PROMISING or frustrating? Progressing or plateauing? One step forward or two steps back?
Carlton's 2020 season did little to help the football public know more about whether this time, finally, we should actually know they're coming. Or whether this time, finally, we should actually smell what they're cooking.
There was the good – a victory on the road to the eventual Grand Finalists in Geelong, a nine-goal win against fellow finalists the Western Bulldogs, an after-the-siren thriller away to Fremantle, a 44-point turnaround against Sydney.
But then there was the bad – conceding seven straight goals to Melbourne just minutes into the season's restart, an after-the-siren loss to Port Adelaide, falling to a lowly Adelaide, significant leads tossed away against Hawthorn, West Coast and Greater Western Sydney.
There was so much to like about the 7-10 season, so many reasons to suggest the Blues might finally be on the right path with a promising young list under a promising young coach after seven consecutive campaigns without finals football.
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But there was also so much to regret, so many reasons to ponder 'what if?' and question whether the club and its dramatic six-year rebuild had just missed the perfect opportunity to lay down an emphatic marker of its advancement courtesy of a top-eight finish.
Needless to say, when coach David Teague did ultimately return home from the Queensland hub to analyse the season just gone, the future ahead, and everything in between, there was plenty to consider.
"I wouldn't say we 'should' have been playing finals. I felt like we 'could' have been," Teague told AFL.com.au.
"Our form was good enough, but at the end of the day we finished where we finished because of the results. If you went through just quarters won, we'd be sitting fourth on the ladder. But that's not how the game is decided. 'Could have' and 'should have' are two different things.
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"I know there's talk and expectation around whether we'll grow and where we can grow. I know there are fans out there that are probably disappointed, it's been 25 years since we won a premiership. But it's going to come from setting a great culture and working really hard. Right now, I'm confident that we're doing that and that the improvement is going to come from the collective.
"I felt last year we went out there every week and we could have won. We could have won every game. We've got to go and do that now. But in terms of our expectations, we've got to get better. If we get better, then that will put us in a position to play finals."
Perhaps the reason why Carlton's form, and its future, remains so confounding and unpredictable to so many lies within the volatile nature of its games. Last season, the Blues put themselves in so many positions to win, then lost. They put themselves in just as many positions to lose, then won.
Eight of their 17 games last year were decided by single-digit margins, six of those by a solitary kick, and two by kicks after the siren.
They trailed Melbourne by 42 points and lost by just one point. They led Geelong by 42 points the next week and won by only two points. They led Hawthorn by 31 points, then lost by 31 points. Then again, the very next week, they led West Coast by 19 points, only to lose by 22 points.
They let winning leads slip late in games against Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney in back-to-back weeks as they watched their finals chances blow up in smoke. But then, the very next match, they overturned a 39-point deficit to stun Sydney.
Those momentum swings – both sweet and vicious for the Blues – weren't just a factor last season. They have been a facet of Teague's tenure since he took over as interim coach from the departing Brendon Bolton in June 2019.
In 18 of the club's 28 matches since, Carlton has conceded a 30-point run to its opposition. For context, Collingwood – which finished eighth last season and whose place in the finals the Blues will be trying to pinch in the upcoming campaign – conceded such a run in just five of 19 matches last year.
Unsurprisingly, those momentum swings were a significant part of the club's post-season debrief. They've also played a big role in its planning and preparations for the campaign ahead.
"We spent a fair bit of time looking at it," Teague said.
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"We put something in place and it did change the way it was happening. There was a period there where it was centre clearance into back-50 and goal. We stopped that throughout the middle of the year. We stopped that, got it in our front-50, but we weren't scoring ourselves. Over time, they'd get goals. It wasn't as quick, but they'd get goals.
"I don't think it's a maturity thing. I think our players are quite good in that area. I think what's going to hold us in good stead is that we experienced it. We went through it together, not just the momentum swings, but we also had eight games decided by under 10 points. Putting yourself in those positions makes you better.
"At the end of the year, I was probably a bit frustrated. I thought we could be playing finals, because our form had been quite solid. But it was a great learning year. When I finally stopped and reflected, the opportunities and the positions that we put ourselves in … we feel as a coaching group and as a playing group that we learnt a lot last year. By getting in that position, that's going to help us going forward."
Carlton hopes its gradual growth under Teague throughout the past 18 months will now be fast-tracked by a busy off-season, where the Blues were one of the key players throughout last November's Trade Period.
The club parted with pick No.8 to secure Adam Saad from Essendon, won a bidding war with North Melbourne to lure Zac Williams as a free agent, and secured Lachie Fogarty as part of a deal with Geelong.
Carlton's hectic Trade Period was a sign the club was ready to take the next step in its development. Having targeted the NAB AFL Draft for five straight years, using 11 first-round picks throughout that period, it didn't start last December's junior recruiting process until pick No.37.
Completing a neat circle, it was the latest the Blues had started a draft since they secured club legend Kade Simpson – who retired last year after 342 games – in 2002. Teague arrived at the club as a player the following season.
But whether the Blues continue to top up their list through the targeting of rival players again later this season will depend, as ever, on how they perform throughout the upcoming campaign.
"We'll need to continue assessing where our list is at and where we want to add to," Teague said.
"There will be different areas. Right now, we've probably got 35 guys putting their hands up (to play round one). Who is going to jump up? Who are going to become locks in your team and play most weeks? If there's a number of guys that do that, it might change who you target at the end of the year and if you target anyone at all.
"Something I was really proud of at the end of last year was that our players wanted to stay and wanted to be involved. I think that goes back to the club and the culture, particularly the one our leaders have created.
"At some stage, there are guys who are going to be good enough but are missing out and want to leave for opportunity. Until then, we just want to see them become the best players they can be for Carlton and put on a really strong team performance every week."
But while the likes of Saad and Williams might make a significant difference to Carlton's performances on the field this season, there's another factor – one that occurs off the field – that Teague and the Blues believe will also aid their improvement in 2021.
"We missed our fans last year, I'm not going to lie," Teague said.
"We're very lucky. I still remember a game against St Kilda at the end of 2019 … there was only 50,000 there and it was half-full, but you could hear our fans, they were part of the game. We can't wait for that again.
"We want our fans to be really involved, because we feel our group is building something special and we include our fans in that. We think they're going to be part of this journey with us and we can't wait to share some exciting times with them on the back of that hard work and competing well."