A Crossroads at Kyle Field

In 2010 in the heart of darkness that was the Mike Sherman era I bought an A&M fishing shirt. It is super comfortable, I wanted something that wasn’t a t-shirt for game day, and this was before everyone and their dad started wearing them so I was trendsetting. We promptly lost to Missouri 9-30 a few days later. I was confused about what to do? Had my support of the A&M football program caused what little progress we had been making to backfire? Yes we had lost in previous weeks but to teams better than us in narrow games. But still, 9-30? I decided to give it one more week, after all we were playing Kansas so what better way to get a first win? We blew out Kansas, to no surprise. Then we blew out Tech…maybe this shirt just needed to get its legs under it…let’s see what it does against Oklahoma. Then Von Miller and the A&M defense had three goal line stands in a massive A&M victory over OU. After beating Baylor that was followed up with one of the few games I’ve seen where A&M goes in ranked with expectations and came away with a victory, a 9-6 win over Nebraska. A&M finished the season with a win at Texas and ultimately lost the Cotton Bowl to LSU but for the first time since I followed A&M, the program was on the up. Naturally, me being a superstitious fool, I attributed this success to the shirt. Perhaps my faith and monetary support was being rewarded with tangible results? Maybe A&M wasn’t destined to live its life in 7-8 win mediocrity ad eternum!

Then we took a step back in 2011 with more heart breaking second half collapses than I care to speak about. But ultimately 2011 led to the firing of Sherman, the hiring of Sumlin, and the start of the Johnny Football era. If 2011 was what had to be suffered through in order to obtain the sheer awesomeness that was 2012 then it was worth the trade. I also had begun to notice a trend now that I had some sample size to work with…since I bought that shirt A&M had had frustrating losses and amazing wins but they were more or less trending upward. Even with the 2013 no defense year and the 2014 Kenny Trill implosion the program still had the “feel” of one that was on the up, just a few pieces or coaching changes away from being a power player. Heck, even for the first half of this year the team had that feeling. The Chavis hire had the defense firing on all cylinders and while the offense clearly had its issues, this was still a Kevin Sumlin team, the offense should be fine.

Then Kyle Allen threw three pick-sixes that locked the loss to Alabama and looked like a bad middle school team against Ole Miss. This despite all-world performances from the defense and special teams. With a mediocre offense A&M would be sitting with one loss or perhaps even undefeated today and could be a top five team. Instead here we are again looking at another implosion.

This brings me back to that shirt. In all of five years I have been wearing it I’ve taken it off before the end of a game twice. The first was 0-59 against Alabama in 2014 and last night was the second. Unlike Alabama 2014 this loss brought me to a realization, this shirt isn’t anything special. There is no superstitious magic attached to a random shirt made in Vietnam. Buying a shirt didn’t trigger some long-term upward rise in the A&M program, that was the product of an NFL coach who was phenomenal at player development despite his struggles at the X’s and O’s. That was the product of one of the greatest college football players of all time. That was the product of a coach who excels at recruiting and amassing elite SEC caliber talent on both sides of the ball.

Regardless of superstition or happenstance, I’m not sure this program is on an upward trend anymore.  2014 revealed some deep seeded internal issues but it was easy to pass those onto a young quarterback with rumored substance abuse problems. After all that 2014 team rallied around Allen and finished the season strong. Defensive issues were cleaned up in the off-season with the hiring of Chavis from LSU coupled with several great defensive recruiting hauls. Suddenly though, the 2014 implosion doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident. The offense has been trending downward since offensive coordinator Jake Spavital took the reigns. Wide receiver and offensive linemen development has been minimal, despite the sheer raw talent. Suddenly we have four quarterbacks in the Sumlin era with major issues: Manziel and Hill with substance problems, Allen with increasingly shot confidence, and Murray cussing out Spavital during the Alabama game (I don’t blame him but there is still a player-coach hierarchy). Let’s not forget that Manziel played hurt at the end of 2013 and the rumors abound that Allen played hurt against Ole Miss. Rumors are also abounding the team is split between those that support Allen and those that support Murray, with several players contemplating transferring. Myles Garrett’s expression at the end of Ole Miss said everything, despite the talent, despite one side of the ball being elite, A&M can’t get out of its own way. Same song, different verse dating back to WWII.

