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No one should be shocked that Minnesota Football is 4-4

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This type of Gophers season was always a possibility.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to start this post with a solid TAKE. Because I believe in this take I’m going to make it big and bold. Stand back from the flames if you do not wish to be burned.

This type of season was always a possibility and people shouldn’t be shocked by it

I’m going to break this TAKE down in detail (get ready), but before I do let’s talk about what I AM NOT saying here:

  • I’m not saying I or anyone else predicted this WOULD happen. (No one did, some of just said that it could and laid out reasons that match what we’ve seen.)
  • I am not saying you can’t be frustrated or disappointed by Minnesota being 4-4 right now. (I am both.)
  • I am not saying you have to be happy about being 4-4 right now. (I would not term my mood as happy, but to slightly misuse a line from Ocean’s 13 “I sure as shit ain’t sad.”)
  • I’m not saying you there is no room to critique the new staff. (No, I don’t think they’re perfect.)
  • I’m not even saying you have to like the new staff. (I do, but Fleck isn’t for everyone.)

Here is what I AM saying:

  • This type of season was always a possibility if the right set of circumstances came to pass (SPOILER: we’re in those circumstances).
  • The right set of circumstances were something we could see in advance if we wanted to look.
  • You don’t get to blame Fleck for this season and not hold the previous staff accountable for their role in setting it up.

I’d also like to start this post with an apology. I shared thoughts about the potential for this kind of a season a number of times, but IIRC it always happened in our comments section (good examples can be found in the comment threads here and here). I had always intended to write the thoughts I was sharing in the comments up as a preseason post but never did. Honestly, I feel that I did y’all a disservice by not finishing this “TEMPER THY EXPECTATIONS” post and I think I missed an opportunity to help get people ready for this worst case scenario. Why do I care? Because I’m taken aback by how many people seem shocked that we could be 4-4 right now. What we’re seeing is certainly a disappointment, but it shouldn’t be a shock.

How did we get here & why was it foreseeable as a possible outcome?

Why are the Gophers 4-4 right now? And why am I claiming it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone? As with most questions of this nature there are a diverse set of causes. That said, you can really boil it down to a few key factors.

1) Quarterback play

This team does not currently have a quarterback capable of playing at a B1G replacement level (read: at the level of an average Big Ten QB). This is not Fleck’s fault. It is the fault of the previous staff going all the way back to Kill, Zebrowski, and Limegrover and continuing on through Claeys and Johnson. If Conor Rhoda, Demry Croft, or Seth Green were able to play at that level Minnesota would be 5-3 at worst and 8-0 at best, with a likely 6-2 or 7-1 record right now. It is impossible to overstate the problems the last two staffs created for themselves (and now, for Fleck & Co) by struggling with recruiting, retaining, and developing quarterbacks.

Here’s the thing, this shouldn’t have shocked anyone as a potential problem. We didn’t know for sure it would be a problem, but lack of quarterback experience was a glaring question heading into 2017. There was always the hope that we would get game manager level play out of either Rhoda or Demry but we haven’t. And the uncertainty that led us here shouldn’t surprise anyone when the two guys competing for the job had done nothing to prove they would step up in the limited reps they’d had coming into this season.

2) Issues at offensive line and defensive back

Concerns at OL and DB (depth and otherwise) made up the second warning sign that was clearly visible before the season ever kicked off. The reasons for concern were obvious for the OL, as we had 4 healthy guys on the offensive line during the Spring Game. Add in the fact that the offensive line’s woes with consistency in blocking were lamented for multiple seasons to the risks inherent in a transition to a new offensive system and the potential for what we’ve seen was clearly there. In the defensive backfield, the depth was already lowered by expulsion and injury and we were also transitioning to a new defensive system.

If either of these units faced injury or disciplinary issues during the year we were going to have BIG problems. Guess what the units have faced? Injury (both groups) and disciplinary issues (thankfully limited to only the DB’s thus far). The injuries have sapped a thin line’s depth and created another year of “o-line shuffle.” The combo of injuries and suspensions put the defensive backfield down it’s starting safeties for the first two B1G games and has the coaching staff yanking redshirts to fill the gap as we reach the tail end of the season.

You can argue we’ve faced a “worst case scenario” for both units, but the impact of even a less severe run of injuries or suspensions was always a clear risk coming into the season because both position groups had a glaring lack of experienced depth.

3) Issues caused by the transition to a new staff’s way of doing things

Fleck couldn’t have been more clear in the preseason that there were lines that he would not cross in building his culture and his program at Minnesota. I pointed out repeatedly in the comments that this meant he would risk winning games to make his message clear and that he would even go so far as to suspend starters who weren’t showing buy in (whatever form that lack of buy in took). When forced to make that choice Fleck did what he promised and what I said could happen and he suspended multiple key players (including a starter, Duke McGhee, and eventual starter, Demry Croft).

There was also the fact that Fleck and his staff were always going to operate differently on multiple levels than the previous staff and it was unlikely that this wouldn’t affect the play on the field. They were going to run different schemes, they had different personalities, they were going to have different expectations of players, etc. We could always hope that the season wouldn’t run like this but the fact that it did wasn't impossible to prepare for.

Thanks Mr. Wizard, would you like an award?

A fair question at this point in the post is, well, what’s the point of all this? Am I just trying to show off?

The answer is no.

I’m trying to suggest that people calm down and take a longer view.

