The rumblings began a few weeks ago during the throes of that unsightly five-game losing streak and hit a crescendo last Saturday as the East Carolina football team was officially eliminated from bowl consideration with a 55-31 beating at the hands of SMU.
It could seen in the posts of angry fans on social media and heard loud and clear in the audible laments of those leaving Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Would things have been this bad if Ruffin McNeill was still the Pirates’ coach?
It’s an understandable question, especially under the circumstances. But because it’s a question that’s impossible to answer with any degree of certainty, asking it now will only serve to make a bad situation even worse.
Questioning how ECU got here won’t do anything to change its current predicament. For better or worse, McNeill is in Virginia, new coach Scottie Montgomery’s honeymoon period is over and the Pirates are 3-7, heading for their worst season since 2004.
As painful as that reality might be, in retrospect, maybe we should have seen it coming.
Anytime a coaching change is made, you run the risk of the program taking a step backward before it can begin moving forward again. While a potential nine-loss season is more like a giant leap rather than a baby step back, let’s not forget that the team Montgomery inherited was hardly one on the verge of championship contention.
The Pirates finished 5-7 and out of the postseason under McNeill a year ago. While there were some extenuating circumstances, most importantly the loss of the projected starting quarterback a week before the season opener, the bottom line is that talent pool on hand wasn’t as deep as it had previously been.
It should also be noted that the coach hired to replace McNeill — while young, energetic and universally praised as an up-and-coming star in the profession — is getting his first experience at running a team of his own.
This season has been on-the-job-training for Montgomery. Much like a true freshman getting thrust right into the lineup, he’s been prone to his share of rookie mistakes.
The question now isn’t whether athletic director Jeff Compher made a mistake by bringing about this change, though many among the Pirate Nation are posing that question. That ship sailed last December and it’s never coming back.
The more legitimate and constructive questions now are what has Montgomery learned from this lost season and what can he do to change things moving forward?
Those are subjects he addressed earlier this week
“The thing that we have to do to make sure we’re better moving forward is we are going to have to make sure [we do] all the details that we talk about doing,” Montgomery said. “You can’t just say, you must do. Schematically, I feel that we need to help some of our players a little bit better. Our players, coaches and the whole program combined, it’s the details. Those details don’t only show up on Saturday. They show up on Friday and throughout the week.”
Among the biggest concerns is turnovers and the difficulty the Pirates have had getting the ball into the end zone, two problems that go hand-in-hand.
ECU ranks 124th out of 128 FBS teams nationally in turnover margin at minus-14 and is 124st in Red Zone efficiency. Despite ranking third in the American Athletic Conference in total offense at 494.6 yards per game, the Pirates are just eighth in scoring at just over 28 points per game.
Montgomery has pledged to research other programs that have gone through similar struggles in an effort to find a solution to the problem next season. As for the lack of a consistent pass rush, defensive backs getting burned for big plays and a sometimes porous offensive line that forces whatever quarterback is in the game at the time to run for his life instead of looking down field, help may already be on the way.
The new coach and his staff put together a solid class in their initial recruiting effort last winter and are in the process of adding even more talent to the program for 2017.
Just last week, the Pirates received verbal commitments from a pair of junior college defensive ends who have a chance to step in and contribute right away. And between redshirting freshman Reid Herring and a pair of three-star quarterback prospects already signed, sealed and delivered, ECU will at least have plenty of options from which to choose when it comes to its on-field leader of the future.
As bleak as the present might be — and it could potentially get even worse with two games yet to play — the promise of that future is about all the Pirates and their fans have to hang onto right now. And it’s Montgomery that will be leading the way for the foreseeable future.
Would things have gotten this bad if McNeill was still around?
We’ll never know. At this point, it doesn’t really matter anyway.