AN EXTERNAL review has been launched into Carlton's disastrous start to the year, but where are the areas that need fixing?
As club officials – and an external panel – investigate the issues and determine how to move the Blues into the future, here are the five key agenda items that must be considered to help salvage something from season 2021 and beyond.
1. SORT THE CONTRACT UNCERTAINTY
CARLTON will this week finally sit down with Harry McKay's management to hold the first formal talks in regard to an extension for the talented Coleman Medal leader. He is, along with co-captain and free agent Patrick Cripps – who remains locked in negotiations around a long-term contract – undoubtedly the club's priority re-signing.
McKay opted to shelve contract talks over the summer, backing in a strong run of form to maximise his value. The tactic has paid dividends, with the 204cm key forward kicking 38 goals from his first 11 games of the season and watching his market price soar to an estimated $800,000 per year.
The Blues will balance his talks around a fresh deal for Cripps, who is yet to agree to an extension, while fellow first-round picks Sam Petrevski-Seton, Lochie O'Brien and Brodie Kemp are so far without offers for 2022.
But it's not just the young stars, who the club has invested both time and blue-chip draft picks into, that are faced with uncertain futures. Jack Silvagni has established himself as a senior regular but is uncontracted, while decisions will also need to be made on veterans like Marc Murphy, Ed Curnow, Eddie Betts and Levi Casboult.
JUST TRYING TO GET A GAME Murphy on future
The Blues have long said contract discussions won't be a distraction for the playing group this year. The indifferent form of some senior figures within the squad might suggest otherwise, though.
2. BUILD A SUSTAINABLE BRAND
IF ANYTHING is going to save Carlton's extended coaching panel in the wake of the club's external review into the football department launched earlier this week, it will be defensive buy-in.
There is growing uncertainty around the future of the coaching group in the wake of the review, with long-time assistant and former caretaker coach John Barker already announcing his resignation on Tuesday. Furthermore, the side's lack of defensive intent and an inability to produce a consistent style is likely to be on the forefront of minds as the investigations into the team's failings continue.
The club, and senior coach David Teague, have spoken publicly of the side's desire to play an attacking and entertaining style of football. But that can't come at the cost of a sustainable and winning brand.
Champion Data notes that the Blues rank dead last for tackle differential this season and second-last for pressure factor differential. Carlton is also conceding an average of 54.9 inside-50s per game, with only the lowly trio of North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Gold Coast worse.
The side concedes 53.9 points per game from turnover (ranked 14th), but its average of 29.3 points per game from defensive-half turnover is the most of any team. That indicates an unwillingness to defend in transition, something that was evident in the early stages of the defeat to West Coast on Sunday where it conceded four goals from eight entries to start a match that was more reminiscent of an Eagles training drill at times.
TEAGUE 'FRUSTRATED' Blues fail to master footy basics
The Blues have also been desperately unable to end repeat opposition run-ons during games and have conceded 30-point turnarounds in 25 of Teague's 40 matches in charge. Those momentum swings are not the only 'Groundhog Day' moments currently cruelling Carlton. In five of its eight losses so far this year, the Blues have either been within 16 points or in front at the final change. But in none of those games have they looked like challenging by the final siren. In fact, all eight losses so far this season have been by a margin of between 16 and 28 points.
Elements of Carlton's system must change, and that change must start at the defensive side of the game.
3. REJUVENATE THE PLAYING GROUP
THIS is two-fold. Carlton has one of the oldest teams in the League, while it often appears as though the side is trying to fit too many square pegs into round holes.
The team had an average age of 25 years and 10 months against West Coast on Sunday, featuring just seven players with fewer than 50 games under their belt. Compare that to ladder-leading Melbourne, who improved to 11-1 on the season with an emphatic victory over an in-form Brisbane on Friday night. That Demons side had an average age of 24 years and nine months – more than a full year younger than the Blues – and had eight players with fewer than 50 games featuring.
