Football is the ultimate team game. With 22 men competing on each individual play and usually around triple that number contributing periodically over the course of a game, no other sport can compare to that of the gladiators on the gridiron.
Yet as dependent as each football team is on the entirety of its two-deeps, it's still very much a sport of individual accolades, achievements and criticisms. Exceptional athletes can transcend the game on any given play and equally, one minor failure in discipline can spell doom for an entire unit.
But football, especially at the college level, is about more than just the athletes that play the game. The true titans of the sport are the men on the sidelines calling the shots. College football is very much a coach's game, but just like the players on the field, each head man is dependent on his staff when it comes to building a winning program.
So perhaps it's unfair that for the Iowa State football program, two men stand alone at the forefront, shouldering the brunt of the blame and burden for what has transpired the last two years and will come to pass for the 2015 season, but in the Big 12, what's fair and unfair is inconsequential. The only thing that matters is the final score. The only thing that matters specifically, for Paul Rhoads and Sam Richardson, are wins and losses.
Rhoads and Richardson are in this together. You can argue that's usually the case for any head coach and his starting quarterback, but for these two, time is running out. Entering his senior year, Richardson has one last shot at engineering a bowl season as the signal caller for the Cyclones. For Rhoads, a 5-19 stretch over the last two years means he has to win now...or else.
Once thought to be a rising star in the coaching world, any goodwill Rhoads built for himself has been all but eroded by a dismal two-year stretch that may end up costing him his job. The shocking upsets and bowl trips seem like they occurred in the distant past. In six years, Rhoads has guided Iowa State to only one winning season. And remember that upset of #2 Oklahoma State that was going to change the trajectory of the program? Iowa State has gone an embarrassing 11-29 since that Friday night in November of 2011.
But wait, it gets worse:
- In that span, Iowa State has lost 18 of those 29 games by double digits, including 12 of those games by 20 points or more, 6 by 30 points or more and 3 by 40 points or more.
- The home record since beating Oklahoma State in 2011? A pathetic 5-15.
- The Cyclones have gone 5-24 in Big 12 play during that stretch with only two of those wins coming at home.
- Iowa State is also 1-2 against FCS teams in that time span (yet is 2-1 against Iowa with both wins in Iowa City...that sound you just heard was heads exploding all over Johnson County).
- Iowa State was also thoroughly dismantled in both the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl (27-14 loss to Rutgers) and in 2012 in the Liberty Bowl (31-17 loss to Tulsa).
If Paul Rhoads fails to guide Iowa State back to a bowl game in 2015, you're going to be hard pressed to find any Cyclone fan too outraged when he's ultimately let go.
But this isn't a "rip on Rhoads" session, this is a conversation about Rhoads' lasting impact in Ames, and how Iowa State performs this season will go a long way in determining how his legacy is written. Is there enough fire and passion left to coax another bowl trip out of an overmatched roster? Or is this just part of the long, painful end of this era in Cyclone football?
The good news is that up until the middle of October, Iowa State has its most favorable schedule in years. The first five games are certainly winnable and if this team can build a little confidence, who knows what may happen in the final seven contests?
Any chance of success (and salvaging Rhoads' job) will mostly fall on the shoulders of Sam Richardson. Like Rhoads, Richardson was thought to be once-upon-a-time the face of the next evolution of Cyclone football. In his debut performance as a redshirt freshman, he hit on 23 of 27 passes and threw four touchdowns in a 51-23 rout of Kansas. He followed that up with another three touchdown strikes and 119 yards rushing in a narrow loss against West Virginia and the hype began to build. It appeared as if the future for Iowa State was in very capable hands.
Unfortunately, it hasn't panned out well for Richardson since that hot start to his career. He's battled injuries, inconsistency and a coordinator change and nearly three years later, I'm not sure that anyone can definitively say whether he's a byproduct of playing on a bad team, or is mostly culpable for the dreadful lack of success.
Like coaches, for quarterbacks, the only numbers that really matter are wins and losses. For Sam Richardson, there are no numbers that matter more than his record as a starting quarterback in Big 12 play. In just over a little more than two seasons, Richardson has yet to guide Iowa State to a conference win in a game he started. 0-15.
Whether it's fair or not that he has to own that number when there are no shortage of equally guilty parties, it's going to follow him around until he does something about it. But some would argue he already has.
Provided he can stay healthy and put up modest numbers, Richardson should be able to pass Austen Arnaud to become Iowa State's #2 all-time passer in yardage and is 22 touchdown passes away from surpassing Bret Meyer for the career touchdown mark (Richardson threw 18 in 2014 and the season record for ISU was 20 by Todd Bandauer in 1997). He's also on pace to shatter Meyer's record for lowest interception percentage for a career and he'll likely find his way into the top three of most career completions.
Statistically, Richardson should end up being one of the best quarterbacks to ever come through Ames. But is there any real worth to being bestowed with that honor when a program has a history like Iowa State's? Also, just how hollow are the numbers when they don't lead to wins?
Therein lies the rub with Richardson; is he a good quarterback in a bad program or is he part of the problem? Truth be told, I'm not sure anyone knows and my guess would be it's a combination of both. After all, this is a guy that has put his team in a position to win multiple times, but has had horrible luck (and an atrocious defense and running game to back him up).
In his first career start, Richardson was marching Iowa State down the field for the tying score against West Virginia, only to see Jeff Woody cough up a fumble in the red zone. Against Texas in 2013, Richardson played a brilliant game and engineered one of the more clutch drives in the Rhoads era that led to a field goal that put Iowa State up by six, only to see the defense allow Texas to go nearly the length of the field and score the game-winning touchdown. In 2014, Richardson was masterful in a 6-play, 75-yard drive that saw Iowa State score the game-tying touchdown against the Longhorns in Austin with 28 seconds left, but once again, was let down by an awful defense.
The one time everything seemed to click was in 2014's win at Iowa, which saw Richardson carve up the Hawkeye defense in the second half, including on the game's 11-play, 51-yard drive that allowed Cole Netten to drill the winning field goal. Remarkably, the defense managed to hold it together on that day and Richardson more than did his part.
But for every close game and narrow victory Richardson has contributed to, he's also been lousy in more blowout losses than I care to rehash.
Defining the Legacies
We'll know soon enough just how salty the 2015 Iowa State football team is and just how good their quarterback can be. With both Rhoads and Richardson, however, it all boils down to wins and more specifically, getting to a bowl game. Two legacies hang in the balance.