You think it. You’re tempted to say it. Don’t.

For years, we’ve made fun of Air Force players (and fans) for losing to Navy, then saying things like, “They didn’t beat us! We beat ourselves!” It’s the rallying cry of the loser, but the way Navy played against Air Force (and everyone else this year), more than a few of you probably have that same thought rattling through your heads. Don’t fool yourselves. Football, like most other team sports, essentially boils down to two things: creating opportunities for yourself, then capitalizing on those opportunities. Maybe you screwed up your chances, but do you know what happens when the other team doesn’t screw up theirs? They beat you. Good teams make the most out of what’s given to them. The better team won on Saturday, and you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion if you just accept the obvious.

What isn’t so obvious is just how Air Force became the better team. We’ve sort of conditioned ourselves to think that “better team” means the one that’s bigger, faster, and stronger, and that’s certainly a large part of it. The mental part of the game is just as important, though; maybe even more important at a place like Navy where most of our opponents are the bigger, faster, and stronger team each week. Navy recruits more physical talent now than they have for decades, but we still get excited when we land guys who had other FBS offers. Everyone else we play has rosters full of those guys. Not Air Force, you say, and that’s true. Does Saturday mean that Air Force is the more physically talented team now? I don’t know. Were they last year when Navy won by 18? It’s basically the same group of players on both sides. While it stings more than the other losses, this isn’t really about the Air Force game; the brass band of mistakes has been marching down Navy’s Main Street all season. I can’t explain why. Chances are, you probably can’t explain it either.

That certainly hasn’t stopped people from trying. That’s to be expected up to a point; I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have my own theories. Nobody likes the unknown, and even fewer people like to admit that they don’t know. Still, the fact that we don’t know what’s wrong doesn’t mean that every guess has equal validity. There’s a difference between an educated guess and wild speculation, especially considering that some people make the same assumptions every time something goes wrong, no matter what that something is.

I’m disappointed at how many Navy fans (and presumably graduates) turn immediately to questioning player character whenever the team struggles. “The players have been reading their press clippings.” “The Heisman hype went straight to his head.” Etc., etc. What’s the logic here? That the players don’t practice as hard because they think they’re so good already? Based on what? I find it unlikely that the people who say this have actually seen Navy practice (or any other team, probably). If you haven’t, you have no business saying things like this. You probably don’t even if you have seen practice. When people don’t know football, they tend to try to explain the things they see in non-football terms. You don’t need to know any Xs & Os to talk about effort, so that’s what people fall back on. They shouldn’t. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.”

The same could be said about a lot of the coaching complaints I see, although this is admittedly a little trickier. Part of the fun of sports is Monday conversations around the water cooler, and debating the moves that coaches make is part of why we watch. I get that. You might want to keep a little perspective, though. In the last 30 years, Navy has had zero winning seasons without Ken Niumatalolo on the sidelines. They’ve had one without Ivin Jasper. With them, they’ve had 12 and 11, respectively. These guys know what they’re doing at a place where very few coaches would manage to succeed. They aren’t any more perfect than any other human being, but they are certainly experts in their field. That means the super-obvious solutions to all the team’s problems that you thought of (“Bench that guy! Call this play!”) probably would have been done a while ago if the problems were really that simple. As with most things involving so many moving parts (both on the field and off), they rarely are.

“But Mike,” you say, “didn’t Coach Jasper take the blame for the offense’s performance in the Air Force game?” Yes, he did. I have no doubt that he wishes he did things differently, because it’s only human to think “what if” whenever we don’t succeed at something. When you read coach quotes in the paper, though, it’s important to keep in mind that coaches generally don’t care what you or I think. They care about winning, because their livelihood depends on it. When they talk to the media, that’s the context you need to understand what’s truly being said. Sometimes coaches will be critical of players if they think it’ll motivate them. Sometimes they’ll offer themselves up as lightning rods for criticism instead to shield a struggling team from the “press clippings” guys. In other words, like the Oracle in The Matrix, they say what they think their team needs to hear. The coaches are always focused on what it will take get their teams to play their best in the next game. While I can’t read minds, I don’t think the coaches are all that concerned about answering to those of us in the peanut gallery.

