You could make a good case that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney leaving Georgia this past week for Tennessee was a win-win situation.
In what otherwise could be seen as less than a lateral move, Chaney gets considerably more money from a rebuilding UT program than he was going to get from Georgia, which is on the verge of ranking alongside Alabama and Clemson atop college football.
And, without Chaney’s limited upside as a play-caller, Georgia now might actually be able to get over that hump and become the elite program that Bulldog Nation is expecting from Kirby Smart.
While not quite as stark a case of addition by subtraction as when Todd Grantham thankfully departed Athens to coordinate defenses elsewhere, Chaney leaving solves a problem that Smart didn’t appear ready to deal with, despite rumblings out of Athens this past season that there was growing frustration within UGA’s Butts-Mehre athletic complex over the Dawgs’ repeated failures in short-yardage and first-and-goal situations.
Admittedly, I was not a big fan of some of Chaney’s play-calling tendencies, as several readers noted after his departure. As one put it, “You must really be pleased that Chaney is gone now.”
Well, I certainly wasn’t displeased. Sure, statistically, Chaney did preside over a pretty impressive offense for two of his three years in Athens, thanks in large part to the play of quarterback Jake Fromm, some acrobatic catches from experienced receivers, and a quartet of 1,000-yard tailbacks.
But, I think one of the reasons UGA reportedly declined to match the final offer from the Vols for Chaney’s services was the growing feeling in Bulldog Nation that he had taken the Dawgs’ offense as far as he could.
Much of the time, he was good; but he never looked like a great play-caller.
I know, on the surface, the numbers might seem to indicate otherwise. The Dawgs had the SEC’s best rushing attack, finished 18th in the nation in total offense this season, ranked seventh in yards per play and averaged 37.9 points, second only to the 2014 Georgia team.
And, yes, I’ll concede that, at times, Chaney called some terrific offensive series that saw the Dawgs move steadily downfield as he deftly mixed up runs and passes.
But Chaney also was plagued by red-zone problems two of his three years at UGA. Who can forget that midseason period this past season when Georgia failed time after time to hammer it in from within the 5-yard line in more than one game?
And, while Chaney was good at exploiting the sort of talent advantage Georgia frequently enjoyed over the past couple of seasons, his offense struggled against the stronger teams on the Dawgs’ schedule.
He might have been good enough to guide Georgia into contention for a playoff spot, but many of us became convinced he wasn’t ever going to be quite good enough to win it all.
He built a lead of a couple of touchdowns over Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in both national and conference championship games, but he wasn’t aggressive or creative enough to hold those leads. (Defensive problems also played a part in those losses, but Chaney’s offenses obviously sputtered in the second half of both Bama games.)
Against an elite defense, like he faced in last January’s National Championship game and this past season’s SEC Championship game, Chaney tended to get ultra conservative and predictable. Instead of taking what a defense was giving him, he stuck to his game plan.
He was stubborn. He loved running it up the middle on first down, and against equal or lesser opponents, that worked most of the time, particularly as defenses wore down from trying to tackle superstar backs like Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield.
However, against the likes of Alabama, that sort of predictability didn’t cut it. It was a common theme of Georgia’s losses over the past couple of seasons to Auburn, Bama and LSU. Chaney might light up a hapless Oklahoma defense, but, against top-tier defenses, his limitations showed.
And, finally, his predictability and resistance to change even caused a loss to a lesser team like Texas, as many frustrated fans noted after the Sugar Bowl game.
The Longhorns made no secret they were going to take away Georgia’s running attack, but Chaney didn’t seem capable of adjusting. Rather than loosen up the stacked box and slow the Longhorns’ all-out blitz with screen passes or slants, he stuck with the same predictable offensive plan. Fromm noted after the game that Texas showed the Dawgs what its defensive game plan was in the first couple of drives, “but we just couldn’t make adjustments quick enough really to capitalize on that.”
It’s true that offensive coordinators, along with starting quarterbacks, are the first ones to feel fans’ wrath when things aren’t going well (even more than head coaches), but Chaney’s slowness or inability to adapt mid-game was a giant source of frustration for UGA fans, as reflected in much of the feeback I received in recent Junkyard Mail from Blawg readers.
“It is always easy for us fans to complain about the offensive coordinator’s ‘poor’ play calling,” Jim McLaughlin said. “However, the failure to see the obvious loading of the box by Texas on first downs is absolutely mind-boggling. In addition, not anticipating the Texas blitz is hard to comprehend.”
As Randall Dean noted, “If a team knows what you are going to do, they practice for that. To win in the SEC, you are going to have to use all your resources and be able to change, according to your opponent. … College football is a chess game, and if you don’t utilize all your pieces you’re not going to win.”
And, Pete Talmadge found himself convinced that “Chaney was in way over his head, and his inability to make adjustments or devise creative game plans was a major issue for the Dawgs.”
Chaney’s departure means Smart is having to replace both his coordinators for the 2019 season, with defensive chief Mel Tucker having left to be head coach at Colorado. That’s the kind of situation that potentially can derail a program’s momentum, but Smart handled the offensive side as smoothly as possible by simply taking the “co“ off the title of co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach James Coley, who sat next to Chaney in the booth as he called plays this past season.
Coley has been with Smart ever since he came to Athens, previously coaching the receivers before he was given a promotion in 2018 to keep him from joining former boss Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. Coley is a terrific recruiter, and knows the offense, which will make it a relatively easy transition for Fromm and the other players.
The fact that Smart also apparently has managed to keep Sam Pittman, the nation’s best offensive line recruiter and coach, also will be a big plus in maintaining offensive continuity. Pittman looks to get a hefty raise and also probably some sort of enhancement of title and responsibilities.
As for Coley, he has been an offensive coordinator before, at Florida State and, most recently, Miami. It’s true that his Miami offenses never ranked as high nationally as Chaney’s did at Georgia, but Coley never had an SEC-quality offensive line there, either.
His reputation is for a bit more wide-open offense than Chaney ran, but the Canes produced two 1,000-yard rushers during his tenure, so he’s all about the run as well. And, with Georgia’s receiver corps losing a lot of experience after the 2018 season, I imagine the Dawgs will remain a team that likes to run first, and use the pass primarily to set up the run.
I’m hopeful, though, that Coley will be less set in his ways than Chaney was — more creative and less predictable in his play-calling, attacking the perimeter of opposing defenses more frequently, making greater use of the tight ends, and maybe going up-tempo more often to loosen up defenses determined to stack the box against Georgia’s running game.
More than anything, though, I’m looking for Coley to be more adept than Chaney at adjusting to what’s happening on the field, with a greater willingness to go off-script — something Chaney failed miserably at against Texas.
While I’m sure replacing coordinators and coaches is one of the least enjoyable aspects of Smart’s job, it’s a situation he’s intimately familiar with, from his time at Alabama.
So, Bulldog Nation should get used to it. Saban always is having to replace coordinators and assistants who’ve been lured away. It’s part of the price of success. How you deal with it determines whether you remain successful.
Now that we’ve gotten the Chaney discussion out of the way, we can move on next time to discussing Georgia’s 2018 season as a whole, and Bulldog Nation’s expectations for 2019. I’ll be answering Junkyard Mail, and there’s still time for you to get in on the fun. So, if you have any comments or questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.