Saunders: Pitt a Victim of its Own Hype
If you haven’t heard by now, Pitt’s football team suffered a season-crippling loss last Saturday when the Panthers dropped a 38-35 decision on the road to the North Carolina Tar Heels.
It’s the kind of loss that can make one take their pre-season predictions and throw them straight out the window.
I guessed 7-5 before the season, and while that remains technically possible, I’m far less confident than I was even a week ago. My colleague Mike Vukovcan, who suggested Pitt would go 9-3, is practically on eggshells.
Even though I predicted one bad loss along with one good win in my 7-5 projection, I don’t feel good at all about chalking North Carolina up as that bad loss with so many more losable games in Pitt’s future. The Panthers next three opponents — UCF, Syracuse and Notre Dame — are a combined 11-0 this season. Two of those games are on the road. The future looks bleak.
So how did we get it so wrong? Maybe we should have heeded the advice of the elder statesman of our panel, former Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik.
“I also think the coach and the quarterback are putting way too much pressure on the quarterback,” Smizik wrote in response to our survey. “They need to tone down their rhetoric.”
That pretty much hits the nail on the head, because so much of what we hear about the Pitt football team outside of the 13 or 14 times per year they lace up their pads and play a full game on the gridiron is just that — rhetoric.
When the Pittsburgh media goes to Pitt’s facility during spring ball or training camp, the time when a lot of real evaluation is being done by the team’s coaching staff, we see stretching, field goal and/or punt teams, one period of an offensive walk-through, tackling drills, and individual position teaching drills. That is, if we’re lucky.
The entire viewing window is about 30 minutes. A 7-on-7 snap is rarity. I can count on two hands the number of 11-on-11 snaps I’ve seen in four seasons.
But of course, we have stories to file, space to fill and players that people are curious about, so we use the other tool we have at our disposal: we ask questions.
How does this player look? Who is winning this battle? What are realistic expectations for this unit? Then we go back to our computers, type them out and send them away. Are those statements that we receive factual? No one really has any way to know.
For example, it was said all training camp that Pitt wide receiver Dontavius Butler-Jenkins was poised for a breakout 2018 season. The esteemed Brian Batko of the Post-Gazette called Butler-Jenkins a potential surprise receiver.
He has one catch in four games.
Similarly, I wrote in 2017 that Aaron Mathews had potential for a breakout season. His 16 catches for 189 yards didn’t exactly qualify. He has two for 21 yards this year.
Obviously, I was wrong. It looks like Batko was wrong. I’m sure if I dug hard enough and for long enough, I’d find an Old Takes Exposed-worthy prediction or projection from every single writer on the Pitt beat.
Because as much as we’d like to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, we don’t really know all that much about this team. We don’t really watch practice. We get next to no personal interaction with the players. We don’t know what they’re really like. We’re just firing off content in the dark, hoping to be right more often that we’re wrong.
And you know what? We’re not doing anyone any favors.
Does anyone think it helps Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers that they were roundly predicted by the local media to win about eight games and then started the season 2-2?
Does anyone think it helps Butler-Jenkins and Mathews to have those kind of expectations placed on him that may or may not be fair or reasonable?
How about Paris Ford, a young player so built up by the hype of his three-year-old recruitment that many fans practically considered it a personal insult that Narduzzi saw fit to keep him off the field at the start of this year?
The idea that Narduzzi would willfully turn his back on a more talented player because he was younger or had such a slavish devotion to his veterans that he was willing to lose games in order to placate them was and remains patently ridiculous, and yet there it was, everywhere you turned on Twitter and the message boards. How many of those fans have actually seen Ford play a full game? Very few.
Narduzzi doesn’t do himself any favors. Loathe to criticize his players directly, let anything that negative slip out or allow any potential tactical advantage to be gleaned by an opponent no matter how minuscule, Narduzzi hides injuries and suspensions, leaving fans and the media in the dark about who should and should not be playing.
It goes even beyond that. Backup safety Phil Campbell was listed on Pitt’s travel roster on Saturday. He did not travel to North Carolina. When starting safety Dennis Briggs went down with some cramps, there was no Campbell and no explanation until Monday.
Narduzzi dodges and diverts in press conferences with alarming frequency and is not above an occasional outright lie.
What fans are left with is just an unrelenting firehose of positive hype that has created its own feedback loop. Without any real, neutral evaluation ever taking place outside of those 13 game days, the fans’ realistic expectations become whatever Narduzzi says they should be.
When he said to reserve tickets for the ACC Championship Game, many took that message to heart. Maybe he meant it. Maybe it was hype. I don’t really know. But now it looks an awful lot like the Panthers won’t be going to the ACC Championship Game, and there are very real questions coming Narduzzi’s way; questions about his underachieving defense, his recruiting, and frankly, his future. Those aren’t questions he can avoid.
Well, maybe he could. Maybe Pitt’s media — and therefore Pitt’s fans — could be better informed about the real advantages and shortcomings of the team. Maybe, just maybe, Pitt’s fans would be a bit more receptive to 2-2 if they’d been told honestly and fairly that it was a possibility by someone involved in the process.