by Richard Branch
It feels weird doesn’t it? The Badgers are a week and a half from playing in the Rose Bowl but it seems as if fans have already moved on, focusing their attention on 2013 and beyond as Wisconsin begins the Gary Andersen era. As the hubbub of the new hire dies down and fans – hopefully - refocus on New Years Day, there is still a small window of opportunity to lobby for personnel retention before they scatter and go their separate ways on January 2nd.
This team NEEDS to keep Matt Canada as offensive coordinator going forward.
The 2012 Badgers would probably be remembered for one of the more chaotic seasons in recent memory even without the sudden, unexpected departure of Bret Bielema for Arkansas. In a year where kickers were being benched at a rate that would make George Steinbrenner blush, the biggest story was the uneven season on the offensive side of the ball.
The 2012 offense was nowhere near the dominant scoring machine Badger fans had seen under Paul Chryst. The offensive line looked ineffective. Turnovers became more commonplace. Though still relatively few in number, penalties emerged in critical situations crippling drives, taking away precious opportunities for points.
It’s because of these shortcomings – not despite them – that the Badgers need to work to retain Matt Canada for 2013. Canada was able to navigate this chaos reasonably well; by the end of the season the Badgers looked like an offense that could score points on any given Saturday despite lacking the array of tools past Wisconsin offenses possessed.
Matt Canada’s greatest recurring challenge was at the most critical position: quarterback. Coming out of camp the public heard the familiar refrain of the accomplished transfer quarterback coming to town to settle an otherwise uncertain position group. Danny O’Brien looked to have the physical tools and experience required to prevent a major decline from the highs of 2011.
We know how this worked out. Either the ACC-to-B1G transition was too great or his disastrous 2011 season left scars that never healed. O’Brien never performed to expectations.
Joel Stave was thrust into the starting role halfway through the Utah State game (Gary Andersen…why do you keep popping up in this story?) as an unlikely successor to O’Brien. Stave did two things very well: he sold the play action effectively and could throw a strong, reasonably accurate deep ball. Canada’s play calling reflected this: play action passes with a deep receiver – usually Jared Abbrederis – became a staple of the offense.
Abbrederis had his best games with Stave at quarterback. Over one three game span the two combined for 20 receptions and 406 yards. Run-keying defenses would leave Abbrederis in single coverage on the edge; he and Stave made them pay. In Stave’s six starts he completed 14 passes of 25 yards or more; in the seven games O’Brien and Phillips started they managed only 5 between them.
Even with these impressive numbers Stave was a far from perfect quarterback. Perhaps most telling: he completed only 38% of the his passes on 3rd down. Canada found a way to work around these flaws putting 30+ points on the board in four of the five games that Stave played from start to finish. The game that fell short of that threshold was the road loss in Lincoln where they only managed 27.
The limited success found in the “Stave formula” had to be completely reworked with a 3rd quarterback after Stave broke his clavicle. Taking over as starter Curt Phillips was a different type of player than Stave. He is a marginally mobile quarterback (you know the 3 ACL surgery story) without much of an arm whom the coaching staff hoped could simply avoid making too many mistakes. Perhaps in the end he simply wasn’t Danny O’Brien.
The deep threat in the passing game – so affective with Stave - was largely gone. Canada needed to find a new way to open holes for the ground game. Phillips found success on play action as well. Instead of using it to stretch defenses vertically as Stave had, Phillips found his niche rolling out hitting receivers on short crossing routes. If he couldn’t challenge them deep Canada would at least stretch them sideline to sideline.
While the barge formation first appeared while Stave was still healthy, if became a more prominent feature of the offense once Phillips became the starter. In the B1G championship game Canada employed it extensively in the red zone. The chances of a stray pass from Phillips squandering scoring opportunities were minimized. Phillips, despite his 5th year status, is an inexperienced quarterback who locks on receivers at times; taking him off the field with creative personnel packages worked around that.
