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A Fair and Unfair Look at Stanford

In fairness to Stanford, most fans would've been happy with a 3-1 start. Then again, WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?

Otto Greule Jr - Getty Images

Darius Tahir (@dariustahir) explores two different takes on last night's loss and the season to date.

Dissecting a loss is a bitter kind of fun – no, what am I saying? Bitter. In the interest of preserving at least some sanity, let us start by being extra fair to David Shaw et. al. before getting to the highly unreasonable, vituperative stage, the premise of which is: either things change, or David Shaw is delusional.


Being fair to David Shaw and the rest of the staff depends, first of all, on results and what we thought before the season. Before the season, we all said that, yes, while we expected Stanford to be reasonably good – say, 8 or 9 wins – we also expected bumps in the road, growing pains, hiccups, whatever stale imagery you want to invoke. And, looking before the season began, I think we all identified the risk of going, say, 2-2 and felt that 3-1 would be a pretty good start to the season. Here we are, at 3-1. The team is probably modestly outperforming expectations in a wins and losses sense if you want to get probabilistic about it, and the expected pains on offense are there and painful.

We promised ourselves we wouldn’t blame quarterback X for not being Andrew Luck, and he is not, in fact, Andrew Luck.

Indeed, in not judging Josh Nunes overly harshly and being fair, it’s hard not to note that Ty Montgomery blew four deep opportunities, all of which were catchable. Nor was Ty Montgomery the only receiver wearing white to drop passes that were catchable. Nunes’ pedestrian stat line looks a lot better if someone could catch the freaking ball. (And, of course, Stanford wins the game. Do not forget that aspect.)

And, to be extra fair – to bend over backwards in the direction of fair, to be so solicitous of being fair that you could accuse me of sucking up to fairness – it’s clear Harbaugh made some odd mistakes in 2009 that hampered the team today. Getting Griff Whalen snaps in a 58-0 blowout of Washington State was not terribly important; having a receiver who could, you know, catch may have been important. And the senior leadership of Delano Howell might have been worthwhile to have around, had Harbaugh not decided it was a cool idea to try out a new position called "blocking wide receiver." Indeed, it might have been useful had the Harbaugh regime recruited a competent wide receiver in 2009 or 2010.

So there. Fair? Fair. The team was probably victim to some stuff that shouldn’t be repeated. Nevertheless, the team was also victim to some things that were entirely self-inflicted and weird.


Keep in mind that I am writing this without seeing postgame remarks. I know what they will include. They will include the phrase execution; Shaw will blame the offense for not executing. I know this because: a) it is not entirely wrong but b) because Shaw always talks about execution. Execution, however, presumes that you have the ability to execute whatever genius plan you’ve cooked up. [Editor's Note: Against all odds, Shaw did not utter the e-word during his postgame press conference, at least according to the transcript on] So: Shaw may be right, and this team may have the ability which will be coaxed out of them over a long season of improvement and what-have-you. Or he is delusional. Do not rule out the latter: the cult of execution tried, in the Midwest, to turn Denard Robinson into a West Coast passer. This is not quite that horrendous, but it was quite bad. To wit:

Gameplan: Generally, whatever I have felt about Shaw’s in-game decision making, his offensive gameplans have been sound. This was not so today! His gameplan was fine in that it got open receivers and would’ve been successful with, say, Nick Foles or someone reasonably good. Josh Nunes is not Nick Foles; Josh Nunes has several good qualities, but one of these does not appear to be tremendous accuracy. In fact, Nunes’ accuracy is frequently horrendously, eye-gougingly bad.

Shaw has frequently proclaimed that there is no way he will be talked out of the run. This is the mission statement of the offense, and it’s a fine, aggressive philosophy. Nevertheless he was talked out of the run today. In several occasions in favorable down and distance, he decided to see if this time was the time: a) Nunes would be accurate and b) the intended receiver would actually catch. It’s clear there are some problems in translation.

Things that don’t work: Stepfan Taylor screens? Working through the first three games; caught by a disciplined, well-coached defense the fourth. This is fine. What wasn’t fine was trying them several times after it became clear that the disciplined, well-coached defense was not falling for your screens.

For that matter: Levine Toilolo fades. These have not worked all season. They haven’t worked last season. The evidence is that they do not work. Either David Shaw is right, and a magical change in execution is upon us, or he is delusional.

Also: two of Shaw’s three losses, the most heartbreaking ones, have involved some player having an epically bad day (Jordan Williamson, Ty Montgomery), and Shaw attempting again and again to see if this time was the time it would all work out. Didn’t work.

Personnel mysteries: David Shaw said over the bye week that he wanted to get his wide receivers the ball as he felt they were deep there. Surprise! Either David Shaw is right, and some magical growth and change is upon us, or he is delusional.

Offensive coaches have spent the offseason insisting to us that Kelsey Young was a dynamic big-play artist, an explosion waiting to be directed. We were told Kelsey Young was a "get him the ball guy." They weren’t half-wrong: Young’s touches have been: 2 yards, offensive pass interference, 11 yards, 11 yards, 11 yards (called back for holding). While not exactly DeAnthony Thomas, this seems to be a positive influence on the offense. Exactly why Kelsey Young has gotten five plays calling his number. Either David Shaw was right over the offseason, and he’ll actually involve Young…or he’s delusional.

Organization: Why do delays of game and substitution problems haunt this offense? Is the playcalling system involved? Is Nunes being asked to do too much? No tagline, just figure that stuff out there.

Quarterback: Nunes seems like a fine gentleman. It’s a testament to the difficulty of the position that you can be either fine or good in most areas of being a quarterback… and if you’re missing that last crucial piece (in Nunes’ case, actually directing the ball towards an eligible receiver), you are awful. In many ways, it’s not hard to see why Shaw would be drawn to Nunes’ qualities. And yet, what we’ve seen in the first four games hasn’t been good enough. Shaw has said the team needs to be completing passes in the 60 percent range, and has never backed off Nunes as his guy. Nunes has shown no ability to actually do what Shaw thinks he needs to do. Either Shaw is right, or he is delusional.