Despite the sympathy for sacked Essendon coach Ben Rutten, Bombers players haven't escaped criticism for their part in the coach's downfall last weekend.
Rutten's departure was announced by Essendon after their round 23 loss to Richmond, following a week of uncertainty as the Bombers attempted a late play to woo Alastair Clarkson to the club.
Those efforts fell short as Clarkson signed with North Melbourne, prompting a wave of criticism from the AFL world over Essendon's treatment of Rutten.
Players publicly backed Rutten as the coach prepared for round 23 uncertain of his position, however club great Matthew Lloyd argued their words were 'disingenuous' thanks to the standard of their play this season.
Finishing 15th with a 7-15 record was not the follow-up to last season's promising finals appearance fans had been hoping for, and Lloyd said the blame shouldn't squarely fall on Rutten.
While Rutten's position eventually became untenable, Lloyd said players deserved to take some accountability for how their season had played out.
“The playing group were very disappointing, so they shouldn‘t get off scot-free on anything," he told Channel 9's Footy Classified.
“I think the week was more about how poorly Ben was handled and not about how the team performed and how Ben coached.
“I think people felt sorry for him (Rutten) and looked past the performance of the Essendon players, which needs to be looked at.”
Over on AFL 360, Mark Robinson took a much firmer stance against the players, arguing they hadn't responded to attempts during the season to simplify their game plan.
Robinson said if players had felt aggrieved by the treatment of Rutten, then a stronger performance against Richmon in their last outing this season was the least to ask.
— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) August 22, 2022
“Ben Rutten and Blake Caracella brought in a gameplan – and all year the gameplan has been under question … All year people have said ‘you can’t defend’,” Robinson told AFL 360.
“And then the players, for goodness sake, the players came out on the weekend and said ‘oh you treated him badly, we were 100 per cent supportive of Ben Butten’ – then play for him! That is just crap that ‘we’re right behind him’ – please.
"They changed the gameplan, the players said during the second half of the year ‘we’re not playing this gameplan, we’ve got to change it’ … and then the players came out and said ‘poor old Ben’.”
Essendon dealing with fallout from dismal AFL campaign
Robinson's co-host Gerard Whateley said it was clear the Bombers' succession plan, which saw Rutten take the reins from former West Coast Eagles premiership coach John Worsfold, had failed.
Rutten took over from Worsfold after the 2020 season, taking the Bombers to the finals on an 11-11 record.
Whateley said they had handed the reigns to Rutten too soon.
“The succession plan failed dismally, both in real time and then at the end as it’s called to a halt,” Whateley told Fox Footy.
“If we put the human side of it aside – and everybody acknowledges it was handled reprehensively – the football decision … if you go back through the lineage of this, they were done with John Worsfold and they didn’t know how to end him because they owed him … so they kept him.
“They brought Ben Rutten in to succeed him at a time when there weren’t many who believed that ben was absolutely the next senior coach, but they wedded themselves to that.
"They marked time for a year and then after two seasons Rutten no longer has the faith of board – and nor should he based on the performances this year.”
Essendon's new president David Barham suggested that the club was after a more experienced coach, with Port Adelaide mentor Ken Hinkley's name swiftly thrown into the mix.
Those reports linking Hinkley to the vacant Bombers role prompted a somewhat scathing reply from Power president David Koch on Channel Seven's Sunrise program.
“Tell (Essendon) they’re dreaming,” he said.
“Why would Ken (Hinkley) go to a club like that in such turmoil.
“Tell them they’re dreaming.”
Hinkley has one more year on his deal with the Power, but the coach's future beyond 2023 is somewhat uncertain.
Click here to sign up to our newsletter for all the latest and breaking stories from Australia and around the world.