The regular season is over, which means grades are due. Here's the final regular-season report card for the Stanford Cardinal.
Summary: When evaluating a coaching staff, it's easy to focus on the negative. So let's do that. It won't take long.
I can think of only two or three plays in 12 games that made a question mark appear over my head in a thought bubble. Two or three out of 854 total offensive plays. That's .0035 percent.
I questioned the infamous Wildcat call against USC, which coach David Shaw defended, and his reasoning made sense to me. I questioned the 48-yard field goal attempt against Oregon, which Shaw explained and didn't make as much sense. And defensively, I questioned why there was no timeout called on fourth-and-7 and the Stanford 41 against Oregon that led to a touchdown 41-yard touchdown. Other than those, I had zero problem with the play-calling or decision-making throughout the course of the season.
This coaching staff had special players to work with across the board -- a special quarterback, special tight ends, special offensive linemen, special linebackers and defensive linemen and special players in the secondary. They put those players in the best position to make plays. They didn't always make the plays -- but there is only so much a coach can do.
Now everyone is going to want to talk about the Oregon game. Was the Cardinal staff out-coached? Maybe. Was the game-plan too conservative? I didn't think so, but others disagree. Talk to the players and they said they knew exactly what was coming -- even after Oregon made its adjustments -- and they failed to stop it. So is that on the coaches or the players?
That's always the perpetual chicken-or-egg conversation. When players don't perform, it's on the coaching staff. When players perform well, they get all the credit. Even Shaw downplayed his Pac-12 Coach of the Year award, saying it was a product of coaching Andrew Luck. Is he right? Maybe, but some credit has to go to him and his staff as well.
I know this, out of 120 FBS schools Stanford ranked:
No. 1 in red zone offense.
No. 5 in scoring offense.
No. 5 in rushing defense.
No. 6 in sacks.
No. 6 in sacks allowed.
Tied at No. 18 in red zone defense.
No. 25 in total defense.
No. 23 in scoring defense.
No. 11 in total offense.
All of the credit for these fantastic numbers can't just go to the players. And blame for the Oregon loss shouldn't all fall on the coaching staff.
Penalties, I've always felt, are a direct reflection of the discipline imposed by the coaching staff. There are always going to be penalties that shouldn't have been called and penalties that weren't called. For the most part, they balance out over the course of a season. The Cardinal were flagged a couple of times when they probably shouldn't have been. And they dodged a couple of bullets when they should have been called. But ranking 70th in penalties and 81st in penalty yards per game aren't great numbers. Some games, they were fine, committing just three or five penalties. Others, like USC and Notre Dame, they were flagged 11 times. That brings the overall grade down.
But when you look at the big picture -- the scrutiny this staff was under following Jim Harbaugh's exodus and the fact that Luck was returning for another year -- I think they handled it all very well. When Shayne Skov was lost for the season, Shaw's cool demeanor kept this players focused. In the USC game, he was poised and rationale -- and his players performed likewise.
The coaches are running an NFL-style offense, an NFL-style defense and they push the mental capacity of their players -- because they have the guys that can handle it.
While we really can't say for sure Shaw was the right hire until we've seen his recruiting classes go through at least a full cycle -- if you're going on just Year 1, the returns have to be favorable. He's surrounded himself with intelligent assistants who have the highest coaching pedigree. There are always going to be mistakes and question marks. But when you can count them on one hand, I'd call that a pretty good season.