Bevo’s Bulldogs are broken. Is he the right man to fix them again?

It’s hard to imagine a worse quarter in living memory, let alone just under Luke Beveridge, who spawned the Western Bulldogs than the first term against Sydney.

With their season on the line facing an opponent, they could jump into eighth with a win, setting the stage for the triumph that kicked off their run to the premiership in 2015. This was as appalling as a team this side of North Melbourne or the COVID-ravaged West Coast have served up all season.

The Swans were incredible – from the very first bounce it was clear they were on. By crushing the Bulldogs off center, ferocious without the football, and permanently dangerous when they ventured forward (and they often did), this was an attempt to silence doubters about their final credentials.

Stung by a hard ball pulverization in the last quarter at the hands of Essendon, the Swans came out with the intention of making a statement. They couldn’t have done it in a more spectacular way.

Too bad the opposition didn’t resist, but challenged them.

The Swans’ fame in 2022 was a smooth ball movement, taking the Sherrin from knots to a damaging and multiple forward line at a high speed. Against a rear guard as consistently terrible as the Bulldogs, it was a recipe for disaster if they could get their hands on it often enough.

Do they have some. No team has had more contentious possessions in an opening quarter this year than the Swans’ 54, taking the Bulldogs’ biggest strength and making them utterly brutal. They would claim clearances 14-6 and 6-2 from the center bounces. Even Fremantle’s defense couldn’t handle that strain, let alone a Dog’s defense backed up by duct tape and prayers.

Callum Mills was a tyro around, Tom Papley in all with 11 disposals and six goals, while Chad Warner continued his rise to the game’s elite to typify the Swans’ exciting play.

The result of the domination was 22 within 50 to 10. And even by the dismal standards of the Dogs, it was pathetic to have 15 scoring shots flying through those entries. At one point, the Swans had six goals and eight shots from 11 entries. Most that weren’t were hacked out, pumped right back in, and converted the second time they asked.

The defense was terrible – what Beveridge thought, sending Mitch Hannan on the defensive for the first time in his life and putting him on Isaac Heeney, I’ll never know – but the pressure from the midfield was just as bad. Despite all the strengths of Marcus Bontempelli, he was completely cleared by Warner from a center bounce, with the Swan coming in at the end of a series of handballs after a long ball and goals with the Dogs captain still five yards behind.

Warner is the epitome of all the good the Swans have done over the past two years. Familiar downtown, even regular to longtime powerhouses Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker, he’s curly-haired Patrick Dangerfield a decade ago.

Watch the way he explodes after a stoppage once the Swans have possession of the ball – few in the game can match him at full power. Granted, sometimes he goes too fast for his own good, and if the Swans don’t win, he can get out of position; but his good one is just as striking.

He had 17 touches and nine inside-50s at halftime, so clearly the best outfield player you can find. Papley came in second, his claims to the honor being thwarted by some more bad kicks in front of goal and a shoulder injury in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs battled to a draw for the remainder of the game, coming close to 23 points in the second term thanks to a noticeable rebound in midfield – the play was almost level at half time. But the damage was well done.

Still, the third quarter was just as devilish as the first. With a mountain to climb, the Dogs didn’t feel like climbing it: the result was another avalanche of goals.

The gap from their last encounter, back in round 3, was wide. 14 weeks ago, the Dogs quelled the swans’ ball movement, dominated the field, won the contested possessions with 24, the clearances with 9, and the inside 50s with 10… and cleared the line with 11 points.

This is not a side that can afford to be anything but dominant in winning the ball. If they’re as overworked as they were on Friday night, that means carnage.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JULY 08: Isaac Heeney van de Zwans celebrates kicking a goal during the Round 17 AFL match between the Sydney Swans and Western Bulldogs at Sydney Cricket Ground on July 8, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

It is true that the midfield will rarely, if ever, deliver such a massive collective shock as in this match. Jack Macrae still had a lot of the footy, but had the kind of faceless play that makes people think he’s a stat winner and nothing else. Tom Liberatore’s brilliant recent form proved to be the mother of all band-aids when he was smothered by James Rowbottom and Parker and reduced to just okay.

Marcus Bontempelli fiddled with being a first gamer, not one of the best players in the game; Adam Treloar was moved to defense in a move as quintessentially Luke Beveridge as you can imagine.

Speaking of the coach, even during this most disappointing season after the Grand Finals, the pressure on him has been minimal. The Dogs have taken losses, but there had been no grueling, pathetic performance to cast the eyes of the footy world on the Whitten Oval. There will be now.

