The point of being a Half Brain, a critical fan, a defender of the program is not to be the first to proclaim doom, to be a pessimist, to ignore the bright spots. We are assembled here today because we believe in realism, in the truth, in calling a spade a spade. Silver linings are not the whole story and neither are a few imperfections. We look at the big picture, make informed decisions with sufficient information, and don’t jump to conclusions whether good or bad. When the goings are good we celebrate, when things are bad we remonstrate, and when it’s too early to tell we debate.
It seems to me that some people have prematurely concluded that Petersen is the wrong coach at Washington and that we are doomed. That may be true but it is really too early to tell. Petersen’s fit at Washington will be determined by how many wins he can achieve here and until we have a sufficient record to judge him on his wins we can only prognosticate based on other observables, the trend we see things heading, and of course his in-progress win-loss record.
But what observables matter? For weeks now I have personally wondered what the key indicators that will signal whether or not Petersen is shaping up to be our long-term solution are. I haven’t come up with a very long (presumably this means it is not comprehensive) list.
My list so far starts with repeatedly calling dumb plays. I am not talking about a few questionable calls, the kind that makes you look like a genius if it works or an idiot if it fails but the “best play caller in the country” type of play calling.
Second on the list is the players revolting. Maybe the coach could get great results if the players would buy in, but if you can’t get the players on board you are the wrong coach.
Finally, the real conclusive indicator that the coach is wrong is that he isn’t winning after three years.
Talk about an inadequate list.
So I looked at the Arizona game since that struck me as a game we played better than our opponent but still found a way to lose. There has been debate over the Petersen play calling and clock management and while I think most people have come to agree that Cooper running the ball was the right call, that in the end the clock management was botched. Maybe that is true. Petersen acknowledges he didn't consider saving time at the end since he figured the kicker would miss (which he did if you ignore Petersen’s “ice”). Lots of coaches, even in the NFL, make clock mistakes from time to time. At the college level national champion coach Les Miles is infamous for his clock management. I am not convinced that this bit at the end of the game is really a huge piece of evidence against Petersen. There were a lot of things that went wrong. We had an obscene number of turnovers, bad snaps, and penalties. The turnovers and bad snaps are maybe things that will be handled in time with experience and maturity. The penalties however seem like a discipline issue and that is allegedly one of Petersen’s hallmarks.
In Petersen’s defense the penalty flags did strike me as biased against Washington. I didn't attempt to count the number of fair and unfair penalties but here is just one example.
Still, there were a lot of penalties and I don’t think it is right to try to explain them all away. Instead I looked at Boise State’s penalty history and unexpected results:
Boise State Penalties Per Game Rank by Year
2003 – 76; 2004 – 56; 2005 – 74
2006 – 70 (Fiesta Bowl); 2007 – 92; 2008 – 105; 2009 – 58 (Fiesta Bowl);
2010 – 52; 2011 – 41; 2012 – 16; 2013 – 20
At Boise State it took Petersen several years to greatly reduce penalties and his best years weren't particularly low penalty years.
Just for those who wonder I looked at the last few years of penalties at Washington (last two Sarkisian years and season to date):
Washington Penalties Per Game Rank by Year
2012 – 121; 2013 – 115; 2014 – 91
So there has been a marginal improvement in our penalty standing but it is still pretty bad.
But the Fiesta Bowl victory years at Boise State made me wonder if penalties really matter. Everyone hates giving things away for free in the form of stupid penalties and when a penalty kills a drive it sure feels like that could be the difference in a game. The statistics show otherwise though.
That chart (from teamrankings.com) shows exactly what it looks like – there is really no correlation between penalties per game and winning percentage. I calculated some trend lines to see if I could figure out how many games per year penalties actually cost (since even a very slight correlation could maybe manifest itself in a game or two per year decided by penalties) however when I saw that 2013 actually showed a negative correlation – more penalties result in more wins – I gave up on that. Mind you the highest r squared value for all of these linear regressions is 0.0041 indicating that there really is no correlation. Maybe teams that are more penalized get away with more penalized? Maybe they play more freely and just make plays? These data don’t address the root cause but I suppose on a population level that refs aren't deciding games with flags (or maybe every time they cost a team a game with a bad flag they cost another team a game with a missed flag).
Back to Washington though. Are penalties a red herring? Does discipline matter? If execution on the field is related to discipline and execution on the field is related to results then penalties are not related to discipline, or they are a different form of discipline. Sort of a strange result but clearly penalties per game don’t actually seem to matter and won’t likely be an indicator of future success or failure.
So what does matter? I still don’t really know. Is it not getting regularly blown out? I feel like I criticized Sark for that. At this point I expect I’ll know what bad behaviors look like if I see them but in the meantime I don’t think I have identified any major issues and still give him the benefit of the doubt but that is just my opinion. There is still insufficient information to know whether or not Petersen will return us to glory.