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The Prologue 2013: Full Measure

Kirk Ferentz had an eventful offseason, but when push comes to shove, will he stick with what it takes to win?


At the end of season 3 of Breaking Bad, chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White is grappling with a dilemma. His longtime partner -- the guy who essentially got him into the meth business in the first place, but who had become ancillary to the operation and a nuisance to others important to the business -- has been targeted by his cartel-connected employer. Walter tries to find a way around it, to keep his partner alive and his business thriving (at one point he suggests that his partner should be arrested and detained, "but not at jail. I'm thinking orange jumpsuits picking up trash." "That's jail," his lawyer replies). Eventually, the cartel's "cleaner" visits Walter to tell him there would be no solution short of the ultimate solution.

Walter chose the full measure: He remains loyal to his partner, kills two dealers by running them over with his Pontiac Aztek, and puts the cartel's target on his own back in the process. He chose loyalty and probable death over success and security. The cleaner was right: There would be no fence-sitting, no half measures from that point forward. It was all or nothing. Win or die.

For Kirk Ferentz, 2012 was a series of half measures.

2012 began with Ferentz hiring Greg Davis as offensive coordinator in late February. Davis later told reporters that he and Ferentz wanted to "blend" their philosophies. The offense wouldn't be Davis' 75-page playbook (three times the size of his predecessor's) alone, but would incorporate Davis' passing game into Ferentz's beloved zone running scheme. The offense would dip its toe into modern concepts like sight reads for receivers. Iowa wouldn't be exclusive no-huddle, but there would be "elements" of it when they wanted to use it. Iowa wouldn't be exclusively up-tempo, but they would have it available if it was ever useful. Most telling of all was the timing of the hire: Late February, after Ferentz had already filled every other coaching spot and long after other coaches had stopped looking for jobs. It meant that Davis would be coaching with Ferentz's old cadre of position coaches; except for Brian Ferentz -- literally the head coach's kindred spirit -- Iowa's offensive staff had been together under Ken O'Keefe since 2008. Some, like Lester Erb, had been treading water as a position coach for over a decade, without a hint of a promotion.

The defense wasn't much better. Phil Parker made the inevitable move to defensive coordinator after Norm finally retired. Rather that hire a new secondary coach, Iowa hired former player LeVar Woods to the vacant position without truly contemplating what that meant. Woods' experience was at linebacker, and so Ferentz simply moved linebacker coach Darrell Wilson -- who hadn't coached defensive backs since a three-year stint at secondary and wide receivers coach at Rhode Island in the mid-90s -- to secondary, because coaches can obviously coach anything. Offensive line coach Reese Morgan and tight ends coach Eric Johnson flipped to defensive line to make up for the loss of Rick Kaczenski, mostly for style reasons.

Ferentz stuck to virtuous loyalty while still acknowledging that change was coming: he had effectively overhauled the coaching staff without actually firing anyone. Davis would be tasked with teaching his offense to Ken O'Keefe's old staff (and Brian Ferentz), then having them turn around and teach it to players, but these professional coaches could certainly pick up the offense quickly. On the other side of the ball, Parker would have to prepare a defense without getting hung up on his old position group, while Wilson tried to convey what he knew about secondary play to the cornerbacks and safeties. Ferentz had effectively given Iowa football a few new wrinkles on offense and defense without changing "who we are" or sacrificing longtime assistants like so many other coaches do. Iowa would remain successful and, more importantly, remain virtuous.

The half measure was a disaster. Davis' late arrival guaranteed that there would be minimal time for coaches to learn his terminology, prepare an offensive plan, and comprehend the concepts needed for that plan to work. That meant that, rather than hitting the ground running in spring, Iowa's coaches and players were still trying to figure out what language the new coordinator was speaking. College football rules demand that the football coaching staff largely stay away from optional summer workouts, so Iowa broke spring practice with barely a semblance of an offense, then reconvened in August for more translation and application. When it hit the field in September, the offense was very much still a work in progress. The receivers didn't know where to go, and the quarterback (singular, all season) didn't know where to throw. When faced with struggles due to the new system, Ferentz does what he always has done: He reverted to the safety of his running game and defense. By week 3, all semblance of no-huddle or hurry-up offense was gone. Iowa continued to work the sight reads, but it only led to more incompletions and frustration.

On the other side of the ball, early returns on Morgan and Johnson were positive, but Wilson didn't work as a secondary coach. Iowa defensive backs were routinely out of position or flat-footed in response to an opponent's offense. Throw in a defensive line decimated by the previous coach -- another figure who likely stayed on too long, unless you enjoy having all your defensive linemen transfer every year to avoid the screaming lunatic of a defensive line coach -- and incapable of developing a pass rush, and Iowa's defense never had a chance.

Since the close of that 4-8 disaster, it looks like Ferentz has finally taken the full measure. Gone is the loyalty that kept underperforming coaches on staff for purposes of "continuity" and somehow convinced him that moving a linebackers coach to secondary without any significant experience was a good idea. It started with the assistants. Gone are Soup Campbell (5 years; wide receivers), Lester Erb (13 years; running backs/special teams), and Darrell Wilson (11 years; defensive backs). In their place: A wide receivers coach hand-picked by Davis, an NFL-level special teams coach, and Parker himself returning to the secondary. To make up for the relative inexperience of Woods and the additional workload put on Parker's shoulders, Ferentz added former Virginia defensive coordinator and Dolphins linebackers coach Jim Reid and made him co-linebackers coach. For the first time under Ferentz, Iowa will have five position coaches on defense and four on offense. For the first time since his first season, Ferentz will have four new coaches on staff.

Gone too is the loyalty to traditional football, an albatross that has hung around the neck of the program ever since 2003. The offense itself looks wholly different. Though Ferentz has publicly classified it as "fooling around with tempo," the fact is that Iowa has run a no-huddle system almost exclusively since spring. The deep well and wide variety of running backs -- it's the first time Iowa's had this much halfback depth since 2005 -- and a talented and relatively experienced offensive line allow for some creativity in the running game. The arrival of Damond Powell finally gives Iowa a much-needed deep threat on the perimeter, and Davis & Co. have clearly shown they plan to use it. Iowa was running shotgun four-wide zone read in August. Iowa.

The full measure was taken this offseason, but what remains to be seen is whether Ferentz will stick with the full measure, whether he's willing to allow this kind of offense -- an offense he quite clearly hates with every ounce of his being -- to continue when the opponent has been met and the plan has gone partially awry. Much has been made of Ferentz's repeated reference to the no-huddle as disposable, the idea that Iowa can turn it on and off when it wants because the practice time has been put in now. Iowa will surely huddle from time to time, but if Ferentz pulls the plug on the no-huddle after the first incompletion (as he did at Penn State in 2011) or the first three-and-out (as he did the week before that againt Louisiana-Monroe) or the first loss (as he did after Iowa State last year) because he's too cantankerous and stubborn and loyal to old, comfortable things that don't work, then this will all be for naught. The staff changes, the practice in April and August, the entire Davis experiment will all have been for nothing. The half measures of 2012 will have returned, and Iowa will likely suffer for it.

Ferentz has to know that his job is, in many ways, on the line this year. He likely won't get fired short of another downward blip on a cratering line graph, a 2-10 or 3-9 monstrosity and another empty trophy case. But his boss has big plans for bigger money on the back of this campaign, and Gary Barta doesn't want to reseat off of another losing season and flagging interest in the program. Kirk needs seven wins and a bowl, or the cartel is coming for him. He needs to break out of his one-foot-in, one-foot-out mentality and do whatever it takes to win. He needs to run down his opponents with his Pontiac Aztek.

No more half measures.