfully correcting the slide, they needed to beat teams that had been built in leagues of lesser competition, and make a statement that they were ready to compete for the new Big 12.
Texas failed to really plan for and address this shifting part of their immediate environment. They played well against WVU in terms of producing a close game, but gave up an ungodly number of points and yards. Even worse was the loss to TCU, which killed Texas' longshot hopes for a split conference title. Texas did not defeat either team, and in fact, lost to both, at home, in front of the attention of national viewers. Not only did Texas fail to leverage the new league players to benefit their own standing, they allowed the new players to derail a conference title.
GRADE OVERALL: D-
It's hard to say what was simply an execution error and what tied to their strategy at this broad program level. And I don't just mean the games, but I mean how Texas intended to leverage these shifting factors for their advantage. Regarding A&M, Texas needed to to be very careful to put themselves in contrast to A&M as the program in Texas that holds the momentum and energy for the long term. And against TCU they needed to do the same, but also to immediately relegate TCU within the conference structure.
Texas failed heavily on these issues. Going into the final weeks of the season, David Ash was pulled from the game while Manziel took home the Heisman trophy. And TCU took the field against Texas as the better prepared, more energetic competitor. Clearly, Texas' strategy was to promote the rivalry with TCU as they kept the Hex Rally and Thanksgiving Day setting (a move that puzzled most fans). The only reason that I don't give Texas an F here is that, so far, we don't have a major cluster of decommitments that have switched to A&M or TCU. Texas simply appeared to approach their environment according to the mantra of "we are the Joneses", and may have ceded important ground as a result.
Other factors that warranted consideration:
Waning influence in the rivalry against OU; eroding fan support; taking advantage of the NFL depletion of teams in the B12; and leveraging the Longhorn Network as a more potent recruiting tool.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Here is where we get into the real formative particles of the strategy of a program. Every good team is defined by how they uniquely manage these factors in their program. It is seen in how Gundy develops QBs in his system, in Oregon's max tempo spread attack, in OU's power run attack from the shotgun, Alabama's trenches-out organizational architecture and sophisticated defense, tOSU's "Meyer Power Spread", and in Kansas State's use of discipline and grit to grind out unlikely wins.
Texas has a small number of distinct advantages, and how they leverage these tells you what they believe to be true about their own mortality. Specifically to that point, Texas did not need to simply win to keep the fans happy and the machine running. They had to win against a very specific environment that was recently reconfigured, against mounting in-state recruiting pressure, and in year three of a slide/recovery cycle that has boosters, fans, and the media at the end of their patience. The fun meter of the nation has pegged with regard to Texas' rebound efforts, and most are just ready to see un-spun results that matter in the here and now, complimented by a clear argument about how these results can be migrated over time into new advantages in the real world.
Texas Advantage: Speed, Skill, and Hybrid Players in the Offense
Almost no other team in the country has the unique mix of speed, power, and ground players that Texas has. Between Brown, Bergeron, Gray, Monroe, Daje, and Goodwin, Texas had perhaps one of the most lethal potential mixes of talent in the country to create a dangerous advantage in their favor on the ground. This core of rushers gave them the ability to outrun monster linemen and midfield players, or to bash holes into speed or nickel defensive sets. A solid run game gives Texas the ability to determine the tempo of the game, and to withhold valuable possession time from Big 12 passing attacks that lead the NCAA in their aggression and productivity.
As the season wore on, these advantages proved to be more than just theoretical. Daje, Monroe, and Goodwin all average more than 7.0 YPC, and with a total of more than 50 carries between them. Both heavy rushers (Bergeron and Roberson) average over 4.0 YPC, and the hybrid half backs (Brown and Gray) are over 5 YPC.
The advantage seems clear. The problem is that Texas failed to leverage this advantage when it mattered. Of the 431 carries in the season so far, only 50 are accounted for by the specialty players (about 12%). Similarly puzzling, this specialty group only accounts for 39 of the 221 receptions by the team (about 18%). This means that, out of every 10 offensive plays this season, the three most lethal players in reception yards and rushing yards per carry each get 1 play a piece.
I'm not sure that there is a more obvious example of failure to leverage a competitive advantage than these stats. It is almost unthinkable. This hit has much farther reaching implications, as well, because failing to maximize this talent will make it more difficult to recruit these players against the efforts of Briles, Sumlin, Holgerson, and Gundy--men who have leveraged these types of players all throughout their systems and careers. We are not in the Big 10, where competition for these players may be limited and imagination on how to use them lags. The coaches in our conference have built careers with these types of players, and should be considered dangerous competition in recruiting them. Further, due to the current high school schemes and 7 and 7 structures in the state, Texas is a unique producer of these types of players. The west coast teams have been siphoning these players away from Texas for years now, and to great effect.
Texas Advantage: Coaching Mix
When I read that Harsin, Applewhite, Searels, Wyatt, Diaz, Davis, Akina, and Wylie would be collaborating to create the next generation Texas Football product, I was floored. Looking deeply into each of the coaches and what they did well, I could not have dreamed of a better mix. The team, at its best, now possessed the ability to be sudden and unexpected on both sides of the ball, all while being built around brutal and conditioned front line trenchmen.
