As the Fiesta Bowl came to a merciful end on Saturday night, I got into a bit of a philosophical discussion with my friend and former UWDP colleague Kirk about the lessons learned in 2017. I was looking for a shred of evidence that suggested that the Huskies, who had just gotten dominated in a big time postseason game for the second straight season, were still a program on an upward trajectory. Truth be told, I couldn’t see any evidence that ... at least on the field ... the Huskies had improved over the squad that went to the playoffs in 2017.
I’ll share with you the simple test that I asked Kirk to consider: name one position group anywhere on the team that performed better on the field this season than they did a year ago.
Outside of a few individual players and an argument that the interior portion of the d-line may have improved, Kirk couldn’t really admit that any single unit was clearly on an upward trajectory relative to last season. It was an uncomfortable and somewhat heated exchange, but we still ended up getting to the same place.
Thus here I sit trying to write something that puts a bit of a capper on the 2017 Washington Huskies. This is the editorial that I didn’t want to write. But it’s ‘tell the truth’ time here at the ‘Pound. So let’s just call the spade a spade and say it:
The Huskies 2017 football season was a failure.
Ok. The overly sensationalistic statement that carries with it all of the negative emotion that I’ve been carrying with me is now out there. I’ve gotten that burden off of my back. I will now spend the remainder of this editorial qualifying that statement and explaining myself.
I acknowledge that at first read the term “failure” might seem a bit harsh. Consider for a moment the three of four goals that Chris Petersen might have posted on his whiteboard to start the season. What might he have put there? “Win a playoff game”? “Win the PAC 12”? “Win the North?” “Win one more game than last season”? “Go undefeated”? “Be the best version of ourselves that we can be”? Now ask yourself: which of those possibilities were achieved in 2017? Any of them?
Look, I’ve heard the arguments. This team has racked up 29 wins over the past three years of its ascendancy. It has just had back-to-back 10 win seasons for the first time since the early ‘90s heyday. It is putting players into the NFL at a record clip. It just played in its second straight New Year’s Six bowl.
I get all that. By all measures, the team is having its best era of football in decades. But the point of this editorial is to focus on what transpired on the field in 2017 and assess whether or it represented a step forward in the advancement of the program. This three year run has been great. And I think it will only get better. But if the goal of any season is to improve, even in a small way, over the year prior, 2017 did not see us move the ball forward.
Let’s begin with the obvious. This statement is purely an observation about what transpired on the football field in games relative to the 2016 season. This is an “on the field” only observation as there were many things that happened off of it that were good for the program.
It’s clear that the last two recruiting classes have improved the overall talent level of this team. It also seems clear that the balance of classes and position group talent has improved since Petersen took over four seasons ago. I imagine that an argument can be made that the culture and the discipline of the program has also improved.
In his post Fiesta Bowl presser, Coach Petersen seemed to echo these sentiments when he sought to turn the attention away from the on-the-field product and focus on what has been happening off of it:
“It’s not just about like executing on the field in my opinion. It’s what is it like on a day-to-day basis, what is the culture like, what is the expectations in the locker room, how do we work out, what’s the standard, what’s the level of excellence there. And I think it’s different. And I think that these guys understand what it’s going to take.”
—Chris Petersen after the Fiesta Bowl loss
All of that is great. And I’m certain that it will pay dividends for future iterations of Husky football. I’m not arguing in any way that it won’t. I remain as bullish about this program as most of you.
I’m simply arguing that the 2017 football team failed to build upon the upward trajectory of the 2016 program. On the field, at least, Washington stagnated.
You heard all of the national pundits talk about it as the season wore on. The concern about UW’s ability to show up for big games, the lack of wins against good teams, the Kirk Herbstreit affair, the cupcake thing ... all of it seems validated in hindsight. The national narrative that UW was just a good team with an easy schedule seems fair.
The achievements on the field certainly validate this observation at a high level. UW won two fewer games, lost one more game, failed to defend its PAC 12 championship and didn’t even win its own division after having done so a year ago. They scored over 100 points fewer and failed to win a bowl game for the second straight season. Their only win against a ranked team was against a fringe top 25 WSU team that lost three of their last six games on season.
The eyeball test is the first filter that most of use in assessing that kind of observation. From that perspective, it is very difficult for us to hang our hat on any position unit or game aspect that clearly took a leap forward in its progression. The rushing attack, the pass rush, the offensive line play, and the quarterback play were all flat on a year over year basis.
Even more distressing were the units that regressed. The receiver play was obviously disappointing. The place kicking game was awful. The linebacker play wasn’t nearly as reliable as it was in 2016. The secondary took its expected lumps as it rebuilt.
Maybe you could argue that the punting unit improved. I’ll grant you that one.
