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Friday, December 19, 2008

Excuses, Excuses

I try to check most of the other sites that cover Georgia football nearly every day. It's good, after all, to keep an eye on what everyone else is writing. Among my numerous daily reads is the AJC's Georgia blog, maintained nicely by Chip Towers and Tim Tucker. I have the site bookmarked on my laptop -- something I did way back on August 12. I know this because each time I click on the bookmark, it brings me back to that same August 12 blog post in which Chip discusses Georgia's options for replacing Trinton Sturdivant, who had just gone down with a season-ending knee injury.

It's astonishing how long ago that seems now. Back then, this was about as big as the news got -- a star player goes down with a serious injury. Sadly for Bulldogs fans, it was a story that was told, retold, then retold again a few dozen more times in some fashion.

Looking at that post today got me to thinking about those early days of the 2008 season, back when Georgia was the consensus No. 1 team in the land. Each day, an oversized contingent of reporters would shuffle out to the practice field with a pen and note pad in hand and begin jotting down uniform numbers for each player wearing a green non-contact jersey.

At first, it was a half dozen numbers. A week later, a dozen. A week after that, more than 20.

After practice, we'd find seats in the team meeting room, politely wait for Mark Richt to make an opening statement about how well practice went, then begin the inquisition. Is Knowshon Moreno hurt? How's Demarcus Dobbs recovering? Why is Mohamed Massaquoi in green?

Richt would joke -- and really, he was part kidding, part annoyed -- that all we cared about was injuries, that we simply went out to practice to count the number of green jerseys.

Yesterday, the media contingent waiting for Richt's meeting numbered all of four reporters -- roughly five percent of the group that was there for Georgia's first practice of the fall. None of the four of us inquired about injuries or green jerseys, but we didn't have to. Richt already knew the number. It was 38.

In the span of four months, Georgia's normally stoic head coach had gone from begrudgingly discussing bumps and bruises to counting the green jerseys himself. That alone should speak volumes.

In sports, coaches and players are trained not to use injuries as an excuse for losing, and rightly so. Excuses simply provide rationale to stop working hard.

As a reporter, it's not my job to make excuses either, and I'm far from willing to accept that injuries have been the lone source of Georgia's woes in 2008.

But facts remain facts, and 38 players in green jerseys is an awful lot.

In the AJC's blog yesterday, Tim Tucker published the list of all of Georgia's season-ending injuries. It totaled 24 players -- some stars, some guys even I couldn't tell you which position they play.

I think it's easy to overlook just how much the injuries have infected every aspect of the team this season.

It's easy to look at players like Corvey Irvin and Darryl Gamble and think that the replacements for the injured starters were nearly as good -- if not better -- than the players who were lost.

It's easy to scoff at the loss of guys like Quintin Banks and Darius Dewberry, who weren't expected to play huge roles anyway, and assume their absence wasn't felt.

It's easy to peruse the stat lines on offense and assume the tattered O line suffered few consequences from the revolving door of starters.

To do all that is to overlook the real impact Georgia's litany of injuries has had.


Let's look at the other (non-injury) complaints regarding Georgia's performance this season for a second:

1.) The coaching staff -- particularly Willie Martinez -- stunk.

Do Georgia's coaches deserve some blame for the team's lack of focus in some big games? Absolutely. But they should also earn a nice pat on the back for holding together a team that was functioning at far from maximum productivity.

Don't like Mike Bobo and Martinez's play calling? Well, when you're using players who have little to no experience in key roles, your best option is to dumb down the play book. The things you might be able to ask veterans like Dannell Ellerbe, Jeff Owens or Trinton Sturdivant to do simply aren't the same things you can ask of their less experienced replacements. To throw the whole playbook at players who haven't seen more than a handful of snaps in any one game in their careers would be a disaster.

Think Martinez should have benched some of his less-focused players? Well, it's hard to sit Reshad Jones when your only other options are an equally inconsistent freshman and a smart but far less talented sixth-year senior. Had Banks been healthy, maybe Jones does find his way to the bench. Heck, had Bryan Evans not gotten hurt against Georgia Tech, maybe he would have been on the field to wrap up on tackles in the second half instead of Jones. It's impossible to say.

