Carlton: Honeymoon Period or Return to Prominence?

For the last 17 years Carlton have been rocking away in the AFL’s madhouse, muttering senseless thoughts to themselves from within their league-issued straight-jacket. 

For the young, this prisoner's unnerving condition has been an all too familiar one.

For those a little older, Carlton’s plight has been rather confronting, coupled with the knowledge of how pronounced the felon's genius was prior to their downfall.

Before 2002, and over their previous 105 seasons, the Blues were a September mainstay, qualifying for 30 Grand Finals, winning 16 flags, hosting a litany of league legends while not once collecting a dreaded Wooden Spoon. 

Over the last 17 seasons however they’ve have made the post-season just four times, have cycled through no less than seven coaches and claimed a demoralising five last-place finishes.

From butchered draft picks to salary cap scandals, you name the crime and Carlton have committed it, sentenced to competitive irrelevance while becoming a league-wide laughing stock. 

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Breaking the chains of that kind of incarceration is of course a monumental task, however the ‘Blue Baggers’ genuinely appear to be rehabilitating, so far presenting themselves in 2020 as a functioning, contributing member of the AFL community. 

While sure, Carlton are still in 12th place with a 2-2 record and just a 92.3 percentage, however they’ve been one of the league's most improved clubs this year, with a path to contention now beginning to reveal itself.

Over the last couple of weeks they’ve taken the scalps of Geelong and Essendon- both finalists form last season.

By winning at Kardinia Park, they did something they haven’t done since 1996, holding on to beat the fast-finishing Cats by 2-points.

Against the Bombers on Saturday night, they rallied form a 2-goal deficit with just ten minutes to go, claiming the points from a contest which was in their grasp for most of the night. 

There’s positive signs all over the place where the long-suffering Blues are concerned. 

In defence, Jacob Weitering has been a genuine league sensation, suffocating opponents and in the driver’s seat for a breakthrough All-Australian selection. 

The former #1 pick leads the league with 28 contested one-on-ones, winning or breaking even in a remarkable 79.3% of such contests.

Speaking of defence, there are few stories more satisfying than the 2020 Sam Docherty revival.

The Carlton co-captain hadn’t played a single game since 2017, yet has stepped back in seamlessly with his trademark skill and composure across half-back greatly helping his team's cause. His 35 intercept possessions lead the club, while he’s the only player in the entire AFL to have amassed at least 100 disposals, while still operating at at least 75% efficiency by foot. 

Up forward, only the undefeated Port Adelaide are averaging more than Carlton’s 12 marks inside-50 per game, with the improbable key-forward duo of Levi Casboult and Mitch McGovern leading the way. These two have copped a lot of criticism over the years yet have combined for 15 marks inside-50 along with 14 goals, ensuring that the opposition defence has its hands full, especially considering Carlton’s threat at ground level. 

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While Gold Coast recruit Jack Martin had minimal impact against the Bombers, he looks like an inspired addition having kicked 5 goals while leading the team with 14 tackles. The eternally brilliant Eddie Betts has kicked 4 this season while Michael Gibbons continues to defy the odds, racking up 16.3 touches per game while also leading the club for tackles inside-50. 

However it’s been the Blues midfield which has truly ignited the team this year while presenting so much hope for a sustained run of success.

Patrick Cripps is an obvious star, top-4 in the league in both contested possessions and clearances, while reigning Rising Star award winner Sam Walsh is heading that way.

It’s a new face in David Cunningham however which would have Carlton beaming. 

His breakout performance against Essendon saw the 2015 first-round pick dominate with 28 touches along with a team-high 6 inside 50s and 7 score involvements.

While one swallow doesn’t make a spring, a consistently threatening Cunningham would continue to divert attention away from the likes of Cripps, Walsh and Marc Murphy and help make the Blue’s midfield one of the most potent in the competition. 

While talent is one thing, the Blues appear to have a legitimate plan in place under new coach David Teague, and it's one that appears far more aggressive than previous incantations. 

Through four games only Port Adelaide are kicking the footy more than Carlton, which the Blues ditching the more conservative approach which kept them toothless under former coach Brendon Bolton. Their 188 total inside 50s is a number bettered only by Port and Brisbane, with our shot charting indicating the Blues have generated more set-shots than any other team in the league this season.  

It’s early, but the signs are absolutely there that a legitimate Carlton turnaround is a possibility. 

While 12th position mightn’t seem like a drastic reversal of form, it’s the highest position they’ve occupied after four rounds since 2012, while it’s also worth keeping in mind that only Port Adelaide have won more individual quarters than Carlton this season.

While the Blues will keep their ankle brace on for the foreseeable future, their fans can at least start dreaming that their darkest days are behind them, with a return to prominence now a legitimate possibility.

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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