Giger: Franklin has to improve, but patience needed
There are a lot of Penn State fans out there who feel duped.
“Hired a used car salesman,” is pretty much their rallying cry.
“He’s all talk and no substance,” others say often.
This is what James Franklin is up against. Unfortunately, too, in a lot of ways, but that’s the reality nevertheless.
Many negative opinions already have been formed about Franklin in less than two full seasons, and the coach has a lot of work to do to change those opinions.
Here’s the good news – or maybe the bad news, depending on your perspective: Franklin isn’t going anywhere for at least a few more years.
Yes, I say that’s good news. Because Franklin deserves time, deserves your patience, deserves the chance to see if he can become as good of a football coach as he is a talker and recruiter.
If anybody thinks I’m defending Franklin, who’s now 0-4 against ranked teams at Penn State after Saturday’s 28-16 loss to No. 12 Michigan and 1-12 vs. ranked teams in his career, think again.
Franklin’s offense has been flat out terrible to watch for the most part.
The only thing worse than the offense is special teams, which are an embarrassment.
Franklin needs to become a better football coach than what he’s shown with the Nittany Lions. He needs some better coaches on his staff to complement the good ones he does have in order to compete with elite coaches in his own division. The staff has to become light years better at game management.
All of those things fall directly on the head coach, and right now, Franklin isn’t cutting it.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t cut it in a couple of years, when the Penn State program is in a different place.
You can’t put all the blame for the Lions’ current problems on the sanctions. The sanctions didn’t fumble a punt that helped give Michigan a huge TD. The sanctions didn’t drop what would have been a game-winning interception in the closing minutes at Northwestern. The sanctions didn’t give up 10 sacks against Temple. The sanctions are not why Christian Hackenberg can barely complete more than 50 percent of his passes (52.9 this year).
Players make mistakes that lose games. It’s not always on the coaches or the sanctions or anything else other than, hey, players needs to make a play if you want to win.
Where all of this gets tricky is that the sanctions clearly did have a big impact on the program. But trying to figure out if some of the problems we’re seeing today are still a result of that or not is a gray area.
For instance, former coach Bill O’Brien left the cupboard bare on the offensive line when he departed. He made a decision to recruit skill players over linemen thinking the scholarships were going to be reduced, and no one can fault him for that strategy. It just so happened that the scholarship reduction didn’t last, but O’Brien couldn’t have known that at the time.
Fast forward, we now have to ask: Are the major problems we continue to see on the offensive line a result of the cupboard being so bare because of the sanctions, or does blame fall on current line coach Herb Hand for not developing the players better?
The questions about the offensive line are vital when it comes to analyzing Franklin’s performance so far. The line is so bad that it has ruined Hackenberg in many ways and handcuffed what the team can do offensively.
So, who’s to blame?
From this view, the fault falls more on Hand. He’s had two years with these guys, they are Big Ten offensive linemen, and they still can’t be trusted at all.
These coaches have allowed one bad unit to dictate everything in the program. They have failed correct the problem and failed to adequately strategize around it.
Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-record 44 times last year, and he’s already at 37 this season. If Hackenberg could truly be honest, he’d probably say he can’t wait to get away from Penn State so that he’s still healthy enough to play in the NFL.
Getting back to Franklin, everyone knows he’s doing a terrific job recruiting, and Penn State will get a big influx of talent the next couple of years.
For that reason alone, Franklin has plenty of job security for now.
In the bigger picture, what Penn State needs more than anything right now is stability. After all the turmoil of the sanctions and O’Brien’s brief tenure, this program cannot afford to make another football coaching change in the next year or two, even if Franklin continues to struggle in certain areas.
He needs a chance to fully implement his system with his style of players, and whether fans like it or not, that takes time.
One problem people won’t want to hear is that things are likely to get worse before they get better for Franklin and the Lions. Not just this week, either, with a trip to Michigan State looming.
The team could take a dip next season breaking in a new quarterback and having to replace three NFL defensive linemen, plus there’s no assurance the O-line will be any better. A 6-6 or even 5-7 record could be on the way.
Even if that happens, though, it still won’t change the fact that we will not be able to fully judge Franklin until 2017. Trace McSorley will be a second-year starting quarterback then, Saquon Barkley will be a junior, and the current group of young receivers, linebackers and defensive backs will be experienced upperclassmen.
If Franklin can’t put up a strong season in 2017, then he could be in some trouble as he seeks an extension beyond his initial contract, which runs through 2019.
It’s hard to be patient, especially for passionate sports fans.
The Nittany Nation has a lot of reasons to be concerned about whether James Franklin can become a great coach, but fans had better learn to be patient, because it could take a while to find out.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.