Decrease in penalties epitomizes McElwain’s new culture

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Soon after Jim McElwain was hired last December, our Nick Joost wrote this fantastic piece on how it was up to McElwain to restore the culture at the University of Florida. By that, he meant building an aura of invincibility that made the Gators THE GAME for their opponents. It’s obviously way too early to declare that McElwain has done that, given that his only result as Head Gator is a 61-13 pasting of a New Mexico State team the UAA paid big bucks in exchange for a beating, but there is a sign that he’s off to the right start.

One of the main problems our previous coach had was that his teams were always self destructing and making it easier for the other team to win. The two ways to do that: turning the ball over and committing stupid penalties (which doesn’t mean hustle penalties like grabbing a face mask on a flying tackle or hitting a guy a split second after he steps out bounds, but rather pre and post snap penalties like false starts or unsportsmanlike conduct). Will Muschamp teams did so much of both of those things that I eventually got to the point where I didn’t even bother calling him out for it. What’s the point? It’s Sisyphean. It would just happen again and again, and worse yet, the greater the magnitude of the game, the greater the quantity of the self inflicted wounds his team would be responsible for.

Muschamp had other problems, of course. His offenses always sucked. He made one awful assistant coaching hire after another. He compounded that last error by poking his nose into their business and trying to put his stamp on some facets of the game where he has little to no knowledge (special teams and every offensive position). And so on. We’ve been through them before.

McElwain’s job, in a sense, is to completely undo everything Muschamp started with the exception of the foundation of his defense. Literally everything else you can think of that relates to Florida’s football program was made worse by Muschamp, and now McElwain has to fix it all. No more thousands of empty seats at home games. No more getting pasted by unranked teams in the Swamp at night. No more being our rivals’ whipping boy. And most importantly, no more of this attitude that Florida is a losing program. Muschamp’s last two seasons at Florida resulted in a sorry 10-13 record- losers by any definition of the word. So to rephrase the first sentence of this paragraph, McElwain’s long term goal is tasked with proving that Muschamp is the loser as opposed to the Florida football team as a whole.

Now, again, that’s impossible to do in one game, especially against a cupcake. The way to complete a Herculean task like this is to break it down into segments, and take small steps toward the larger goal. Or in other words, fix one problem at a time. You can’t fix the attendance issues nor the idea that the Swamp is where only Tigers, Commodores, Gamecocks and FCS teams get out alive in one game, or even one season. That will come years down the road. So McElwain is starting with one of the smaller scale issues that Muschamp was too busy drawing up creative ways for his linemen to block each other to bother fixing: eliminating the self inflicted damage. Or at least noticeably decreasing its frequency.

And through one game- yes, just one game- McElwain has done it. The Gators had just one penalty marched off against them against New Mexico State, and committed just one turnover. I won’t put too much stock into the turnover problem being fixed given that it was against an Aggie defense that was one of the worst in 2014 at creating them, but foolish penalties have little to nothing to do with the quality of the opponent. Of course it remains to be seen whether Florida as a team can keep this pace up of just one penalty per game as the season progresses and things get tougher, but it’s a good start. It’s certainly better than the insane amount of penalties that Florida racked up in Muschamp’s debut against Florida Atlantic, and of course it’s more encouraging to start off on the right foot rather than the wrong one.

From the get go, McElwain has made it clear that he will not stand for any foolishness. He takes no bullshit. You do something wrong, you pay for it. For example, DeMarcus Robinson missed Sunday’s team dinner and was promptly scratched from the starting lineup against East Carolina this weekend and dropped all the way down to third string. That’s a minute offense, but McElwain doesn’t care. You will do things the right way for him, or you will receive a response- and an action- that you will not like.

“Our players have freedom of choice, but not freedom of consequences,” McElwain said on ESPN’s car wash show in July. Defensive lineman Bryan Cox echoed that statement, adding, “He’s not mad, but obviously you made that decision or whatever decision you had, if it was wrong, you don’t have the choice of what the punishment is going to be.”

Even more encouraging was McElwain’s statement on Monday about Robinson missing the meal: “In our case, it’s about continually taking a path and understanding the details to help you be successful, and that means don’t overlook missing a meal. That’s important. And yet, sometimes we enable people. ‘Oh, that’s OK. Don’t worry about it. That’s just him.’ Well as soon as we enable that act, then what happens 10, 20, 30 years down the road? So there are lessons to learn in everything we do.”

But that statement doesn’t just apply to Robinson, or anybody else missing a team meal. That applies to anyone and everything doing something they know they’re not supposed to do, between federal and state laws, the rules of the game of football and anything McElwain says. Doing something wrong as defined by anybody in some position of authority or a pre-existing rule you are told to follow will result in punishment.