Looking deeper this isn’t shocking. The 2012 staff was loaded with coaching talent. Kliff Kingsbury, Brian Polian, and David Beaty all played major roles in development and recruiting…they are all head coaches today; with Kingsbury and Polian leaving A&M immediately after 2012. Given the development of Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, and his own impressive pedigree, it’s not a leap to think that the instrumental player in developing Case Keenum at Houston and Manziel at A&M was Kingsbury. The turnover in coaching staff from 2012 to 2013 had to throw Sumlin for a loop but the presence of Manziel and the obviousness of the defensive struggles had to mask any offensive struggles that might have begun to develop. In 2014 it was easy to pass the blame onto Hill and his visible on the field and off the field struggles.

2015 is a different story now. Two weeks ago this team was looking at a minimum of a 9-3 season (with losses to Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU), now I’m not so sure how this team will fare against South Carolina, Auburn, and even Vanderbilt without a functioning offense. Who knows what happens if the defense has decided to check out after that performance. With the talent and the favorable scheduling this had major potential to be a special season for A&M, yet here the Aggies find themselves again…not just disappointing with some close losses and having to settle on a pretty good season…but a complete existential crisis and internal implosion potentially with the revelation that coaching and player egos are, best case scenario, rotting the team from the inside out and, worst case scenario, actively endangering players in pursuit of wins.

Sumlin proved one thing in the off-season when he hired Chavis, he recognizes team flaws and isn’t afraid to fix them. A man as smart as Sumlin has to know Spavital has to go at this point and some of the offensive unit coaches probably need the ax as well (the squandering of the wide receiving corps ought to make every five-star recruit think twice about a commitment to A&M). He also knows that he has to impose discipline. He is between a rock and a hard place with his quarterbacks. Allen might be hurt and his confidence is definitely destroyed but I don’t think you can justify rewarding Kyler Murray for cussing out a coach, even if the coach probably deserved it. Perhaps the best option is for Sumlin to take over the play calling and hope a combination of better play calling and weaker opponents can work to get Allen firing again. After all, Allen simply has to be mediocre combined with the A&M defense to at least be competitive the next four games. Sumlin could bench Allen, reward Murray, fire Spavital and perhaps gain an immediate huge spark but it would guarantee the end of Allen’s career at A&M, make potential coordinators think twice about an A&M job, and show the highly recruited diva players that they run the ship.

Two things are for sure, for Sumlin, the benefit of the doubt Aggie fans have loved to give him is gone. For years he has been untouchable and he has done some great things, but the bad things are outstandingly bad. There is a diva mentality that has infected the locker room, players are playing injured and some develop major substance problems, and this says nothing of the wins regression that has occurred year after year since he came on. Secondly, Spavital has to go, preferably in the middle of this season, but certainly at the end of the season. As of right now, the offense is the liability on this team and it must be treated the same way the defense has been treated the past few years. That goes back onto the head coach and the coordinator. Sumlin needs to ax Spavital and try to make a splash offensive coordinator hire on par with Chavis on the defensive side of things. This probably has to work in conjunction with changes among the position coaches. Sumlin earned benefit of the doubt with Keenum and Manziel but Hill and Allen have been big failures, and Murray is on the road already. The offensive line is a mess, there is no depth at running back, and the wideouts are working on raw talent alone. This requires a wholesale restructuring to fix years of rot. It’s not impossible, Sumlin believes himself to be a CEO type coach and the program has jumped leaps and bounds with him running the show, even making the hire that has fixed defensive woes dating back to the early 2000’s. It’s not insurmountable for him to fix the problem and fix it quickly given the sheer talent level on that side of the ball; unlike the defense which lacked talent and coaching for several years.

Sumlin is a bit of a question mark as a coach. He wins the games he should and he has an impressive resume of wins over ranked opponents but most have come with Manziel under center or against ranked teams that collapse as the season progresses. For all of the close games, even against tough opponents, Sumlin has some glaring losses on his resume that championship coaches just don’t endure and now two examples of major internal problems with his program. He has proven to be able to make coaching adjustments to great affect but he stubbornly holds on to other coaches until his hand is almost forced. He excels at recruiting, selling the program, and the perception of A&M has never been greater but there is a certain lack of consistent substance to the program. There is a definite feel that A&M is lots of sizzle and some steak. The question for Sumlin is can he endure, make the necessary adjustments on and off the field, right the ship once again, and take A&M to greater heights?

I used to say yes but then again I used to think a shirt brought the program luck. Who knows what will actually happen.

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