It’s important to realize and recognize that what we’re seeing in 2017 isn’t a shocking failure caused by the current staff being terrible at their jobs. It’s the sort of season that could be anticipated as possible/probable if the right set of circumstances (insufficient QB play, injury issues at already thin positions, suspensions, etc) came to pass. No one came into the season saying these conditions would happen, just that they could happen and that if they did happen we’d have problems.

Well, we have problems. And the reasons behind the team's issues are all things we could and did see as potentially problematic before the season began.

Transition years suck. You can avoid the suck if the team you inherit has a lot of talent stocked up, but that was never Minnesota. If anything, this season has revealed the gaps in talent at various parts of the roster to be more glaring than we anticipated. That leads me to my next section...

Lets chill out a bit and realize we haven’t fallen off a cliff under Fleck

Recognizing this kind of season was possible alone doesn’t make it easy to feel better about it. But the I think the following takeaways are important to keep in mind to reduce the frustration and the disappointment we’re all feeling.

1) The last staff would not have fared much better given these circumstances

If the last staff had faced the perfect storm of suck that Fleck and his staff have faced, I don’t think we’d be feeling a ton better about Minnesota's performances right now. Here’s why I think that.

At the core this team’s offense isn’t vastly different than one we should have expected under Claeys. Don’t believe me? Here are the 2016 numbers compared to 2017.

(Mobile users click here for a larger version of the image)

The Gopher offense we’re seeing right now is completely consistent with what we came to expect under the last staff. Based on last year’s performance combined with the the issues with QB play and OL depth (neither of which would have been mitigated by retaining the past staff), it’s hard to see them being significantly more successful. Stylistically we’d certainly see a host of differences in terms of scheme (no shotgun on offense comes to mind) and personality of the coaches, but you can’t convince me that those are the core issues we face because the numbers don’t back it up.

Honestly, if the last staff was handed this season’s scenario of injuries and disciplinary issues then I’m struggling to see how they they make significantly more lemonade with the lemons than the current staff has. If I had to wager, it would be by getting a little more out of the defense since that’s what Sawvel did and there would have been no scheme changes. That’s a tough hypothetical to prove or disprove but I’m willing to grant it given the staff’s history on that side of the ball.

Here’s where I ask the question that always gnaws at me when people want to talk about maybe doing better under the last staff.

SO WHAT?

Why is it worth getting super upset that Minnesota might have picked up 1-2 more wins this season under Claeys? Are wins over Maryland and Purdue really worth freaking out over?

To me these questions raise a hypothetical (winning a handful more games) that loses significance when you look at a wider context. What do I mean by this?

  • The depth issues and QB play suggest that Claeys’ plans for the program weren’t working and that our hopes for a successful continuation of what Kill had built were headed to the rocks. Our recent struggles recruiting or developing quarterbacks were set to continue. The depth chart gaps we now face were created by many of the people still on his staff and the the level of recruiting he and his staff were bringing home before their exit didn’t suggest they’d be able to easily plug the holes they had created. I’ll fully admit that this wasn’t something I saw clearly during last season. It took seeing the depth chart in the Spring and Fall and seeing what we were left with at QB to fully recognize what I had been missing...the fact that the Gophers were likely in a more precarious position with Claeys than it may have seemed if you only focused on the 9 wins.
  • Additionally, Claeys’ handling of the boycott situation made his continued employment untenable anyway. Put another way, the dude was getting fired the second he backed the boycott so what’s the point in wondering what this would look like under him when that hypothetical was DOA the moment he sent his infamous tweet in December? HINT: There kind of isn’t one.

2) Fleck wasn’t hired to win the maximum games in Year 1

Fleck was hired to win the maximum number of games possible in a future season and raise the ceiling of this program to a level we haven’t seen under previous coaches in the modern era. Does that fact suck as a fan when it means we’re not winning as much right now? YES. Does this change the fact that the long term goal is more important? I would say NO.

3) Despite everything we’re not that far off from a record people claim they’d be happy with

Minnesota has lost 3 of their 4 games by 7 points or fewer. The Gophers have done this despite being without arguably their best and most versatile defender (Winfield) and bad injury luck generally. They’ve done this despite terrible QB play. And they’ve done this despite suspending key players.

Is Minnesota better than their record indicates? Nope. Are they the worst team we’ve seen in forever? Nope. Do we know that they are doomed to be failures under Fleck? Not even close.

4) I know it sucks, but we can take a critical eye to the program as it is today without freaking out

Breath.

Relax.

Take a longer view.

It’s been 6 years since we’ve had to face the questions that come with a big change in the program. We may be out of practice, but it’s time to remember that with Minnesota the answers to the questions this program faces are rarely as simple as we’d like them to be. While it sucks to realize this team wasn’t on the extremely stable footing in 2017 that we expected it would be following a period of better than average W/L records, it’s important to remember that progress isn’t always linear. That’s hard to do, but it’s important because expecting linear progress becomes even more of a fool’s hope following a coaching change. This is doubly true when you love a non-helmet school that isn't stocked with top recruiting classes.

We don’t know what is going to happen under Fleck long term. But I can assure you what we’re seeing today isn’t as bad as some folks are making it out to be and I can also assure you that blaming Fleck for all of it is both pointless and incorrect.

TL;DR

  • We all could have seen a season like this coming.
  • The problems the team is facing aren’t all on Fleck.
  • We wouldn’t be in much better shape under Claeys, but that’s a pointless hypothetical anyway.
  • It’s time to calm down a bit and take a longer view.