Robert Anae, UVA football fans, and their penchant for self-destruction

UVA footballUVA football fans who want Robert Anae out are why UVA football fans can’t have good things.

The Virginia football program is in as good a place as it has been since 2004, which, yes, it’s been that long.

It’s been so long that you probably have to strain to remember that all the way back in ’04 the ‘Hoos played a November game against Miami at home ranked in the Top 10.

The loss that night was the beginning of a long, painful death spiral. That ’04 team finished with losses in three of its last four, then the ‘05 squad went 7-5, won the Music City Bowl – the last bowl win for the program – ahead of a stretch of 10 losing seasons in the following 12 years.

Year 3 of the Bronco Mendenhall Era, 2018, was supposed to make it 11 for 13. The media pegged the ‘Hoos to finish seventh in the seven-team Coastal Division, so going 7-5 in the regular season, leading the Coastal at the start of November, that would seem to suggest this season was a bit of a surprise.

The defense, after losing its top three players – Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser and Andrew Brown – ranked third in the ACC in points and yards allowed.

The offense, for its part, improved by more than a touchdown per game over 2017 after losing quarterback Kurt Benkert to the NFL – due to the emergence of transfer Bryce Perkins, who set a UVA single-season record for total offense (3,323 yards) and was third in the conference in passing efficiency.

Perkins is the prototype of the kind of quarterback that Anae, whose pupils at BYU included future NFL quarterbacks Max Hall, John Beck and Taysom Hill, wants running his shotgun, read-option, RPO, spread offense.

With a year in the system for Perkins at the trigger, and most of the offense coming back (23 of the 29 players listed on the two-deep for the season finale at Virginia Tech), it would seem that you’d want to spend the next couple of months heading into spring, then spring, then the summer heading into camp and, finally, camp, building on what you already have in place.

But: yes, Virginia Tech.

People have issues with the play-calling, which, my position on play-calling is, the main issue that people have with play-calling is when the plays don’t work, because when the plays work, nobody seems to have a problem with those plays, or how they’re called.

The plays from the UVA offense at the end of the Virginia Tech game, they didn’t work, so, yes, the play-calling at the end of the Virginia Tech game sucked.

Sorry to belabor this with specifics you already know and have gone to great pains to try to forget, but: the ‘Hoos, up 28-24, got the ball back at the Virginia Tech 11, following a fourth-quarter interception, and had the chance to put the game away.

Two runs into the line gained a yard, and on third-and-9, the call was pass play, but Tech had everything covered, and all Perkins could do was throw the ball away.

The field goal made it a seven-point game, but left the Hokies still alive, and of course, they tied the game on their next drive, sent the game into overtime, and won there with a field goal, following three incomplete passes, and a turnover on Virginia’s second play.

After the Cavaliers took the 28-24 lead, with 6:51 to go, the drive chart had the ‘Hoos going: three plays, one yard, punt; four plays, one yard, field goal; five plays, 11 yards, one first down, punt; kneeldown to go to OT; then in OT, two plays, one first down, turnover.

The response from Wahoo Nation, and surprisingly, to me, some among the columnists who cover the team: it’s time to move on from Anae.

To achieve, what, exactly?

The idea would seem to be, well, to get somebody on the headset who doesn’t call runs into the line that don’t gain yards when you can put the other team away.

And you assume that this guy, otherwise, takes the personnel he is inheriting and knows what to do with it.

That’s how things work in a perfect world.

Alas, our world, not perfect.

Again, you’ve got 23 of your 29 on the two-deep back in 2019. They’ve had at least a year in Anae’s system, and can build on what they know for the next nine months heading into next season.

Hire somebody else, and there’s no guarantee that the somebody else does things the way Anae wants them done.

For starters, maybe this guy wants to bring in some of his guys to coach positions – offensive line, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks.

And actually, assume that he wants to bring in at least some of his guys. Everybody in coaching has their guys, and if you’re asking a guy who has the resume to get hired to serve as offensive coordinator for a Power 5 to come on board, he’s going to want to have at least some of his guys around him, to have the best chance at being successful.

So, the change isn’t just at the top. It’s down to middle management now.

And then, to the factory floor: the kids, at least a year in Anae’s system, maybe two or three, have to learn new ways of doing things.

