Last week, I capped off two weeks’ worth of discretionary time re-examining the cadaver of the 2005 Tennessee Volunteer football season. Two full weeks of pessimism, criticism, and general negativity.
What was I thinking?
Well, I did it to show why I’m optimistic about the upcoming season. The full explanation is further down the page, but here’s a teaser:
Before I reveal what was going on in the dark recesses of my bothered mind, let’s recap:
- August, 2005: No. 3 Vols indulge in pre-season fantasies of playing in the Rose Bowl for the National Championship.
- September 3, 2005: Vols come down to earth in unimpressive 17-10 win over UAB.
- September 17, 2005: Special teams debacle costs No. 4 Vols a 16-7 loss to No. 6 archrival Florida.
- September 26, 2005: No. 11 Tennessee shocks No. 3 LSU with 30-27 come-from-way-behind Rally in the Valley giving Vol fans the sole highlight of a troubled season.
- October 1, 2005: No. 10 Vols produce efficient but boring 27-10 win over Ole Miss.
- October 8, 2005: No. 8 Vols lose 27-14 to No. 5 Georgia in a penalty-plagued field position nightmare.
- October 22, 2005: Two fumbles inside the ten and a muffed punt at midfield costs the No. 17 Vols a 6-3 loss to No. 5 Alabama.
- October 29, 2005: No. 23 Vols lose 16-15 to Steve Spurrier due primarily to a fumble within a blade of fescue at the goal line.
- November 5, 2005: Two ships pass in the night as the staggering Tennessee program is soundly defeated by a revitalized Notre Dame program hitting its stride.
- November 12, 2005: The unranked Volunteers need another game-saving effort by Rick Clausen in relief of Erik Ainge to beat unranked Memphis 20-16.
- November 19, 2005: The end of the world as we know it. Failure to convert on 4th down and inches within three yards of the goal line results in the Vols’ first loss to Vanderbilt (28-24) in 22 years, ensuring the first losing season in 17 years and the first year without a bowl game in 16 years.
- November 26, 2005: The unranked Volunteers defeat Kentucky 27-8, marking the End of an Error.
A complete and utter flame-out.
What happened? What exactly was the root cause of the disappointing 2005 season? Here’s the lineup of suspects:
Lack of or improper focus
- Lack of character and/or discipline. From a player using his cell phone during half time of a bowl game several years ago to the rash of arrests and court appearances leading up to the 2005 season, individual and team discipline has declined.
- Me first. Many UT fans wondered whether running back Jamal Lewis gave the team his all during his last season or whether he was saving himself for the NFL. Receiver Kelley Washington pretty much came right out and said as much by declaring himself “The Future” while still a Tennessee Volunteer.
- Penalties and errors. Blocked punts, muffed punts, botched fake punts, missed field goals, poor kick and punt coverage, interceptions in end zones, fumbles at critical times, and the list goes on and on.
Conventional wisdom coaching philosophies
- Tall, fast, and chiseled guys are necessarily good receivers.
- Rotating eight or nine receivers keeps them fresh, which must be a good thing.
- Save it for the games. Avoid getting players hurt at all costs by utilizing a plethora of green, no-contact jerseys and by practicing at less than game speed.
- Bigger is always better on the offensive line.
- Two QB System? No worries.
- Special teams, oh yeah, we ought to work on those, too.
- Embracing the hype. The normally stoic Phillip Fulmer openly embraced the pre-season No. 3 ranking in 2005, wanting to ensure that when they did get through the SEC slate unscathed they would not be denied an opportunity to play for the national championship.
- The Spotlight Effect. UT, both individually and collectively, generally under perform when expectations are high and over perform when expectations are low.
- Strength of schedule. Nearly half of Tennessee’s 2005 opponents were ranked in the top five at the time they played them.
- The demise of home-field advantage.
- Season-ending injuries to key players.
The Cause: One of the Above
So which of the above factors caused the losing season?
If you said all of the above, you’d be mostly right, but I think there’s an even better answer:
One of the above.
In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell attempts to explain “social epidemics,” or sudden changes from one state to another. In Gladwell’s own words:
The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.
Think, for a moment, about an epidemic of measles in a kindergarten class. One child brings in the virus. It spreads to every other child in the class in a matter of days. And then, within a week or so, it completely dies out and none of the children will ever get measles again. That’s typical behavior for epidemics: they can blow up and then die out really quickly, and even the smallest change — like one child with a virus — can get them started. My argument is that it is also the way that change often happens in the rest of the world. Things can happen all at once, and little changes can make a huge difference.
Okay, so boiled down, the basic premise of the Tipping Point is this: (1) ideas can be as contagious as viruses; (2) like viruses, little things can grow in geometric progressions into big things; and (3) all these little things can lead to a tipping point at which one more little thing causes a great, noticeable change.
Application to the 2005 Season
The Tennessee Volunteer 2005 football season was the culmination of a lot of little things thrown into the cauldron until one more little thing tipped the whole blasted thing over, ending in catastrophe and scattering football helmets all over the end zone.
