The fall had to come at some point. It came in clear, definitive fashion.
Stanford's rancid 26-10 loss against Arizona State on Saturday dropped the Cardinal to 4-3, and out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in 72 weeks. For the first time in years, Stanford football carries no weight on the national scale.
It was an exhausting thing to watch. By the fourth quarter, I just wanted it to end. I didn't want to watch the corpse-like Cardinal anymore.
There's no real need to go over all the offensive futility once again. It's been written about in this space and others for months. A total lack of imagination coupled with profound failures in execution is hard to overcome on a weekly basis. Once again, there was no creativity in the passing game, no consistency in the run game and a weak performance by the offensive line. It all made any chance of success a long shot.
On top of that, the failures of the scheme were extreme. 40 minutes into the game, wunderkid Christian McCaffrey touched the ball for the first time. 48 minutes into the game, Kevin Hogan ran his first designed QB run. It was enough to make me wonder if this offensive coaching staff is galactically stupid. It was enough to make me wonder what the hell this team practices during the week. Are they watching a different game tape than everyone else?
The more immediate consequence of this loss, though, is on a grander level: whatever was Stanford football is now over. The old paradigm is gone, even if the faces and names are the same.
Can you imagine any team from 2009-13 losing a game in a fashion like this? Yes, the Cardinal were blown out by Chip Kelly's Oregon teams in 2010 and 2011, but those teams were echelons above Todd Graham and a backup QB.
The line can be drawn from Jim Harbaugh - who was clearly building something en route to his Orange Bowl winning season - through the beginning of the David Shaw era, where the Cardinal formed an elite defense in order to compete on the national level. Now this team can't play offense well enough to save a good defense. They're on pace to lose 5 or more regular season games.
Look at the schedule: Oregon State, at Oregon, Utah, at Cal, at UCLA. The Cardinal, at its current rate, could easily lose all of those games. When's the last time you looked at a schedule and felt like that about this program? 2008?
Whatever was Stanford football is now gone.
That doesn't mean Cardinal football can't and won't be successful again in the future. This year was going to be a transition year - Stanford had to replace some of the program's best players, their QB coach/recruiting coordinator and their defensive coordinator. A couple good breaks and this team might have only one loss instead of three. It's worth mentioning that there are still a lot of new faces on this team, and there are more to come. David Shaw has clearly recruited some excellent players, and more appear to be on the way. Redshirt freshman Keller Chryst, a quarterback we might not see for another year, could be a top-tier talent by the time he takes the starting role. The sky is not falling.
But that also doesn't mean that what we've seen from Stanford in the past is no longer what we're seeing here in 2014. The line has been drawn. Don't you watch them play and think: this Stanford team just isn't quite what I'm used to.
Perhaps the hard questions won't be asked until the end of the year - maybe after a berth in some low-level bowl game - but it's worth inspecting what has gone wrong here at many levels. Have the coaches just mismanaged their talent on the field this season? Did the recruits not pan out? Did they not recruit the right players? Did the coaching staff fail to predict what they would need to be successful on all levels of the program? Has success bred entitlement and excuses instead of hunger and drive among the players and coaches? Or did three straight seasons of transition just catch up to the Cardinal all at once? Small changes can occasionally lead to big problems. Small leaks create floods from time to time. It's not unreasonable to conclude that the failures of this season can be explained in rational terms.
One bad performance or one bad season won't define this program - and it's still not too late to salvage something from this season (although that seems unlikely given the offensive production we've seen to this point).
But we've now left one era of Stanford football behind. For at least the last 72 weeks, the entire country couldn't ignore the Cardinal. Maybe the Cardinal will start a new streak in two weeks - but the line has been drawn. There was Stanford football, and there will be Stanford football.
What will this era - David Shaw's second chapter - be like?