The Bulldogs’ best is electric, their worst catastrophic. When they’re on, their passages slot seamlessly into the 2016 catalogue.
Too often though, they look the team that threw away their season early with inexplicable losses to Gold Coast and Carlton.
Their best and worst is always seen in the same game. They can never string four quarters together but they have too much class not to put in one, two or three.
They crushed the Tigers, handled Brisbane and could have beaten Collingwood. They largely outplayed the Dockers in Perth but kissed the game away with comical errors. They matched the Cats early into the fourth quarter in Geelong and kicked eight goals in a row to demolish Hawthorn from nowhere. Gold Coast beat them in Melbourne and they lost to Carlton by 44 points.
Nothing makes sense with the Dogs, the strangest team in the competition. Their best is exquisite – and betting on or against them is a fruitless exercise in speculating how long that best will sustain in a given week.
They still come in the waves that carried them in 2016. Waves generated by sleek toughness – the hardness to dominate the contest and win the ball, and then the quick-twitch, short-passing genius to get it into space and drive forward.
No team in recent memory has had the in-close, rapid-fire handballing game of the ’16 Dogs. It was telepathic, impossible in its speed and timing.
Players were handballing before they had the ball, to teammates who weren’t there yet. It was like watching a series of quarterbacks throwing timing patterns to receivers anticipating their movement based on the playbook – except the Dogs had no script, just eyes in the backs of their heads.
In space, the short-passing maestros would take over – Jack Macrae, Lachie Hunter and Caleb Daniel, who caress the ball more than kick it.
You still get all this in their games. Macrae, Hunter and Daniel are a joy to watch. Marcus Bontempelli is the best player in the league to watch and – when he’s on – Jason Johannisen isn’t far behind him.
But so much of the premiership team has been lost and the pieces of the chain between the stars are rickety. The perfect synchrony of movement is only touched in spurts and it never feels sustainable – more as though strangers are being briefly elevated by someone else’s memory.
Post-premiership, the Bulldogs have been a mess, dragged down by an odd mix of hangovers and strange coaching and team-building decisions. The club is bereft of key position players, a problem that has plagued them for decades – how long did we spend talking ourselves into Mitch Hahn and all the Mitch Hahns who went by other names?
Aaron Naughton’s future is bright but he’s not a consistent focal point yet. Billy Gowers might be the worst player in the AFL – his continued selection is so bizarre it’s almost suspicious.
The team longs for game-changing key defenders beyond the mere workmanlike competence of Zaine Cordy and Jackson Trengove. Failing to replace Joel Hamling and find a successor for Dale Morris is inexplicable. As a result, the Dogs leak goals.
They’re leaking seasons too now. The core of Bontempelli, Macrae, Hunter, Johannisen, Daniel, Josh Dunkley, Toby McLean, Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis is still entirely 27 or younger – there is time for this team to rise again, but this is three precious years they’ve wasted already.
2016 was supposed to give the Bulldogs fan a grace period that might last an eternity – eternity, though, is already beginning to wear thin.