The difference between going to a game and watching it on television is never so dramatic as it is at a spring game — and Florida's 2015 edition of the Orange and Blue Debut on Saturday produced the most dramatic divide I've seen in covering the Gators.
The first play of the day was a kick return for a touchdown by Demarcus Robinson which put six points on the board, but the next one was a snap for the Orange offense from its own 40 — and not only was that (and the ban on tackling on special teams) never really explained in the stadium, the six points never came off the board.
You see things that don't get mentioned on a broadcast in person, like Deiondre Porter and Marcus Maye doing the whip before a kickoff, but you don't get the context or the narrative that TV commentators provide. And on Saturday, the context that fans who tuned in online got included a testy Jim McElwain being displeased with his team.
McElwain reserved much of his ire for Austin Hardin, as seen here:
Yo I can already tell Mac doesn't like kickers pic.twitter.com/oBR9Xi0ldy— Lucas Fore (@lucasfore74) April 11, 2015
And after the game, he wasn't much kinder.
"I was hoping that we had a kicker that could just bang it through the end zone," McElwain said. "For whatever reason, we couldn't."
Of course, McElwain is also the guy who called his last Colorado State kicker, Jared Roberts, "Kicker" — even when asking him to lead the fight song after a game-winning boot. Maybe it's just tough love?
And then there was McElwain lamenting Will Grier's body language after a receiver dropped a pass — something I didn't notice during the game, because what fan actually cares about a quarterback's body language on a dropped pass in a spring game, c'mon. That frustration inspired FLORIDA TODAY writer David Jones to flay Grier at the altar of Saint Danny:
Another issue? His body language was not good when a receiver failed to come down with the ball. That's OK for the prom king on Friday night. On Saturdays, if you're going to lead a title contender, you better suck it up. McElwain admits he wasn't thrilled at seeing his QB get frustrated with dropped balls. Grier confessed he needs to get better at that.
Here's a clue fellas. I don't ever recall seeing Danny Wuerffel get mad at a teammate. Ever.
And McElwain's been tasked with being the bearer of bad news about Rod Johnson all along. Nothing about that situation is going to make anyone feel good.
In fairness, McElwain also said things about being "encouraged" despite labeling Florida a "work in progress" and saying his team has "a ways to go," mixing in the optimism of spring with the realism (and expectations-deflating gamesmanship) a coach has to deliver.
But his best move can't be adopting simple, reserved patience. Few truly patient coaches still exist in American sports, and certainly not at a level where millions are on the line and depend on winning. For McElwain, winning requires selling his program, which gets harder and harder if he can't sell recruits or fans on progress, or forward momentum. Those pitches being valid depend on getting results as soon as possible.
Patience, though, might be a decent tactic for Florida fans.
We don't know what will come of McElwain's first year, or his tenure, and that seems to irritate, if not infuriate, more fans than it invigorates. A tabula rasa invites speculation, to be sure, but why fill almost five long months of offseason with rosy best-case scenarios and doom-saying — and swing between the two — instead of simply waiting to see what will be?
Part of the appeal of prognostication, I think, is the way discourse about sports has transitioned from striving for understanding to thirsting for certitude. It's not enough to get why something happened, past tense: It's important to "know" what will happen, for the benefit of saying "I told you so" afterward, even if guessing is the only way to "know" something precognitively.
It's undoubtedly fun for some to say that McElwain starting Grier over Treon Harris will be a masterstroke that gets Florida into the SEC East race, and it's surely fun for some to say that McElwain starting Grier over Harris will be a boondoggle that only reveals he can't make even the most important call right as head coach. All of the smaller debates about the decisions McElwain has made and will make are going to play out over and over again, too.
I think, given how many variables are present, we have no firm idea what will actually happen, with either Florida's quarterback competition or its season, just a collection of hunches. But, hey, what's the penalty for getting something wrong?
The disincentive in sports discourse isn't for guessing wrong, but for not guessing at all.
I don't like that. So I'm not going to guess, not now — but I'm also going to tell you why I'm being patient, and that I'm going to do a lot more research and come to more measured conclusions at a slower pace. Patience also works better for handling pessimism and setbacks, I find: Pleasant surprises are even better, and
You may prefer a lot of hot air now to more level-headed assessments down the road, and that's fine. You're not going to find it here, and there are plenty of places you can get it.
But we, as fans, have the luxury of being patient with McElwain, and with Florida. I'm going to enjoy it, for as long as I can. You're welcome to join me.