Behind the eight-ball: Embarrassed by Carlton, the crestfallen Bombers trudge off the MCG on Saturday.

Behind the eight-ball: Embarrassed by Carlton, the crestfallen Bombers trudge off the MCG on Saturday. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

JAMES Hird didn't want to be seen looking for cop-outs after the debacle that was Essendon's 96-point belting at the hands of Carlton on Saturday.

That's good, because some things are inexcusable, and not just the size of the defeat but the lack of passion and fight shown by the Bombers against a bitter rival, with so much hanging on the line, was certainly in that category.

Essendon has spent much of the past decade making excuses of some sort, be it injuries, or the wrong coach, or the need for more development, or not having a big enough training ground. It's become a monotonous refrain, and if it doesn't end immediately, the Bombers will remain well short of the powerhouse they'd like to be again.

In the relentless discussion about Essendon's fitness program disaster, some bigger issues have been unmasked, namely a mental fragility already publicly acknowledged by assistant coach Mark Thompson.

You don't need your A-graders on the park to chase, harass, tackle and defend your own. Essendon did none of that on Saturday, most tellingly in the lack of assistance offered to skipper Jobe Watson when he was crunched by the Blues. But that's been the norm for six weeks now.

A 71-point flogging against St Kilda, 67 points against Geelong, 94 points to Hawthorn and now 96 points make embarrassing reading. If it's been purely a physical issue, why in the midst of those disasters was Essendon able to pull out such a gritty effort in Adelaide against one of the competition leaders?

There's a shocking paucity of genuine bull-by-the-horns leadership in the line-up, which still revolves essentially around the captain, a 37-year-old Dustin Fletcher, and a player surprisingly dropped for the Carlton game, Nathan Lovett-Murray.

Lovett-Murray is far from a top-liner, lacks endurance and has done his best work off the substitute's bench. The fact that his aggression and spirit is still such a barometer of Essendon's fortunes is an indictment on many more talented teammates.

How talented? Well, years on, that debate seems not a lot closer to being resolved. Some point to a clutch of potential stars in the 21-24 age bracket, and the likes of David Zaharakis, Michael Hurley, Dyson Heppell, Jake Melksham, and more recently Alex Browne are the most obvious foundation of future Bomber teams.

But there's legitimate questions being asked even of that group. About Hurley's durability, and the fact Heppell and Melksham's development seems to have stalled this year.

That pair, Travis Colyer, Heath Hocking, Tayte Pears, Angus Monfries, Cale Hooker, Kyle Hardingham, Kyle Reimers, Alwyn Davey and Leroy Jetta aren't the best advertisements for Hird's oft-repeated mantra about continual improvement. None are better players than they were 12 months ago. And most of them right now are poorer.

Thompson's mantra, meanwhile, is improvement from within, which helps justify the continued lack of action on the trade front by long-time recruiting manager Adrian Dodoro.

But does Essendon really have enough material to work with? And how far does the trade currency of its list continue to be driven down both by the intransigence of the football department to offer something decent to get something better, and by year after year of ordinary football from players who seem to have been around forever?

Bomber fans know most of the names. Monfries (eight seasons, and 148 games). Ricky Dyson (nine and 114). Henry Slattery (eight and 96). Sam Lonergan (seven and 79). Small forwards Jetta and Davey are in season six, still buzzing around a lot for not much meaningful return. Veterans David Hille and Mark McVeigh surely are about to retire.

You can't just take a hatchet to a list without adequate replacements, comes the obvious party line. But if you don't spend too many years deciding whether a player is up to it or not, that isn't the problem it continues to be for Essendon.

For the first time, Essendon people, rightly or wrongly, are starting to ask questions about their club's coaching "dream team". About Hird's continued public calm in the face of such disgraceful efforts as Saturday's. About the fact that for an assistant coach, Thompson has enormous control. "Nothing here happens without his say-so", was how one insider put it yesterday.

Like the appointment of weights coach Dean Robinson to manage a fitness program and the consequent disastrous spate of soft-tissue injuries. And liked the closed, insular place Essendon now appears to the football world.

After the disaster that 2012 has turned into, the next 12 months will be acid tests of Essendon's credibility. Because the time for excuses is well and truly over.

And in the meantime, while they're highly unlikely to take part in the finals they appeared to be certainties for only two months ago, the Bombers should spend the last two games of the season at least looking like they give a toss about what's going on.