A year ago today, Peter at Burnt Orange Nation was a bit concerned about a faint glimmer of a possible (okay, enough hedges -- ed.) quarterback controversy for the Texas Longhorns, so he had asked me for my thoughts on the role Tennessee's QB "competition" played in The Season of Which We Do Not Speak. Because many of you may not have seen it last year (I think View from Rocky Top was up to maybe 50 readers a day), I thought it might be worth re-posting here and now. The lessons, I think, are for the ages.
Apologies to Corn from a Jar for my thievery of the Big Orange Flux Capacitor. I'll return it to the garage undamaged, promise.
Many thanks to Peter, who was kind enough to grant me some time at the esteemed BON podium to voice some thoughts on two quarterback systems from the perspective of the Unburnt Orange Nation. Perhaps y’all were too busy enjoying your undefeated season last year, but I’m guessing that you probably also noticed the other UT’s agonizing, season-long descent into oblivion.
The Tennessee post-mortem is ongoing, but it’s pretty clear that one of the primary factors in our season of futility was our inability to settle on a single starting quarterback. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reliving the agony by reviewing last season’s VFRT posts and the articles to which they linked. Out of that sadistic exercise emerged several principles that I feel a need to disseminate as a public service to others in the college football blogosphere.
First up is a list of Rules Governing the Employment of 2QB Systems. Next are the Early Warning Signs, a list of symptoms indicating a vulnerability to full-blown onset of that debilitating condition known as the Quarterback Controversy. After that comes a summary of how these Rules and Signs played out on Rocky Top in 2005.
Rules Governing the Employment of 2QB Systems
- The Rule Against 2QB Systems. With only two exceptions, 2QB systems should be avoided like the bird flu.
- The Evaluation Period Exception. A 2QB system may be temporarily necessary to evaluate the available talent in game situations to determine which QB should be the long term starter. The evaluation period should be as short as possible and should under no circumstances last longer than four or five games.
- The Epinephrine Exception. Use of two QBs may be desirable on rare occasions when a starter is having a bad game and the team needs a change of pace and a kick in the britches.
- The Waffle Exception to the Epinephrine Exception. You only get one shot of epi, and it should only be used with well-established starters whose confidence will not be shattered by the substitution. Beware of the temptation to use it with recent winners of a quarterback duel. If you absolutely must change your mind once a "final" decision has been made on a duel, YOU CANNOT DO IT AGAIN. If you yank your first "final answer" QB because he’s melted down, he’ll no longer be a viable option, so stick with his replacement as long as he’s anywhere in the vicinity of competent.
Early Warning Signs
If your team exhibits any of the following symptoms, do like Chicken Little and sound the alarm:
- The Sideline Captain. Beware of captains on sidelines. In other words, do not underestimate the power of leadership and experience, and do not overestimate the promise of potential.
- The Early Success. Beware of early success using multiple QBs. It only delays the inevitable.
- The Rotation Scheme. Beware of pre-planned rotation schemes. Getting a backup reps in a game is all well and good, see e.g., D.J. Shockley, but pre-game plans to rotate QBs must be subject to change. Do not commit to any systematic rotation of QBs, whether every other play, every other series, or every X number of series. Never break game rhythm by pulling a QB when he’s hot. A team employing a rotation scheme is not only splitting game reps between two players, but is also surely splitting practice reps, which, instead of preparing both players for games, merely stunts the growth of both.
As you’ll see below, the 2005 Volunteers had all of the warning signs. Sophomore Erik Ainge started the first game while team captain Rick Clausen stood on the sideline. The coaching staff insisted on utilizing a Rotation Scheme "until one of them took the job," probably based on the Early Success they had with such a scheme during the Evaluation Period the prior season with Ainge and Brent Schaeffer.
In 2005, though, the Evaluation Period Exception was again instituted, but neither Ainge nor Clausen really "took" the job in either of the first two games. Still, the coaches initially did not allow the evaluation to drag on, and they named Ainge "the starter" in the third game of the season against LSU. Unfortunately, Ainge morphed into a mushroom cloud in LSU’s end zone, and Clausen gave the team a much-needed shot of epi. The team then made another mistake by over-waffling, and when Clausen struggled a bit, they went back to the ruined Ainge, ruining Clausen as well.
Teeing up the 2005 Season
Water Tight: Manning, Martin, and Casey Clausen. Tennessee’s been pretty monogamous with respect to its quarterbacks, at least in the last decade or so. The Peyton Era lasted four glorious years. Tee Martin took over post-Peyton and played for two years without even a hint of a controversy. After Martin graduated, Casey Clausen seized the starting role halfway through his freshman season and held on to it for the duration of his career. Stability at the position was the norm. The only time we saw another quarterback was when the starter was injured or when we were looking for the next long-term starter. After Manning was Martin, and after Martin was Casey. And after Casey, well that’s when we started taking on water.