Unfortunately Canada was not always so consistently creative. He shut down the offense after jumping out big Nebraska during their September matchup. The offense became a non factor in the 2nd half and watched the game slip away as drive after ineffective drive ended wit ha punt back to the Nebraska offense.
Playcalling was frustrating to fans (including myself). Even after it had become clear the offensive line was not the immovable juggernaut of recent vintage, there seemed to be too many runs in the center of the line for little or no gain. And perhaps the greatest error: Melvin Gordon was utilized in a meaningful way in only two games.
Despite these frustrations given the changes coming with a new head coach this is a situation that screams for consistency. There will be an adjustment period as players grow accustomed to new coaches and coaches to the players. Even putting aside the Markuson debacle, there was an adjustment period for everyone this year that took time to settle.
Bringing Matt Canada back to run the offense in 2013 would give an offense returning most of its starters a chance to build off what they learned in their first year in the system. It’s reasonable to expect the same group of players to improve their performance.
This year’s defense provides a reason to look for an improved offense next year. Chris Ash’s 2011 unit had a reputation as a soft, bend but don’t break defense that inevitably gave up big plays with sudden breakdowns in coverage. In 2012, in his 2nd year as defensive coordinator his defense became the bedrock of the team. Given another year to teach his system he showed results.
Matt Canada should get the same opportunity. He acknowledged recently his playcalling early in the year was influenced a little too much by what he thought Wisconsin should be (i.e. power running between the tackles) when a more creative approach – as he used to great effect in the Nebraska rematch – might yield better results.
When Canada took the job last winter he expressed how excited he was to be a part of the Wisconsin program. He hoped it was a place he could be a long time. This past week he expressed the same sentiments after it was announced he would be leaving the Badgers for NC State next year. He all but said he still wants to be in Madison. Moving his family for a 2nd straight year was clearly not what he was signed up for last year.
Like the rest of us he saw the Wisconsin/Bielema situation as a stable one that might allow him to put down roots for a time. Take his statements however you want (and I can’t blame you for thinking a coach is no better than a politician at this point) but if genuine Canada is as good a candidate to stick with the program for a longer period of time as anyone. He may well be able to provide the kind of stability that Paul Chryst did; working as offensive coordinator for six years before finally becoming head coach. That kind of longevity at the same position is seldom seen.
At this point there are only two things standing in the way of Canada staying aboard for next season: his new contract with NC State and a desire by Gary Andersen to keep him on his staff.
It was revealed this week that Canada’s new contract with NC State comes with a whopping $500,000 buyout. In contrast Charlie Partridge’s arrangement with Arkansas only carried a $50,000 penalty had he elected to stay at Wisconsin. That stipulation in Canada contract has been called a deal killer but it doesn’t seem insurmountable if there is a desire to retain him. Andersen’s contract is reported to pay him $1.8 million next year. If Bret Bielema were still head coach his salary would have been in the $2.6 million range. It would seem the money is available to buy him out if needed. On the surface at least that buyout isn’t the poison pill it’s been made to be.
For Andersen, Canada seems like a good fit for a lot of reasons. In his introductory press conference he expressed his desire to keep on as many current coaches as possible citing the need for continuity. Andersen’s offense at Utah State has always been spread oriented; he will be making the transition to a power run, pro style offense for the first time in his career. Canada can speak to his spread background and help guide Andersen through and ease the process for him. If Andersen sees value in that experience he may well make the push to keep Canada on his staff.
There were many times this season fans were left wondering where the offensive magic had gone. The familiar shots of the unassuming Chryst, sitting in the coach’s box with the world’s largest wad of chewing tobacco in his lip, running an offense that seemed to have an answer for almost anything thrown at it were replaced by a guy who didn’t come in and set the world on fire. Canada can’t compete with the Ghost of Offensive Coordinators Past. But his skill set and experience may make him an indispensable part of this staff going forward bridging the gap between old and new. Matt Canada will not be the perfect offensive coordinator. No one is. But maybe he’s the best fit right now.