Bad Quarterback? Blame the Coach
By Bob Plain
Sep 15, 2005
Are my standards too high or have 99 percent of all college quarterbacks forgotten how to throw a spiral? With a few exceptions, just about every quarterback I've seen the past two Saturdays has been completely incompetent.
There are a couple of reasons for the decline in play. The most obvious is the season is still young, and rookie quarterbacks need a few games to work out the kinks Fine, I'll buy that, maybe. It is certainly true in the case of the Florida State-Miami matchup that nerves and inexperience played a huge part in the poor quarterback play. In their annual grudge match, both teams started rookie quarterbacks, Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee for FSU, Kyle Wright for Miami, who looked like they had just picked up the sport a week ago.
Yes, all three quarterbacks faced fast, aggressive defenses in an extremely intimidating environment. It's a very tall order to expect a green quarterback to light up the scoreboard in a huge rivalry game, especially one as hyped as FSU-Miami.
Would it be too much, though, to at least ask for competence? Kyle Wright gift-wrapped four or five interceptions that Florida State defenders simply botched. Wright, at least, seemed to improve as the game wore on. Weatherford (who was 7-for-24 for a whopping 67 yards with no touchdowns and one interception) and Lee (who passed for all of seven yards in his two attempts) just looked awful.
These quarterbacks were not just some bums off the street — all three were highly recruited blue-chip prospects coming out of high school. Wright was the top quarterback in the 2003 class according to Rivals.com, a college recruiting authority. Rivals also graded Lee high, ranking him their 10th-best recruit for 2004. Weatherford was not quite as highly regarded coming out of high school but was still a four-star player and a Rivals100 player.
So why did they look so bad? Why did these hyped super-recruits, along with other budding superstars like Chad Henne of Michigan and Tyler Palko of Pitt look like scout-team scrubs?
Apologists for these teams will site youth, injuries to key teammates, and weak offensive lines as excuses. I don't buy it though. It's one thing to make common rookie mistakes, it's quite another to look completely clueless out there. Sure, all of these factors have a negative impact, but there is no getting around the main reason why these quarterbacks have looked so bad: poor coaching.
In the case of Miami—FSU, both programs have slowly but steadily declined in the past few years. Bobby Bowden, more a figurehead than coach these days, has allowed the Seminoles to slip ever so slightly into mediocrity, a once-unthinkable situation in Tallahassee. Because Bowden is seemingly greased with a coat of Teflon, the blame for the Seminoles' offensive woes has been laid squarely on the shoulders of his son, Jeff.
FSU, like the rest of the teams listed above, run a basic offense that fails to take full advantage of its superior athletes. Elite recruits like Lorenzo Booker haven't lived up to their promise at FSU and wallow in mediocrity. Other players haven't been as lucky, seemingly digressing the longer they spend in the program.
Former quarterback Chris Rix has been the whipping boy in Seminole land for the team's poor offensive production the past few seasons. Rix didn't develop his game one bit while at FSU; his game was just as bad leaving school as it was when he enrolled. Bowden defenders will argue that Rix "sucks" and is a hopeless case. Maybe Rix is just an untalented quarterback who wouldn't even improve under Norm Chow. Somehow I doubt that, though; Rix had enough fleeting moments of brilliance during his FSU career that suggested that, with better coaching, Rix could have been a dependable quarterback.
The troubling thing for Florida State fans is that Weatherford and Lee both exhibited the same problems Rix had — poor decision-making, poor play in big games, inability to check off to his secondary receivers — making impartial observers wonder if this is the makings of a trend. It doesn't bode well for the Seminoles that Weatherford looked horrible again the next week against a somewhat less daunting opponent, Division-AA "Will Get Blown Out for Food" The Citadel.
For the first half of the game, Florida State's offense looked horrible again, actually losing to the undermanned team until the very end of the first half. Inevitably, FSU's overwhelming talent advantage took over and the Seminoles blew the game open in the second half. But Florida State won't be able to out-talent teams as the Seminoles venture into the teeth of a tough ACC schedule — they're going to have to rely on schemes if they want to make it to a BCS bowl. I'm skeptical that they can do it with the current FSU brain trust.
Another team that is filled with great talent, yet susceptible to brain-farts by the guys in charge, is Michigan. For about 55 years now, the Wolverines is always ranked in the top five but always loses a game they should have in the bag. This year's inexplicable loss came at the hands of Charlie Weis and Notre Dame. Michigan's offense, so hyped in all the preseason mags, looked like garbage, and highly-touted sophomore quarterback Chad Henne never looked worse. Lofting fluttering deep balls, missing open receivers, and watching every other football get batted down at the line of scrimmage, Henne was a shell of his former self.