When everyone was excited after the Ohio State game, I was a little more cautious and wrote this:

There is a point to be made, though, that you will be best served by keeping your expectations in check. Each game is its own unique matchup of players and coaches. What happens in one doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the others. Don’t let the fun of football season be ruined by your own wild and unrealistic expectations that were based on one hard-fought game against a tough opponent.

I certainly didn’t think that the Mids would be 2-4 at this point, but I could sort of tell that things weren’t as peachy as they appeared. It worried me, not because Navy might not have the season that people were hoping for, but because it meant that at some point I’d have to deal with legions of OUTRAGED! people posting here. I spend several hours per week working on a blog dedicated to Navy football, so I can’t pretend that I don’t take it seriously. Taking it seriously doesn’t mean you have to act so angry when things go south, though. I get as upset as anyone when the team doesn’t play well, but in the end this stuff is supposed to be fun.

You are what your record says you are, and halfway through the season, Navy is 2-4. Fortunately, there’s a lot of season left, and what Navy is now does not have to be what they are at the end. We’ve seen these guys come through before, and they have it in them to do it again. Each game is another chance for something awesome to happen, and I can’t wait to watch. Enjoy it, for my sake and for yours.

29 thoughts on “NOW WHAT

  1. 4th of '71

    Mike, I’ll offer an opinion – we’re fortunate to receive the benefit of your analysis and reflective advice. The results so far this season are disappointing, but there’s reason to hope for improvement. Thank you.

  2. FNB

    Thanks for the perspective, Mike. Is it a long road to 8-4? Yup. Looking at the schedule, it looks like a shorter road to 7-5. We were full of faith three weeks ago…I think if the “Brass Band” stops playing, they are still capable of quite a bit. Either way, they need a good, solid win to recage. Hopefully, that is VMI.

    Good luck this week.

    Thanks for the writeup…

  3. “In the last 30 years, Navy has had zero winning seasons without Ken Niumatalolo on the sidelines. They’ve had one without Ivin Jasper. With them, they’ve had 12 and 11, respectively.”


    1. 901458

      Amen on that perspective!!!! All the nattering nabobs of negativity about this current season of Navy football need to read that statement about a thousand times, then read it another thousand or so, and take it to heart. Being 2-4 isn’t what anyone hoped for, but Mike has put this season’s record in its proper perspective like no one else could. The team’s motto is INAM, Navy fan’s motto should be “In KN and IJ we trust”

  4. Gonavy81

    I am disappointed, but remain hopeful. It’s football. Some of these guys’ best games are yet to come. Won’t stop me from making the rest of the home games, ND, and A-N!! Good comments, Mike.

  5. Edgar

    Still have my Navy flag flying off my front porch. Still going to that road game in Alabama. Still DVRing all the games.

    I am a tad bit more excited than usual this October for the start of the NBA season, but that probably has more to do with the possibility of my team being much better than usual this season. And I am a little happier than I’d normally be to see PJ’s Jackets winning… I do have my theories as to why Navy’s struggled, but I won’t be broadcasting them here or anywhere on the internet. However, shared misery phone calls with Academy buddies are fair game for such discussions.

  6. Alan Gray

    Only as I have gotten older have I realized that I’m not diminished in any way when the teams I support lose. Before then, I acted as a number of its supporters do now, when Navy loses.

  7. It could be worse… we could be Nats fans, and watch them lose a playoff series on a wild pitch, then watch another wild pitch on an intentional walk!

    But wait…I am a Nats fan. And a Navy fan…sheesh. At least the Spurs won.

