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A Very Frank Discussion: The Quarterback Situation

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After the Florida State debacle, I think we've reached a point to where we need to have a very frank and at-length discussion of the current quarterback situation.

Let's start with Wilson.

A year ago, Wilson had a relatively good year, particularly for a first-year starter. No he wasn't near as great as some people thought -- his record-breaking was all due to the fact that he threw, by quite a wide margin, more passes than any other quarterback in the history of Alabama football in a single season, and not to any particularly great play on his part -- but he was nonetheless solid. That said though, solid means solid, not great, and Wilson had a lot of shortcomings even a year ago. He locked onto receivers, struggled to get through his progressions, held onto the ball too long, could not throw the deep ball effectively, had no sense of pocket awareness, etc.

Thus far this year, all of those problems from a year ago have gotten even worse for Wilson. Compounding those pre-existing problems, Wilson's decision-making abilities have gotten worse, his field vision has gotten worse, and his accuracy is all but gone.

Moreover, as a player in regard to physical tools, Wilson is not particularly impressive. In terms of height and weight he's average at best, and while he can run somewhat, his poor pocket awareness makes it difficult, and even when he gets in the open field he's not particularly athletic. No one will ever mistake him for Tim Tebow, no doubt about that. Beyond that, his arm is pretty average at best, nothing special in that sense.

I remember one year watching JaMarcus Russell play, and his LSU Tigers had the ball relatively deep in their own territory (25-yard line or so). Anyway, he took the snap and headed back to pass. The play was against a zone defense, and his main read was the offensive left where he had two receivers. One ran a curl, the other ran a corner. Pretty simple stuff really, you read the cornerback and safety in zone, and if the cornerback squats on the curl, you throw it over his head to the corner route, if the cornerback goes back to defend the corner route, you make the easy throw to the open receiver on a curl for the positive gain. Russell blew that up bigger than hell as he stared down the corner route thinking there was man coverage with the safety, causing the safety to shade in that direction, and the corner recognized what was going on and squatted on the curl. At this point, with no one open, Russell is under pressure and is about to be sacked, but he fights off a defender -- because, you know, he's about as big as a Sherman tank -- and then off his back foot, he slings a pass downfield about 55 yards to the non-play side of the field, which is completed, giving his Tigers a first and goal. What can you say? Being 6'6, 260 pounds and having a rocket arm has some benefits.

The point of that last paragraph is to show that with Wilson's physical tools -- or I should say lack thereof -- he can't do things like that. A quarterback with the physical prowess of JaMarcus Russell could completely blow up the play -- i.e. basically play like crap -- yet avoid the sack and still fire a bomb a half mile down the field and get a huge play. Wilson simply can't do that, and as a whole players with average size and average arm strength can't do that either. For Wilson to be successful as a quarterback -- or for anyone of his relative stature -- he must drop back into the pocket, read the defense quickly and correctly while understanding the relationship of his location and the pass rush, work through his progression, find the open receiver, and then deliver an accurate throw to his target using proper mechanics. He can't drop back, blow the read, blow the protection, and then look to fling the ball and have something good happen. JaMarcus Russell can get away with that, John Parker Wilson can't.

And at the moment, he's not doing any of those things. He's not reading the defenses well, he's not anticipating the pressure, he's not moving through his progressions well, and when it comes time to actually throw the football he has poor mechanics and inaccurate throws.

The damning thing about Wilson's play, though, really isn't found in the incompletions, the sacks, the turnovers, etc, numerous as those may be. The truly damning part of Wilson's performance is the completed passes. All of the junk plays look terrible, of course, but the truth is that even the completions look plain ugly. A lot of these throws he is just chunking the ball down the field, just hoping the receiver can somehow make a catch or at least break up the interception. And then there's the wide open receivers that he misses. D.J. Hall -- i.e. a guy who stands 6'3 -- was in the back of the end zone wide open Saturday night, and Wilson overthrows him so much that he has to go up about 38 or 39 inches just to make an incredible fingertip grab. The point is that even the completed passes -- the "good" passes -- look terrible, too.