A few of these problems could simply be chalked up to an off day; after all, those happen to every quarterback, eventually. However, some of Henne's problems run deeper than just being "off." Take, for example, his problem with batted balls. Henne throws with a weird sidearm delivery that makes his passes a lot easier to bat down. This problem should have been corrected the moment he stepped onto campus. The fact that head coach Lloyd Carr didn't should send shivers up the spines of Michigan fans. If Carr can't correct something as simple as Henne's messed-up mechanics, what else is he overlooking?
Although he is the trendy coach of the moment and everyone, including me, has had it up to here with the "Knute Rockne reincarnated" talk, I guarantee that Charlie Weis would have fixed Henne's fundamentals the second he set foot in Ann Arbor. It's one of the many reasons why Weis was able to beat Carr with far less talent. Weis, along with being a very accomplished play-caller, is also a stickler for detail. If the coaches switched teams and Weis coached the Wolverines, no way does Chad Henne throw sidearm and no way does Michigan lose to Notre Dame.
Just look at the impact Weis has made on Brady Quinn. Although he isn't going to make anyone forget about Joe Montana quite yet, Quinn looks like a new quarterback under Weiss. Freed from the black hole of mediocrity that is Ty Willingham, Quinn appears poised and confident for the first time in his college career. Under Weis, Quinn will continue to improve. I don't think anyone can say for certain that Henne will do the same under Carr.
If you're still unconvinced of the huge influence coaching has on a quarterback, good or bad, take a gander at Pitt. Apparently, new head coach Dave Wannstedt is on a mission to destroy Tyler Palko's career. Mentioned in preseason magazines as a dark-horse Heisman candidate due to his work under former coach Walt Harris, Palko under Wannie's tutelage looks like a different quarterback. Just check the numbers. Palko had an impressive stat line last year: 3,067 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Two games into the new season, Palko already has four interceptions, including three to perennial powerhouse Ohio. Yikes.
Is there a chance that Palko is struggling to learn Wannstedt's new run-first, pound-it-out system? I guess. I'm not exactly sure why Wannstedt would break something that clearly was not broken. In his quest to put his stamp on the program, Wannstedt has clearly shattered his quarterback's confidence and stranded his team with a 0-2 record. Meanwhile, Harris, who was forced out at Pitt for not being a "Pittsburgh guy," landed at Stanford, where the first order of business is developing the talented but inconsistent Trent Edwards. Edwards already has shown a marked improvement in Stanford's season-opening victory over Navy. Injuries aside, there is no doubt that when draft day comes around, Edwards will be picked before Palko. Maybe Wannstedt will pick up the difference.
Of course, when speaking of grooming quarterbacks, it is impossible to ignore the master: Jeff Tedford. Tedford has his hands full this year. Losing starting quarterback Nate Longshore to a season-ending injury in the opener against Sacramento State, Tedford had to insert backup Joe Ayoob, a J.C. transfer. Ayoob, who arrived at Cal with a considerable amount of fanfare, proceeded to go 0-for-10 and was promptly yanked.
Ayoob looked awful in his debut, sailing the ball over his receivers' heads and looking helpless. If Ayoob were the only option at FSU or Michigan, the season would most likely be over — those coaching staffs simply wouldn't have a clue how to develop his raw talent. Tedford, however, seemingly has worked another miracle and proved why he's been the only coach to consistently hang with Pete Carroll the past three years. Against an admittedly bad Washington team, Ayoob shook off a shaky start and looked like a bigger, faster version of Aaron Rogers, throwing for four touchdowns and 271 yards. It was a remarkable turnaround, an unimaginable improvement for a Bowden-, Carr-, or Wannstedt-coached quarterback.
According to the San Francisco Gate, Tedford was asked if he wanted to build Ayoob's confidence by "dinking and dunking" down the field with short passes — the conventional wisdom among those coaches and their conservative offensive philosophies.
"Forget that," Tedford said. "We're going deep."
It's no coincidence that Tedford's quarterbacks always turn out 60-yard touchdown bombs while most other coaches' QBs end up with a dying-duck incompletion.
Although it would be a shame for the Pac-10 and the Bay Area if Tedford left Cal, I would love to see him sink his teeth into a big-time program like Michigan or FSU. Under Tedford's watch, both teams would recapture their glory years in no time. No longer would their incredible athletes' talents go wasted in archaic offensive systems. No longer will both teams be consistently out-coached.
There has been talk that both the aging Carr and Bowden are considering stepping down sometime in the near future. For Chad Henne's and Drew Weatherford's sake, I hope they step down soon.
Fan Interference is a biweekly sports column.
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