For the first time, I myself have my doubts as to whether the 2016 premiership coach is the right man to take the Bulldogs forward. For all its shortcomings, this is still an exceptionally talented team, with a number of promising key forwards coming through the ranks, a ruckman who is about to be something truly special in Tim English, and one of the best midfielders in the league.

It’s too good a side to put on a show as pathetic as what they put up here, in their most crucial game of the year.”

Beveridge is arguably the Bulldogs’ greatest coach ever and was at the helm of a shockwave to the grand final last year. As a motivator and leader, he has always been exceptional: look at the way the Dogs have often played under his wing with the odds stacked against him.

But for all his strengths and all his victories, few you can say with confidence, especially in recent times, have been won out of the coaching box. Tactically, his positional moves can be inspired – think Bailey Dale to the half-defender or Aaron Naughton to the front line – but are just as often ridiculous – Treloar and Hannan try in defense with a Norm Smith medal-winning halfback in Jason Johannisen on the forward line, for example.

Teams have clearly figured out the Dogs’ retreat to fight the stand rule, take all the extra yards on offer and get the ball through the center of the ground quickly. Sydney did it repeatedly at the SCG: whether it was Nick Blakey, or Warner, or Papley, or countless other Swans, once they had the ball it was only a matter of time until a scoring shot followed.

On the rebound, the Dogs have been painfully slow this year, which becomes apparent when they face teams like Brisbane and Sydney over the past two weeks who move it like lightning. It means if they do have the ball they can only get long, ugly bombs in the front 50, with Naughton their only hope of even forcing a draw.

Dale was their only game-changer in this role, but he was forgotten by late recording Ryan Clarke. Really, kickouts were the only reason he even amassed 16 touches for the night. With Caleb Daniel absent from injury, it left the Dogs with no way of escaping defensive 50, and unable to keep it anywhere close enough to get away with it.

Blame Jamarra Ugle-Hagan as much as you like for Paddy McCartin’s career-best night – he marked everything with 12 for the evening – but at 20 years old and with a petite physique, he has no prayer when his teammates are constantly ball sitting on his head. With a run and a jump (and playing on a more direct kicking team), he has glimpsed that he could be a player. But he’s so unfit for the Dogs’ way of playing.

On the other hand, the Dogs were unable to defend the ball movement to a staggering extent – only North Melbourne has had fewer interceptions this year. Weaker teams will let you get away with the odd turnover or a big mistake to get them off the hook, but in the past two weeks neither the Lions nor the Swans have given them a sniff from start to finish.

There may be no quick fix for this – the Bulldogs have always been concerned on defense, and the fixes that took them up the ladder last year seem to have worked out – but the Dogs feel like the kind of side capable of a Carlton-like revival with the right fresh face in the lead.

Team selection has been a permanent problem in Beveridge’s later years – he has an innate belief that no VFL plodder can go beyond turning it into an AFL standard talent, while often ignoring tried and true quality players who mysteriously start excelling elsewhere when they get the chance.

Ryan Gardner gives it his all and there’s no one better as a key at the club, but he often does some of the most brain-dead things you’ll see at the AFL level: a hacked kick-off from the goal line with swans all over him, rather than through it running is my pick for the dumbest footy moment of the season.

He is asked to take the best forward week after week, which is a completely unfair job to give him.

It’s absolutely none of their faults – I feel guilty even calling them like it’s Robbie McComb or Anthony Scott who are the reason this team fell off the car. It’s not. Hell, as long as stupid things like forcing Scott to play one on defense with Charlie Cameron don’t happen, he’s a more than handy player. But those things happen all too regularly under Beveridge.

Meanwhile, Lewis Young is enjoying an exceptional season in defense at Carlton, having inexplicably played as a ruck-forward with the Dogs. Marcus Adams has been a first-team player at Brisbane since he left the Dogs at the end of 2018 in circumstances that I have yet to fully understand. Easton Wood’s experience and intercept marking have not come close to being replaced.

Next up for the Bulldogs is St Kilda, then Fremantle, then Melbourne, then Geelong. If you lose all four – and they will all be underdogs – and you’re looking at a bottom six finish. That’s as dizzying a fall from grace as you can take.

Beveridge is in his eighth season in charge: by the end of the season, the Dogs will have made it to the finals in five of them, causing Cinderella to run to the big dance twice. It’s a nice record, but right now there are very few coaches in the game who underperform him given the strength of his roster.

Whether the Dogs have the audacity to boldly call a coach whose contract expires at the end of next year, or are willing to let Beveridge prove that this season was a disastrous one-off, no team will have more to prove in the off-season than the men in red, white and blue.

The Bulldogs are broken. Whether Luke Beveridge is the man to set them right again remains to be seen.