  8. Count70

    I think I make an exception to your thoughts about making fun of our beating Air Force. I would hope we took fun in the idea that Air Force thought they owned the trophy. We had a lot of trophies but there were close games. In 2011 I felt a leadership deficit when one captain was called for a silly penalty in the the end zone and the other left the field before post game respect was completed.
    In Air Force we have had a worthy opponent although their fans have been otherwise.
    The strength Navy has had, it seems to me, is that the coaches constantly remind us that winning is hard. The other team has a choice. Some bloggers complain the coaches have a same, boring message. I believe when the message in right, keep it. Let’s hope the fellows on the field remind themselves that winning really is hard.

    And thanks so much for your great insight.

    1. Anonymous

      But Air Force continues to play dirty football. There should have been two ejections on that one play, both Keenan and the pitch man. Early in the game the refs ignored Keenan being pushed to the ground well after he got rid of the ball. Is that what they teach out there?

    2. 04USNA0302

      “In Air Force we have had a worthy opponent although their fans have been otherwise”

      There were four cheap shots on Keenan in the first half alone. That sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident.

    3. Navy72

      Shipmates, we have to calm down about AF being dirty. Sarra’s hit was not only costly (AF went from having to punt to scoring a TD) but was a blatant penalty. Does Sarra play dirty? I don’t think so, but AF could make the case. That door swings both ways. We lost because AF outplayed us.

    4. 04USNA0302

      Sarra’s hit was neither dirty nor late. He hit an offensive lineman near the play before the whistle had blown or, at worst, right as it was being blown. Rewatch it and let me know if you still disagree. Was the hit necessary? Not really, but it also wasn’t a penalty.

      I’m not contesting the fact that AF outplayed us, but that’s unrelated to whether they blatantly targeted Keenan which is the kind of thing that has pretty much been SOP for AF over the last few decades. Four penalties were called in the first half for hits on Keenan. One was a helmet to helmet launching hit that resulted in an ejection for targeting, one was a block in the back away from the play, and one was a forearm to the face while getting up from a tackle…the fourth escapes me at the moment but it had me furious on Saturday.

  9. Navy72

    Neptune’s Shakespeare nails it. One of your best pieces, Mike.

    A few observations:
    1. Our opponents combined records to date is 21-9. Tough schedule, no margin for error, yet Navy has been error-prone.

    2. Try this. Scramble last year’s schedule and follow Indiana with Duke, WKU, and Toledo. I suspect that this esteemed peanut gallery would have been apoplectic heading into AF last year. Just a hunch.

    3. When AF took the second half kickoff and rammed it down our throats, I gulped, and thought: They’re outplaying us. It’s that simple.

  10. Anonymous

    Love your work and this blog in particular.

    Question – how many passes per game did we average while Navy Football was gaining momentum in the first six games last season.

    Second question – if you can gain 5 to 10 yards in the triple option with 9 men in the box – why not do it?

    Assessment – last year Navy selectively passed the ball early in the game and only occasionally did it put us behind the sticks. If we traded half of this year’s passes for triple option plays I sense our record would be much different.

    1. Greg - 1990

      I’ll catch heck for this because I know its more complicated than just run versus pass but we are our record and we are the numbers and the numbers indicate that since 2003 we are 18-1 when we throw it less than 5 times in a game and so on … I don’t go to many practices so I don’t know what they see so I’m completely just a fan but watching 1st and goal from the 6 versus Rutgers at home … I sat in traffic thinking the same exact thing – that said, I think the ship was righted a bit yesterday and lets see how things go against San Jose State!

      Glad I read this blog tonight – actually glad they played well and won yesterday because I didn’t want to read anything after Air Force – just as passionate as all of you and appreciate the discussion and especially the perspective – its just a game that allows us to watch amazing things more often than not!

