Behind The Curve

Mack Brown and Texas continue to be one step behind innovative programs succeeding in their own backyard. (USA TODAY Sports)

Mack Brown and Texas continue to be one step behind innovative programs succeeding in their own backyard. (USA TODAY Sports)

In the spring of 1968, a frustrated Darrell Royal, coming off three straight 6-4 regular seasons, decided the answer to his problems was to wage pathological war of attrition. He drove his Texas players so hard that 30 members of his roster quit, and 30 more were injured. When it was over, Royal went to his offensive coordinator, Emory Bellard, and told him, according to author Terry Frei, Come up with a scheme that takes advantage of what we’re gonna have left.

And so Bellard installed a new offensive formation, an ad-lib off the T formation called the wishbone, and Texas turned to a 5-foot-9 baseball-playing quarterback named James Street (a gregarious kid nicknamed both “Slick” and “The Rat”) to run it. And it worked: The Longhorns, working the cutting edge of modern offense, went 9-1-1 in 1968, and went undefeated and won a Nixon-anointed national championship in 1969, and the wishbone trickled down from program to program for an entire generation before it gave way to a more pass-heavy culture.

On Monday morning, Street — who was also the father of Padres pitcher Huston Street, and the surnamic inspiration for the paraplegic quarterback Jason Street on NBC’s Friday Nights Lights — died at the too-young age of 65, evoking memories of the glory days of Texas football for a fanbase that was already feeling wistful. A day earlier, Earl Campbell, the Longhorns’ 1977 Heisman winner, told a Houston television station that it was time for Mack Brown to step down as Texas coach. “Some people get too old, Campbell said. “If players get too old to play a game, why can’t a coach get too old to coach it?”

Think what you wish about Campbell’s proclamation, but it captures the current perception of Mack Brown: All around him in Texas — in College Station and Waco and Lubbock — coaches are innovating, and Brown (fairly or unfairly) appears to be a step behind. It is affecting the Longhorns’ recruiting — no longer can they gather 50 of the best players in Texas every year and wither that number down to an acceptable few, as they did in the Royal era, and one could argue that at least three Big 12 teams have better pure talent than the Longhorns do — and it is affecting the way the program is viewed in a football-mad state that has embraced the modern spread like no other.

Coming into this season, Brown insisted he would run a more up-tempo offense. So far, Texas has done that, running nearly 80 plays a game, but the Longhorns are still operating their offense more haphazardly and less smoothly than all three of their primary Texas rivals. Most notably, they have converted on 39 percent of their third downs, good for 74th in the country (Baylor, A&M and Tech are all in the top 20), and while they’re scoring 32.8 points per game, that’s only 56th in the country, and less than half of what Baylor’s put up so far this season. Combine that with an abysmal rush defense (117th in the country), and you have a team that stands out like a dad crooning along to the verses at a One Direction concert.

I don’t know if Mack Brown will still be the Longhorns’ coach by late November, but if he makes it that far, Texas faces an intriguing trio of Big 12 games that may measure whether the Longhorns can devise any sort of scheme that takes advantage of what they have left. They end with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and then Baylor. All Big 12 rivals whose coaches embraced the spread before it became an overarching trend. Two in-state rivals (and one program that recruits heavily in Texas) who feel as if they’re on the rise, rather than the decline. The results of those games could determine whether Brown will get one more opportunity to devise a plan that works, or whether the game really has accelerated past him right in his own backyard.

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