The game of college football has evolved to this: my quarterback has to beat your defensive coordinator. For us to win the duel in the sun, or in the dome, or under the lights we have to get a teenage kid ready to outwit your veteran coach. College football circa 2004 is heady business in a literal and figurative sense. If fans understood the combinations and permutations involved, and grasped the intensity of modern football's hundred yard crucible their interest might be even higher.
The human calculator, interpreter, and leader on offense in this wacky, wonderful melee is the quarterback. The accomplished teenager comes to the line of scrimmage armed with poise, confidence and thousands of hours of tapes, grease boards and practice.
He follows his three hundred pound teenage brethren to his post, and as they hunker over into their awkward stances, he begins to survey the eleven piece moveable chessboard across the way. What he encounters is the kaleidoscope of modern defense, ever shifting, shouting, gesturing human projectiles, daring him to call for the football. The well prepared defensive coach has accounted for every possibility in each offensive formation and situation. He has predetermined his calls -- even the feints and deceptions are planned.
Within five seconds the quarterback must recognize, select and shout the best possible play. On a typical passing play after the snap he has roughly 2.8 seconds to take the proper steps, make his read and deliver the ball with pinpoint accuracy. His margin of error is razor thin and mistakes spell doom for his team's chances as well as his personal safety.
I'm looking at an annual national publication that has four players on its cover this year. Each is a quarterback capable of performing in the manner just described. It's one of the most thorough journals available for preseason football study and yet its cover ignores every position but one. Heisman Trophy winner Jason White of Oklahoma, Charlie Whitehurst of Clemson, Matt Leinart of USC, and David Greene of Georgia are the cover boys. In the picture each is poised in the pocket, ball at the ready position, eyes focused, surveying the defense. The clear implication is that this is the eye of the hurricane, command central, the leader.
Who are these guys? What are their characteristics? Are they born or developed? Can their type of leadership be taught? When one is lost to the NFL, can he be replaced? I have been blessed to be associated with remarkable quarterbacks throughout my playing and coaching careers and offer the following insights in hopes that they will enhance the readers' pleasure in watching the position this season and beyond.
Great quarterbacks do not hope they can excel … they know and know that they know. One psychologist calls it "positive narcissism." It is an inborn trait as surely as the color of the eyes. Consider Jason White's request for and the NCAA's subsequent granting of a sixth year of eligibility for him. He had two consecutive years in which he endured total reconstructive surgery, once on each knee. Ordinary people quit after such ordeals and White seriously considered doing so. But great quarterbacks ask for yet another chance to prove their mettle. They do it because they must. Folks will follow such leaders in any walk of life.
Great quarterbacks are gym rats. They are good at everything athletic. As children they are the first kids on the playground, in the gym, in the pool. They are the last to leave. When they discover their first football, they can be seen carrying it around, to class, to Sunday school, to the movies. Their moms worry, "Will he ever be normal?" The answer is no. My first year with the Baltimore Colts I was leaving the locker room after showering and dressing during two-a-day practices. It was dusk, but I heard something down on the practice field in the failing light. It was John Unitas and Raymond Berry, still throwing and catching. They were in their thirteenth year in the NFL. Not surprisingly, they are members of the NFL Hall of Fame.
Great quarterbacks have position coaches that are as great as they are. Football historians suggest that the current emphasis on precision passing was instigated by head coach LaVell Edwards at BYU in the seventies. His record shattering quarterbacks included Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, Robbie Bosco, and Heisman winner Ty Detmer. Those players have something in common with Rivers, Heisman winner Carson Palmer of USC, and Leinart, (now a Heisman candidate). They were all coached by Norm Chow. Dr. Chow (who has an earned Ph.D.) is presently the distinguished offensive coordinator at USC. The proof of his greatness is that he has taken varying levels of talent, locale and supporting casts to produce essentially the same results in each venue.
While Chow is certainly the present leader among quarterback coaches, there are others doing outstanding jobs. A couple of examples are David Cutcliffe of Ole Miss (the Manning brothers and others) and Mark Richt of Georgia (Charlie Ward, David Greene and others) are men who have transitioned into head coaching jobs while keeping their legacy of quarterback development intact. We can expect to see a steady progression of great quarterback development from these programs as long as Cutcliffe and Richt are there.
So it is that these young miracle workers are born, then trained, and most surprising, replaced with some regularity. Every year they thrill and awe us. Next time you see one of them perform his magic perhaps you will know a little more about what he is up to and how he came to do it!
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry coached for 17 years in the college ranks. His Game Plans for marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.