Coaching conundrum: Carlton's Brett Ratten must try something radical to quieten his critics ... or buy some earplugs. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
THREE weeks ago, this column outlined the reliability of the ''round seven rule'', and came up with a final ladder.
The round seven theory might still hold up, though the top eight has already changed by two teams since then, but boy that ladder is looking a bit sick, particularly the team I had finishing on top.
Carlton, the day of its Monday night clash with St Kilda, was riding high with a 5-1 record, and form good enough to justify it finishing with as many as 18 wins. Four games on, the Blues would be at long odds indeed to finish top, are going to struggle to make top four, and in their current state, could quite conceivably miss the eight altogether.
The loss to St Kilda that evening was a shock. The subsequent smashing at the hands of Adelaide a wake-up call. A win over bottom-of-the-ladder Melbourne anything but inspiring. And Saturday night's shocker against Port Adelaide a disaster.
Carlton certainly hasn't taken a trick on the injury front, Heath Scotland now joining late withdrawal Matthew Kreuzer, Marc Murphy, Andrew Carrazzo, Jarrad Waite, Lachie Henderson, Nick Duigan and Jeremy Laidler on the sidelines.
That's a fair toll, and some mitigation for the drubbing at the hands of Port. Some, but not all. Not when rivals such as Collingwood, West Coast and Essendon have at times this year found a way to manufacture wins while similarly undermanned.
It's still only June, but for Carlton, it's effectively crisis time already. The month ahead - taking in Geelong, West Coast (in Perth), a bye, Hawthorn and Collingwood - is a lot tougher than the one the Blues have just limped through. And the questions routinely asked of Brett Ratten and his support staff are becoming far louder.
Indeed, the next month for Ratten is looming, in coaching terms, as career defining. He needs to find some solutions to the present malaise pronto. And show more daring and inventiveness than he has thus far.
I've often thought Carlton fans were too harsh on their coach. But right now, they might have a point. It was Ratten, after all, who immediately after his two-year contract extension last October identified a top-four finish as the Blues' minimum aim. And if they're going to get out of this pickle, it's he who is going to have to lead the way.
Carlton is withering on the vine, starting in midfield where, since the loss to Essendon in round four, the Blues have appeared to have little answer to opponents who throw more numbers around the stoppages, cutting Carlton's creativity off at its core.
Murphy and Carrazzo's absences are hanging like a millstone around the neck of Chris Judd, beaten on Saturday night by the precocious Hamish Hartlett, and whose disposal effectiveness was reduced to just 43 per cent.
The Blues can't make the missing pair return magically, but they can at least bite the bullet and give Bryce Gibbs some serious midfield time in the interim. At least his creativity might give Carlton an opportunity to do something more with its still-high differential rankings for contested ball and clearances.
Why doesn't Ratten consider giving under-performing small forward Jeff Garlett a run in the middle? Or Chris Yarran? Players with vision and skill. For as solid as Brock McLean has been in his return, his example isn't one that's going to seriously turn back the tide.
The Blues could throw Judd forward for longer, too, the ''rob Peter to pay Paul'' argument losing credence by the week as Judd's efficiency rating continues to slip.
He's certainly far more likely to throw a cat among opposition pigeons than a defender such as Paul Bower. So is Gibbs. Or someone other than a third ruckman, that strategy failing to pay off more often than it has worked for too long now.
Carlton keeps going back to the well with the likes of Bower, Aaron Joseph, Jordan Russell and Ed Curnow. Maybe it's time the Blues started drilling deep in a new location for some fresh water, and throw the serial senior offenders when the chips are down challenges that will make or break them once and for all.
Ratten can rightly argue the loss of key players in all parts of the ground has effectively tied one arm behind his back. But unless he and Carlton are prepared to try something more radical with that free hand, given the immediate road ahead, the damage will have effectively been done by the time the absentees return.
Carlton's coach has copped plenty of flak from his own. Over the next month, Ratten can shut them up once and for all by leading the Blues back into contention with a coach-led recovery.
Or buy a pair of earplugs as the mutterings of discontent turn into a dull roar.