After the Kentucky game, I wrote about how coaching is often about knowing when to make adjustments. Those adjustments could be within a game, a season, or over a couple of seasons. Sometimes making those adjustments requires a difficult decision. Saturday’s loss to a struggling Arkansas team has made it apparent that some difficult decisions need to be made relatively soon.
There’s been a lot of talk about Billy Napier, the offensive coordinator. Some are not fans of the scheme or the play-calling at times. However, the biggest issue is that it’s hard to serve two masters. It is very difficult to be both the head coach and the offensive play-caller. We saw that magnified at the end of regulation on Saturday. Billy Napier, the offensive coordinator, was putting the finishing touches on a masterful drive to get in field-goal range. Unfortunately, Billy Napier, the head coach, was not the one in charge of sending the field goal unit onto the field. The ensuing mad dash resulted in a 5-yard penalty and provided ammunition for the Billy Napier detractors. The game-winning field goal missed, and it certainly looked like it might have been good from a few yards closer. Florida went on to lose in overtime.
There were some great designs and wrinkles on offense against Arkansas. Billy Napier’s offensive scheme is not a problem. Billy Napier’s play-calling, though sometimes situationally predictable, is not a problem. The real issue is that Billy Napier’s time is being fractured by all the responsibilities with the offense. The offensive performance relative to personnel has been good for Billy Napier’s two years in Florida. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the team, special teams, and defense, have been very poor during his tenure. This disconnect would suggest that maybe Florida would be better served by Napier’s focus being on more parts of the program than mainly the offense. There’s a time for delegation, but that does not seem to be working.
Napier has always called plays as a head coach. It is one of the things that made him successful and got him the job at Florida. And it can be a difficult thing to give up. I once knew a coach who needed to hire somebody on his staff to help retain players and recruit in the local area. He found somebody that fit the bill of what he needed, but that coach also wanted play-calling duties. This head coach called plays his entire career, but he decided to give that up to try to improve his staff. He ended up resigning after that year. He said that a lot of his love of the game came through being involved on that side of the ball, and that losing that made it a lot less fun to coach. I can empathize. Calling plays and scheming up a game plan are some of the things I miss most about coaching. I totally get it, but I gave it up for a lot less than $7 million a year.
I totally understand Billy Napier’s desire to continue calling plays. His first football mentor, and probably the most important one, was his father. His dad was a high school coach. Billy played for him and watched him coach for most of his life. Hearing Napier talk multiple times in clinics, it’s obvious how much love he had for his father, and he stated multiple times that that’s what he wanted to be. His initial ambition was to be a high school coach and have his own team like his dad. His talent and skill have led him to a higher level of football, but the desire remains the same.
I think Napier’s fear is losing his involvement on the side of the ball he’s always coached. When asked about it earlier this year, Napier had this to say:
“I like having my hand on the scripts, the installation, that process. I think I can help establish our identity and personality as a team through that process. I think if you get too far away from that, I think there could be some things from a sustainable, repeatable part.”
I think there is some truth to that, but you don’t have to call plays to be involved. Napier needs to look no further than his former boss, Nick Saban. Saban is one of the greatest defensive minds of all time, and while I’m sure he’s still quite involved, he is not the defensive coordinator.
Last week, I said that I thought this game against Arkansas was the most important game of the year for Florida. It could turn out to be one of the most important games of the Billy Napier era if the Gators aren’t able to pull an upset in their final three games. Bowl practices are important for young players. They can give you a kickstart into a pivotal year 3. But beyond clinching the bowl game, losing to that Arkansas team sets up a very real possibility of losing five games in a row to end the season. And while the field goal attempt to end regulation wasn’t the reason Florida lost, it could have been the reason they won. The five-yard penalty was an unnecessary added difficulty that could have been avoided.
If the Billy Napier era ends poorly, this loss to a 2-6 Arkansas team is one that will get brought up often. This loss doesn’t mean that the era will end poorly, however. Billy Napier, the head coach, and Billy Napier, the offensive coordinator, both need help from Billy Napier, the recruiter. If that guy can finish the season strong, then you still have a chance at turning this thing around. But that may involve a difficult decision by Billy Napier, the head coach, to move on from Billy Napier, the play-caller.