Sunday, August 2, 2009

a lazy blogger's quarterback thoughts

With practice starting this week, much of the focus will be on the quarterback position (as evidenced in this 5 questions post from Gentry Estes). I actually had an idea that I might be able to dredge up an extended post about Alabama's recent history at quarterback (recent = since Jay Barker left). Then I remembered I actually wrote that column prior to the Cotton Bowl in 2006 (that link probably won't work unless you're paying for an online subscription to the DH). Obviously, it's missing a section on John Parker — I'll try updating that later on I've added a section on the madness that is was John Parker. Feel free to toss in your own thoughts in the comments section, as always.

(Original run date: 12/31/2005)
QB Curse at 'Bama?
Every franchise, I suppose, in its history, has had to deal with a curse of some kind.
Boston had the Curse of the Bambino. Chicago had the curse of the Billy Goat. Atlanta has the Curse of the Guys Who Bought the Team and Decided to Stop Spending Money.
For the past decade, one could argue, Alabama quarterbacks have suffered from the Curse of Jay Barker.
You may remember Barker as the fresh-faced kid from Trussville who quarterbacked the last Tide team win a national championship in 1992. You might also remember him from those Tuscaloosa Chevrolet commercials (‘Roll, Chevy, Roll!’).
I remember Barker more for his exploits as a senior (1994), when he led his team to come-from-behind victories in almost every regular-season game (including the final one, a dramatic win over Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl) and quoted Scripture almost constantly.
He was the guy we all bragged about in Sunday School. So did you see what Barker did last night?
All told, the blue-eyed dreamboat rolled up a record of 35-1-1. He played in the SEC Championship Game three times, went to three bowl games (he was injured in ’93) and still holds a dear place in the hearts of many Tide fans (hence, the Chevy commercials).
But it’s worth mentioning that since Barker’s graduation, Alabama has suffered a dearth of success behind center, with quarterbacks almost consistently underachieving.
We might as well break it down by eras, since each was distinct in its own right:
Freddie Kitchens (1995-1997): You may remember that, in Kitchens’ early days at Alabama, he was considered a stud at the QB position. Even as Barker was leading Alabama to a national title in ’92, Tide fans whispered that Kitchens was the quarterback of the future, that he or Brian Burgdorf would take the Tide to new heights, maybe as early as ’93.
It never happened. Instead, both Kitchens and Burgdorf languished behind Barker for two more years, before the festively plump Kitchens took over the position as a Redshirt sophomore.
His time under center is unfairly remembered as an utter disaster (mostly because of his size), even though Alabama won 10 games in 1996. Kitchens was actually part of some memorable games during his tenure, the most memorable coming in 1996, when he and Dennis Riddle combined for a game-winning drive in Gene Stallings’ final game against Auburn at Legion Field.
But he’s mostly remembered for his misses: ’95 against Auburn, ’96 against Tennessee, ’96 against Florida, ’97 against Auburn again (though he played brilliantly and was undone ultimately by a bone-headed screen pass call). He never really reached the expectations laid out for him.
John David Phillips (1998): Whatever. I think he’s married to Reagan Croyle now.
Andrew Zow/Tyler Watts (1998-2002): Ah, the quarterback debate to end all quarterback debates. For three full seasons, Tide fans everywhere had to live with that nagging question. Watts or Zow? Zow or Watts? Black or white? Pocket-passer or scrambler?
To be totally fair, the racial angle of the debate always seemed to be an invented thing to me, since Zow was the controlled pocket passer who ran like an old man, while Watts was the option-oriented scrambler with a soggy arm and happy feet. Not exactly your stereotypical quarterback argument.
(Note: the funniest moment of this ridiculous argument for me came prior to the 1999 SEC Championship Game, after Watts had come off the bench in relief of Zow to beat Auburn at Jordan-Hare. Following that game, a columnist ‑ and I can’t remember his name now for the life of me ‑ actually argued Zow as the starter against Florida … because “he’s such a threat to scramble.” Absolutely hilarious.)
Zow started most of the games in ’98 ‑ including a thrilling comeback at LSU and a win over Auburn ‑ and parlayed that into a starring role in ’99, turning in two absolutely brilliant performances at Florida and at Ole Miss. He struggled against Auburn and was relieved by Watts, who actually did very little aside from handing the ball to Shaun Alexander (I believe in the NFL they call that ‘game management’). The two platooned through the next two games, a resounding defeat of Florida in Atlanta and then a one-point loss to Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
It was the next season (2000) that was particularly hellish, as Alabama’s offensive coaches ‑ in the midst of their own squabble over who was more important ‑ constantly jerked the two of them on and off the field, before Watts injured his hamstring and then his knee. Zow became the permanent starter, lost his confidence quickly, was booed at home and eventually became the embattled symbol for a miserable 3-8 campaign.
