Sark's Next Task: Get The Offense Right

Keith Price (US PRESSWIRE)

SEATTLE - It seems almost ridiculous to say it, but somewhere along the way Washington's offense went off the rails. This is the same group, led by quarterback Keith Price, that averaged 409 yards and over 33 points per game in 2011. But that seems a long way off now; this year's offense is producing a paltry 321 yards and 23 points each time they step out on the field.

So where did it all go so horribly wrong? It's easy to point the finger of blame at UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian, who also happens to call the plays during the games. Nothing's changed with Sarkisian's ability to dial up the right play at the right time. When reviewing the games it's been a lack of execution that has plagued the Huskies time and time again from moving the ball in any meaningful way.

So then what is it? You can point to injuries, especially to the offensive line where UW has already lost three starters from last year's line - but even Offensive Line Coach Dan Cozzetto won't use that as an excuse for poor or inconsistent play. "It's football," Cozzetto said Wednesday. "You are going to have injuries. This many? Probably not this many. But you stay in this business long enough you are going to see something new. I haven't seen it all, there's always something new. It's been a challenge - sometimes I hold my breath and go, 'Man, I get a little grayer, a little balder --- my blood pressure.' But I'm still alive. I say a lot of prayers. I go to church.''

While Cozzetto is saying his Hail Marys daily, Price may also be prevailing upon a higher power. He's not the smiling, gregarious Price we all became accustomed to last year as he threw for 33 touchdowns and completed 67 percent of his passes - both single-season career marks at Washington. But the Football Gods took Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and Senio Kelemete away, so Price has had to find ways to flourish with nearly a whole new set of playmakers. Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams continue to try and help Price any way they can, but like Price they weren't asked to accept mantles of leadership as first-year starters last year. They are all learning how to lead while at the same time searching to recreate the same magic that helped UW to an Alamo Bowl appearance against Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and Baylor - a game where nearly everyone felt Price outplayed Griffin despite the Huskies losing 67-56.

"There's no excuses as to why I'm off," Price said Monday. "I just have to play better. Obviously, we want those guys back, but there's nothing I can do about it. I have to come up with a different way of being successful."

Price has tried to jump-start Washington's offense time and time again, only to trot off the field with expressions varying from bemused to puzzled to downright pissed off. It's not a look Price wears well, especially because it's not him at all. Monday Price rolled through a very revealing press conference where his body language went from frustration to confidence in a matter of minutes. As Price was talking about trying too hard and putting too much of the offensive burden on his shoulders, you got a palpable sense that he was listening to his own words and using the press conference as a moment of re-birth, a move back toward the Keith Price that amazed everyone last year with his play on the field and his never-ending grin off it - win or lose.

And just as he scripts his opening plays to any football game, Sarkisian had a script for how the team was going to deal with the apparent 'Keith Price Revival' and wasn't going to deviate from the main talking points. He was going to re-distribute the weight of the offense evenly, starting with his own broad shoulders.

Here's a sampling of the game plan:
Monday - "We all need to get better. We need to have a better game plan, we need to call better plays, we need to pass protect better, we need to run better routes, we need to catch the ball when we throw it to you and we need to make good, quick decisions at the quarterback position and be decisive and be accurate and play the game the way we're capable of playing."

Wednesday - "We've all got to do our part and be attentive to the details and be accountable because football, it takes 11 guys every snap to be successful, everyone doing their job at a high level, executing and making their plays. And it only takes one of the 11 to make a mistake, whether it's assignment error, fundamental error or technique error. If that occurs you can lose that snap. I think that's been the most glaring thing for us right now --- we'll have 10 guys right and one guy might be wrong and inevitably we're not executing in the passing game because of that. So we all have to take our part in that.''

Thursday - "I think people make too much of the 'old Keith Price'. We need the 'old Washington offense' and then Keith will perform when he gets his opportunities. We need to play better around him, as well as he can improve. But we all need to be better."

And there's no question Sarkisian is right. Everyone on offense has to do their part with precision in order for UW to execute at the level they are not only capable of, but what they've already shown to be capable of in past years under Sark's lead. But Price is certainly getting the lion's share of his attention this week, as Sarkisian stated during his Monday coaches show. He had a long meeting with Price that morning, talking about how he's got to get back to having fun with the game of football and not making it work. Sark didn't mention anything about similar meetings he may have had with players like Micah Hatchie, Seferian-Jenkins, or Bishop Sankey, just to name a few other players on that side of the ball.

Even Price admitted teammates like Princeton Fuimaono have come up to him in recent days wondering what's up with their quarterback. Right now football is just too much work for Price, and it shows. He's at his best when he's got a smile on his face and a marksman's touch on the field.

"I've just got to focus on myself," Price said. "I think that's been the theme all year is not worrying about everyone else. It's so hard to do and I've been struggling with that and I have to enjoy the game. I don't think I've been enjoying the game the past couple of weeks. I haven't been playing with the same passion as last year and the same people, the same confidence, the same swagger."

Inevitably the question will come down to this; is it the improvement of all the players around Price that will bring him back the swagger he's had in the past, or is it Price going back to his old self and executing at the level everyone knows he's capable of that will catalyze the rest of the offense? In basketball terms, does Price have to be at his best as the facilitator of the offense to make those around him better or does the rest of the team have to show they can score on their own in order for Price to get back to what he does best - which is playing point guard, distributing the ball and making great decisions?

It's a chicken-egg argument that will continue to exist until the Washington offense finds itself again. And it may just come down to continuity and trust. As Cozzetto explained on Wednesday, it's the offensive line's job to make sure Price comes out of every game with a sound mind and clean jersey. Despite their 17-13 win over Stanford, Price did not escape that victory without some serious bumps and bruises courtesy of the Cardinal front seven.

In hindsight, the win over Stanford may have been slightly pyrrhic in nature, masking the core issue of belief every offense has to have in itself in order to operate at its maximum. Does Price trust his offensive line will always be where they need to in order to take an extra beat that allows a receiver to flash open downfield? If backs are in to max protect against blitzes, are they picking up their men on a consistent basis? And are the tight ends and receivers open downfield with regularity, getting to their spots on time as ready and willing targets?

And most importantly - if some or all of those things aren't happening and continue to persist despite continued repetition and attention to detail - how much time will the offense be given in its current form before change is considered?

They say that quarterbacks are often praised too much after wins and criticized too much after losses. I believe that to be true. I also believe that no one has been harder on Keith Price than Keith Price. He's been tough on himself for a reason; he wants to win more than anyone. He wears it on his face.

When Keith can summon that desire and that swagger back in a way that infects the offense, being UW's quarterback won't be work for him at all and everyone will be on the same page with him for the first time all year - including Sarkisian. It will be a hell of a lot of fun to watch when it does happen, because Sark will have found his play-calling groove that's been arhythmic at best as he searched relentlessly for the offense's heartbeat.

There's no question Sark has pulled all the right strings in directing from on high a defense that's radically different and markedly more successful than its predecessor. He hasn't micromanaged from his CEO chair, instead giving nearly total control of the defense over to new UW DC Justin Wilcox and his assistants. But the direction of the offense is basically his and his alone - and how he navigates them out of the doldrums is obviously Priority One.

Deep down, Price has always been the heart of the offense - the manager of the game, to use Cozzetto's words. Now it's just a matter of when it's all going to mesh. The words have all been spoken, the scripts have all been adhered to. If Price has anything more to say about it, it'll be this Saturday.

"I'm just anxious to get back to that and you guys are going to see a lot of that this week,'' Price said, matter-of-factly.

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