I guess we have to talk about the elephant* in the room.
Unless you’re an admirably optimistic person, Saturday’s loss to Alabama in the [who cares-th] iteration of the Iron Bowl played out exactly how you thought it would: a lackluster offense wastes opportunities stolen by its incredible defense and eventually the dragon wins.
Sure, I hoped that the Gus Malzahn who kicked the onside in 2009, who threw to Darvin on 4th down in 2010, and who methodically bled the clock with Tre Mason in 2013** would burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid man and reclaim his mad scientist lab coat. I hoped he’d let Jeremy Johnson or John Franklin III throw the ball downfield because if it went wrong, it was a punt and what did we have to lose? I hoped he wouldn’t play injured running backs as decoys. I hoped he wouldn’t rotate quarterbacks without rhyme or reason because that nonsense failed spectacularly and publicly against Clemson. I hoped the offense could stay on the field long enough to give our defense time to breathe.
But we all knew what was coming. Our best offensive weapons were hobbled at best and completely unusable at worst. This game was supposed to pit staunch defenses and innovative offenses against each other, and it could’ve been one for the ages if Auburn had *just* been healthy. But 2016 had other plans, and Auburn wasn’t healthy. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
In our hobbled state, Auburn wasn’t supposed to win that game, and we knew it. We saw the writing on the wall against Georgia. The frustrating part, however, is that it seems like Gus/Rhett/GUSHLEE accepted the 20-point betting line as fact. Without Sean White, GUSHLEE played not to lose instead of playing to win, and it broke my heart for the team. Why not open the playbook? Why not take shots downfield? Quite literally, Auburn had nothing to lose in that Iron Bowl, except the game its coaches apparently conceded from the outset. When Auburn’s shut-down defense created opportunity after opportunity against the number one team in the country, its offense settled for field goals because they couldn’t even gain a first down until well into the game.
The 2016 Auburn defense will always deserve much better than the 2016 regular season. To Carl and Montra, who came back to Auburn when they didn’t have to; to Josh Holsey, who fought through so many injuries to change games for us; to the stingy linemen; to the beleaguered secondary; to every single player who left all he had on the field all season and especially in Bryant-Denny Stadium: from the bottom of my cold, dead heart, thank you.
But please don’t misunderstand me: the offense didn’t let the defense down. The coaches let them all down. And I’m not calling for Gus Malzahn’s head, regardless of the above-grumbling. Despite our dramatically polarized political landscape fraught with too many false dichotomies to count, shades of grey do exist, and some complicated questions have even more complicated answers. I think there’s a reason that wiser people tell us not to make decisions when we’re angry. Knee-jerk reactions feel good in their immediate wake but often have unintended if not lasting consequences. We should never have to apologize for feeling angry, but we do have to answer for the actions we take because of it. It’s okay to want something different, but sometimes taking time to check under the hood keeps you from struggling to make lemonade out of a lemon down the road.
So what does that have to do with football coaches? Well, the question of what to do with Gus Malzahn is a complicated one, and I don’t believe the answer isn’t as simple as “FIRE HIM RIGHT NOW!” or “KEEP HIM FOREVER!” When a coach struggles, two roads diverge before those who control his fate: one of punishment and one of consideration. Some programs reward poor performance with a pink slip, choosing the first road swiftly. I’m not saying that some coaches don’t deserve to be fired because It can be totally warranted to punish a coach for a bad season (or several of them) by removing him from the position. Sometimes the next guy, no matter who he is, will be better than what you have. But those programs who never explore the second road, the more nuanced road where you acknowledge your anger but also examine whether that coach is capable of righting the ship, run the risk of making shortsighted decisions with lasting consequences. The first road is a little shorter, but it’s too dark to see ahead. Imagine a flashing caution light that says, “Proceed at your own risk.” The second road has streetlights and gentle curves, lessening travelers’ chances of careening off the pavement into a ditch, but may take considerably longer to traverse. The infuriating part is that there’s chance both roads lead to the same destination. You could take your time sauntering down the safe road and still end up at the end of the dark road, feeling like you wasted time. But sometimes the first road leads into the mouth of an open volcano and you end up with Lane Kiffin as a head coach.
