If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. This cliche of conventional football wisdom sounds alternatively like Yogi Berra gibberish or an observation from a five year old. Usually this saying means that if one quarterback on your team hasn’t proven himself to be clearly the best option, neither of your options is very good. Usually two rotating or alternating quarterbacks isn’t as good an option as one solid quarterback. Usually a quarterback competition means trouble for the team. Ohio State has multiple quarterbacks, but their situation is anything but usual.
A plethora of talent at the quarterback position is rare. In fact, it is so rare that when we see it, the first thing we do is look for other explanations. It is not common to have a good quarterback after good quarterback. It is more likely that when we see quarterback production from successive quarterbacks an explanation other than talent is probable. One such explanation is an offensive system which elevates the statistical production of quarterbacks without actually improving the talent of the quarterback.
Statistics Reflect Talent?
Talent cannot be easily quantified. Instead we use statistics as a proxy for performance and from that we infer talent. When we have decided that a player is talented, based on statistical performance, we project future success. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t.
Nowhere is this thought cycle more apparent and nowhere are the consequences more important than projecting the success of college quarterbacks in the NFL. Scouts, GMs, Coaches and fans look at a quarterback’s college statistics to project talent and production. Sometimes the statistics accurately predict NFL success; sometimes they don’t.
When the inference from a quarterback’s past performance, as measured by his statistics, leads to the conclusion that the quarterback is talented, the projection is that the quarterback will be productive in the future. Put more simply: quarterbacks putting up big college numbers should succeed in the NFL. In instances where the quarterback is not productive or not as productive as predicted, pundits re-examine their formula. The statistics remain the same, and they are still a reasonable proxy for performance. It’s the conclusion that the player is talented that is challenged.
The System Quarterback
When the talent of a quarterback is doubted, an alternative explanation must be found to explain the past performances and statistical success. A common explanation that is used is that the quarterback isn’t greatly talented, he is the product of the system. The theory is the offensive scheme his head coach employed will naturally produce statistical success, whether the quarterback is greatly talented or not. Put another way, the statistics of the quarterback reflect the ingenuity or genius of the offensive system, not the talent of the player.
The System Quarterback label is an insult. It is telling the quarterback that despite his production, he is not that good. Although it can be a terrible label for a player, it is a tempting explanation if you begin with the premise that great quarterback after great quarterback don’t come through the same system. That’s a pretty reasonable premise. In fact, it is usually true. Great quarterbacks are rare; they just don’t come along often. It is unusual to follow one great quarterback with another, and it is even more unusual to have them on the team at the same time. How rare is it to have three on the same team like Ohio State might? It’s virtually unheard of.
Urban Meyer and Florida
Naturally, the question for the Buckeyes is: do they have three great quarterbacks on their team or is Urban Meyer’s system to credit for the success of the three quarterbacks on the roster? You would be hard pressed to argue the Urban Meyer’s offensive scheme isn’t incredibly effective. It has worked with less talent at Bowling Green and Utah, and it has won National Championships at Florida and Ohio State. It is a proven commodity.
Great quarterbacks and great schemes can exist together, but it makes it more difficult to tell which is driving the success. At Ohio State Meyer has had nothing but success. He hasn’t lost a Big Ten game yet and has produced a minimum of 12 wins each season. At Florida, he had some more ups and downs. Was it because of quarterback play?
Meyer coached six seasons in Gainesville enjoying great success most of the time and having Tim Tebow on his roster most of the time. Tebow is one of they most decorated college football players and had a nearly unrivaled career. When Tebow was on the team, especially when he was starting, the Gators enjoyed great success. When he wasn’t, Urban Meyer’s offense wasn’t nearly as effective.
During Meyer’s tenure in Florida Tebow threw for 88 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. All other Florida quarterbacks combined for 65 touchdowns an 33 interceptions, more than twice the number of interceptions Tebow threw. The Tebow factor echoes all across the offense. Look at the difference in yards per play for the offense in years where Tebow started versus all other years:
It’s likely Tebow made Meyer’s offense run in Gainesville more than Meyer’s offense made quarterbacks good. The same can be said about Josh Harris at Bowling Green and Alex Smith at Utah: they were good quarterbacks playing in a good system, but they were not merely products of the system.
Ohio State 2015
If Urban Meyer’s offense doesn’t automatically produce great quarterbacks, and if the three quarterbacks in Columbus have all had success, are all three great quarterbacks? It looks that way. J. T. Barrett or Cardale Jones will be successful because they are good quarterbacks playing in a good offense. Urban Meyer’s offense didn’t make them good; they make Urban Meyer’s offense good.
For Ohio State this means who actually wins the competition in August doesn’t really matter for the success of the Buckeyes. Both quarterbacks are proven commodities and are equally capable of defending the national title. It’s rare to have so much talent at quarterback at one time on one team. Now the only issue is finding the next one.