Learning How to Win

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Last year, I attended the Clemson-Maryland football game with my father-in-law which resulted in yet another inexplicable defeat to an out-classed opponent.  A couple weeks later, I patted myself on the back as I had accurately predicted the end of an underachieving coaching staff.

Fast forward one year.  Dabo Swinney, a great recruiter and the former Wide Receivers coach, is now the Head Coach.  Yesterday, Clemson lost to another Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Imagesinferior Maryland team, 21-24, despite ample opportunities to salvage the game.

Former coach Tommy Bowden did many things right when it came to leading the Clemson football program.  Talented recruits, facilities improvement, good academic results, minimal negative headlines.  But when it came to Saturdays in the autumn, he had his share of big wins, but he had more bewildering losses than a supportive fan base can be expected to endure. Add an aloofness and repetitive mantra of excuses to his post-game conferences, and it became clear things weren't going to get better.

Swinney is different.  He seems to have carried on the things Bowden did well, but he is clearly passionate about what he does, and holds himself, his staff, and others accountable.  He's a leader, and despite the three losses early in this season, I continue to think he is a good choice.  The excuses for losing... well, they're pretty much the same.  But they conclude with: "We've got to learn how to win."

In reading the post mortems in the regional newspapers, it appears that sportswriters agree.  A penalty at a critical time, a dropped pass, a missed assignment, a misread on an open receiver, a missed field goal kick... all teams have these issues, but winning teams do them less frequently, usually.  But it seems within the quote that winning is something teachable. 

Tim Tebow to the contrary, I don't see how you can teach a player to execute when it really, really matters, when they can't execute at times less critical in the game.  Maryland had lesser talent, yet they managed to do what was necessary to win.  Did they have a class on that? And Tebow (Florida's superhuman quarterback for those not knowing) is a winner because he executes throughout the game, not just in the clutch moments.  So, teaching a team, or a player, "how to win" seems to be publicly digestible hogwash, and it's disappointing that sports writers let it pass as something substantive.

Despite a few defensive lapses, the problems for Clemson continue to be offensive.  The offensive line is better than last year, but they can't be considered "good" by any means.  They don't create large holes for the running backs, and they're lost when it comes to handling blitzes.  Therefore, it's difficult to judge the development of a freshman quarterback who has to run for his life on any predicted passing play.  The wide receivers haven't helped, dropping passes that they shouldn't and failing to separate from defenders to give the quarterback a target.  Basically, despite a single very talented offensive player, CJ Spiller, Clemson's offense just isn't good.

So how do you teach them how to win?

The test for Swinney will be loyalty to his own coaching staff.  The offensive line coach hasn't shown positive results in many years and should go.  Clemson has to recruit that position better than it has, and there's little evidence to show to recruits that their Pro aspirations will be helped. 

The more difficult decision will be to change offensive coordinators.  Although he's young and an improvement over his predecessor, Clemson continues to use the same playbook that promises explosive mismatches but implodes over its inability to master first downs. 

It's the Offensive Coordinator's job to know what plays the offense is actually good at executing, and call those plays when down and distance matter.  Clemson needs to completely re-think what they do, and that requires someone new to step in and change the playbook.  Talent notwithstanding, the only way for the same players to move forward in the seasons to come is to buy into something different, as they have already done this year in their head coach and new defensive schemes. 

As evidenced by Maryland, it doesn't take lots of talent to win.  It's the coach's job to figure out how to win with the talent he has on hand.

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