In reality, something is still off. It's very hard to tell what is execution and what is strategy, but there are a few things we have some insight into. We see that there are fingerprints all over the conservative offense that are consistent with Mack Brown decisions, not Harsin decisions. Applewhite taking over for Harsin doesn't promise an instant turnaround, especially if the tampering is internal.
We know that there was some disconnect in the defense in terms of accountability for both scheme and fundamentals. Regardless of opinions of Diaz, Akina and Davis likely did not forget how to teach tackling. Still, something went horribly wrong among even the experienced players in terms of mastery of the fundamentals of defense. The team could not stop the run, even with some elite players on the front and defensive backs that should have slowed down the QB's decision making capacity, and that alone meant Texas was dead on arrival for a conference championship. Finally, the defense failed to take away a single thing that opposing offenses did well, across the game, outside of one or two showings. Our competition was able to punch hard all game, making even our wins emotionally charged and draining.
Ultimately, I see more error in the woven cord of diagnosis, policy choices, and actions (ie, strategy) than in simple execution. I don't believe the coaches forgot how to coach, or abandoned their identities (Harsin), or forgot to cover fundamentals (Akina, Davis, Diaz). The failure seems to be more about a lack of self awareness by the mix of coaches as a whole, and therefore mistakes were made in terms of the way limited resources were used to attempt to win games. This is perhaps no better observed than in the flurry surrounding Diaz and the defense. There is nothing in the world wrong with a sophisticated defense--it is the hallmark of guys like Belichick and Saban and well tuned to compete in a league like the Big 12. But if the defense is sophisticated, the players must be smart, exceptionally well-coached, highly accountable, selfless, and execute at an above average level. The Texas defense were none of these things, as a whole.
Further, even when a good team loses, you do not expect a good staff to leave a team unprepared for what they see on the field, emotionally flat across the game. The year round work of the team and staff has only twelve sacred saturdays to be expressed. Sure, some teams can surprise and it happens every season. But Texas should not have been caught off guard by their biggest rival, Oklahoma, and their "new" rival TCU after a bye week. Truly this staff was either unaware of their mortality in these games, or they were utterly unable to install that same sense in their players. This staff has a huge amount of talent, but they have been unable, so far, to configure their talent to the sustainable advantage of the program. Over the last 3 years the staff appears to have gone to the emotional well too often for motivation, and that well seems to have run dry across the team as a whole.
Texas Advantage: National Benefit of the Doubt & Billion Dollar Brand
This advantage is hard to leverage on the field, and more often comes into play with bowl selections and recruiting. No deep treatment needed here: Texas has failed leveraged these advantages at all this season, and in fact, appears to have ceded ground to smaller programs and rivals. The world is getting more and more comfortable with the fact that we are not a part of the positive buzz of the season.
Who knows if we can simply regain it with a single good season. Perhaps we can. But every season that goes by with a strong Baylor, TCU, and A&M and Texas as a lesser team in the state, the more the wet cement dries and what our rivals build becomes more permanent.
Texas must disrupt immediately and to great affect, or it will require more and more energy and resources simply to remain at "status quo", much less to push back into multi-layered configurational advantages across recruiting, coaching, and playing.
Texas Disadvantage: Inexperienced Players at TE and LB
We knew going into the season that we would have two major areas of disadvantage: Linebackers and Tight Ends. There was hope that these positions would over perform expectations, but this was mostly hope.
The obvious solution for the TEs was mostly to use them in blocking and to create alternate options for the standard X and Z receivers, and then essentially replace the catching role of the Y receiver and TE with the skill and specialty players. An example would be to have a TE block for a releasing Daje or Monroe into the flat. But this did not happen. Mostly we just ignored BOTH the TEs and the specialty players, putting greater pressure on the base role receivers, and thus the rushing game as well (by placing the challenge on the regular receivers, you also lessen the threat of play action and increase the confidence of the defense to load the box against your base run).
The LB problem is much bigger and more complex. Outside of the head scratching issues with tackling, the failure at LB defined the defense as a whole and is intimately tied to our historically poor performance. Instead of configuring the defense away from the weaknesses, our pressure scheme seemed to actually compound the problems. The issues on defense were not solely scheme, and in fact injuries and execution errors by the LBs play a huge part in the failure, but we none-the-less failed to puddy over this huge disadvantage in our defense and even seemed to make it worse on ourselves at several important points in the season. The most we seemed to do was to continue to feature five defensive back sets against top 5 rushing offenses, which predictably led to a poor ability to play solidly against the run.
GRADE OVERALL: F
Once again, I am floored by how poorly Texas leveraged their advantages and disadvantages in hindsight. The issues were not from implementation problems only, and this is where I think an outside observer can really look at the program and see some major strategic cracks that originate in a program-wide lack of self-awareness.
