Glory And Fame: What To Make Of Essendon's Rebuild
In recent years, bad news has made a habit of sneaking up behind the Bombers and whispering awful things into its Tullamarine-based ears.
So in the interests of consistency, let’s indeed begin with the bad news.
This 1-4 start to the season is only the fourth occasion over the last four decades Essendon have began a campaign so poorly, and which is reflected in the Stats Insider future model who's telling us there’s an 83.2% chance Essendon won’t be playing Finals in 2021.
That uncomfortable truth would mean the club’s streak of not winning a match in September will seamlessly tick over to 18 years.
But that’s it. No more pot-shots at a club too many are prepared to say the most egregious things about. Instead, we’ll move on to the litany of positive elements that are signalling this Bomber rebuild might actually be on the right track.
Let’s take a look.
Tackling like maniacs
Whichever way you slice it, Essendon are the league’s pre-eminent tackling team and it’s not even close.
From a raw tackling perspective they’re the league’s number one team, manufacturing 67.4 per game. Yet it’s only when you dig a little deeper do you appreciate the sheer magnitude of what the club is actually accomplishing in this realm.
Through the league’s first five games, Essendon are laying a tackle for every 5.67 opposition disposals which is easily the best number in the league, and a major factor why they still sport a healthy 91.38 percentage, despite their 1-4 record.
Rookie head coach Ben Rutten has been particularly keen to stamp his mark upon the league’s third-youngest playing group, and he’s backing this up but instilling a degree of defensive accountability not seen at Bomberland for quite some time.
Their +15.8 tackle differential number easily represents the strongest number of the AFL-era, while their +7.6 gap to the next best team (Gold Coast) is also an historic best. While no, the wins aren’t exactly pouring forth, this club has improved significantly, most importantly developing a better understanding of where their list is at, and finally instituting a more blue-collar ethos.
So far, no less than 14 different Bombers have laid at least ten tackles, headlined by Andrew McGrath who’s proving his #1 draft status isn’t a free pass where getting down and dirty is concerned. At the other end of the draft spectrum, Will Snelling has been something of a revelation, and is currently the only player in the league ranked top-5 for total tackles and tackles inside-50, while the South Australian has also registered 103pressure acts.
So, you’re good at tackling. So what?
Fair question. And while indeed Essendon’s superior tackling still has them a million miles away from genuine contention, it’s an indisputable truth in the AFL tackling has an extremely healthy relationship with winning.
Of the last 11 teams to be the league’s definitive best from a tackling differential perspective, 7 have made finals, 5 have made a grand final, while 3 have ultimately been crowned premiers.
And it appears to be an aspect of the game which is by no means losing its appeal, or correlation with success.
Last season, the league’s top-eight for tackle differential effectively worked as a mirror for the actual top-8, with the exception of Essendon who were replaced by Collingwood (ranked 9th) come finals time.
Good, premiership-worthy teams have invariably leaned on tackling as a major strength, and non-negotiable component of defence. The Bomber's prioritisation of this facet of the game, and at this point of their rebuild, should hold them in good stead.
Will the pain ever end?
Quite possibly. While there’s an exceedingly high probability the Bombers will once again not be playing Finals this season, the club does seem to have finally accepted its current place in the football ecosystem.
Last year’s inability to seal the Josh Dunkley trade, meant they could indeed go the draft with an unprecedented 3 top-ten picks and thus provide them with a desperately-needed infusion of elite, young talent.
While Essendon have been famous for their penchant to toss premium picks away for ready-made talent, think Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Dylan Shiel, not securing the premiership Bulldog forced the club into something it’s been so uncomfortable doing.
And already, the results look promising.
Montmorency’s Nik Cox has looked lively, so far hauling in 19 marks and generating 8 scoring shots, while last year’s #10 pick Zach Reid debuted at the Gabba last Saturday and helped himself to a handful of tackles and 7 contested possessions. Archie Perkins also has three game under his belt, and was a rare shining last in last week's loss to the Lions registering 20 touches while applying 4 tackles.
Glory and fame
These young Bombers are emerging, and doing so with hard-nosed edge, while their win/loss record and ladder position only tells half the story.
The club has stocked its shelf with some serious young talent, while it’s notoriously difficulty to please fan-base may finally have reason to smile, as well as applauding a much greater level of desperation.
A kick here against the Hawks, and an umpiring decision there against the Swans, and we could very easily be talking about a highly-improbable 3-2 Bomber start.
Instead, those agonisingly losses may ultimately prove a godsend, further emphasising how arduous the road to success in the AFL truly is.
For now, it seems like the Bombers have indeed embraced the grind, which represents a drastic pivot for a club notoriously reluctant to look in the mirror.
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