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Postmortem: The Worst, One Way or Another

This is not merely bad. This is ineptitude on a staggering, world-historical scale. Such a performance would be prima facie evidence for firing the coach even at a doormat program like Indiana. At a school like Notre Dame, well ... it's simply impossible to describe how awful this performance is.

 - Jonathan Chait, The Worst Football Coach In the Universe, Oct. 25
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The ghastly numbers that preceded Chait's broadside against Charlie Weis then only marginally improved over the Irish's last four games, two of them losses to service academies: ND was not the least productive offense of the decade, after all, but it was the least productive in the nation this season, and allowed the most sacks while averaging national-lows in yards pass attempt and yards per completion; ND's offense was the only unit in the nation to average less than four yards per snap, and that only after improving dramatically against weaker competition in the last month. These are only the areas in which the Irish were the absolute worst in the country - they were also 110th or worse (in the bottom ten) in rushing offense, passing offense,  pass efficiency offense, scoring offense, yards per carry and, on defense, tackles for loss. The nine losses plunged below the briny depths of the virtually all-white, 2-8 squads in 1956 and 1960 for most defeats in school history.

Still, the universe is quite a large place for adjectives like "worst." My instinct is to be somewhat forgiving, partially because - anti-ND,  anti-Weis schadenfreude being what it is - that's a somewhat contrarian stance, partly because the numbers have from the beginning of the disaster told as dismal a story of competitive suffering as can be told, nullifying the usual hyperbole, and partly because some of us kind of saw this coming before Jimmy Clausen took his first awkward snap:

Notre Dame will endure two full months of pain. It will be better by November, when the many youngsters have developed some chops and the schedule reads Navy-Air Force-Duke-Stanford. The first two months, though, are destined to be a painful, angst-ridden coming of age. It's not only the new quarterback, which is a common enough affliction, but the most experienced positions on the team are linebacker and defensive back, the same collection of guys who have been flatly terrible against decent competition the last two years. Nowhere is any element that looks remotely like a strength. There are no guaranteed wins in the first eight, maybe only two (Michigan State and Purdue) that seem "probable," and as much faith as the partisans are willing to grant Herr Weis, his performance this fall might be his best yet if the Irish are still looking at a bowl game by that closing stretch.
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Wait, wait. Do-over, please. I'd like a do-over.
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Right-o. In August, with an historically young, inexperienced squad staring down the schedule it was set to face - Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC, all currently preparing for bowl games, half of them topping eight wins - a 1-7 start was not only not inconceivable, but perhaps, if you could be honest about the odds in any given game, it was even likely. As it happens, Navy and Air Force their own selves won eight and nine games, too, though the taint of "service academy" hardly allows such considerations to serve as balm at "a school like Notre Dame," which through thick and thin and everything in between could at least count on surviving the annual clash of minimalist nostalgia with the Midshipmen. But based on winning percentage alone, the Irish's schedule ranked as the 22nd toughest in the country; minus the wretched salvation of 1-11 Duke and 4-8 Stanford at the tail end, those first ten games would represent easily - at .650, a good three percentage points ahead of the "tough schedule" champ, Oklahoma State, whose opposition was collectively .621 - the most daunting slate in the country. And, well, hell, at least the Irish beat the worst of them: 3-0 against teams at or below .500. If you were so inclined, that could easily be spun into a claim for mediocrity rather than outright ineptitude. After the relative recruiting disasters of the late Willingham Era, this was The Year We All Saw Coming Eventually, etc.

But we all know better. Overall, there is still top 20 talent. It was never just that Notre Dame was winless for so long, but, as Chait says, that it was so helplessly, hopelessly bad in its losses, and equally bad in its only pre-November win, against an anchor-less team down to a third-team walk-on at quarterback dedicated to reckless incompetence on a stunning level, even by Notre Dame standards. It was never just the record that made Weis the hot-seated, overpaid laughingstock he will be for at least the next nine months, but the apparent lack of preparation, lack of execution, indecision at quarterback, failure to adjust gameplans, regression from the few veterans, demoralization, and general noncompetitiveness - the marks of a coach that didn't realize the challenges of wholesale inexperience and a team that didn't know what it wanted to do offensively, much less how to execute it - that has Weis so quickly in "win-or-else" mode entering Year Four.

It was pretty clear by midseason that this year was really all about 2008 and 2009, anyway, and it is assured that the very glaring "growing pains" of Clausen, Armando Allen, late blooming back Robert Hughes and receiver Duval Kamera will be considered this offseason as a temporary cost to much greater benefit in short order. The schedule got easier, yes, but the team did get better over the last month and a half, and my guess is that's what you can expect from assessments of Notre Dame going forward, the ongoing line problems, complete lack of a downfield threat and hemhorraging of the entire not-terrible half of the defense be damned. The team probably has to win seven games just to keep Weis afloat next year, and there's a good chance these now-battle scarred rooks will be expected to do so.

The clear-headed will see the overwhelming truth, though, and won't let overtures to optimism obscure the obvious: 2007 was the worst team in Notre Dame history, if not the universe, and such fates are never inevitable.