Monday, September 08, 2008

Belated knee-jerk: Kodi Burns and the Trousers of Time

Happier times.

Caution: extreme geekery ahead.

As in: consider the sci-fi/fantasy staple where due to some kind of quantum philosophical hoo-doo, we discover that every time an event happens, the event actually happens in all kinds of different crazy ways in all kinds of different crazy alternate realities. Brit fantasy god Terry Pratchett* refers to this convention as the "Trousers of Time": something occurs, Character X slides down one trouser leg (for better, usually), and the audience understands that alternate Character X is sliding down the other (for worse, usually) with nothing but blind luck to separate the two of them.

Here is our something that occurs: Kodi Burns is on the run in the third quarter of Auburn's season opener against Louisiana-Monroe. He picks up the first down and heads towards the right sideline, where a Warhawk defender dives at his legs headfirst in an attempt to make the tackle. Burns leaps towards the sideline in an effort to dodge, and ...

... in the trouser leg we know, a screw in the helmet of the ULM defender opens up a severe laceration in Burns's leg. Burns immediately leaves the game and does not return. He is unable to practice on Monday and is limited on Tuesday. Tommy Tuberville, still reeling from his passing game's abysmal showing the Saturday before and anxious to give his offense a flag to rally around, names Chris Todd the starter for the Southern Miss game after Tuesday's practice; how can he announce Burns as the starter when he may not even play? (Though Tubby does call the move a predetermined plan; in the JCCW's mind, this is so that Burns is at least saved the indignity of being demoted due to injury.) Todd indeed gets the start and efficiently guides the Auburn offense into the Southern Miss red zone on four of their first five possessions, eventually leading the Tigers to an all-but-insurmountable 24-0 lead. Burns is given the first series of the second half; Auburn goes nowhere, and when he reenters the game two possessions later, his desperation to make an impression leads him to an off-balance and ill-advised interception. He finishes the day 0-3 with a pick and a rushing TD that eerily echoes his almost-insulting "running back lining up at QB"-style cameos under Al Borges. Todd is named the team's starting quarterback before the final whistle has even blown and Burns is left to keep his dignity and pride intact as best he can in the face of demotion and what is, without question, a crushingly unfair situation. (More on this in a sec.)

or ...

... in the other trouser leg, Burns's leg is positioned a half-inch to the right as the ULM defender collides with him. It stings, but Burns walks it off on his way back to the huddle and by the time he drops back three plays later and hits Rod Smith for a 12-yard touchdown, he's forgotten it completely.

Buoyed with confidence after his strong second-half showing, Burns shines in practice Monday and is named the Southern Miss starter Tuesday. He leads the freshly focused Auburn offense smartly down the field and caps the drive himself with a seven-yard scamper for six. He finishes the day 15-27 for 199 yards and a TD, along with 7 rushes for 66 yards and another score. Auburn wins 27-13 after Todd comes in and once again struggles in the relief role. Burns is named the starter before the final whistle blows. Charles Goldberg puts up a tape of Todd saying all the right things, though behind his eyes you can see he wonders: If just one thing had gone differently ...


There's no doubt any longer: this Auburn season is going to be defined by the quarterback position. It was always likely, of course, ever since spring camp broke without Burns cementing the job for himself. And though there are certainly exceptions--Florida's 2008, for instance will be defined by whether that bailing-wire D stands up to the SEC as well as it did to the 'Canes--you could probably make the same statement about most teams.

Nonetheless, after seeing what the rest of this team is capable of over the past two Saturdays, we're more-or-less just waiting to find out what happens at quarterback. We know the Auburn defense will sow chaos and reap jellylegged fear against every opponent they play; the Southern Miss offense was laden with more All-SEC-caliber talent than Miss. St., Vandy, and Kentucky combined and they went nowhere for a half. We know the Auburn offensive line is going to give the quarterback some semblance of time and the running backs some semblance of space in which to fumble operate; there's too much experience, talent, etc. for them not to. We don't know if they're going to hold on to the ball, but we do at least know the Auburn running backs are going to run hard and run fast whenever they do.

Now, we don't know if the receivers are going to ever become a strength and we don't know if the offensive coaching staff will be as innovative and as game-sharp as we'd like, but even if they're not, they can likely be overcome by the rest of Auburn's advantages--provided the Auburn quarterback doesn't work to actively undo them. The burden of difference between Auburn being a good team and Auburn being a great team lies squarely on the shoulders of the gentleman lining up under center.

And the identity of that gentleman may lie squarely in the pinpoint positioning of a random screw holding a random Warhawk helmet together that randomly met with Kodi Burns's shin. The kingdom was lost, the nursey rhyme goes, and all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Something very akin to a horseshoe nail has handed Chris Todd the keys to Auburn's kingdom. And while the early returns are encouraging, it remains to be seen if the season has indeed been won or lost.

Three Stars

Robert Dunn. Dyuuuh. I feel fairly certain that I've seen teams kick away from Auburn punt returners before--specifically Cadillac when he was fooling around back there--but certainly never with the 25-yards-a-pop cowardice USM put on display. If the Theory of Tristan Davis becomes finally realized and proven at kickoff returner--giving the Tigers Dunn at PR, Davis at KR, Saturn V Durst at punter and Byrum at PK--is there a team anywhere on Auburn's schedule that could match the Tigers on special teams? I'm going to go ahead and say "No," just for the hell of it.