Enter the Dennis Franchione era, whose option attack was tailor-made for Tyler Watts. The Redshirt junior started every game in 2001, until a groin injury forced him to the bench, paving the way for Zow to make his first start … and provide Alabama with an incredible 31-7 win over Auburn.
The worst part of that performance? It enabled columnists and talk-show hosts to dig up the Zow-Watts horse and pound on it a little more. Zow, incidentally, finished as Alabama’s all-time leading passer, in spite of his see-saw career.
As for Watts, his career concluded in 2002, a season in which he was injured again (a freshman named Croyle replaced him for a win over Arkansas and a loss to UGA), won some important games (blowout wins over Tennessee and LSU) and then lost at home to Auburn (in a not-so-shocking upset).
Remembered as one of the top prospects in the state as a high-school senior, Watts ‑ like Kitchens before him ‑ never truly achieved what many believed was inevitable.
Hey, speaking of that …
Brodie Croyle (2002-2005): There’s no need re-hashing Brodie’s career now as it’s winding to a close. Here are some of my personal highlights:
… Brodie’s announcement that he was coming to Alabama, when his entire school let out and pretty much the entire internet had decided he was going to Florida State. I was working in the University System office at the time; you’d have thought it was V-E Day all over again.
… Brodie and his teammates taking the podium following Mike Price’s firing in the spring of 2003, when all of them appeared to be about to cry. Asked if he’d learned a lesson from any of that ordeal, the rising sophomore said flatly, accusatorily: “Better make the most of your first opportunity.”
… Brodie trying to scramble against Tennessee in 2003, when he was playing with a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder and was wincing in pain with every breath. CBS had a camera fixed on his parents in the bleachers, and they both appeared on the verge of tears. Hard to blame them.
… Brodie’s injury in 2004 against Western Carolina, which was unfairly blamed on Mike Shula, even though it was a non-contact injury on the first series of the third quarter (when almost every starter was still in the game). It was like every Alabama’s worst nightmare.
… Watching Brodie get up ever so slowly after every vicious hit in 2005, when every Alabama fan was holding his breath and praying. It was like they were all expecting him to be torn in half at any point.
So what do we take from all this? Is there such a thing as a curse? Is it merely a symbol of the flux which has plagued Alabama’s football program since the retirement of Stallings in 1996 (or, even deeper, since the death of Paul Bryant in 1982)?
(UPDATE!!!!!! I added a few thoughts to this section for JPW, someone who I've spent endless hours trying to figure out the last three seasons.)
John Parker Wilson: Familiarity breeds contempt, goes the old saying, and it's definitely true of John Parker, a guy we've alternately loved and hated during his three seasons as a starter at 'Bama. His relevant stats — nearly 8,000 yards passing, 49 touchdowns, 29 INTs, a 121+ QB rating — don't tell the tale of how hot-and-cold the guy was at QB. He had some of the best games in the history of Alabama football — against Arkansas and Tennessee in '07, against Georgia in '08 — and also some of the worst — against FSU and Mississippi St. in '07, the Sugar Bowl against Utah in '08. He was tougher in the pocket and quicker on his feet than Brodie ever was (to be fair, Brodie has no knees) but at times didn't look capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. He gave us some fantastic individual plays — like the drive that beat Arkansas in '07 — and also gave us The Single Worst College Football Play I've Ever Seen. He was very good against Tennessee and not so good against Auburn. He deserves credit for the 12-0 regular season in 2008, and also some blame for the way that season ended. I never did figure him out and am glad that he's gone, but at the same time I think I'll miss trying to figure him out. If that makes any sense.
(Confused? Now you know how I've felt the last three seasons.)

It's a little strange: Alabama was, during its heyday, known for producing quarterbacks. Starr, Namath and Stabler everybody knows about, but few people remember Richard Todd or Scott Hunter, two others who played with some success at the next level. At some point, Alabama stopped producing great QBs, and there's not a great explanation for that.
Arguably the most pressure-packed position at any level of sports/government in the entire state of Alabama belongs to the quarterback of the Crimson Tide (up to and including the governor). If you're like me, you'll call him by his first name and agonize over his study habits, sort of like we do with our own family members. Very few people are capable of responding positively to that kind of pressure.
Sorry, Greg. I wish I could change it. The good news is you'll get your picture hung up at The Waysider if you handle business like Jay did.

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