First, let me be very clear that I am not saying that Todd Graham will definitely be a success as the Panthers head coach because I can't see into the future. And I'm not saying he was perfect in his first season. But I am here to tell you that he's done a much better job than some people think.
Let's look at the facts. The Panthers are favored to win their last game, at home against Syracuse. If they win that game, the Panthers are 6-6 and may end up in a minor bowl. They could conceivably end the season 7-6. Last season the Panthers ended the season 8-5 after finishing the regular season 7-5. In other words, Graham's first year could be one game worse. Of course, if one has an agenda, or applies lazy thinking, it can be argued that former coach Dave Wannstedt was fired and replaced by a coach who did worse. But it's not that simple.
Graham was left a team with just one playmaker amongst the skill positions. Ray Graham is a wonderful player, and there's no denying that. The rest of the skilled players, however, are simply incapable of making plays on a consistent basis. The two main receivers, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street, shows no game breaking ability, and behind Graham there were no experienced quality backs. At quarterback, Tino Sunseri is clearly not a player who can win games by himself.
The real truth is that if Wannstedt was coaching this season, this team would be just as mediocre as it was this season. After peaking with a 10-3 season in 2009, Wannstedt's program appeared to be in sharp decline. Following up an 8-5 season with a team that's offense starts Sunseri, Shanahan, Street, and a poor offensive line was a recipe for disaster for any coach. With Wannstedt at the helm the team may have won a game or two more since the players fit his more conservative, pro style system, but the results would have been illusionary. Continually finishing barely above .500 in a poor conference and no real chance for excellence is no way to run a program.
What few people seem to remember is that Pitt had the No. 72 offense in the country last season. And that was with a first round wide receiver in Jon Baldwin, a running back, Dion Lewis, that ran for over 2,800 yards the last two seasons, and an offensive lineman, Jason Pinkston, that is starting for the Cleveland Browns this season as a rookie. This season Pitt is two yards per game less in total offense with a vastly different system, poor skill players, and injuries to Ray Graham, Chris Jacobson, and for a half a season, Lucas Nix.
None of these facts are meant to turn this into yet another Graham vs. Wannstedt debate. Anybody who still clamors for Wannstedt is not worth debating at this point. But what it does show is that Graham truly was not left with a whole lot. Yes, there are some good young players. But there are holes- giant holes.
Of course there are many, especially in the media, who complain that Graham should not have promised "high octane" and a Big East championship if he was left with so little. But what would be better? How would it have gone over if Graham walked up to the podium and said, "Look, I'm not going to lie. I looked at the tape. Sunseri is uncoachable and the rest of the quarterbacks are even worse than him. The offensive line is a sieve. The receivers are so slow that it's kinda scary. The veteran linebackers, believe it or not, are even slower. It will take a miracle to get this team to 6-6." God forbid that he was positive and believed in his abilities to make something out of nothing.
And the truth is, he almost did make something out of nothing. He will probably end up the regular season at 6-6, while losing his All-American caliber running back who had to be replaced by a career journeyman and a true freshman, and while losing his two only experienced and talented offensive linemen, a starting receiver, and a starting safety. Oh, and did I mention that he has a quarterback that is totally lacking instincts, some of the slowest linebackers known to man, and a punter that makes a 7-yard punt from his own end zone?
A lot of critics will also say that Graham did not make adjustments as the season went on but that's simply not true. Yes, Graham did make mistakes early on by not milking the clock, by making the offense too difficult, and by trying too many unnecessarily complicated plays. But the reason he did that is because at his previous coaching jobs, he did the same thing and at the midseason point of his first season, his teams did get past the tipping point and started to play as Graham envisioned. There was no reason to think it would be different at Pitt. But it was. The offensive line was just too bad and/or inexperienced to let the offense work properly, the receivers never showed speed or heart, and Sunseri still has no idea what he's doing. None of that is Graham's fault. Like I said, every place Graham coached, his team got it in the first five or six games. When he realized that this group was not going to get it, he did dumb down the offense, he did slow down the offense, and he did cut down on trick plays. He did adjust to help his team. And they still can't get it.
If any of Pitt's major problems did not exist, they easily match last year's win total- at least. If Graham does not get hurt, Pitt wins 8 games. If the Nix and Jacobson didn't get hurt, Pitt wins 8 games. If Sunseri develops into just a normal quarterback, Pitt wins 8 games. If all of those things happen, Pitt wins 9 games and Graham is hailed as a savior.
Yes, it's the job for the head coach to find solutions, but Graham can only do so much. How do you compensate for having your only two good offensive linemen lose most of the season to injury? How do you compensate for lack of depth and slowness at receiver or at inside linebacker? How do you compensate for losing your All-American running back when your backups are a former fourth stringer and lightly recruited freshman? And how do you compensate for a roster full of horrible quarterbacks?
What Graham did do was bring in some young and talented players like Isaac Bennett, Juan Price, Lloyd Carrington, Ronald Jones, Nicholas Grigsby, Roderick Ryles, and LaQuentin Smith. He brought in transfers like Cullen Christian, Ray Vinopal, and Tom Ricketts who all could start next season. He brought in graduate transfer Zach Brown for a much needed backup to Ray Graham. He developed young linemen like Ryan Schlieper, Cory King, Ryan Turnley, and Matt Rotheram. He developed burgeoning stars in Aaron Donald, K'Waun Williams, and Todd Thomas. In recruiting, he's bringing in possible future stars Chad Voytik, Rushel Shell, Dakota Conwell, Darryl Render, and Adam Bisnowaty, with more to come before signing day. He's developed great relationships with the two best juniors in PA, wide receiver Robert Foster and offensive guard Patrick Kugler. And he's also expanded his recruiting area far beyond Pitt's usual haunts, offering players from places like Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, and Indiana.
Bottom line, we will see in Graham's next two or three years just high he can take Pitt. Only in rare instances does a new head coach have a lot of success, and in those cases it's because the previous coach left a loaded roster. In Vince Lombardi's first season at Green Bay he was 7-5. He came back and coached the Redskins for one year and went 7-5-2. Bill Belichick's first season at Cleveland was 6-10. His first season at New England was 5-11. Jim Tressel's first season at Ohio State was 7-5. Nick Saban started 6-5-1 at Michigan State, 8-4 at LSU, and 7-6 at Alabama. Mike Gundy was 4-7 at Oklahoma State. Bobby Petrino was 4-7 at Arkansas. Pete Carroll was 6-6 at USC. Mack Brown's two stops before Texas were at Tulane and North Carolina and the first season at both stops resulted in 1-10 records. There are many more examples but you get the point. Even amongst great coaches, the first year is almost always for making a painful transition.
In year two, Graham will have a different team. The running game has the potential to be excellent. The offensive line has the chance to be much better. And I have no doubts that there will finally be a different quarterback. In year three, this program will be loaded with excellent young talent. In year four that excellent young talent becomes veterans. That's the goal. That's the goal for every new coach. The good ones accomplish it. And so far, despite lazy thinking of some media, and despite some fans who simply love to be miserable, I think Graham has proven that he's a good one.