Meaning: instead of spending the next nine months building on what they already know, they’re starting, by and large, from scratch.

Assume that the new coordinator has his own playbook, with its own terminology, different points of emphasis, new tendencies.

New, different, none of that is, by definition, bad. There are as many ways to try to move the ball and score points as there are coaches to devise the schemes.

Which is to say, there is no right answer.

But when you change things, sure, things can get better, but they can also get worse.

Players don’t just automatically fit into new systems. Think of the situation about to unfold at Georgia Tech, where Paul Johnson just retired. Unless Georgia Tech hires a new coach who runs the triple-option, there’s going to be a serious adjustment period on the offensive side of the ball.

Assume it will be ugly for Tech on offense next fall, and maybe into 2020, as the new staff recruits quarterbacks, wide receivers, linemen – everything is different when you’re moving away from triple-option to a pro-set or spread.

I wouldn’t assume that Mendenhall, if he were to replace Anae, would go radical with his hire – switch things up from Anae’s tempo, spread, read-option playbook to a pro-set, to a triple-option. If he were to make a change, it would most logically be to a guy who does things largely the same way Anae already does them.

Which is where I get to: so, if all you’d be doing is changing the identity of the guy calling the plays, why go that direction at all?

You know, and let’s go really radical on this, why not just have Anae and his offensive assistants spend their free time after the bowl looking at game tape from 2018, analyzing their tendencies, looking at what worked, what didn’t work, maybe go out and visit some other staffs to see what they do, and just try to get better that way?

Because, as was mentioned earlier, this year’s offense was a touchdown better than last year’s. And as was also mentioned earlier, you’ve got most of the guys back.

And you want to tear things up and start from scratch because you didn’t like the play-calling at the end of the Virginia Tech game?

The headline to this story tells you what I think of that line of approach: it could be the beginning of the end of the Bronco Mendenhall Era.

Status quo, Virginia goes into 2019, for the first time in forever, with expectations. The writers won’t pick UVA seventh in the Coastal next year, not with this year’s success, and what the ‘Hoos have coming back.

Maybe third, maybe fourth, but you go into 2019 with people thinking, hey, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we can win eight, maybe nine.

That’s status quo.

Making a change at offensive coordinator is a roll of the dice. Maybe the new coordinator meshes with Perkins and the other returnees, the offense continues to improve, and paired with that increasingly fearsome defense, you challenge for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.

(Which I expect will be the case if you stick with Anae, for what it’s worth.)

Or, maybe there are growing pains. Maybe Perkins doesn’t mesh with the new guy. Maybe the new guy’s tweaks to the approach cost the team in a key situation early in the season, and doubts begin to creep in.

Lots of maybes with a new guy and whatever from his guys he brings along.

And if history with these kinds of things is any guide, you can bet that growing pains are much more likely to be the case.

That this would be happening in Year 4 of the Mendenhall Era is important to note.

One thing you know for sure if you make a change at offensive coordinator after back-to-back bowls heading into Year 4 of a rebuild: anything other than continued improvement is a big setback heading into Year 5.

I mean, you don’t make a change like that without pressure to expect that it will work out, right?

If it works out, great. You head into Year 5, which begins Labor Day Night against Georgia – yeah, that Georgia – with a new QB, but even higher expectations.

It doesn’t work out, and 2019 is a step back, and you’re going to wish you never heard of Georgia and Labor Day and 2020.

I didn’t like the play-calling at the end of the Virginia Tech game, either, which is to say, going by my thinking on this, I, like you, didn’t like the fact that the plays didn’t work out.

What I do like is how Anae and his assistants have built an exciting Virginia offense from the ruins of the Mike London and Al Groh disasters, with a quarterback that I could design a Heisman campaign around, and a backup waiting in the wings in Brennan Armstrong that seems ready to hit the ground running when it’s his turn in 2020.

I also like that, for the first time since 2005, I’m excited about the future of Virginia football, and I think we owe the people responsible the time they need to see the rebuild they’ve initiated to the conclusion that they envisioned when they came east three Decembers ago.

Which is to say, I think we, as UVA football fans, can have good things, even if we haven’t demonstrated they we necessarily deserve them.

Column by Chris Graham


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