To borrow a term from Carlton coach Brendon Bolton, it’s easy to “catastrophise” things based on early season form. But it’s no exaggeration to suggest that Essendon’s year will quickly slip into the abyss if they don’t promptly turn things around.
The Bombers’ body of work to date has been nothing short of terrible and their early-season malaise was capped off with a performance against the Western Bulldogs on Sunday that wouldn’t have been deemed acceptable even in 2016, when they were decimated by doping suspensions.
Essendon’s pre-season hopes of finals at a minimum, and perhaps even designs on a top six or top four finish, seem misguided and the stuff of fantasy after three underwhelming performances.
The fact that the Bombers have played just one good quarter out of 12 so far (the breathtaking final term against Adelaide in round one) is nothing short of an indictment on the team.
And given Adelaide were missing the likes of Taylor Walker, Brad Crouch, Tom Lynch, Brodie Smith and Riley Knight, were playing their first game without Jake Lever and Charlie Cameron and still led by 20 points at three-quarter time doesn’t reflect too well on Essendon, either.
This year the Bombers have trailed by 20, 22 and 21 points respectively at three-quarter time. In fact, they have found themselves trailing in games more than any other side so far this year. How can they expect to win games of footy playing like that?
Essendon’s error-riddled performance against the Bulldogs, who had previously sat on the bottom of the ladder with an average losing margin of 11 goals, was embarrassing.
From the first bounce the Bulldogs played like a team on a mission while the Bombers lacked intensity, hunger and basic smarts.
The Dogs out-hunted their more-fancied opponents as the Bombers were reactive and looked like a team that had believed its own pre-season hype, expecting things to just happen.
Essendon simply could not cope with the Bulldogs’ pressure and tellingly ended up with 101 fewer uncontested possessions, 72 fewer marks, 10 fewer marks inside 50 and 12 fewer stoppage clearances.
But perhaps the two most galling aspects of Essendon’s most recent performance were their woeful skill level and lack of leadership.
It beggars belief that a team’s skill level could worsen so dramatically after training all summer long following a finals appearance.
With the additions of Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad, coupled with the natural improvement of talented youngsters Joe Daniher, Zach Merrett, Orazio Fantasia, Andrew McGrath, Darcy Parish and Josh Begley, the Bombers were supposed to make giant strides in 2018.
Yet on countless occasions on Sunday, an Essendon kick in defence led to a Bulldogs shot on goal and the team’s routine failure to hit a target was alarming.
Captain Dyson Heppell and veteran David Zaharakis were two high-profile culprits, Brendon Goddard set the tone with a pair of shocking defensive turnovers and Merrett might still be feeling the effects of his early-season head knocks because he has been a shadow of himself so far this year.
Meanwhile, Daniher and Cale Hooker do not resemble the pair that combined for more than 100 goals last year.
And therein lies the issue. The aforementioned six players are some of the team’s most senior players, yet none of them stepped up and took it upon themselves to turn the tide.
Coach John Worsfold also seemed to be reactive, moving Hooker to defence when the result was already well within the Bulldogs’ keeping.
After somehow guiding his team to three wins in 2016 and a finals berth in 2017, Worsfold thoroughly deserved his recent contract extension, until the end of 2020. But the success-starved Essendon natives are already becoming restless, and have proven in the past that when they vote with their feet, they can force the board into taking drastic action (see: Matthew Knights).
There are still 19 games left in the season, but heading into round four, and with matches against Port Adelaide, Collingwood, Melbourne and Hawthorn in the next four weeks, the Bombers have already reached a fork in the road.
Essendon have time to salvage their season, but they had better get a move on and start realising their potential, because if they continue along the same trajectory as the first three rounds, finals footy is a pipe dream.