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How to Handle a Quarterback Controversy

The fine fellows of Burnt Orange Nation, ever mindful of the fact that the Longhorns are liable to employ a two-quarterback system in 2006, have solicited guest columns from webloggers whose teams recently went through the dreaded "quarterback controversy."  

First up at B.O.N. was our friendly rival Joel, who offered a View From Rocky Top.  Now, it's my turn.  The thoughts expressed below also appear over at B.O.N.

One of the Four Horsemen of the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere.

While having more than one gifted quarterback at your disposal is a blessing, it quickly can become a curse due to the necessary tension between competing forces involved in such circumstances.  Talented signal-callers insist upon getting playing time, so it is difficult to keep a prospective starter out of the game, even if he has failed to beat out the fellow ahead of him on the depth chart.  However, the need to give every Q.B. some P.T. is counterbalanced by the need to maintain continuity, both for the offensive unit on the field and for the players in the locker room.  

The first step, of course, is to keep everyone in the program.  There is no quicker or worse way to end a quarterback controversy than to leave the second-string signal-caller feeling like he has no future where he is and thereby cause him to transfer somewhere else.  Heading into the 1998 season, Georgia's quarterback depth chart included Daniel Cobb, Jon England, Nate Hybl, and Michael Usry . . . but, once Jim Donnan made it clear that Quincy Carter was to receive special treatment, all of the Bulldogs' backups hightailed it out of the Classic City like rats departing a sinking ship.  

Compare that to Mark Richt's management of the budding controversy between David Greene and D.J. Shockley.  After Georgia's 2002 season-opener against Clemson, there was a real division within Bulldog Nation over whether to bench the 2001 S.E.C. Freshman of the Year in favor of his understudy.  Navigating that potential mine field required a coach like Mark Richt, whose demeanor is so calm and collected that, during tense moments late in key games, he continues to maintain the resting heart rate of a marathon runner or a jewel thief.  

"Coach Richt's pulse never got above 85, even when he beat Alabama at Tuscaloosa."

A coach's sideline behavior offers some hint of his ability to manage a two-quarterback system effectively.  Phillip Fulmer is dour and grumpy, so it came as no surprise when Brent Schaeffer opted to become a Mississippi Rebel.  Steve Spurrier mercilessly berates his players, so it was to be expected when Brock Berlin decided he had put up with enough and moved on to the Miami Hurricanes.  To the extent that Mack Brown is patient and encouraging with both of his quarterbacks, Texas fans may be confident in the Longhorns' offensive fortunes in the post-Vince Young era.  

The need for the head coach to handle the situation deftly and delicately extends beyond the practice field and the playing field, as well.  Football players read newspapers (or, more likely, the internet), so coaches must choose their words with care when speaking to the media.  Coach Richt almost always got Shockley some playing time, but, following a rare instance of Greene getting a complete game under his belt, Coach Richt publicly expressed his regret at not having gotten his backup and future starter some snaps.  He had already been seen apologizing to Shockley on the sidelines afterwards, but he communicated that sentiment to the rest of Bulldog Nation, too.  

When a coach says the same things about his players publicly that he says to his players privately, he develops a reputation for honesty and lets the athletes in his charge know that he respects them.  This is critical to the coach's ability to "go with the hot hand" in crucial game situations without shattering the confidence of the quarterback who was benched.  

Master Po, shown here tutoring Kwai Chang Caine in the martial arts, has been known to give his quarterbacks practice jerseys with the nickname "Grasshopper" embroidered on the back.

Because of Coach Richt's integrity and genuine concern for his players, Greene was able to perform in the starting position without constantly looking over his shoulder and Shockley was able to accept the backup role without transferring.  You can learn a lot by watching a coach on the sideline; when you see Coach Richt put his arm around a quarterback's shoulders and speak to him quietly and calmly about his performance, you are watching a coach who is able to maintain a stable of capable quarterbacks . . . but, when you observe Coach Spurrier angrily getting in his field general's face and childishly pitching a coniption fit, you are witnessing a coach who may get the most out of one quarterback, but who will do so only at the cost of sacrificing his next-best alternative.  

Coach Richt's approach is in sharp contrast to the horribly mismanaged recent Q.B. controversy in Knoxville, which left Erik Ainge's confidence crushed, drove Schaeffer out of town, and created a situation so desperate that the Vols had to scrape the bottom of the barrel by putting a Clausen under center.  Regardless of what reporters may write in an effort to sell more newspapers, it is highly doubtful that Coach Richt would ever let his quarterback situation get as far out of hand as Coach Fulmer did over the course of the last two years.  

