No offense, Washington, but that was absolutely awful

After 25 years being paid to cover Seattle sports, it was good to know I still feel something for my favorite team even if what I felt on Saturday was teeth-gnashing, garment-rending pain.

I was standing on the subway platform in Flushing, N.Y., waiting on the 7 train when I found out that Washington lost to Montana on Saturday.

I was immediately grateful that I had decided to attend the evening session at the U.S. Open instead of staying home to watch the Huskies. I skipped through the various stages of sports grief I would have felt watching it at home. I didn’t go through the denial, the rationalizing, the bargaining. I got straight to the good stuff. The paint-peeling anger, which in this case is trained squarely at the Huskies offensive coordinator, John Donovan.

I don’t think the Huskies should take him to Ann Arbor for this week’s game at Michigan, and if Washington does bring him, it is my profound desire they leave Donovan there. His five games in charge of this offense have shown me more enough of Donovan’s offense, which is to say that there hasn’t been nearly enough of that offense, but before we proceed with a proper autopsy of Saturday’s cadaverous offensive performance, let’s zoom out for a second so I can explain a few things about myself and this newsletter.

My name is Danny O’Neil, and up until September began I was a radio host at 710 ESPN Seattle. Before that I was a newspaper reporter in town for 14 years. I am old enough to have covered a team that no longer exists (Seattle SuperSonics, RIP) for a newspaper that no longer publishes (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). At the age of 46, I’m going to take some time as I figure out exactly what I want to do next. I’m starting this newsletter to do two things:

  1. Stay in touch with those people who — for whatever reason — have decided they’re interested in what I have to say. I’ll use this as a road map of sorts so you can follow along.

  2. To share what I am reading, thinking about or feeling.

That brings us back to the subway platform in Flushing on Saturday night as I was reading my Twitter feed, thinking about what this meant in the larger scheme of things for my school’s athletic department and feeling what can only be described as intense self-loathing. There’s a small part of me that is proud about that. After nearly 25 years of being paid to cover sports in some form or fashion, I’ve still got that old amateur enthusiasm for my school. I feel good about that even when it hurts. And Saturday hurt. A lot. It hurt so much that I failed to recognize things that were happening around me. I mean this in a most literal sense. I failed to see a number of things that happened as we rode the 7 train for 20 stops to get back to Manhattan.

“Did you see the guy with the two bags of balloons?” my wife, Sharon asked as we walked from the subway stop to our apartment.

No, in fact I did not. I was informed that a gentleman boarded the train in Queens with two large black garbage bags, each of which contained 20 or so helium balloons.

“How about the woman with the beaded skirt and no underwear?” Sharon asked.

Nope. Didn’t see her, either. Apparently this lady was (reasonably) concerned about sitting on the subway seat given the lack of cloth covering on her behind. She placed a scarf on the seat.

“You were just over there on your phone,” Sharon concluded.

In my defense, the team I care most about had just lost to Montana for the first time in 100 years. Well, actually 101 years, but who’s counting. The Huskies had managed just one single, solitary touchdown against a Big Sky team it had bribed into taking the date. Seriously, Washington paid the Grizzlies $675,000 to show up.

Now, it’s not like Washington hasn’t had the pants scared off it in that building before. I remember in 1995 when the Huskies needed a goal-line stand to beat Army and wound up winning a share of the Pac-10 championship later that season. They’ve lost at home to Nevada-Reno, too, and in 2014, Washington needed a late interception to salt away a 59-52 victory over Eastern Washington, another Big Sky opponent.

This was different, though. This wasn’t about an opponent’s unique offense or the Huskies’ defensive difficulties. Montana didn’t convert a single third down until the fourth quarter. The reason Washington lost this game was that its offense was unforgivably abominable for the final three and a half quarters. The Huskies scored a touchdown on their opening drive, which lasted nine plays. Not only did they fail to score after that, they didn’t get within 25 yards of the end zone, which brings me back to the guy who’s trusted to oversee that side of the ball: Donovan.

He was an undwhelming hire to begin with, plucked off the Jacksonville Jaguars staff, which is technically an NFL job. But he was a position coach. His previous stint calling plays ended after two years at Penn State under James Franklin with whom Donovan coached first on Ralph Friedgen’s staff at Maryland and then in Vanderbilt when Franklin became head coach. If you know even a little about football coaches you know how loyal the head man is to his lieutenants. So you know that when a head coach like Franklin fires someone who has followed him to multiple stops as Donovan had, it means the head man has decided that dude is a liability.

The only explanation for Donovan’s hiring that contained any kernel of hope was that Washington coach Jimmy Lake wanted his team to use a pro-style, two-back offense that would stand in stark contrast to all these other teams who were getting faster, spreading the field wider. Lake wanted what Matt Rhule had at Temple and what he was building at Baylor before he was hired to run the Carolina Panthers.

It’s not bad to be different. In fact, it can be a real asset. It’s harder for opponents to prepare because the offense is an outlier. It’s not like you can tweak last week’s game plan. Doing things differently also provides an opportunity to tap into a different pool of talent. Instead of being one of 90 programs running a spread offense looking for the next Wes Welker, the Huskies would be featuring tight ends and tailbacks.

But if you’re going to play that throwback style, your team absolutely has to be tougher. It has to be stronger. The fact that Washington couldn’t outmuscle Stanford last year was a red flag. Academic reputation aside, the Cardinal play the type of offense that Lake wants on Montlake. Go look at the recent head-to-head results, and you’ll see the nerds usually do it better than the Huskies.

And if you want to have this tough, hard-nosed offense you absolutely can’t fail to push around a Big Sky opponent, and the Huskies couldn’t move much of anything on Saturday night. They couldn’t move the Montana defensive line. They couldn’t move the ball. They couldn’t do much of anything, lacking either the strength to overpower the Grizzlies or the ingenuity to work around them and that’s absolutely no way to run an offense.

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