Why isn't Cal any good?

October, 5, 2009
10/05/09
3:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


A reporter who covers California and I were chatting during the late moments of USC's 30-3 whipping of the Bears, and I was blathering about various reasons why the home team was laying an egg for the second consecutive game.

"You know," he said patiently. "They just might not be any good."

At this point -- consecutive defeats by a combined 72-6 count -- that's probably the best explanation. And shortest.
 
  Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
  Are coach Jeff Tedford's Cal Bears just plain bad?
But, I just can't let ... it ... go.

Here's what I wrote in August when ranking the Bears No. 2 in the preseason Pac-10 power rankings.

2. California: The Bears have 17 starters back from a team that went 9-4 in 2009, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Jahvid Best. The secondary will be one of the nation's best and the defensive line is as good as any in the Pac-10. Replacing three of four linebackers doesn't seem to be causing much stress in Berkeley. The only issue is how much the passing game improves. If it improves significantly, this is a potential BCS bowl team.

"Potential BCS bowl team."

D'oh.

Still, it doesn't make sense.

That 9-4 team, if you recall, beat Miami in the Emerald Bowl.

The Hurricanes welcomed back 16 starters from the 2008 team that went 7-6. After beating Oklahoma on Saturday, they are presently 3-1 and ranked 11th.

That suggests Cal's foundation for 2009 was strong. But somewhere, sometime, that foundation cracked.

So what's wrong? Here' are some possibilities.

The big preseason question -- the passing game -- hasn't been answered: It was not unreasonable to believe that quarterback Kevin Riley would be a better player this year. He's flashed ability the previous two seasons. He looked good this past spring. He looked good in the first three games, ranking as high as sixth in the nation in passing efficiency. Meanwhile, the receivers -- banged up and inconsistent in 2008 -- also looked poised to break through, led by talented sophomore Marvin Jones and a supporting cast that had plenty of experience. But the past two weekends, the passing game has been horrendous, with Riley completing just 27 of 71 passes (38 percent). The receivers haven't been helping the cause much, either. They are not getting open. They are dropping balls. They look sorta slow.

The rotating door at offensive coordinator hasn't helped: Andy Ludwig is the Bears fifth offensive coordinator in five seasons. Hmm. That can't help continuity. At this point, it would be fair to say fans at Oregon and Utah, where Ludwig suffered heavy criticism during previous stops, are giggling and pointing a mocking finger at Berkeley.

Replacing three starting linebackers in the 3-4 scheme was more difficult than originally thought: The big personnel loss from the 2008 team was almost entirely at linebacker, where Zach Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder needed to be replaced. Still, that was not a huge concern entering fall camp. Those guys were good college players but not exactly future NFL starters. The youngsters who were next in line were generally more athletic, while Mike Mohamed was expected to grow into an All-Conference player. This article does a good job of breaking down how things haven't gone well. Mostly, there's been a lack of continuity as coordinator Bob Gregory has tried to find who belongs where.

The offensive line misses Alex Mack and line coach Jim Michalczik: Mack is starting at center for the Cleveland Browns (so he's not much better off than his former teammates). Michalczik, widely regarded as one of the nation's best offensive line coaches, is now with the Oakland Raiders (so he's miserable, too). Entering the season, the general feeling was the line was talented and deep, considering injuries last fall forced many young players into starting roles. The line hasn't been terrible. It hasn't been as good as expected, either. And it certainly hasn't been good enough to beat defenses that are stacking the box to stop Jahvid Best.

The secondary has underachieved: The Bears secondary was the one area no one doubted. All four starters were back from a unit that ranked sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and grabbed 24 interceptions, which ranked third in the nation. The Bears presently rank 87th in the nation and have just four interceptions. Not to call one player out or anything, but did you see All-American cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson whiff on Joe McKnight's 38-yard TD run to open the scoring Saturday? That sort of play -- and pursuit angle -- won't help him get drafted.

Into the leadership void steps... who? What you keep hearing from players and coaches is that the Bears are close to making plays but it seems like at least one guy doesn't do his job on every play and therefore things go sour. A missed block. An inaccurate pass. An olé tackle. A dropped pass. A stupid penalty. A poor kick. Etc. The first blame for that goes to coaching because that's where the buck always stops in college football. But the players also are responsible for their lack of focus. Seems to me the Bears need a player -- or players -- who can rally the locker room, a guy who can stand in the middle of an 85-man huddle and deliver a passionate speech that will connect the important wires within his teammates. That is a cliché scene, of course. But it's a cliche because it often works. I remember one time see a video of Ed Reed doing that when he played for Miami. Made me want to suit up.

Or maybe it's something else. Or maybe the Bears are just stink.

Or maybe they don't.

The season isn't over. In fact, the Bears schedule is much easier going forward.

If a couple of things click into place, and the Bears approach their potential -- even if it isn't what many thought it could be in the preseason -- it is not ridiculous to see this team finishing with eight or nine wins.

Seriously.

Of course, things also could completely split apart -- see 2007.

Nothing can erase the two pitiful performances. The season is at its crisis point.

What comes next will be interesting to watch.

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