Among those few youngsters in Carlton's side on the weekend was Liam Stocker, a talented junior who emerged as a first-round pick playing as a tough inside midfielder. Except, on Sunday, he was used as the team's deepest full-back and struggled to contain West Coast match-winner Liam Ryan.
It's been a similar situation for Petrevski-Seton, who was drafted as an inside midfielder but was dropped from the senior team after round six following an indifferent run of form across half-back. He hasn't yet been able to work his way back into the starting 22.
Paddy Dow, David Cuningham and Zac Fisher have also been moved out of the midfield and into small forward roles to varying levels of success, while blue-chip free agency signing Zac Williams – recruited as a dynamic midfielder on a lucrative long-term contract – has also been shifted into the backline to find form and confidence recently.
Then there are tough decisions facing the senior core of players. Betts, Murphy, Ed Curnow and Casboult are all over 30, but have gotten consistent runs in the senior side this season. Should they continue to occupy important posts in the side, or would those roles be better served for younger players?
4. DEVELOP THE KIDS
CARLTON'S dramatic five-year list rebuild between 2015-2020 saw the club take a total of 11 first-round picks to the draft and invest more resources into developing talent from elsewhere. Yet just five of those 11 early selections played against West Coast on Sunday, while four are dealing with ongoing injuries and two cannot establish themselves in the senior side.
There are no questions about the quality of Jacob Weitering, McKay and Sam Walsh. But the future of Charlie Curnow is unclear as he recovers from two years on the sidelines with debilitating knee injuries, Cuningham (knee) and Sam Philp (groin) are out for the season, while Kemp is on the load road to recovery after successive ACL and syndesmosis injuries.
Petrevski-Seton has spent the last six weeks out of the best 22 and is uncontracted beyond this season, O'Brien has played just two out of the last 29 games and is also without a deal for next year, while Dow and Stocker have shown promise recently but have hardly been walk-up starts over the last 18 months.
Then there are recruits like Caleb Marchbank and Mitch McGovern. The club used more first-round picks to lure both to Ikon Park in 2016 and 2018 respectively, but Marchbank hasn't played in nearly two years due to repeated injury setbacks while McGovern is in the midst of yet another long-term absence after suffering a hamstring injury in May.
With finals football realistically out of reach, it's sink-or-swim time for the available youngsters. Extended blocks of senior football, played in their natural positions, would give clarity as to the direction of the playing list.
5. DECIPHER THE STRATEGY
THIS is perhaps the most important agenda item for Carlton's long-term future. After an arduous and dedicated five-year list rebuild, conducted through the draft, the Blues finally turned their attentions toward trade and free agency last season when they invested around $1.5 million of salary cap space and gave up a lucrative first-round pick to secure Williams and Adam Saad. But can they do similar again?
Carlton's salary cap is understood to be tight. It's not bursting, but it's hardly forgiving. After prioritising new contracts for Cripps and McKay, the latter now looking like a premium deal, the Blues will also have to factor in Walsh's expiring contract in 2022 and his rise in market value when they look towards this year's player movement period. But is their list even in a position to attack the market, regardless of how much they have to offer?
Given the distinct lack of improvement this season, the fact key long-term building blocks like Charlie Curnow, Marchbank and McGovern have had another year of development stalled by injury, and the club's lingering salary cap concerns, is a return to the draft more likely?
Carlton currently holds pick No.5 this year and might consider a reset in a similar mould to Port Adelaide in 2018, rather than a quick solution through a trade or free agency acquisition. Back then, the Power – having entered four of the last five drafts without a top-20 pick and having spent the previous off-season landing experienced talent in the form of Tom Rockliff, Jack Watts and Steven Motlop – completely changed tack. It traded out Chad Wingard and Jared Polec, took three first-round selections to the 2018 draft and rebuilt its prospects for the future via Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma.
Has this season changed Carlton's thinking in a similar way? Are the Blues still confident this is the list to take them to the promised land? Do they stick or twist? These are the questions an external review into the football club will have to help answer.