The truth is, I do not know exactly what the punishment is for committing a foolish penalty (I’m told that it varies depending on the severity and timeliness of it, but it’s usually an excruciating amount of calisthenics the ensuing week in practice). But whatever it is- through one game, at least- it seems to be working.

The big picture regarding the state of the Gators’ program is not a pretty one. Muschamp basically dropped a bomb that reduced the Gators to rubble. But instead of freaking out over the extent of clean-up he has to do, McElwain has gotten to work fixing the first of many issues that need fixing. The penalty problem has not been solved, but it’s in the process of being solved, and there’s real promise that it will be solved soon enough.

In the meantime, having gotten a good head start on one problem, McElwain can focus on fixing other, more large scale issues that Muschamp left for him. Like the offense (construction of which already seems to be underway, though again, it’s hard to judge against New Mexico State). And if he’s anywhere near as successful as he seems to be eliminating the culture that seemed to encourage timely self destruction that Muschamp built, he has a real chance to restore the old culture that Nick Joost wrote about- the aura of invincibility built by Steve Spurrier. It’s a long road to get there, but McElwain has gotten started in the right direction.

6 thoughts on “Decrease in penalties epitomizes McElwain’s new culture

  1. Fantastic read, Neil.

    One thing: in fairness to Muschamp, he did kick Janoris Jenkins off the team for using marijuana. And he did clean up the off the field mess Urban Meyer left him. Of course, he in turn then left McElwain an on the field mess to fix so I’m not really defending him too much. Just saying that in that sense, he was a good disciplinarian.

  2. I said all of that when coach Mc was hired. The decline in stupid penalties shows that the new coach is fixing the fixables that the old coach just talked about.

  3. Because I wanted to be fair to both Muschamp & McElwain and compare apples to apples, I actually rewatched the opener from last season against E Michigan a few hours ago. I wanted to compare Boom’s last opener with a fresh UF team against a major cupcake with Mac’s opener last weekend. Filtering out the scoring which was expected against no-names, I paid close attention to play calling, execution/fundamentals, and overall player discipline.
    The play-calling was obviously different; totally different staffs & philosophies. Last year, it was a whole butt-load of dink & dunk passes/screens that in a perfect world would result in 7 minute, 15 play drives all night every Saturday. Worked for the most part against Cupcake U, but nobody else. This year, UF stretched the field early and often. They employed an awesome mix of plays, and were great at exposing mismatches.
    Execution last weekend was leaps and bounds crisper than what I saw in last year’s game. Last year, it was high snap after high snap resulting in rhythm being thrown off; several overthrown deep passes, and mediocre 3rd down efficiency which was compounded by poor 2nd down play calling & execution. Against NM State, the Gators did much better on 2nd down, resulting in much better game flow and 3rd down success. Rhythm was consistent all night. It FELT right.
    Last year, UF was penalized 10 times for 100 yards. Most were incredibly stupid/lazy penalties too. As has been pointed out ad-nauseum, Saturday they were hit for ONE penalty, the first time thats happened since ’77 (they committed three, but that’s besides the point). This is a crystal clear indication that the players are more focused and determined to do their jobs right. That is all on Mac & staff.
    Lastly, the attendance.. Oh MY, the attendance. Last year’s game had tens of thousands of fans dressed as aluminum bleachers all over BHG. Now, it wasnt standing-room only last Saturday, but at least you had to stop and look for the empty seats this time around. It was a wonderful sight, certainly not lost on the players on the field.
    All in all, I was very pleased with the changes I saw. They’re headed in the right direction, which is all I can ask for after Game 1 of the Mac Era.

  4. Let’s not get excited or draw conclusions from one game against what many folks considered the worst team in the FBS at the end of last year, and they returned all their starters. As for penalties, I would wait to crow about that. False starts are caused many times by being worried about who is on the other side of the line, not discipline. Personal fouls happen when you’re getting punched in the mouth, etc. Let’s see how the offensive line performs when it’s an FSU defensive lineman staring at them before jumping to conclusions. As for discipline, I didn’t see any suspension of Caleb Brantley or Alvin Bailey for their arrests, so let’s not go over the deep end when it comes to McElwain being a disciplinarian.

    1. SNOWSHIT,

      Go back to FSwhos? Fansite… Seriously man? U are on every single Florida site trolling!
      Worry about ur own sorry ass Winstonless team!

    2. Snowprint is right (this time) with what he said.

      Let’s see what happens on the road with a deafening crowd or when they are up against their physical equals or superiors.

      That being said, it IS a promising start seeing how Coach Lassiter couldn’t even get them to focus against cream puffs.

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