Sure, a player checking his cell phone for messages during half time of a bowl game is a bit troubling, but it’s just a little thing, right? Or was it a symptom of a social epidemic infecting the football team with the idea that there really wasn’t much of a consequence for a lack of focus? Did such an attitude spread exponentially and lead to a rash of arrests, a passel of players more concerned about the NFL than their current college team, and a host of penalties, fumbles, interceptions, and other errors on the field?
Could a catastrophic change come from a notion so mundane that you can’t even identify its origin? Exactly when did we start thinking that big, tall, fast guys necessarily made excellent receivers or that rotating eight or nine of them during a game in order to wear out the defenders was a good idea? Exactly when did we start thinking that two quarterbacks were better than one or that practicing at less than game speed and dressing key players in green, no-contact jerseys sufficiently prepared the team for actual games? Just when did having the heaviest offensive line in the SEC become the goal?
By 2005, those seemingly small ideas were epidemic within the Tennessee Volunteer football program. And it was not a good time to be sick. The plague-ridden 2005 Volunteers embraced their No. 3 ranking, mostly ignoring the daunting schedule, the recent demise of UT’s home-field advantage, and the team’s vulnerability to the Spotlight Effect. Season-ending injuries to players Jason Allen and Gerald Riggs didn’t help, either.
The 2005 team lost one game due to a special teams debacle. They lost another because of a penalty-plagued field position nightmare. They lost two more by a total of 4 points due to three fumbles inside the ten yard line. Another loss was by 4 points due in part to a failure to convert on 4th and inches within three yards of the goal line.
Little things can lead to catastrophic change.
Especially in a game of inches.
Application to the 2006 Season
So what was I thinking when I decided to poke and prod at the corpse of the 2005 season? I was thinking that if the red plastic Don’t-Spill-the-Beans cauldron can tip one way, it can also tip the other.
Coach Fulmer was ridiculed when he characterized the season as the Perfect Storm. Some media and fans interpreted this statement as an excuse, but I took it more as an explanation, and I never got the feeling that Fulmer was denying responsibility for the outcome.
No, I think Fulmer was reading the Tipping Point. Once 2005 had breathed its last, Fulmer and company were talking about the little things. If you’ve been keeping up with fall practice, reading the articles and listening to interviews, you’re hearing coaches and players talk about “the little things” all of the time. Here’s just a sampling of the little things they’re trying to reclaim:
- Character/Discipline. This off-season was quiet, relatively speaking anyway, when it came to off the field incidents. When two players got into trouble within days of each other for the first time this summer, Fulmer reportedly went ballistic. He dismissed the player who’d used up his second chances and suspended the other who’d gotten in trouble for the first time in five years with the program. Fulmer later kicked promising young freshman tight end Lee Smith off the team after Smith made the non-sports page twice in one week. He suspended another pending investigation of a stupid incident involving a toy gun on the highway. While it appears the team still has some ground to cover on this front, it does appear to have improved. The coaching staff, at least, is responding differently, and that’s a good sign.
- Good receivers make good receivers. After having rejuvenated an under-achieving stable of running backs, Trooper Taylor has been assigned to repeat the feat with the receiving corps this year. The receivers are catching 100 balls a day. Footballs, tennis balls, and even some bricks. Yes, bricks. They are not wearing green jerseys. The rotation this year will consist of five receivers instead of eight or nine so that they can better develop chemistry with the quarterback. They are digging batteries out of buckets full of rice to develop grip strength. Word is, it’s all beginning to pay off.
- Practice. The spring story line earlier this year was that the Vols were re-learning how to practice. Essentially, that meant that they were practicing with tempo at game speed. This theme continues in the fall. Players receive a tongue-lashing if they simply walk the last couple of steps to the next practice drill. Even the quarterbacks have gone live without green jerseys in at least one scrimmage so far this fall practice. The offense is dictating tempo, and special teams is getting the attention it deserves.
- Big is good, but speed is better on the offensive line. The offensive linemen have lost weight. Lots of it. Chris Scott is the poster boy for the Vols’ weight loss campaign, having lost 60 pounds since last season. All of them have lost at least fifteen pounds. The goal is to better prepare them to get out quickly and block on screens, and the reports are that they are indeed quicker this fall.
- Fear the Two QB System. Erik Ainge is the starting quarterback. He is getting all of the practice reps with the first team. Even with promising QB Jonathon Crompton pushing him, the coaches are downplaying any hint of a controversy.
The 2006 Volunteers, led by coach Fulmer and the rest of the coaching staff are in the process of focusing on and correcting a myriad of little things. Maybe, just maybe, they can re-infect the team and create an epidemic of positive ideas. If successful, perhaps they can reach another tipping point this season, this time in a positive direction.
Packing it up
And now that the corpse of 2005 has been exhumed, dissected, poked, prodded, and otherwise fully examined, we can now officially slide it into the morgue drawer and forget about it.
The 2005 season shall from this point forward be referred to only as The Season of Which We Do Not Speak.