Due to a mini family emergency last weekend, I was unable to watch the Backyard Brawl live and subsequently unable to provide any semblance of a timely, relevant recap. But some time has passed, many people have aired a their opinions on the state of the program, and I've come up with some thoughts of my own. If that's of interest of you, there's more after the jump.
As for the Brawl itself, I can say I'm extremely disappointed but not surprised. Sadly, this is what I've come to expect over the years as a Pitt fan, even more so during the 2010 season. They toy with your level of expectations. When they're low, they pull off 13-9 in 2007. When they're high, 2010 happens. They've pulled off the fine art of tearing your heart out and showing it to you while it's still beating. That's a skill not easily done by a pro team, let alone a college program. That's my Pitt Panthers.
I was recently thinking back on this incredibly disappointing season, and while watching promo after promo for the awful Monday Night Football game between the 49ers and Cardinals, it came to me: Pitt is the college version of the 49ers.
The similarities, once they're on paper, are uncanny. Pitt plays in the Big East, the worst of the BCS conferences. The 49ers call the NFC West home, easily the weakest of the NFL divisions.
Both teams were heavily favored to win their conference/division going into 2010. The perception of their coaches is very similar: likable guys who oversee underachieving teams, now finding themselves on the hot seat.
Personnel is another area of similarity. Going into 2010, Pitt ran PR campaigns and websites for Dion Lewis, Jon Baldwin, and Greg Romeus, all expected to be contenders for postseason accolades. The 49ers have a roster featuring the likes of Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Patrick Willis, a solid nucleus to build around by anyone's account. Unfortunately, both teams have quarterback play that's simply not as good as it needs to be, usually the kiss of death at these levels of football.
But the biggest similarity, beyond the affinity for literally the same players (San Fran has four former Panthers on the payroll), is that these teams have been incredibly disappointing in 2010. The 49ers were 3-7 going into MNF, owning only wins over Oakland, Denver, and St. Louis - all sub-.500 teams. They started the season slow (0-5), yet could be only one game out of first place with a win over Arizona on Monday night.
The Panthers mirrored the 49ers once again with a slow start to the season, dropping their first three games against legitimate competition (Utah, Miami, Notre Dame), beating only New Hampshire and Florida International in their first five games. They were a ho-hum 6-4 heading into the Backyard Brawl, yet needed to win only that game to clinch the conference and a BCS berth. We all know how that turned out.
So what's the lesson to be learned, other than the fact that pro and college teams can both underperform? First, I think it's dangerous to give preseason hype too much credibility. That's a given.
Second, you've got to look at the track record of the men in charge. Dave Wannstedt was 82-87 as an NFL coach, winning two playoff games in 11 seasons. He's been on the staffs of great teams, but as the head man he's simply never gotten it done. That's not opinion, it's fact. And it hasn't changed while he's been at Pitt. Other than "13-9", he doesn't win the big games where he's the underdog. The bigger problem is that he doesn't even win the games where he's the favorite. That played out over an entire season in front of our very eyes, and that's why there are dozens of columns like this being written in late November.
Singletary, although a dominant player in his day, has been a part of one winning season since starting his coaching his career in 2003 - linebacker coach for the '03 Ravens, who went 10-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. He's 16-19 as an NFL coach and has never had a season above .500. That doesn't sound like a coach who's ready to make a serious playoff run, especially saddled with Alex Smith at QB.
QB is the final part of the puzzle. Without a good one, you're doomed. Smith simply lacks the skills and the moxie to get it done as an elite QB at the NFL level. For his career, he's thrown 52 interceptions to 46 touchdowns, and has a passer rating of 70.2. Couple that with a sub-.500 head coach, and you're not exactly in Belichick-Brady territory. In retrospect, their crash should surprise no one.
In Pitt's case, the final chapter has not yet been written in the Tino Sunseri Story. He had some good moments and some bad moments in 2010, but on the whole did not play up to the level of a BCS-qualifying quarterback. Maybe he can someday, but it wasn't this year. In Pitt's five losses, Sunseri threw four touchdowns and five interceptions; not enough production, too many mistakes. He played behind an iffy offensive line and sorely missed the two tight ends who graduated to the NFL. To make things worse, his top wide receiver showed glimpses of giving a weak effort at times, as those players sometimes do. So the blame's not totally on his shoulders for Pitt's season, but he didn't exactly put the team on his back and will them to wins, either.
This is not the way I wanted to remember the 2010 Pitt Panthers, writing a lot of words comparing them to another dog of a team while fans and media play another fun round of Pin the Blame on the Panther. But I broke one of my own rules and bought too much into the hype entering the season. And that blame can only be pinned on me. This was clearly a team that was not ready for prime time - literally. Maybe the 49ers can draft more of them sometime down the road. It should be a seamless transition for most of them.