Beyond the position units, I was dismayed to see from among the sophomores, redshirts and true freshmen the lack of emergence of new young playmakers to replace outgoing stars such as Budda Baker, John Ross, Sidney Jones, and Kevin King. We definitely saw some flashes from guys like Hunter Bryant and Salvon Ahmed. But there weren’t any new stars that emerged in the same way that those players did when they first saw the field. Not one.
The redshirt freshman class was the most disappointing aspect of this. Among the 13 non-kickers in that group, you could really only point to Byron Murphy, Levi Onwuzurike, Luke Wattenberg and Ryan Bowman (from the ranks of the walk-ons) as contributors. Each of them flashed their potential, but none really moved the needle as individual playmakers or by impacting the overall play of their positional units. All the while, there were players that were needed but who didn’t play that much - guys like Myles Rice, Sean McGrew, Kamari Pleasant and Camilo Eifler.
A look at the statistics bear out what the eyeball test tells us. Among the key traditional stats, UW declined across the board:
Traditional Stats Comparison
|3rd Down Offense||45.4||44.1||2.9%|
|3rd Down Defense||37.8||30.1||-25.6%|
|Red Zone Offense||0.833||0.948||-12.1%|
|Red Zone Defense||0.857||0.751||-14.1%|
|Explosive Plays Offense||66||74||-10.8%|
|Explosive Plays Defense||38||42||9.5%|
There is a lot of regression in that side-by-side. The exceptions are the improvements in scoring D, rushing D and explosives D. Most of those stats are probably rooted in the defensive line play. That would support Kirk’s argument that there was at least some improvement in the interior defensive line play.
Regardless, UW declined or stayed flat in all the other significant categories on both sides of the ball relative to 2016. This despite the fact that UW was returning a more experienced roster and had a notably easier schedule than the one its 2016 counterparts.
The advanced stats tell a very similar story.
Advanced Stats Comparison
|F / +||0.507||0.508||-0.2%|
|S&P / +||17.7||20.6||-14.1%|
|Strength of Schedule (FE*)||0.68||1.05||-35.2%|
|Success Rate - Offense||113.8||128.4||-11.4%|
|Points per Play - Offense||119.9||128.4||-6.6%|
|Success Rate - Defense||114||124.2||8.2%|
|Points per Play - Defense||146.8||134.5||-9.1%|
Allow me to orient you to these stats for those of you who aren’t versed in some of the advanced stats lingo. The first two categories: F/+ and S&P/+ are aggregate scores of the effectiveness of a program in any season. FEI (note listed above) is a category that focuses on drive-by-drive data adjusted for strength of opponents and game situations. S&P+ focuses on opponent adjusted play-by-play data analysis and emphasizes aspects that are highly correlated with winning including efficiency (as measured by “success rate”) and explosiveness (as measured by points per play). F/+ is a combination of the two.
*Note: I did not list the current FEI specific numbers in the table above as they are not currently listed at footballoutsiders.com
Again, you can see flat to significant decline for UW across the board despite the fact that their schedule was significantly weaker in 2017 than it was in 2016. The lone exception being that UW was better at making opposing teams play behind the chains in 2017. This calculation could have been much stronger, in fact, had UW not performed so poorly in third down conversion defense relative to a season ago.
The eyeball test, the traditional stats and the advanced stats all tell us that UW flattened out, if not regressed, relative to the performance that it put on the field a year ago. In light of the preponderance of the evidence, it is understandable why some fans would conclude this season “a failure”. If your focus is simply results, then the conclusion is fair.
But improvement is rarely linear (another point that Kirk emphasized to me on Saturday night). It is a culmination of fundamentals training, coaching consistency and, importantly, talent. In that regard, UW is still in the midst of a process that might involve showing some potential and then levering that potential to upgrade its talent base.
For every fan who has romanticized the notion that “three star talent and exceptional coaching” is all you need to win championships, the Washington Huskies 2017 season presents disproving evidence. The truth of the matter is that the baseline talent available to UW this season wasn’t good enough to build upon last season’s success, despite the fact that most of the roster came back this year. This is certainly true after you take into account the role that injuries played in defining what talent saw the field. It may well also be true before you consider those same injuries.
Regardless, 2017 should provide UW fans with a bit of a reality check. The upward trajectory of the program is not guaranteed from season to season. Indeed, it seems to have stalled out like an old lawn mower after sitting idle in the garage during a long Minnesota winter. Chris Petersen and his staff have real work to do if they are to integrate all of the new talent coming into the program, cover the losses of key contributors like Vita Vea, Dante Pettis, Coleman Shelton and (maybe) Myles Gaskin, and drive the kinds of improvements in the positional units that failed to materialize this year.
Picking up the pieces of a season which disappointed in so many ways is not easy work. Success in that regard should not be assumed. But it certainly can be hoped for if not expected.