2.) The offense fizzled against Alabama and Florida.

The numbers Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno put up this season were impressive, but when you consider they did it behind an offensive line that started three freshmen, their accomplishments are nearly incomprehensible. Yes, the line did a nice job of holding together despite significant adversity, but a lot of that success was made possible because of Stafford's ability to evade the rush and get rid of the football and Moreno's talent for breaking tackles and picking up an extra few yards on nearly every carry. Mohamed Massaquoi was the only senior to start every game. Meanwhile Tripp Chandler and Brannan Southerland spent half the season out with injuries. The offense was good this year, but it had plenty of weaknesses, and it's probably no surprise that the best of Georgia's opponents were able to exploit them.

3.) The special teams were terrible.

Blair Walsh's kickoffs were bad, no doubt. But the rest of the special teams' struggles were almost a direct result of the injury bug. The vast majority of those players who got hurt were key special teams contributors. In fact, every time a player gets injured, that means a change somewhere on special teams -- whether a key guy is lost to injury or whether he's bumped from special teams to replace another guy who's hurt on offense or defense. At no point this season did Georgia's special teams units have any sort of consistency, and with so many players unable to participate in practice, Jon Fabris and company were limited to a bunch of walk-ons as their only regular options.

4.) Georgia was unprepared for Florida and Georgia Tech's offense.

I'm not sure how accurate this really was, but it's easy to understand why the scout team may have had some trouble mimicking such nuanced offensive schemes. Go back and look at Tim Tucker's list of season-ending injuries. Those names you don't recognize would have been playing key roles on the scout team during practice. While their injuries won't show up directly in any box score on Saturday, the impact of their loss in terms of the level of practice is noticeable during the week.

5.) Georgia's players lacked focus and failed to overcome adversity.

Ideally, you'd like to have a team that always shows up, gives 100 percent and, to add another cliche, leaves it all out on the field. But let's be realistic. Imagine you work in an office, and your department is given a huge assignment on Monday that needs to be finished by the end of the week. Only on Tuesday, 30 percent of the employees you work with call out sick for the rest of the week. You might be without a boss -- the go-to guy when important decisions need to be made. You might be without the janitor who empties your trash and cleans all the gunk out of the microwave in the break room. Oh, and that guy who always fixes the copier when there's a paper jam? He's out, too. None of those people did your job specifically, but their absence adds a degree of difficulty to each chore you need to accomplish.

Now, in your office, maybe the 70 percent of people still working are a motivated bunch. Maybe they really want to make sure this project gets done, and they all decide to work overtime -- put in 16-hour days -- just to make sure you meet your deadline. It's a nice thought, but by Friday, everyone is dragging. Oh, and the nice lady from accounting who always makes sure there's fresh coffee brewed? She's been out sick since Wednesday.

Your employer might have hired a few temp workers to come in and help out, but heck, they don't know what they're doing. It's actually more effort for you to explain a task to them than to just do it yourself. Meanwhile, a few of your sick coworkers have managed to make it back to the office, but they're doped up on Robitussin and they've got 600 unread emails from the time they missed. They're playing catch-up at half speed.

So energy is at an all-time low because you've all been working your butts off, and a few hours before the project needs to be done, you're still nowhere close. Now be honest: Do you summon every last bit of strength you have to make one last futile run, or do you give up, go home and get an early start on your weekend?


OK, so that was an awfully long analogy, but the point is that the football team doesn't function a whole lot differently than any other business. When one person is gone, everyone else feels the effect -- no matter how small. It's easy to fight through that for a while, but it adds up, and it takes its toll.

Again, I'm not saying injuries are the lone excuse for what has happened to Georgia this season, but I am saying that they are one very big excuse. Way back on August 12 when the fans were lighting up the message boards with gloom and doom following Sturdivant's injury, I wonder how many of them would have happy with a 9-3 season. I wonder how many might have guessed he was among the first of what would be 24 season-enders, and Georgia would still be 9-3. I wonder how many would have thought that three more Bulldogs would play left tackle, and Knowshon Moreno would still be a Doak Walker finalist playing behind them.