A Leak develops. We had the next four-year starter lined up. Really, we did. Until his senior year of high school, Chris Leak was high on Tennessee, and only partially because his older brother C.J. was on the team. It seemed like a done deal that Chris would suit up in orange until one fateful day in Athens when Casey was injured and unable to play against the Bulldogs. Fulmer started C.J. at quarterback, but when the first couple of drives stalled, Fulmer decided to try flashy dual-threat QB James Banks. Banks didn’t set Athens on fire, but did have more success than C.J., and so he finished the game under center while C.J. held his helmet under his arm. Chris then publicly criticized Fulmer’s decision to stick with Banks on his ESPN recruiting diary, complaining that C.J. was never given a chance and that he could no longer trust UT’s coaching staff. The courtship was over, and because we were counting on Chris Leak, we found ourselves in a lurch.
Bailing, bailing, over the bounding main: C.J. Leak, Rick Clausen, Erik Ainge, and Brent Schaeffer. Thus the 2004 season began with sixth-year senior C.J. Leak, LSU reject Rick Clausen, and two decent recruits – pocket passer Erik Ainge and dual-threat Brent Schaeffer – all competing for the starting quarterback position. The traditionally conservative Fulmer shocked the Volunteer Nation by naming the wide-eyed freshmen "co-starters" over both Leak and Clausen, who took the news fairly well. Leak switched positions, and Clausen took to coaching up the freshmen.
Schaeffer took the first snap of the first game, but he and Ainge rotated roughly every two series, if I remember correctly, and both played well. Having never seen either of them before, nobody really knew what to expect, except for some vague notion that Schaeffer was more likely to run and Ainge was more likely to pass.
Well, Ainge got hot against Florida in the second game of the season, stole most of the snaps from Schaeffer, and led the team to a thrilling last-minute victory over the Gators. An onslaught of comparisons to Manning began in earnest, but while Ainge continued to play well and his numbers began to accumulate, he seemed to sort of flatten out mid-season. By the time we played South Carolina that year, he was unable to get anything done, and it was Schaeffer who came in and kick-started the offense. Unfortunately, Schaeffer had his collar bone broken when he was punished by a defender for holding the ball too long on a roll-out pass play. He’d be out for the rest of the season. With the team’s new-found momentum, Ainge maneuvered the team to a victory and appeared to have locked up the I’m-the-Four-Year-Starting-Quarterback-at-Tennessee position through attrition.
And then came the 2004 Notre Dame game. With the clock winding down and the team deep in our own territory, we decided to run a play instead of running out the clock. The center snapped the ball low, and Ainge tried to pick up the ball and make something out of nothing. What he made was a QB controversy that would last the entire next season. As he scrambled, a Notre Dame player slammed him to the ground on his right shoulder, and just like that, Ainge was out for the season, too.
Season over? No, because Rick Clausen rode in on his white horse and saved the season. Despite the conventional wisdom criticism that he didn’t have a strong arm, he had a solid grasp of the offense and command of the team. Well-liked by seemingly everyone, he led the team to another couple of victories, and was named Player of the Game in a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M.
Warning Signs No. 1 and 2: Early Success and a Sideline Captain
So the 2004 season was in the can with the team at 11-2. Score one for the two-or-three quarterback system?
Uh, no. It merely set us up for failure the following season. We had had Early Success, and that early success led to the election of Clausen as a Sideline Captain.
The 2005 Season: Descent into Oblivion
So that’s how the 2005 season was sitting on the tee in September. Who’s going to be the quarterback? The senior captain that everybody likes, the guy that has a solid grasp of the offense and the respect of his teammates? Or the sophomore who fits the future-pro-player mold, and who has more potential but less experience?
Clausen, still riding high from his Cotton Bowl performance, got all the work with the ones during the spring because Ainge was still recovering from his shoulder injury. At fall practice, the two QBs split the reps, and the coaching staff did not name a starter until August 27, 2005, just one week before the first game. Despite Clausen’s better numbers in fall scrimmages, the coaches put their trust in Ainge, citing his advantages in mobility and strength of arm. Even after naming Ainge the starter, however, there was uncertainty, both among the coaches and the players. "Obviously, I’m excited I’m going to take the first snap," said Ainge, "but [by] no means have I won the starting position. Someone has to take the first snap. If I were to go out there and not play well, not perform, it’s not like we’re putting in a backup quarterback in Rick Clausen."
Okay, then. We have a starter. For now.
Risk Factor No. 3: The Rotation Scheme
What initially looked like the statements of a graceful winner of a quarterback competition turned out to be more foreshadowing than anything. Ainge played well early, scoring 10 points in his first two series, and then the coaches put in Clausen because that was The Plan.