Admittedly, I am not Gus Malzahn’s biggest fan right now. I don’t like his willingness to play injured players, and I’m not entirely sure he’s capable of in-game adjustments. When his plan A doesn’t pan out, his plans B through Z appear to be crayon-drawn illustrations of on-fire garbage cans. But when he catches lightning in a bottle, it’s magical. Some of the most fun I’ve had as an Auburn fan has been with Gus at the helm, either as head coach or offensive coordinator. But lately, the worry that all of our golden success has been gilded is never far from my mind. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s okay for us to be confused an angry about the way the past two seasons have gone, and having the conversation about whether to replace him isn’t unwarranted if that conversation is measured and non-reactionary. But as much as I try to stay away from absolutes in this greyscale world, I genuinely believe firing Gus Malzahn after this season would be unmeasured and reactionary. Look, I don’t know whether Gus Malzahn is going to be Auburn’s coach in two years, but I don’t know if he’s shown yet that he’s incapable of fixing whatever quagmire he’s fallen into. Without Sean White’s (and Pettway’s and Johnson’s) injuries, we’re likely having an entirely different conversation right now. Gus very well may have to go eventually, but I think rushing down that dark road is needlessly risky, especially without a plan. You can argue that these two seasons have given us enough evidence, but at least we’re having the argument. The conversation is all I’m asking for.
Anyway, thank you for slogging through those metaphors with me, guys. It’s been a long few weeks, and an overwrought plea for introspection was bound to happen eventually.
As a reward to myself for writing 1000 words without a GIF or a list, here is a GIF!
And a list!
As we close the book on the 2016 regular season, we have plenty to be thankful for as we head into the 2016 holiday season:
Auburn has a shot to make it to the Sugar Bowl, depending on how rankings fall.
If not, Auburn is sitting pretty for several bowls not located in Birmingham, Alabama.
Literally all of our women’s*** sports
Holly Rowe kicking cancer’s butt
LSU did not hire Tom Herman
Vanderbilt and Kentucky play in the SEC East
The Mississippi schools have regressed to their Mississippi mean
Christmas tree cakes are back!
D2: The Mighty Ducks is coming to Netflix on December 1
My beloved Opelika Bulldogs will play for the 6A State Championship this Friday at Jordan-Hare Stadium!
See? Things aren’t all bad around here.
Enjoy the pre-bowl lull, Tiger fans. I’m slap worn out, so I’ll be enjoying the heck out of this break. You know, except when I’m losing my voice for the DAWGS****. I’ll be back before the bowl game, hopefully happier and less grumpy. And maybe our team will be healthy by then!
Until next time—War Eagle!
* I slay me.
** I have a vivid memory of screaming “CALL A TIMEOUT ARE YOU INSANE” at the car radio because I’m not a mad scientist.
*** And most of the men’s sports, too, actually.
**** If you think it strange that such an adamant Auburn fan has no problem cheering for the bulldogs of a red and black high school that stole most of its aesthetic from the University of Georgia, I don’t blame you. It’s weird for me, too, sometimes. Thank God we don’t bark. But in my heart of hearts, I truly believe that are few finer places to grow up than Opelika, Alabama. I was raised here, graduating from Opelika High School in 2006, and I’ve been blessed to work here again for the moment. This place taught me that no matter which side of the tracks you grow up on, who your parents are and how much money they have, what color your skin is, whom you love, where or whether you worship on Sundays, whether you cheer for the Tigers or the Tide, or whether you’ve been called worthless or stupid or a thug by people who don’t even know you, you have value. Opelika isn’t the most talented team in the playoffs this year, but they’re the team I won’t ever count out because they play for each other. #godawgs