And it's hard to argue that it's the difference in systems causing his decline in performance. The truth of the matter is that there's just not that much of a difference between what we ran last year and what we're running this year. Yes the terminology is different, but the schemes are relatively similar. We've gone away from the I-formation and now go with more two tight end / multiple wide receiver sets, and we throw the football more now, but that's about it. Again, the schemes are just not that different. It's not like we ran the old Notre Dame Box a year ago with Shula, and now we're running the Run and Shoot with Saban. The chasm between the two just does not seem to be wide enough to make for a legitimate explanation in the drop-off in performance. It's not like Applewhite and co. have reinvented the wheel with this new offense.

So where does Wilson go from here? Can he improve in the short term?

To be quite frank, I really don't know. My gut instinct tells me no, and that we just have to hope he can improve to the point where he's playing acceptable football. Yes it's possible that he could improve by leaps and bounds, but to be really honest I can't remember anyone making that much progress in that short of period of time. I'm not saying that it can't happen mind you, and I'm not saying that it hasn't been done before, I'm just saying that it's going to be very difficult and I cannot recall anyone off-hand doing it.

But what about switching to the back-up, Greg McElroy?

I know that may be the popular move to many people, but it is a route that is largely fraught with peril.

To begin with, McElroy faces the same physical restrictions that Wilson faces. All told, McElroy is essentially the same size as Wilson, and in terms of arm strength, they are close. Wilson has a relatively average arm, and McElroy finds himself in the same boat. And in terms of mobility, McElroy is similar to Wilson as well. In high school he ran for over 700 yards in his senior season, but from all I can tell he doesn't seem that mobile as a collegiate quarterback. He may be able to move around relatively well, but he doesn't have the athleticism to bail himself out of trouble situations with his legs. As with Wilson, no one is ever going to confuse Greg McElroy for Tim Tebow.

The big concern with McElroy, though, is his lack of experience. At the collegiate level, he is only a freshman and has never seen any significant playing time. Sure he saw some mop-up action against Western Carolina, and looked good at that, but mop-up duty against poor Division 1-AA schools -- the Catamounts are currently 1-4, with the sole win coming over Presbyterian (and I thought that was a religion, not a football team) -- simply does not count as meaningful playing time.

Beyond that, McElroy doesn't even really have any experience even on the high school level. He attended Carroll High School in Southlake Texas, which is a dynasty in Texas' higher classifications. In his sophomore and junior years, he sat on the bench while effectively holding the clipboard for Chase Daniel, now the starting quarterback for the Missouri Tigers. He took over as a senior and did really, really well -- would you really expect anything else out a powerhouse program? -- but nonetheless the point remains: McElroy has really only played one year of football combined in high school and college. That's not much, obviously.

The point of the matter is that replacing Wilson with McElroy is, as said earlier, fraught with peril. McElroy and Wilson are seemingly very similar players, and replacing Wilson with McElroy would essentially entail replacing an experienced starter with a highly similar player who is a complete uncertainty due to his lack of experience.

So exactly where do we go from here?

Yesterday in his press conference, Coach Saban was generally supportive of Wilson, saying that we as a unit have to improve and that Wilson was playing hard. And honestly both of those things are true, no doubt there. But we need much improved production from the quarterback position, and even if Saban won't say it publicly -- and honestly he shouldn't do so -- that still does not change that underlying fact. What is said in press conferences -- which is generally nothing more than the company line on events recited by the main figurehead, all of which is designed to placate those gullible enough to believe that legitimate information is actually being disclosed -- is generally very vanilla and rarely going more than surface deep. Behind closed doors, however, I imagine Saban and company well realize the need for much improved quarterback play.

But just because we are struggling greatly at quarterback, and just because we need much better quarterback play to be successful, does not mean that the starter should be benched. It would be nice if we were in a situation like Florida State was this past Saturday, where the back-up is a ridiculously talented player who was one of the top quarterbacks in the country as a recruit, and who has been in the system three or four years with some legitimate game experience. But we don't have that. Our back-up is a very young, wholly inexperienced, and physically unimpressive player who was lightly recruited out of high school. That doesn't mean that he cannot be a good, productive player, it just means that turning to him could be quite perilous.

For better or for worse, we have to realize that it may be a very realistic assessment when I say that Wilson is the best quarterback we have on the roster, and that he gives us the best chance to win games.

No one should be surprised if Coach Saban benches Wilson in favor of McElroy -- if there is any coach more willing to bench a starter than Saban, I do not know of him -- but likewise no one should be shocked if Wilson continues to struggle yet remains the starter.

John Parker Wilson, for all thy faults, may just be the best quarterback the Crimson Tide has to offer at the moment.