When Ainge returned, he was out of sync. He would admit after the game that he was pressing, trying to make bigger plays so that he could stay in the game. Instead, he threw pass after pass over the heads of his 6’4" receivers. It didn’t help that the receivers couldn’t catch the ball even when thrown perfectly. But Clausen ended up playing most of the game, guiding the 24-point favorite Volunteers to a measly one touchdown victory. Afterwards, Clausen said "Wherever the quarterback derby, or whatever you want to call it, goes from here, it doesn’t matter. Basically, the questions about the whole quarterback thing — I’d like them to stop. . . . We’re not worried about who the quarterback is going to be."
Oh, but it did matter, the questions didn’t stop, and they should have been worried. Ainge and Clausen continued to split reps in practice, and Fulmer continued to say that he would rotate the two of them until one of them took the job.
Rotation Scheme and Game Two of the Evaluation Period Exception
Having guided the team to victory over UAB after Ainge lost his rhythm, Clausen started the Florida game by going 2 of 5 for zero net yards. Fulmer arguably made the UAB mistake again, this time in reverse, yanking the starter after only two series. This time, Ainge played most of the game and the entire second half, but the quarterback and receivers were still out of sync. "They were giving us man-to-man outside," Ainge said. "When we’d win, we wouldn’t throw a good pass. When we’d throw a good pass, we wouldn’t win. . . . It was either not a good route, a ball dropped, a bad throw, or a throw to the wrong guy."
In other words, it was a synchronization problem directly attributable to the quarterback shuffle and splitting game and practice reps between the left-handed, "weak"-armed Clausen and the right-handed, cannon-armed Ainge.
The End of the Evaluation Period, Take I
Okay, so lesson learned, right? Pick one and stick with him. Fulmer made the call and named Ainge the starter and said they were sticking with him. No more quarterback rotation. Send him a message that the team is his and let him start to develop the chemistry. Even if he screws up.
Okay. Good plan. The LSU game, a game I described as the Sputtering Volunteers’ attempt to kick a man while he’s down in front of its rabid fans and a sympathetic nation, was the perfect time for some seriously needed stability. We were sticking with Ainge come hell or high water.
But then came hell and high water. And frogs, and gnats, and locusts, and Paris Hilton (funny, she was all over the news a year ago, too -- ed.) , and a host of other plagues. On our first possession, Ainge fumbled deep in our own territory, and LSU found the end zone on the very next play. The next drive consisted of a receiver dropping a catchable pass, Ainge taking a delay of game, another receiver dropping a pass, and the first of many punts. On the next drive, Ainge started overthrowing receivers again.
And then came the defining moment of the Tennessee Volunteers’ 2005 season, on our own one-yard line:
Ainge under center. The center snaps the ball, and Ainge runs backwards and pivots to look for receivers, but instead finds a blitzing LSU linebacker bearing down on him in the end zone threatening a two-point safety. Ainge spins and inexplicably, incomprehensibly, inconceivably, unfathomably tosses the ball underhanded toward the crowd of players who are standing around at the line of scrimmage [believing the play to be over]. The ball sails just over the heads of the UT offensive linemen and into the arms of an LSU defender, who catches it and sprints three yards into the end zone for a six point TD. Ainge is slammed into the ground and hits the goal post head first in the process.
Mmmm. Feel Like Waffles
Rick Clausen replaced his baseball cap with his helmet and led the team onto the field as the LSU crowd rained boos down on him. But Clausen started throwing passes to receivers who actually caught the ball. Commentator Bob Davie, presumably referencing his pre-game notes despite the context of the game, said that Clausen doesn’t have the "wow" factor that Ainge does. Heh, is that a good "wow" or a bad "wow," Bob?
We all know the rest of this story. Clausen, Nobody’s All-American, once again came off the bench to lead the Vols to one of the great come-from-behind victories in Volunteer football lore. And he did it against the team that said he wasn’t good enough to be on their sidelines and for the team that said he wasn’t good enough to start.
The End of the Evaluation Period, Take II
So let’s recap. Game 1: Ainge started, Clausen rotated in as planned, Ainge lost his rhythm, and Clausen won the game.
Game 2: Clausen started, Ainge rotated in out of necessity, and Ainge lost the game.
Game 3: Ainge started, completely nuked out, and Clausen won the game.
Okay, so no more questions. Clausen’s our guy.
Right. Maybe. Clausen led the team to a ho-hum win over Ole Miss and a loss to Georgia, a game in which he bobbled two shotgun snaps (but recovered them), overthrew a receiver for a sure TD on one play, and threw an interception on the next. Okay. So is Rick still our guy?
"Rick is our quarterback," Fulmer said after the game. Good. No more waffles. And then he re-opened a can of maggots: "Until we decide otherwise."
Blatant Violation of the Evaluation Period Exception: Games Six and Seven
The rest of the season was pretty much just more of the same.
Alabama: Clausen started. We flirted with Ainge a bit but pulled him after one interception on two attempts. We lost.