Coach Brown encountered a similar situation when Longhorn fans, torn between pedigreed big-name recruit Chris Simms and less glamorous record-setting winner Major Applewhite, seemed constantly to be clamoring for whichever quarterback was riding the bench to be inserted into the game.  While he might have handled matters better than he did, his need to give snaps to Phil Simms's fair-haired boy didn't wreck the Major's ability to win games.  

This goober got to be a starting quarterback at a major Division I-A program the same way Ted Kennedy got to be a U.S. senator . . . by having the last name that he had.

That takes care of managing a quarterback controversy off the field.  How does a two-Q.B. system work where the rubber meets the road, though?  The central challenge, of course, is that dual and dueling signal-callers most often possess differing styles, so the offensive rhythm can be disrupted by a coach's attempt to integrate divergent talents into a single scheme.  

When Shockley came in for an injured Greene in the 2004 season-ender against Georgia Tech, he was not effective, necessitating that Greene come off the bench to lead the game-icing drive.  As I was leaving Sanford Stadium afterwards, I heard a disgruntled Yellow Jacket fan say into his cell phone that, if Shockley was the Bulldogs' starting quarterback in 2005, the Ramblin' Wreck would beat the Red and Black for sure.  

Well, Shockley was and Tech didn't.  In fact, Shockley had a stellar senior year, leading the Bulldogs to 10 wins and an S.E.C. title.  There isn't a college football fan in America who doubts that, if West Virginia had punted in the closing moments of the Sugar Bowl, Shockley would have ended his college career by leading a last-minute game-winning drive.  

The difference was that, in 2005, Shockley was running his offense rather than Greene's.  The 2004 Georgia Tech game was atypical insofar as Shockley came in because of the starter's sprained left thumb, so the conditions were less than optimal and his performance suffered accordingly.  Otherwise, when Coach Richt was able to pick his spots and decide when to substitute Shockley, the results were quite satisfactory.  

As long as neither quarterback sprained the thumb on his throwing hand in the middle of a rivalry game, the rotation worked pretty well.

While Mark Richt has been criticized for calling his own offensive plays, it is essential for the guy who decides when to swap Q.B.s to be the same guy who directs the offensive attack.  Rather than relying upon a predetermined script that dictated that, for instance, Shockley would enter the game on Georgia's third offensive series, Coach Richt opted for a less rigid approach.  

He simply trusted his own judgment in determining when it "felt" like the right time to put Shockley on the field.  In the 2003 Sugar Bowl, Coach Richt elected to send Shockley into the huddle with the Bulldogs holding a 10-7 lead in the second quarter and the Q.B. responded by throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Edwards.  

A two-quarterback system can work, and can even work well, but several requirements must be met.  The signal-callers themselves must be team-centered individuals of good character with self-confidence.  The head coach must deal with them honestly and respectfully rather than impatiently and arbitrarily.  Statements made to the media must be truthful and, to the extent possible, complimentary.  

Both quarterbacks must be given the number of snaps they have earned, but the decision of which Q.B. to use when must rest with the same man who manages the game and dictates the offensive tempo.  The backup field general must be given the reins in good game situations, at least initially, so game-day decisionmaking, rather than prearranged planning, must guide the determination of when to substitute the second-stringer for the starter.  

Yeah, I'm thinking D.J. Shockley did all right under Mark Richt's guidance.

Mack Brown's game management skills are not in doubt and his statements to the media are appropriately deferential and non-inflammatory.  Given the relative lack of scandal experienced by the Texas program under his watch, it is reasonable to expect that his quarterbacks are high-character athletes who respect their coach's integrity.  

My one concern regarding Coach Brown's ability to strike the delicate balance required to use quarterbacks in tandem with one another is his sideline demeanor.  From my vantage point far from the heart of Texas, he appears to be more of a hand-clapping overseer who delegates duties to competent assistants, which generally can be an effective coaching style, but a two-Q.B. system will require him to be calm and hands-on in his approach to Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead.  

If Coach Brown can rise to that challenge, he can rotate his two talented quarterbacks while keeping both young men happy and extending the Longhorns' winning streak . . . perhaps even long enough to hoist a second straight crystal football at season's end.  

I am most grateful to Peter for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts upon this subject with the readers of Burnt Orange Nation and I hope I have put the minds of Longhorns fans at ease.  It takes a special kind of coach to handle a two-quarterback system properly, but Texas fans have reason for believing that Mack Brown is just that sort of coach.  

Go 'Dawgs!