When the Crows were the Crows, everything worked in unison.
They operated in what was made to look like effortless rhythm. Movement was in harmony, the players were connected and the ball was on a string. They had game-defining intercept markers in defence who would start the most beautiful chain in football – an Adelaide drive out of defence.
It always looked the same. Rory Laird or Brodie Smith kicks the ball deep to the wing. Tom Lynch or Rory Atkins marks it, and immediately wheels around, spearing a pass into the corridor to a leading Taylor Walker.
Walker, without looking or pausing to breathe, dishes a handball off to a streaming Eddie Betts, the handball a singular motion extension of the leading mark.
Betts loses his man and boots the ball forward into a near-vacant 50, over the head but still into the path of a running Josh Jenkins, who takes the mark, lets his momentum take him into a stroll into the goal-square, and then booms a pressure-free goal deep into the crowd.
It felt unstoppable and it felt natural. The Crows were a shooter you couldn’t guard. They might go cold for a stretch but eventually the threes would start raining and it would be over. Rhythm would win out.
Of course, rhythm and all that were bludgeoned to death by the Tigers on grand final day, in one of the most emphatic, uncomfortable beat-downs in recent memory. It was the type of loss where you, surely, must lose more than just the game and the season.
The thought was perhaps that day had played its part in costing Adelaide their 2018, a lethargic season mired by poor form and a flood of injuries.
They finished relatively strong, though, and entered 2019 whole. With Richmond now far enough in the past and the list healthy, this would be the year they pick up where the best idea of this group was last seen, walking out onto the MCG turf in late September 2017, before it all went wrong.
That idea too, it appears, has been bludgeoned to death. What is so alarming about the Crows right now is not that they’re bad, it’s that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to their 2017 team, despite the names being almost entirely the same.
Jake Lever, Charlie Cameron and Mitch McGovern are gone, and while all good players, combined they shouldn’t make the difference between the premiership favourite and the team that registers 36 inside 50s against North Melbourne.
Everything looks harder than it once was. The midfield feels like it lacks force, speed and skill, the three things a midfield needs. The team misses Paul Seedsman more than it should.
The defence is shallow and has been exposed with Tom Doedee going down. Depth pieces like Kyle Hartigan and Andy Otten haven’t proven to be up to it, with no Lever or Doedee to cover ground for them (Alex Keath, though, has been a bright spot). A dashing half-back flanker who can use the ball precisely by foot is a treasure in the AFL, and in Rory Laird, Brodie Smith and Wayne Milera, Adelaide have three of them, which is, oddly, perhaps too many.
Great defences form a web, forever connected, but the Crows have holes springing everywhere. Even Daniel Talia, rock of all rocks, was regularly found out of position and flailing against North.
The forward line, once the envy of the entire competition, now looks expired. McGovern has always been more of an idea than a fully-fledged contributor, but the team is missing his elastic presence in the air. We’ve seen the best of Walker and Betts, Jenkins is completely lost, and there isn’t enough pace and tenacity around these three to lock the ball in attacking territory.
The three phases are not linking, with teams shutting off Adelaide’s access to the corridor and forcing them to be creative and precise. So far, and especially against Hawthorn in Round 1, they have looked devoid of ideas moving the ball.
It all adds up to 1-3 with an especially sharp glint of despair. Even Melbourne, our other pre-season contender now in relative crisis, as poor as they’ve been, have shown flashes in each game of what we consider to be ‘themselves’. There are no flashes of the Adelaide that we imagine or try to remember.
The pristine, razor-sharp foot skills are gone, replaced by indecision and turnovers. There is no sense of desperation in Adelaide’s play, no sense of a plan to turn the tide within a game. More than anything, there is no sense that when they get down they are going to will themselves back into the contest. There is no threat, no spectre that ‘the Crows are coming’.
We are, of course, working off four games here. The season has many turns to play out and Adelaide still has, outside of Doedee, the same names on the list that made them a pre-season fancy. Even on their current uninspired form, they will likely enter the next nine games no longer than two-goal underdogs in any of them, and they may well be favoured in their four games upcoming.
Bryce Gibbs and Hugh Greenwood are both important parts of Adelaide’s best team and will almost certainly come back into the side this week. Sam Jacobs, while not the player he was, is sorely missed, if only because of how severe the drop-off is to his replacement. He will be back, along with Seedsman and Richard Douglas.
Opportunity is still there and so is the talent to grasp it. But the ceiling is undeniably lower on this team now than it was a month ago.
The 2017 team is gone, with its unfortunate end the only memory enlivened by today’s Crows.