Jerraud Powers. I wish the stat guys tracked "Yards-After-Catch for Receivers Covered by Secondary Member X," because I'm pretty sure Powers' total for the game would have been somewhere in the -6 to -17 range. Too bad: we'll just have to go with the stats we have, which show a team-leading eight tackles and the single tremendous interception.

Chris Todd. Did exactly what we he was called on to do. Could have taken a couple more shots downfield, I guess--Jay G. Tate thinks so, anyway--but things went as smoothly as they could in the first half and the second half of a game the Auburn defense is in complete control of probably isn't the time to start winging the ball over the place, either. As you could probably guess from the above, I have an intense amount of sympathy for Burns at the moment, but Todd laid claim to the job with every bit the conviction he was supposed to.

Three Opportunities for Improvement

Fumblin'. Honey, I don't wanna watch this movie, 'cause I've seen it before and I know how it ends. (Note also that it's not just the running backs: Todd's fumble occurred with him carrying the thing one-handed and so far away from his body the ball decided it wasn't really worth it to write home anymore. STOP THAT RIGHT NOW, please and thank you.)

Tray Blackmon. Come on, buddy. I know you can do better than that, I just know you can. ("That" = three tackles, an anonymous two-yard sack, and if not zero impact, like, .7 impact.)

Coverage o' the tight end. Shawn Nelson ended up being precisely the beastly beast we were warned about, but 12 catches for 112 yards and 2 TDs nonetheless means some sort of adjustment needed to be made, either by whoever was supposed to be covering Nelson or by the coaches who may have not have asked anyone to cover him in the first place (or so sez a befuddled Acid Reign).

Numbers of Importance

24.6. Southern Miss's net yards-per-punt, one of the lowest numbers I can remember seeing against Auburn; consider that it means that if the Eagles punted from their own 25, on average, Auburn would still start on the USM side of midfield. (For comparison Auburn was at 38.6, though that was hurt by a 16-yard net when Durst punted from the 36 into the end zone.)

15, 5. Auburn's number of first downs gained by pass and gained by run, a complete inverse of the ULM game, where the same ratio would have read 3 to 16. Along with the mediocre 3.2 YPC, it indicates that Auburn's offensive line didn't quite dominate the Eagles' inexperienced front on the ground the way I said they would. Oh well.

11. The number of different Auburn receivers who caught a pass. We at Auburn University are happy to welcome the future with open arms! See that building over there: it's powered by wind and solar panels! Next stop: Fizzy Lifting Drinks!

Your bottom line

First, about the "unfair" comment above: that refers to the situation, and not the actions/decisions taken by Auburn's coaching staff, who I seriously worry have as of this weekend been forced to declare the second-best guy their quarterback without even really having a choice in the matter.

To wit: if Burns and Todd are virtual equals in practice, then it's fairer to let them battle it out during game action, isn't it? And wasn't the every-other-series rotation the fairest way of doing that? And when that failed so miserably, didn't they have to declare a starter as soon as possible to give their offense a sense of direction during their preparation for the Golden Eagles? And didn't they have to declare the healthy guy that starter? And there's definitely no choice now, with Todd has grabbing the job by the horns and Burns comprehensively whiffing on his few opportunities, is there? Perhaps Auburn's coaches could have swallowed hard and named Burns the starter before ULM; perhaps they could have waited until later in this last practice week to name a starter, for maximum fairness. But the former "perhaps" is hindsight talking and the latter actively flies in the face of the team's success Saturday. Calling it "fate" seems like a cop-out, but is there any step of this process at which you can argue with Tubby's logic? It's not even remotely fair that Todd got the chance to prove himself without alternating series, a chance, it appears, that Burns may never get--but then football's unfortunately never been any fairer than life.

So now where do we go? For the purposes of both explosiveness and the defusing of what we all know could become a powder keg of divisiveness in the locker room, the JCCW's personal preference for Miss. St. is for Franklin to go back to his Clemson game tapes and find a way to keep 1B Burns on the field as often as possible while maintaining some continuity for 1A Todd. But as Todd isn't Brandon Cox just yet (for both better and worse), that continuity may not be possible. At this point, I think we fans have to simply place our faith in Tubby and Co. to keep the train on the tracks--as I said before, the defense, special teams, and running game can likely handle some wobbles as long as the quarterback situation doesn't derail the whole damn thing. The wager here is that Tubby's not going to let it.

*If you have any stomach at all for novels involving, say, dwarves, you really must read Pratchett. He's fantasy's version of Douglas Adams, if Adams was twice as funny and 1,000 times more capable of pathos.


A united method said...

thats a knee swing btw, not a jerk.

thanks for the pratchett reference, but are we down the good or bad pants leg when you say that USM has more SEC potential than Miss St. Vandy, Kentucky? please explain...

Jerry Hinnen said...

Knee-swing? I've never heard of that.

Uh, by the time I got around to the line you mention I was done with the metaphor. Thus the series of dashes mid-post and the big space. That would be more "good" than bad, though--the point was that USM is good.

A united method said...

Nono, you misunderstand me.

1.) After all these assertions (here and elsewhere) that the SEC is the premier league in the NCAA I'd like to hear why you think Southern Miss has more talent than 3 or 4 up and coming SEC teams. And is that a good thing? (which pants leg) Unless thats just you trying to make USM sound good.

2.) That was the slowest knee-jerk ever. ;) It wasn't a jerk, it was a slow and easy swing. Like when you dangle your leg off the edge of a truck bed...