August 31, 2005

Knowles' Leadership Brings Optimism to Cornell Football

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I’m not about to go out and compare Cornell football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 to New England Patriots headman Bill Belichick – but the similarities are certainly there (at least using the “Cornell is everything” world view). Prior to its recent success, New England rivaled the Cincinnati Bengals as the most pathetic franchise in professional football. In 1990, the squad bottomed out with a 1-15 record, earning them a last place team ranking in the Nintendo classic, Tecmo Super Bowl (hands down the best game of all-time). The Patriots were often referred to by even their most die-hard supporters as the “Patsies” – not exactly a flattering nickname. I think I can say with some confidence, however, that no one is calling them the Patsies any longer. Model NFL franchise is more like it.

But, on paper alone the Patriots would not have been Super Bowl Champions in three out of the last four seasons. In last year’s divisional playoff game against the Colts – the fifth highest scoring team in league history – the Patriots shut down the potent Indianapolis attack without All-Pro cornerback Ty Law – replacing him with a wide receiver. It just goes to show you that the strategy is just as important as the players on the field.

Just two seasons ago, the Cornell football team bottomed out with a 1-9 record, including a winless mark in league play. I wish I could say that their most die-hard fans mocked the team’s performance with an unflattering nickname, but unfortunately, the team didn’t have many die-hard fans. In former head coach Tim Pendergast’s three-year term with the Red, the squad managed just five victories (that’s right, five – in three seasons) against its Ancient Eight rivals. In just one season as Cornell’s head coach, Knowles has four.

Much of the improvement between 2003 and 2004 came on the defensive side of the ball, with the Red finishing last season as the seventh best team in the country against the run – first in the Ivy League. According to Knowles, the Red is ahead of the league curve in terms of defensive creativity, but lags behind on offense. Sounds a lot to me like the Patriots in their first Super Bowl season with a dominant defensive and a controlled, West Coast-style offense.

While Belichick changed a large portion of the Patriots’ personnel when he arrived in New England, Knowles inherited Pendergast’s squad and still managed to complete the biggest turnaround in league history. The offense remained ineffective at times, but the defense showed up on a consistent basis. Knowles’ strategy – based on confusion and relentless pressure on opposing offenses – should receive the majority of the credit for the improvement the Red realized a year ago.

Knowles’ gameplan is not unlike Belichick’s system in terms of its liberal use of misdirection in order to disguise his defensive packages. However, the Red defense is actually more similar to that of the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles – with the brains behind that system coming from defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

Former Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent described Johnson’s defense two years ago by saying, “He’s got different people coming from all over the place. He’s got them coming from places I don’t even know about.” And Vincent actually received a copy of the playbook.

Knowles’ scheme is designed to keep the offense off-balance by blitzing from all 11 defensive positions at one time or another. He believes that he must show the opponent that he is willing to send anyone after the quarterback at anytime – making the Red extremely unpredictable and difficult to prepare for. According to Knowles, the Red will blitz at least one player on 75 percent of defensive calls in order to keep physical and mental pressure on the quarterback.

The drawback to the aggressive style of play is the susceptibility to big plays in the passing game, as the Red corners are often left in man-to-man coverage on the outside. However, judging from the improved play of senior Jason Cloyd and junior Matt Grant in last week’s first intrasquad scrimmage, the Red secondary seems like much less of a concern.

The offense on the other hand is a different story. In the aforementioned scrimmage, it had difficulty gaining any substantial yardage, other than a sustained opening drive, in which the kicker missed a 38-yard field goal. But, looking at Knowles’ one year of miracle work on defense, I have no doubt that the offense will improve. Last season, Knowles set out to stabilize a defensive unit that was torn to shreds under Pendergast’s control. This season, he sets out on what may be a multi-year project of “fixing” the offense.

His plan is based on a controlled passing game in the West Coast mold, very similar to Tom Brady’s nauseating style that won the Patriots their first Super Bowl. Last year, the Red instituted a drop back passing game, which requires a beefy offensive line – something the team unfortunately does not have. In order to give the line the best chance against the rush, Knowles will use a variety of motion and fakes with his running back and wide receivers – preventing the defense from teeing off on any given play.

Knowles – despite being a predominantly defensive-minded coach – will improve the Red’s offensive attack because, above all else, Knowles is a winner. And just like Belichick did with the Patriots, he will make a winner out of Cornell. The Red might not start a run of three out of four division titles, but they will return to consistent respectability within the Ivy League.

Bryan Pepper is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Raising the Apple appears every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Bryan Pepper