The Bulldogs have gone backwards even in areas where they were capable last year. Photo: Pat Scala
Are the Western Bulldogs a potentially good side drastically under-performing, or an ordinary one placed where their talent dictates they should be? Much depends on how you viewed the Bulldogs' finish to 2013.
Five wins from their last nine games seemed to have enough of the football world talking up potential finals prospects over summer. Too much, in fact, thought some of us, given they were victories over GWS, bedraggled West Coast and Adelaide teams, Carlton and Melbourne.
That weight of expectation has been some millstone this season. But with the Bulldogs now 3-8 and clearly cooked as far as 2014 goes, it's time nevertheless to start asking whether what it was based upon was in fact mostly hot air.
After a period of public grace, coach Brendan McCartney is starting to feel some serious heat about a variety of issues.
He was less than convincing when responding to the Bulldogs' position at the bottom of The Age's 'relevance ladder' last week. There's his refusal to give the public roasting many Bulldog fans believe his players deserve. A lack of animation before the cameras which, perhaps unfairly, can be interpreted as lack of passion. Now there's growing criticisms about both selection and an alleged lack of pro-activeness in the coach's box on game day.
All could feasibly be factors in what is fast becoming a nightmare of a season. But not nearly as great as one far more ominous perspective. That not only is McCartney's list a mile off the pace now, but its prospects of bridging that gap over the next few years minimal.
That's not to gloss over the immediate problems, though, which are considerable. In short, the Bulldogs have gone backwards in areas in which they've been proficient, and got worse in departments which were already an issue.
In 2013, the Bulldogs at least ranked No.1 in the differentials for contested ball. Currently, they're 16th. The blue collar stuff, as McCartney himself has noted, isn't always easy on the eye, but the fans will tolerate a lack of aesthetics if it produces wins. When that's not happening, what are they supposed to be enthused about?
Certainly, not their attack, which despite the recruitment of Stewart Crameri, is performing even worse than last year, when it ranked 13th for points scored. Then, the Dogs averaged 87.5 points a game. Currently, they're going at 80.2 points, more than a goal per game less, the ranking slipping to equal 14th.
They're not efficient with what opportunities they do have, either, ranked 15th for scores per forward entry, only once in 12 games having scored more than 100 points. That veteran Daniel Giansiracusa ranks second for scoreboard impact despite having started as sub eight times and averaging only 44 per cent of game time says it all.
In terms of personnel, the forward line issues are a microcosm of the bigger picture. There's a continual merry-go-round of the same faces in and out of the Bulldogs' set-up, on Saturday night against Brisbane Jarrad Grant was back for his first game of the season, while Liam Jones, available after suspension, played VFL.
So did Ayce Cordy, a player who like another VFL teammate Tom Campbell, the Dogs can't seem to decide on as a forward or ruckman. The senior 22, meanwhile, contained Grant, recruit Stewart Crameri and Tom Williams, two of whom don't have the capacity to play as genuine contested marking key forwards, the other a pinch-hitting key defender.
The juggling of options seems to have gone on for years now, and the Bulldogs don't look any more potent for it. Could they do any worse than give another raw key forward in Jack Redpath a crack now with the season already shot to bits?
But who else? The Bulldogs certainly seem to have more than their share of players who have had a taste of senior football but are still to convince even the Dogs they're a part of the best 22.
Lin Jong, Brett Goodes, Daniel Pearce, Sam Darley, Michael Talia, and Tom Young have all played senior football without owning a spot in the Dogs' best side. You could argue the same of three more who did line up against Brisbane, Jason Tutt, Christian Howard and Nathan Hrovat.
The Bulldogs have a chronic lack of leg speed around the ball, and their skills aren't up to scratch under intense physical pressure. Do any of those players named above have the necessary tools to be able to make a significant difference in those areas? You could hardly count on it.
Who's definitely there for the long haul? Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae, Luke Dahlhaus and Jordan Roughead certainly, probably Mitch Wallis, Jake Stringer and Lachie Hunter, perhaps Jason Johannisen and injured pair Clay Smith and Tory Dickson. That's less than half a team around whom the Bulldogs can confidently plan a long-term future.
And plenty of "ifs", "buts" and "maybes", especially with Giansiracusa 32, Bob Murphy turning 32 on Monday and Matthew Boyd 32 in August.
Turning the blowtorch on McCartney might offer Bulldog fans some sort of cathartic release, but Jock McHale could take on the club's current list and still face the same set of longer-term problems.
And, longer-term problems, given a third successive home crowd of comfortably under 20,000 on Saturday night, are something the Bulldogs simply can't afford. Literally.
And while I'm at it ...
AHEM … HOW ABOUT AKER?
The AFL Hall of Fame has another half-dozen inductees, but there's one guy who can rightly claim to be miffed about being made to wait at least another 12 months, and it's not Ben Cousins.
While I'd have Cousins in, too, I can at least accept that his off-field issues would make him at this stage too controversial a selection. But what has Jason Akermanis done wrong?
Aker retired at the end of 2010, which satisfied the entry requirements. And yes, his penchant for the big and controversial statement could be irritating. But surely not enough to have him left out when his playing record demands he should have been admitted.
A Brownlow Medal in a premiership year, two best and fairests awards, four All-Australian gongs and 325 games compares favourably with just about all of last week's inductees. If some ill-considered statements alone have kept Akermanis out, there must be plenty of existing Hall of Fame members thankful some of their words over the years were overlooked.
LITTLE BIG MEN
Wayne Carey wrote in these pages a couple of weeks ago about the increasing importance of small forwards. He's not wrong. Not only are the supposed "little blokes" holding their own in the goalkicking stakes, they're starting to dominate the mark of the year as well.
If Chad Wingard's mighty leap for Port Adelaide on Saturday doesn't win this year's high-flying stakes, it might be beaten only by that of another small forward in Collingwood's Jamie Elliott.
In fact in 12 rounds, the only contenders for the title taken by more traditional marking-sized players have been from Carlton's Jarrad Waite (twice), Gold Coast's Sam Day and Melbourne's Jeremy Howe, the other eight all from small forwards or midfielders.
As if life wasn't already difficult enough for the big men these days!
GIBBS GOES GREAT GUNS
If Carlton's great effort against Geelong is to be applauded, Bryce Gibbs deserves the loudest acclaim. As does his entire 2014 season. Has any Blue improved their standing anywhere near the amount Gibbs has this year? Not even close.
Gibbs' four goals against the Cats was a personal best, his season average 25 disposals is his second highest in an eight-season career, and his average five tackles per a game not only by some margin his best, but convincing proof of his harder edge in 2014.
Whatever scathing assessments are made of the Blues' senior core come the end of this season, Gibbs' name shouldn't be among them.