Friday, August 14, 2009

on quarterbacks: there can only be one

As we've discussed in this space in the past, the role of quarterback at a high-profile college program is arguably packed with more pressure than any other job, anywhere else. As college football fans, we have a strange relationship with our quarterbacks — we call them by their first names, scrutinize everything they do and treat them like members of the family.
I remember being profoundly angry at people for criticizing John Parker Wilson during the latter stages of the Sugar Bowl earlier this year. Getting us to 12-0 and owning every significant passing record in the history of the program isn't good enough? Give me a break. But why do I even care? I don't know the guy, and it's likely he's going to care about me if we were to ever meet personally (I mean, I'm a member of the freaking media). And yet somehow I did.

One possible reason for that relationship: the quarterback position is an entity typically occupied by a single person. Just looking at Auburn's recent QB competition — won by the hilariously inept Chris Todd — one thing was very clear (as my buddy Kevin St. Ives pointed out): it has to be one guy. We can't go into the season with more than one guy at the quarterback position. We have to pick one guy and stick with him.
There's no other position in football (or in sports, really) that's like this. Football teams typically employ multiple sets of running backs, receivers, linebackers and defensive backs. The best teams have entire personnel packages they can shuffle on and off the field, depending on the situation.
Not at quarterback. With a few rare exceptions (the "Wildcat," for example) it's accepted that the quarterback has to be one guy, that the team needs one clear voice in the huddle, one guy calling plays and one guy who makes all the big throws.
It hasn't always been that way. Coach Bryant's Alabama teams famously would employ as many as three different quarterbacks per game during the wishbone era, all of them basically doing the same thing. But times are different now — players aren't willing to sublimate their egos for the good of the team. Anyone who attempts to play 2 or more QBs regularly is under the gun.

In fact, here's a list of offenses that employed 2 quarterbacks I pulled off the top of my head:
Steve Spurrier's Florida/South Carolina teams, ongoing. During his Evil Genius years, Spurrier was famous for yanking around his QBs, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. On at least two occasions it was Auburn's fault: in 1993, Terry Dean replaced an erratic Danny Weurffel at Jordan-Hare in an eventual loss; the very next season, this time at home, Dean (a Heisman candidate) threw 24 interceptions in the rematch with Auburn, got pulled for Weurffel and was never seen again (Weurffel wound up throwing a killer INT down the stretch and Auburn won the game).
With Weurffel as the unquestioned starter for the remainder of the '94 season, Florida went on to win the SEC championship; he started every game the next 2 seasons, and Florida went on its best run in school history — consecutive SEC titles and two trips to the national championship game (winning one).
Once Weurffel left, though, the quarterback roulette started up again. Spurrier rotated Doug Johnson and someone named Noah Brindise in '97, even switching them every snap in an upset win over Florida State. Johnson shared with Jesse Palmer for most of the next two seasons, before Rex Grossman took over to take the Gators back to Atlanta in 2000 (and would've done so again in '01 if the team had bothered to show up against Tennessee).
That problem has followed him to South Carolina — Blake Mitchell, Stephen Garcia, some guy whose name I can't remember and so forth. It's not like Spurrier has been completely unsuccessful during this time period — his Florida teams dominated the SEC in the '90s, averaging double-digit wins the whole time. But you always wondered if he'd be any better, had he been slightly more patient.
Alabama, 1999-2001. We covered this one somewhat in our previous entry about 'Bama QBs. The biggest problem: neither Mike DuBose nor any of the offensive staff seemed to have any notion of how to rotate Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts, and none of their moves appeared to have any correlation to the one before it. Broken down by time period, it looked like this:
— 1999: Zow enters the season as the unquestioned starter, largely due to his experience as the starter for most of 1998. The staff promises "playing time" for Watts, but really only uses him in garbage time or whenever Zow is injured (against Tennessee and LSU). In fact, Watts made several vague comments about "exploring my options after the season" throughout the '99 campaign until ... well, until Zow fell apart in the first half against Auburn, allowing to Watts to ride to the rescue. In the sense that "handing off to Shaun Alexander" is equivalent to "riding to the rescue."

What ensued the following week — as Alabama prepared for the SEC Championship Game — was a resumption of the odd tug-of-war: half the crowd said Zow had earned the starting job, half (including me) were rooting for Watts. Was race a factor? Maybe. I don't remember it. DuBose wound up alternating them every series in both the SECCG and in the Orange Bowl, which ... made little difference whatsoever.
— 2000: The same cloud hangs over the whole team for the entire summer and fall camp, eventually becoming a microcosm of the conflict (between Neil Callaway and Charlie Stubbs) that held the entire locker room hostage. Zow starts the opener (a deflating loss at UCLA) and the Week 2 win over Vandy, gets replaced by Watts for a week or two. Eventually, Zow takes over for good after Watts tears up his knee against Ole Miss ... Zow also plays his best game of the season in a 45-7 victory over the Rebs. It doesn't last, though — the offense fell flat the following week at Tennessee, and eventually Zow was actually on the wrong end of a booing crowd on Homecoming against UCF (an eventual loss). Poor Zow becomes the broken symbol of a broken season.
— 2001: New coach Dennis Franchione promises he'll name a starter and stick with him for the season ... but he doesn't bother telling anyone who it's going to be (choosing to keep it a secret until Week 1). Watts eventually takes the reins for 2 reasons: a) Franchione's style fit a quarterback like Watts better; b) Zow had just experienced the birth of his first child, and that kind of occupied his attention during fall camp. Of course, Watts eventually gets hurt again prior to the Auburn game, allowing Zow to ride to the rescue this time, and by riding to the rescue I mean this ...

And here's the point: at no point did this ever work as a true "2-quarterback system."

Georgia, 2002-2004. Another "2-QB system" that "worked" despite never really making any sense, UGA head coach Mark Richt vowed repeatedly to play both David Greene and DJ Shockley, and stubbornly stuck to it no matter how much it hurt him. Specifically, against Florida in '02, Greene came out of the locker room looking very sharp, but Richt removed him in favor of Shockley early in the second quarter anyway, long enough for the latter to throw a game-changing pick-6 and the former to cool off (UGA lost, of course, spoiling a run at the national championship). A supposed "offensive genius," Richt kept running his 2-QB rotation out there for the next two seasons, using Shockley as "a change of pace" (even though it was never entirely clear what DJ did well that Greene did not, aside from "being black").
As with those Florida teams from earlier, it's kind of difficult to prove the case that the rotation didn't work since UGA averaged 10 wins from '02-'04 and established itself as one of the best programs this decade. But it always seemed like Richt was forcing the rotation on his offense, at the expense of common sense and his fan base's sanity.

Florida, 2006. Ah, you say. A 2-QB system that worked! Umm ... kinda. Remember, however, the following 2 things:
— Chris Leak was unquestionably the established starter. There was never any doubt. The freshman Tim Tebow was never anything beyond what Mark Schlereth and Merril Hoge call "a package guy," no different than Arkansas using Darren McFadden in the shotgun during that very same season. Plus, the age gap — Leak was a senior, Tebow a freshman — meant a great deal of respect between the two.
— I know you're sick of hearing about how great a guy is Tim Tebow, but ... well, Tebow's personality made it easier on everybody. He never complained to the media about playing time or a lack of "touches," acknowledging the elder statesman as the starter and saying he was just happy to be playing Florida football. He never made the coaching staff choose or demand playing time behind the scenes. If a quarterback "competition" had ever truly occurred, it's likely Leak's ego would've fallen to shambles and that national title run might have never happened.
But since none of that happened, Florida won the title. With two quarterbacks. Well, one-and-a-half.

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