The few brutal punches that Texas actually had the ability to deliver, they decided not to use. Texas decided to fight left-handed for reasons that are still not clear to fans, and to make the southpaw decision worse, in the games they had to win they showed up fatigued and unprepared.
"We are Texas" used to be a summary statement of how thoroughly Texas had configured its own advantages against those who were NOT Texas. Slowly, it is becoming the rallying cry for a case study about how any individual or organization can lose their edge if they are not relentless in maintaining it.
By now we can see how the assumptions, the realities of the environment, and our specific policy decisions to leverage what we do best all resemble an enormous ball of tangled christmas lights much more than a finely tuned, high performance engine. Many of the nuts and bolts pieces of these issues were outside of Texas' control (injuries, A&M, etc). But Texas' responses, and how they differentiated themselves as a result, were not outside of program control.
These issues are not just backwards-looking sour grapes. At least personally, I have kept this analysis and file running since before the season as a private case study. For the fan base it is a mounting frustration with many of these issues that has created the possibility of one of the most frustrating and hated 9 win teams in Texas' history. While many may not study these factors in such a deep way, the lack of self awareness and coherent action are not foreign concepts to anyone. Even the biggest program defenders are not making arguments from what we've done this season, but rather appealing to the biographies of the coaches in the program as evidence that we can reconfigure and get it right next year.
I did not compile this look into the program in order to be negative. In fact, when I began this little case study I assumed the outcome would be positive, tracking the trajectory of the program from 5-7 into a potential National Championship run. I thought it would tell the story of a group of aggressive and creative young coaches, aligned under the inexplicably resilient Mack Brown, writing a page in the coaching manuals about different ways use bright football minds to hook a struggling program up to a set of jumper cables. Texas has done some things well, too, but few of these things were in the categories I had labeled "must get right", and therefore, necessarily fall to footnotes.
To end I will say that these observations also suggest a huge opportunity for Texas. Many of our advantages are still in tact in one way or another. Outside of more injuries, critical defections, or major staff reconfigurations we still have the basic pieces in place to attempt to get back on track. But at the end of the day, this falls on Mack Brown's desk as he has chosen a CEO Coach role in the program and ultimately the diagnosis and policy decisions end with him. Many believe--and there is no lack of debate to be read on the front pages of every Horn site you can find--that Mack is the CAUSE of many of the strategic failures of the program. That, alas, is a topic for other articles and something that is not an insight directly available to outsiders.
Being aware of these factors, though, may bring the fundamental tension between boosters, fans, and the media into much sharper focus as one staff or another attempts to untangle the ball of christmas lights as we face Oregon State and then head into the off season. In this sense, the strategy chosen by the leadership is absolutely central to our survival, as Texas seems more mortal now than at any other time in the BCS era. "D" and "F" strategic leadership cannot move the program forward in a way that matters, and that is regardless of if Mack Brown is a part of the way forward or not.
A Texas staff looking for an "A" or "B" grade could have done many things differently. Only one example would have been an exciting and dynamic offense built around a mix of an upper-cut rushing and blocking, and then powerfully complimented by creative and relentless use of the lethal (and productive) specialty players in a ways that open up the traditional passing roles for dangerous threats--on any play--down the field. This would further open up the running game and, in a flywheel effect, create more one on one situations for the speed players.
The defense would have assumed their mental liabilities at LB, and assuming their mortality, would have refocused on some very simple schemes that were fueled not by chalkboad knowledge, but on fundamental gap work and tackling. Pressure would fall to a talented front line, bookended by dual five star defensive ends. As the midfield emerged and the game slowed down for them, more attacking packages could be added, allowing the defense to "peak" toward the end of the season according to the limitations of the young LBs. If in fact there was no mental deficit in the midfield, the defense could mass and scale as appropriate until they overreached in small ways, pulling back as required. This model has worked for many defensive staffs in football, including the Giants last year and the Saints this year (as only two very recent examples).
The coaching staff would use the LHN and the national benefit of the doubt given to Texas to show Texas as an exciting and emerging force in the league that was full of new energy, surprising offensive production, and brutal players who want to bring more formidable trench play into the Big 12. Every kid and mother who tuned into the LHN would have the "Rudy" theme song playing in their ears, so to speak, whether they wanted it or not. Even if games were lost, there would have been no question of morale or energy, and in the games that really received the national focus, the most intense preparations and schemes would have been demanded internally. When failures occurred, excuses would be shelved for the purpose of leveraging every chance to make the case to the world that the commitment to creativity and grit was absolute and the staff would work tirelessly until they got it right. Smart recruits would get on board now, while they still could.
The message would be, "Come to Texas and play the most exciting brand of football in the state, and maybe in the country. Earn your spot with talent, regardless of tenure. And to celebrate how much fun this all is, we'll continue to remain one of the most productive channels to the NFL for players who give us their best."
Instead, fans are left praying that Texas gets on a remedial plan, that the previous two seasons end up being anomalies, and next year the strategy is more finely tuned to reality.