Jim McElwain is a player’s coach. The love he has for his players can be seen in press conferences when his eyes well up talking about injuries, or what his locker room was like after a loss. It can be seen when players who run afoul of the law or break team rules are given second and third chances.
He knows how much football means to the young men on his team, and how, for some, the game is a way to get out of a bad neighborhood and provide for their family. He knows that for others in the locker room their football careers won’t go any further than playing for the Florida Gators and how much playing here means to them, too.
McElwain has also been described as an offensive genius or guru. At stops all throughout his football-coaching career he’s helped develop quarterbacks and helped build and operate potent offenses. It’s why he’s in Gainesville.
Before McElwain, Florida went through four years of offensive ineptitude. For a fan base addicted to yards and points thanks to 11 years filled with both during Steve Spurrier’s coaching tenure and then five more with Urban Meyer, those four years were excruciating.
McElwain was brought to Florida to fix the offense, return Florida to its previous glory and make Florida football fun again. 33 games into his tenure that isn’t happening.
Through six games in 2017, the Gators have thrown four touchdown passes. That’s one less than Navy and Georgia Tech, two offenses that run a triple option offense, a scheme that has almost no value for the forward pass.
At the bye week, the Gators’ offense is 106th in the country (351.2 yards per game), 97th in scoring (23.7) and 103rd in 3rd down offense (33.33%). Even their best offensive stat — red zone efficiency — comes with a caveat. Florida is tied for the lead in the country with a 100% conversion rate (10 TD, 5 FG) but they’ve only made it down to the red area 15 times, 121st in the country.
The past two seasons McElwain has been quick to point out that he was brought to Florida to get the Gators back to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game, which he did. However, the brand of offensive football hasn’t been palatable to the fan base, which is screaming for change.
Another characteristic McElwain has is loyalty. It shows in the way players like Antonio Callaway have gotten second and third chances, and it’s showing in his faith in offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The professional relationship of McElwain and Nussmeier goes back to the early 2000s, when both were at Michigan State.
“The great job he did with not only Jeff Smoker but Drew Stanton,” McElwain said of Nussmeier prior to the Texas A&M game. “You know, I saw how he taught those guys and the numbers we were able to put up and that kind of thing. Obviously he followed me to Fresno and we stayed in touch ever since.”
McElwain is loyal to Nussmeier despite Florida’s offense not being able to crack the top-100 since the duo has been in Gainesville. Loyalty is a valuable characteristic but Division I football is a “what have you done for me lately” business and the buck stops at the desk of the head coach.
Even more puzzling when it comes to the offense is the sheer amount of playmakers Florida has. After two years of their own recruiting cycles, Florida has more talent at the skill positions than they have had in any of McElwain’s previous seasons. They lost two in Callaway and Jordan Scarlett, but that was months ago. As a coach you have to be prepared to adapt your offense to the players you have, not worry about the players you don’t have.
Next man up, right?
Nussmeier is the scapegoat for fans now, but ultimately this is and should be McElwain’s offense. It’s puzzling when offensive-minded head coaches give up play-calling duties. McElwain’s play-calling ability at Fresno State helped get him the offensive coordinator job at Alabama, which helped him get the head-coaching job at Colorado State, where he gave up play-calling duties after his first season. Why give up what helped bring you success?
Ultimately the responsibility to fix the offense falls on McElwain’s shoulders. Yes, Florida has playmakers out on the offensive side of the ball but that can’t be used as an excuse.
It’s time for McElwain to do what he was hired to do and fix Florida’s offense. If that means calling plays on Saturday than that’s what he should do. If that means meeting with Nussmeier and Feleipe Franks to figure out what plays the redshirt freshman is comfortable running and simplifying the offense even further, than that’s what he must do.
Whatever they’re doing currently isn’t working. Florida, because of back-to-back home SEC losses, no longer controls its fate in the SEC. McElwain won’t have the “we made it to Atlanta” card to play at the end of this season when asked about another abysmal offense.
No matter who the offensive coordinator is, this has been and will be thought of and remembered as Jim McElwain’s offense.
He should start acting like it.