No, injuries aren't the only excuse, but you would be hard pressed to find a team that had a better reason to use them as one.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the defense not being ready for the Tech offense. Ask Kevin Lanier/walkon how the scout team did running the triple option against the first team defense. They flat out made big play after big play according to him. He said he was getting worried about it because the defense couldn't stop it. i find that very interesting coming from someone on the team who helped run that offense on the scout team for 2 weeks.

PNWDawg said...

This is a great post. I read and hear a lot about how we squandered a great opportunity with our awesome arsenal of offensive skill positions. But no mention of the unsung heroes we lost to injury.

Anonymous said...

The more interesting question to ask is, "Why are there so many injuries with this program versus others?"

For sure, some of it is random dumb luck in a physical game.


How much of it is due to poor technique and footwork?

How much of it is strength and conditioning?

How much of it is the types of schemes they run?

How much of it is playing smart?

How much of it is discipline and leadership?

Donnie said...

Are you implying that injuries happened due to a lack of leadership?

Come on guys, let's go not get injured!!!

David Hale said...

I'd be more inclined to criticize the S&T staff, etc. if this was a regular occurrence. While injuries are always going to happen, this season has been an anomaly, and absent any other evidence, I'm inclined to believe it is mostly due to bad luck.

I will say, too, that the more injuries you have, the more guys go a bit extra in practice to make up for their missing teammates, the more reps they are forced to play in games, and therefore the more likely they are to get hurt, too. It's a ripple effect.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a candy ass excuse-making post. As a UGA fan, I am totally embarrassed to read this Mr. Hale. Winners win, losers complain and make excuses. There is no excuse for what happened against Alabama, Florida, Ufk, Auburn, Kentucky and Gtu. Quit whining. We were poorly coached and had no leadership on the team.

Heyberto said...

Great post David. I don't understand how anyone can't see that Georgia's problems are directly hinged on key players going down and how that affected the team's psyche. You've painted that nothing is so black and white that it can be overcome simply as many here are suggesting it should be. I think we're all looking for answers as to what happened, and its not fair to call them excuses. How can it be excuses when the team and coaches aren't the one's proliferating them? I think this coaching staff, and certainly the players, have earned a little slack for the adversity they faced this year, but its important that the team learn from it and get better next season. Now, its motivation as well. I'm confident this staff will get us back on track, but we were forced into a rebuilding year without actually losing players from the roster, but losing them from the field.

David Hale said...

Great comment Heyberto, and it speaks to what I've tried to do with many of my stories and posts over the past couple weeks.

As I said in this post, it's not my job to make excuses for the team, nor should the coaches excuse away losses. BUT... if you don't examine what went wrong this year, if you simply chalk things up as, well the other guys were better, then I think you miss the boat completely, and more importantly, you miss a chance to improve looking forward.

As I hoped I made clear in this post, I don't for a minute believe injuries were the ONLY problem this year. But having said that, I think that even as big a story as the injuries were, we fail to fully appreciate just how much impact they had on the team.

Thanks to all for the comments.

Lucid Idiocy said...

You're exactly right. But we should teach everyone to tackle.

No players on the field who don't tackle.

And to hell with tech.


An excellent article that describes how behind the scenes situations can affect overall performance. It was not a year for excuses but everything was not so cut and dried as most of our "Internet Coaching Staff" would have it. We did have break downs in fundamentals and hopefuly we learned our lessons. I think we have the coaches and players to make a difference in the future. Thank you for your contribution to the Bulldog information network this year. I enjoyed your work at the Albany Herald. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Leesburg.

David Hale said...

Many thanks, Reed! I appreciate you following me from one paper to the next. I'll keep that in mind and try to keep a few D'Vontrey Richardson and Buster Posey stories on the site from time to time!

Merry Christmas to you down in Leesburg, too!