Ben Rutten is under no illusions. Despite Essendon's rise in 2021, the Bombers' coach knows the next leap will be tougher.
In his first season at the helm, a youth-driven Bombers' line-up jumped from 13th on the ladder to eighth, falling again at the elimination final hurdle.
After a torrid 2020 that included a coaching handover, four key players depart and their performance plummet, the Bombers were one of the most entertaining teams of this year, being the fourth-highest scoring club in the home and season and having a suite of young players step up. But Rutten is cautious to think the progression will be automatic.
"I certainly don't think that because we have made some gains over the course of the season that suddenly we'll be at the top of our game next season. We understand the growth and progression is not going to go in a linear fashion and just continue on to blue skies. There's a lot of hard work to come," Rutten told AFL.com.au.
"Overall, our list is going to get younger with the retirement of Cale Hooker and Paddy Ambrose and David Zaharakis not being at our club next season. So we're not going to get any more experienced and mature. But it's certainly not something that we're going to shy away from as a group either. That's going to become a real strength of our group moving forward and those senior players have left such a powerful impression and legacy on our group which is going to hold us in good stead.
"I certainly think there's a hell of a lot of improvement in front of us and we're still a long way from where we want to get to as a club. The drive and appetite to get better is certainly there but we understand it's not going to be a smooth ride."
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The reasons for Essendon fans to get excited again were obvious. There was Darcy Parish's incredible ascent into an elite, Therabody AFL All-Australian midfielder and Jake Stringer's most consistent AFL season. There was the emergence of three NAB AFL Rising Star nominees – Nik Cox, Archie Perkins and Harrison Jones – and more signs that Sam Draper is a long-term ruck gun.
Bargain recruits Nick Hind and Peter Wright stepped up, positional switches saw Jayden Laverde and James Stewart produce career-best campaigns and mid-season pick-up Sam Durham looks a keeper. In amongst that, Zach Merrett turned his back on free agency to sign a mega six-year deal.
The Bombers won 11 games to return to the finals but the gap between them and the best was on show when the Western Bulldogs won through to the semi-final by 49 points in Tasmania, extending Essendon's drought without a finals win to 17 years. That game, Rutten says, should light a fire in the minds of the Bombers over summer.
"We had some good improvement across the board individually and we also were able to consolidate a more consistent style of footy which the guys got better and better at. We've still got a fair way to go with all that but we started to lay some good foundations for future years," Rutten said.
"(The final) summed up our season a little bit I thought. Our first half we played some really strong footy and that second half highlighted the gap in consistency that we need across the board to be able to compete with those best teams in the competition.
"The guys were really disappointed and gutted after the game because the season comes to an abrupt halt. But there was also a good sense of optimism in terms of the first half and I think they felt there was some good stuff there that they know they're capable of doing and competing with those teams. But the gap is the consistency and maturity of the group across the board. In a lot of respects I'm hoping that will be some nice fuel for our pre-season."
There will be questions Rutten wants to answer over summer, too. The inclusions of "underdone" Dylan Shiel, Andrew McGrath and Jye Caldwell late in the season after injury-hit years meant there is still some uncertainty to how the best Bombers' midfield will look.
How to get Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti back to his best will also be a focus, with the livewire small forward's form dropping away in the second half of the season amid personal issues that saw him left out of the final four games of the year, including the elimination final.
"The plan we put in place the last few weeks was all about getting him back fit and healthy and available for the finals if we ended up getting there. But it certainly wasn't the right decision to play Anthony in that game. We would have loved to have him out there but the circumstances and the context didn't allow that," Rutten said.
Finding the best role for Cox, too, is on the agenda after the exciting talent's debut season.
"I've been scratching my head a little bit about him because I kind of don't know what we're going to get with him, which I think is a really exciting thing. I think he's going to be a unique player. He's 200cm, he wins our time trial and I'm really optimistic about the future for 'Coxy'," Rutten said.
"He's still got a lot of work to do physically and learning about the game. He's certainly played a lot of key position as a junior so that's not foreign to him at all but we probably don't think at the moment that's going to be a viable option for him from a physical nature which is fine."
Essendon has two vacant assistant coaching roles they are deciding how to fill. The Bombers will land Adelaide defender Jake Kelly as an unrestricted free agent but see most of their development coming from within. In 2020, it was Jordan Ridley's sharp rise which took the competition by storm, before Parish followed this season. Rutten sees uncovering more of these as one of his major focuses.
"Last year it's probably (Kyle) Langford and McGrath who you forget about (alongside Ridley) who took a big jump. Darcy, (Mason) Redman and Laverde this year were really significant improvers for us and also Pete (Wright) we were starting to see more of his capacity," Rutten said.
"Draper has a lot more in him with an interrupted season which didn’t help that, I think Redman has more really strong footy in him, and Cox and Perkins and (Zach) Reid we want to develop as quick as we can.
"Darcy is a sixth-year player, Langford similar last year. We want to try and get these guys to have a real jump and get somewhere near their best footy quicker than that and that's probably what every club is doing at this time of the year."