Giger: Even with sanctions, O’Brien doesn’t get free pass for all of PSU’s issues

How much of a free pass does Bill O’Brien get and/or deserve?

That has to be a question Penn State fans everywhere are asking themselves as what looks to be a 6-6 season draws closer to the end.

Let’s get two things out of the way up front, then the discussion can start from there:

1. O’Brien has done an incredible job in so many ways keeping the Penn State program together and competitive during unbelievably trying times. That’s a given, and he deserves tons of credit for it.

2. The Nittany Lions are vastly undermanned in many ways because of the NCAA sanctions, and virtually every issue they have can be tied back in some way to that.

As long as people are willing to accept points 1 and 2 above, then we can have a healthy discussion about the job O’Brien is doing when it comes to actually coaching football.

It is in no way fair or even reasonable to compare O’Brien’s job performance so far to that of Joe Paterno. Now, that point might be debatable to some PSU fans who wonder why the media hasn’t been more critical of O’Brien as Penn State sits here 5-4 and 2-3 in the Big Ten after Saturday’s loss at Minnesota.

But it’s apples and oranges, plain and simple.

O’Brien is dealing with circumstances and roster limitations that Paterno never had to face, so in many ways, yes, O’Brien does get a bit of a free pass.

But here’s where things get tricky, primarily because as great of a leader as he is, O’Brien’s game day coaching is very much a work in progress.

When O’Brien makes questionable or downright poor decisions in games, how much criticism should he receive? Should the media and fans take him to task the same way we would if the Lions had 85 scholarship players instead of 61? If he had a veteran quarterback instead of a true freshman? Or if there would be a bowl game to play for?

Or should we all just wear kid gloves, realize O’Brien has the odds stacked heavily against him and be thankful that the Lions can even win six or seven games after all they’ve been through?

There’s no easy answer, and frankly, we all have to come up with our own criteria for judging the coach under these circumstances.

If, to you, everything boils down to the sanctions and you have ultimate faith in O’Brien over the long haul, then you might think it’s unfair to criticize anything the coach does.

But …

If you choose to accept the entire situation for what it is and compartmentalize what is a direct result of the sanctions compared to what amounts to a complete and total football matter, then there are legitimate issues about O’Brien’s coaching decisions that are impossible to ignore.

Here are some:

n O’Brien is considered an offensive expert, yet the Lions are coming off their lowest point total (10) in his two seasons. Minnesota was giving up an average of 25 points per game going in, and PSU’s offense managed less than half that.

n O’Brien called the plays for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, so he obviously knows how to be successful at it. Still, his play calls in numerous situations this season have been highly suspect, most notably throwing it 55 times at Indiana, which can’t stop the run.

Saturday, after devising a smart game plan that included running the ball great on a very windy day, O’Brien called four straight passes from the Minnesota 16 with about 10 minutes left. Christian Hackenberg misfired on all four, and the drive ended with the Lions down, 24-10.

Had they run the ball five or six times there and scored a TD, it would have been a one-score game with about eight minutes left — plenty of time to get a defensive stop and get the ball back.

That decision has absolutely nothing to do with the sanctions. It has to do with O’Brien being impatient, panicking to a degree, falling in love with the pass and doing a complete about face from what had been working all day.

n O’Brien also is the offensive coordinator. Should he be? Does he have so much on his plate juggling that responsibility and everything else that it prevents him from being the most effective head coach he can be?

n That last point is brought up because this is the worst PSU defense we’ve seen in a long time. The Lions have given up historically bad point and yardage totals, they’ve looked lost against the pass all season and continued both trends in the first half Saturday as Minnesota, a running team, lit them up through the air in scoring 24 points.

The defense certainly played better and held the Gophers scoreless in the second half. But how much of that was a result of Minnesota sitting on a lead, running the ball almost exclusively and getting away from the pass, throwing only five times in the second half?

To be fair, the defense is undermanned, banged up in key spots and lacking depth, all clearly damaging results of the sanctions. But there are still enough good players on that side of the ball to be able to avoid playing as poorly as the group has this season.

O’Brien says he’s in constant communication with the defensive coaches and coordinator John Butler, but again, since his primary focus is offense, it begs the question of if he should get much more involved.

If the defense continues to struggle on a historic level, the criticism won’t just stop with Butler, and O’Brien will face more heat for not correcting the situation.

n Regardless of any defensive issues, Penn State has to be able to win games when it allows 24 points. That falls back directly on O’Brien.

Yes, there’s a freshman quarterback, but this team also has the best receiver in PSU history in Allen Robinson, two quality running backs in Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton and what was expected to be a good line. The offense should be better than what it has shown lately, averaging just 16 points the past three games.

The last point in this discussion is the recognition that O’Brien is a second-year head coach and that he should get better and better over time. That’s the presumption many PSU fans are making, and the hope in the Nittany Nation is, once the program is back on equal footing with the scholarships, that O’Brien can deliver a team that consistently wins 10 or more games and competes for Big Ten titles.

Those goals are attainable.

All things considered, O’Brien seems like a good enough coach and has a good enough track record to continue to believe he can do great things at PSU once the sanctions are lifted.

At the same time, he should feel somewhat fortunate that he’s in a situation where he can get head coaching experience, learn on the job and hone his craft while expectations for the team are reasonably low.

If O’Brien leaves for the NFL soon and makes the same kind of questionable decisions he’s made at times this season, you can guarantee he won’t get any kind of free pass from the media or the fans.

That reality, and knowing that job security in the NFL is basically non-existent, ultimately could be what keeps O’Brien at Penn State for many more years.

He doesn’t currently face unrealistic expectations at PSU, nor should he. That’s the free pass, if you will, that he enjoys.

But someday the expectations will be much greater, and whether O’Brien can meet them will, in many ways, depend on what he’s learning as a head coach right now.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger.