It’s 999 days since the Adelaide Crows went into the 2017 Grand Final favoured to claim their third AFL flag.
But instead of flying home with the Premiership Cup, they returned with the lingering embarrassment of a 48-point thrashing from Richmond.
Not much has gone right for the Crows since then, and they now find themselves on the bottom of the ladder — one of only two winless teams this season.
So, what’s happened?
The game changed and they didn’t
It’s hard to consistently win AFL matches. There are no easybeats, and even the worst teams have their day.
It’s even harder to win while playing aggressive, attractive football.
There have been few more potent offences in recent AFL history than the 2017 Adelaide Crows.
With names like Taylor Walker, Eddie Betts, Josh Jenkins, Tom Lynch, Charlie Cameron and Mitch McGovern in their forward line, opposition backlines were stretched to breaking point.
The use of space was the key to the Crows’ scoring potency. Lynch and Walker led hard up the ground, providing room for Betts, Cameron, Jenkins and McGovern to work.
Over time, opposition coaches figured out how to counter this strategy: clogging the Crows’ leading patterns and blunting their points of entry.
And their cause was helped by last year’s rulebook overhaul.
The introduction of 6-6-6 starting positions arguably hurt Adelaide more than any other side. Before the rule change, the Crows nearly always employed one or two spare players behind the ball at the centre bounce.
The space created by removing bodies from inside 50 allowed their forwards to romp into the open space, making their opponents second-guess whether to play man-on-man or zonal defence.
Down back, the spare Crows players could either charge into the square or stay behind as loose men in defence.
That tactic is now outlawed, and Adelaide’s defenders have struggled to adapt.
The situation in the midfield is even more dire.
At present, the Crows are last for inside 50 differential, centre clearance differential and stoppage clearance differential. It’s left their back six exposed far too often.
The good ship Adelaide is full of holes, and it’s unclear if the current game plan can plug them.
Turbulent water at West Lakes
The Crows’ style of play is clearly only part of the problem though.
Questionable management decisions have hogged newspaper headlines since the 2017 Grand Final.
The Collective Mind pre-season camp in 2018 alienated players, sparking rumours of infighting.
But even accounting for that disaster, last weekend’s humiliation on the Gold Coast was a new low.
Losing twice in a day is rare, but Crows great and director Mark Ricciuto suffered that fate on Sunday. First, his team was pasted by the Suns to the tune of 53 points. Then he was dunked on by former Crow (and current Sun) Hugh Greenwood.
Last week Ricciuto had defended the Crows’ recent list management decisions by citing the salaries earned by certain ex-players. Such information is supposed to remain confidential under the AFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
Some of the players mentioned by Ricciuto — such as Greenwood, Cameron and Jake Lever — have taken public shots at their former club, including thinly veiled criticism of its football department and administration.
Over the past three years, the Crows’ list strategy has gone through two distinct phases: “the missing piece” and then “the rebuild”.
After several aborted attempts, Carlton star Bryce Gibbs finally made his way home to South Australia at the end of 2017. His acquisition was meant to be the final piece of the puzzle: a smooth-moving midfielder who could also direct traffic out of defence.
But Gibbs had already turned 29 by the time he pulled on the tricolours. He played 22 games in his first season for Adelaide, but last year lost form and played just 12. Not only was Gibbs out of the side himself, but his recruitment had hurt the Crows’ ability to retain other players due to the salary cap squeeze.
Over the last three off-seasons, the Crows have lost or let go a third of the 24 key players from their successful 2017 campaign, along with emerging players like Alex Keath and Cam Ellis-Yolmen. The biggest exodus came last year.
Only two members of their dynamic 2017 forward line remain: 30-year-old Walker and 29-year-old Lynch.
Some losses have cut deep. Lever may have lost a season due to a knee injury, but he’s still been one of the AFL’s best defenders since leaving Adelaide.
At the other end of the ground, Betts showed last weekend there’s still life in him yet, while Cameron has emerged as one of the most potent small forwards in the competition. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise after he kicked five goals in a preliminary final in his penultimate appearance for the Crows.
The performance Adelaide’s remaining veteran core is still OK, but the departed stars have left a gaping hole in the roster.
But the Crows are still only in the early stages of regeneration. Few recruits from the past four drafts have made their mark at senior level.
Rookie coach Matthew Nicks has been handed a mighty task. He needs to refashion the team’s game plan, rejuvenate the list, and develop the young talent already on the books.
He’s just three games into that task, and one would like to think he’ll be given plenty of time. But in an unforgiving industry, and a parochial two-team town, the clock is already ticking.