I don’t want to rock the boat or be too controversial, but I think that Northwestern Football is worse, perhaps significantly worse, than they were last year.
2020 marked the apotheosis of Northwestern’s Sicko Brand of football. An offense that was still mostly bad clicked just often enough to be dangerous. They were led by Peyton Ramsey, a perfectly serviceable quarterback. Northwestern surrounded him with perfectly serviceable skill position talent like Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Isaiah Bowser, and, at the very end of the year, Cam Porter.
The defense played an entire season worth of bend-don’t-break mastery, punctuated by a sociopathic devotion to Gap Control and a sprinkling of sauce in the secondary with shutdown corner Greg Newsome II and centerfielder extraordinaire Brandon Joseph backing up a crew of 38-year-old linebackers who’ve seen everything twice.
The anchor of that defense, coordinator Mike Hankwitz, is gone now, likely enjoying a tasteful early evening sip of brandy after a long day of Being Retired. In his stead is Jim O’Neil. Jim O’Neil to this point in his career has been bad at the profession of coaching football, an unfortunate set of circumstances for a man whose current job is coaching football.
Mr. O’Neil’s defense is certainly bad right now.
Even before the calamitous and insulting-to-the-soul performance his unit put forward in Lincoln, Northwestern has been deep In The Process quite literally from the first snap of the season. Perhaps we should have known what was coming when Michigan State galloped 75 yards to the crib on a simple stretch play. Duke, likewise, produced a 50-yard chunk play on its first play. Two weeks later, Nebraska went for 70 yards on a deep ball that seemed all too easy. Against real football teams, Northwestern’s defense is Giving Up Average Of Two-Thirds Of A Football Field Level Bad on the first play of the game.
I do not think that is good.
I have tried very hard to understand the explanation for hiring Jim O’Neil who, again, has been bad at coaching football for about as long as he has been coaching football. I am not a Football Knower but what kernels of truth I can find about what Jim O’Neil is trying to do on defense involves words like “multiple” and “aggressive” and “2-gap,” which to the best of my knowledge means the front seven have a lot of reading and reacting to do. When it works, I guess you can bust up what the offense does, which sounds cooler than just doing a 1-gap system where you do the same thing every time and dare the offense to out-scheme you.
I don’t know any more specifics than that so please do not correct me. Here’s an article that does explain it; I’m too busy to read it in its entirety.
There are two very disparate reads on what the Jim O’Neil hire means, one very kind, one exceptionally dour, and the read you choose to posit says as much about yourself as it does about your opinion on Pat Fitzgerald.
I recently hit my one-year anniversary at my job, a position I am phenomenally fortunate to have found after six months of Covid induced under-employment. Alongside the congratulations email was an end-of-year review. What negative feedback there was centered around one theme: Ben needs to chill the fuck out. Ben makes mountains out of molehills, Ben needs to think more big picture, Ben could stand to be more even-keeled while managing other teammates.
These are all true. I am wired with a resting heart rate of 195 and a brain designed to imagine the worst-case scenario before considering what could happen if everything goes fine.
This, unsurprisingly, is not just limited to the way I live my life from 9-to-5 five days a week, and the solution is a little more than a set of S.M.A.R.T. goals and check-ins with a manager. It would require real work.
I’ve gone to therapy for one period in my life when I was 13. I now know my reaction to stress is to get nauseous but in 7th grade I Extremely Did Not Know That. 7th grade meant switching schools, which meant nerves, which meant puking every morning. Then I started getting nervous about the puking so I puked some more. It all led to a very bizarre two months where I’d yak in the school hallway or during first period science class. Eventually, I’d go home and spend a lot of time evaluating the pros and cons of waking up if it just meant I was going to spend at least some portion of every day of my life dry heaving.
I started talking to someone, got on some meds (for my stomach not my head), and eventually figured out what was going on. I still find myself upchucking during especially nerve wracking mornings (including before every golf tournament I ever played), but it is essentially fixed at this point.
The more general anxiety that leaks through to my professional life remains unaddressed for a simple reason: I’m pretty sure I don’t actually want to get better.
All the positive things within that review (Ben’s a good project manager, Ben stays organized, Ben can be trusted to deliver tasks on time) are only true because of my neuroses. My coping mechanism for being disorganized and unbothered by missing small tasks in school became to treat every small incident as though the sky was falling. You don’t forget to send an email if you can convince yourself that not sending it could cost you your employment.