South Carolina: Clausen started, but threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the second drive. In came Ainge, who had some success, but not enough, and Clausen returned with the Vols trailing 13-12 in the 4th. We lost.
The Waffle Factor at Work
Having thrown one interception against Notre Dame with the team down by a touchdown (he gets some slack for that . . .), he was a mess the next series. The Vols opened the drive deep in their own territory with a delay of game penalty. After a kickoff. On third and long, Ainge dropped back, looked down field, and found all receivers covered. The defensive end broke free of a block and wrapped his arms around Ainge. As Ainge was taken to the ground, he flipped a pass toward the scrimmage line.
The play was not only reminiscent of the Worst Moment in Volunteer Football History, but it was the second intentional grounding call against Ainge. In this game. Luckily, this time, it was not intercepted.
On the first play of the next series, with Tennessee down two touchdowns with under 4:00 minutes to play, Ainge again found no receivers open (maybe not his fault) and scrambled out of the pocket toward the sideline. But instead of running out of bounds to stop the clock, he slid down just in bounds. Like he was trying to do just that. The clock kept ticking.
On the very next play, Ainge threw an interception directly to a defender, who ran it in for a touchdown.
Ainge had played a pretty good game until that point. But he still hadn’t recovered from his awful performance in Death Valley and the coaches’ over-waffling. By pulling him from the LSU game, he’d been denied the opportunity to immediately redeem himself. Maybe that was necessary, but by doing it, they’d ruined him, and thinking they could go back to him after that, well, it didn’t work.
All Downhill from Here
By the time the Memphis game rolled around, Ainge was being described by some as a "very fundamentally flawed headcase." He started against Memphis, but threw an interception on his third pass attempt (which was fortunately called back), and then threw another one on the next play that counted. Clausen came in and saved the day. Clausen then started against Vanderbilt and played the whole game, but . . . we . . . lost. Shhhhh. Moving along.
The End of the Evaluation Period: Third Time’s the Charm Edition
Ainge played the whole game against Kentucky and did . . . fine, going 17 of 25 for 221 yards and two TDs. No interceptions. Season over.
After the season, graduating receiver C.J. Fayton went public about UT’s season-long quarterback controversy, saying that it resulted in a lack of chemistry. The team was split on whom to follow. He said that it was just too hard not knowing who the quarterback was going to be at any particular moment, and he admitted that things just went smoother when Clausen was in the game. With Erik, everything "just wasn’t right." In other words, the fact that the Rotation Scheme had been employed past the Evaluation Period created synch problems for the whole team the whole season, especially between the QBs and the receivers.
For his part, Ainge admitted, after the season, that he was not entirely forthcoming with the coaching staff about his turf toe and about not understanding what the coaches were teaching him. Where Rick could understand the playbook but not always execute it, Erik could execute it but couldn’t understand it. So why did Ainge keep it all to himself?
There was an ongoing quarterback contest:
I felt I had to try and keep pace. It would be one thing if I was the guy or the starter and I said this was too much and we need to make it more simple. That would be one thing. But when the whole offense is doing something and there is a quarterback who can handle it, for me to say we need to tone the whole offense down and back down a notch, that is tough. Looking back should I have said some, yeah, but you never know if that would have meant that I would have never played at all. I think it kind of depends on the position of the quarterback. If you are "the" guy then you can say, hey I don’t like that or I want to do more of that. You are kind of like a coach in that setting.
It appears that the UT coaching staff knew and respected the Rule Against 2QB Systems. They did, however, need to institute the Evaluation Period Exception because they honestly didn’t know which QB was best suited for the team. They even made a final decision about the starting QB within the allotted time: by the third game, they had named Ainge the starter for good.
Less than thirty minutes later, however, the coaches went waffling. When Ainge went down in flames, a decision had to be made: (1) leave Ainge in and hope he gets his legs under him, or (2) sit him down, bring in Clausen, and stick with Clausen for the rest of the season. Instead, they brought in Clausen and then re-opened the competition when Clausen struggled a bit against Georgia. Both QBs struggled after that.
Hopefully this year, we’ll avoid the same problems. The warning signs have cleared: no more Sideline Captain (although Clausen is on the sideline as a graduate assistant), no more fond memories of successful 2QB systems, and no more talk of rotation schemes. It looks like Ainge is our guy, and I’m glad (although I think, in hindsight, that Clausen should have started all season last year).
It looks like the only thing we need to fear is utilization of the Epinephrine Exception. If Ainge struggles early, we ought to stay with him and let him grow. If, however, he follows up Three Mile Island with Chernobyl and the coaches absolutely must take him out, he’ll be done. Perhaps once he’s got some confidence back, we can get Crompton some reps, but job one is the Reanimation of Erik Ainge, and we’ll need to stick with him even through some mistakes.