  11. bob Schmermund

    Why you are not published every week in the Capital, Sun or Post is beyond me. You have brought me back from the brink — and I am actually looking forward to the VMI game again. Honestly I wish I didn’t care so much… nearly ruined a wedding reception I was attending after losing to Air Force. I’ll save my comments for that particular team for another time. Thanks for your insights. You are very wise. Go Orioles! Go Navy!
    Bob Schmermund ’78

  12. AirBoss

    Beautiful post, Mike. It’s a game. Enjoy it, and the fact that we are privileged to call Navy Football our team, no matter what happens.

  13. Greg - 1990

    Appreciate the perspective as always but honestly still struggling to see how we can run for 171 yards in the first quarter, seem to dominate, begin to throw the ball and the same thing happened vs Rutgers, W KY & AF. I know its much more complicated than just running v passing but we seemed to have lost our identity these past 4 weeks (until yesterday). I had a nice chat with Coach Ivan after the VMI game and he seemed to be ready for the 6-0 run for the end of the year and I actually believe they can do it. I think sometimes its execution and sometimes play calling and sometimes the moment. Obviously, field goals have also killed us this year which goes without saying …

    Also agree 100% about player character – that’s not it – they are playing their hearts out – trying their best – Keenan is a level kid with a great up-bringing – he isn’t drunk on his own clippings – he is a humble kid who will do great things.

    I flew to Air Force and honestly the crowd wasn’t that loud or even full – we had a few mistakes but I don’t think anyone, coaches or kids were overwhelmed by the moment – the atmosphere was about the same as a Navy home game.

    We did attend the Broncos game the next day and I’m going to suggest to Chet that we put an animated goat on the screen when the offense is on the field holding the sign – “Shhh offense at work” – maybe the opposite will be understood that you are SUPPOSED to stand and cheer when your team is on defense!!!! That’s something that has frustrated me for YEARS and so glad that Chet sent the e-mail this week asking people to actually cheer!

    Did anyone see yesterday the info-spot on the big screen? … the grad was an athlete at USNA, then a Navy Seal, then an Astronaut on both the Shuttle and Russian Spacecraft on the space station … these kids will go on to do great things and the coaches mean best for them – its obvious in their actions and words.

    I’m hopeful that we can end the season 3-2 at home, 8-4 overall and find a way to beat a beatable Notre Dame team … thanks again for the perspective and obvious knowledge of this game we love!

  14. bethel95

    I waited a week to read this post, mainky because of a slammed schedule. Now that I’ve checked in, it’s interesting to read everyone’s take on what’s been happening.

    My question: When did Keenan hurt his right knee and start wearing the brace? I’ve been curious about that since I noticed the pattern in the Rutgers (I think?), WKU, and AF games of the high throws when passing from the pocket (while not perfect, he seemed to be much more consistently on-target when rolling out).

    Given that I’d never seen this problem so consistently and egregiously in Keenan’s first two seasons, I came to wonder whether he was having problems getting a good push off his back foot, causing his trajectory to elevate above what he was shooting for (hence, the overthrows?).

    Now that he’s getting two weeks rest and three weeks between games, maybe we’ll know. If the report is that his knee is healthy, again, and his passes resume being what I remember from the past two seasons, we’ll stop hearing from the “Why ever throw a pass?” crowd. I’d really like that.

    1. bethel95

      For that matter, I’ve also been wondering whether the knee problem has been related to the errant pitches Keenan has made. My recollection is that those were generally behind the PSA. I might well be wrong about that, but if not, it would be interesting to know if they were predominantly on plays run to one particular side (as I assume there’s a side in which the QB has to brace for the pitch on his right leg, which might be affected by a sore/weak right knee).

      Note that I’m not blaming Keenan for all the fumbles on pitches–several were clearly the result of the PSA’s not securing the ball.

  15. jim

    It looked like AF took the wood to us in the second half and we didn’t come back at them with anything. They were hungrier in the 2nd half…too many mistakes for us in the first half. Our playcalling is typically based on what the opposing D gives us – but was unsure why we stopped using our FBs in the 2nd half (too many offensive line injuries? AFA Def adjustments?) It was a sad game to sit through in the stands – but the better team that day won the game.

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