And I really like being really good at what I do, even if it does make me insane.
There are other parts of myself where the things I like are tied to the things that are tied to the things I don’t like. I don’t love my cynicism, but I love the sense of humor it fuels. I don’t love how slow I am to share literally anything about what I’m thinking to literally anyone, but I like the way it makes the relationships I have with people I do feel comfortable talking to feel really special. I don’t like my all-encompassing fear of failure that motivates everything I do, but I do like how it makes me good at things.
When the good comes not only with the bad but from it, it makes culling the bad an extremely difficult proposition.
That personal essay serves to illustrate a point: Pat Fitzgerald hired Jim O’Neil because he wants to get better or because he doesn’t want to get better. The next 16 months or so are going to show which one it actually is.
The charitable reading of the Jim O’Neil hiring is that Pat Fitzgerald decided that bending and not breaking in a vanilla, extremely standard college football defense was eventually going to stop working. For Northwestern to break through, it needed to get faster/more aggressive/more disruptive on defense, and Jim O’Neil knows how to do that. After all, he was an NFL coach, and being bad in the NFL doesn’t mean you’re going to be bad in college.
If Fitzgerald wanted to make a nepotism hire, surely he would have just promoted someone from within. There have to be at least a few current assistants who would be worth a serious look for a coordinator job.
If this is the reason why Fitzgerald went to O’Neil, you’d expect the leash to be short. Not one year short, but short. I imagine installing a new defense when the entire roster and the entire coaching staff has been brought up on one very different style of defense takes a lot of time. Regardless of how horrific the rest of this season ends up being, cutting bait after a year seems imprudent.
The less charitable reading is that Pat Fitzgerald does not want to address his top weaknesses as a coach: his desire for familiarity.
Fitzgerald, despite being one of the few college coaches who knows fourth down math, feels stuck in his ways. He doesn’t seem to be interested in being inventive, he just wants to be exceptional at what he does.
He wants to be comfortable.
That comfort is where the unmitigated, unbelievable, runaway success his tenure has come from (I cannot overstate this: Pat Fitzgerald is an amazing coach I hope he stays here for darn near ever). You can’t out-execute people as consistently as Northwestern has without your coaching staff sharing the same brain. Keeping the same bodies in the room had to have been a part of Mike Hankwitz’s success. Teams roll over every four years in college football. A consistent college football staff feels like a huge asset.
Through that lens, Jim O’Neil is in fact the opposite of disruptive. Jim O’Neil has ties to the university and to Fitzgerald. He is young and certainly not a threat to bolt for a head coaching job unless he goes gangbusters. He is someone who can fill a chair for years upon years without rocking the boat Fitzgerald is steering.
If this is the case, the leash for O’Neil is long. It took 10 years too long to cut Mick McCall loose. Results may be sloughed off as the results of improper execution of sound gameplans, or sloppy fundamentals, or the effects of extended exposure to the technological menace of Cellular Phones that Pat Fitzgerald would like to fight in the octagon.
And should the lean times continue, it would be clear that the desire for comfort has brought about a negative result rather than the positive results we and Fitzgerald have grown accustomed to.
I, for one, think the O’Neil hire was born from good intentions. Fitzgerald was looking to do something different. I also think Jim O’Neil was a bad hire and I do not think DC is the position to take a big swing on (please, for the love of all that is holy, hire an offensive coordinator who likes to score points rather than one who just likes to run plays, PLEASE).
But squint a little and you can understand the decision. Squint a little harder and you can see why the abject failure this defense has become is probably not Jim O’Neil’s fault. You, the person reading this, are a better college linebacker than whoever is playing for Northwestern right now. While it’s mildly concerning Fitz has not rhetorically broken any 19th-century textile machinery, perhaps he’s avoiding the limelight until that $480 million check from Pat Ryan hits the university bank account.
Where that leaves us is waiting for 2022 on October 5th, waiting for the excuses to run out of juice, and waiting for something, anything, to go remotely right. Until it does, the fears of The Second Coming Of Mick McCall, This Time It’s Defense will, however rightly or wrongly founded, linger over Evanston.