Changing quarterbacks may mean changing fortunes (and not for the better)
By Jess Nicholas
March 16, 2009
Although football fortunes aren’t always consistent, fans certainly are – for both better and worse.
Even though Alabama will be replacing a three-year starter at quarterback for 2009, the general feeling among many is that Alabama will actually upgrade its quarterback situation by doing so. It’s a supposition that might not be grounded in reality, however, especially in the face of the statistics John Parker Wilson managed to put up in three years. Wilson leaves Alabama holding the lead in every significant positive passing category; can his replacement really be better?
Only time will tell, but here is what time has told us up to this point about transition years at the quarterback position: Rarely does losing a veteran quarterback in the SEC equate to an upgrade. This is a look back at Alabama’s quarterback transition years beginning with Gene Stallings’ tenure in 1990.
Out: Gary Hollingsworth
In: Danny Woodson, Jay Barker
Results: Gary Hollingsworth had set the SEC on fire in 1989 under the guidance of Homer Smith. But when Bill Curry left for Kentucky at the end of the 1989 season and Alabama dumped Smith’s West Coast-styled offense for Gene Stallings’ power-I attack, Hollingsworth proved to be an odd fit. His 1990 season was a struggle for much of the year. Heading into 1991, Alabama had a choice of senior Danny Woodson, Hollingsworth’s backup from 1990 and a true dual-threat playmaker, or redshirt freshman Jay Barker, who some scouts projected as a college strong safety and not a quarterback. Woodson started at the beginning of the year and a breakout performance in the opener against Temple had people smiling, but Woodson’s off-the-field issues eventually got him benched. While Alabama had a much better record in 1991 than 1990 (11-1 versus 7-5), Barker struggled mightily and Alabama won in spite of him rather than because of him. In 1992, Barker again had difficulty with consistency, proving to be a playmaker only once all year (against Ole Miss). It wasn’t until Homer Smith returned in 1994 that Barker developed into the star he is most remembered as being.
Out: Jay Barker
In: Brian Burgdorf, Freddie Kitchens
Results: Just as some fans thought Danny Woodson would be an improvement over Gary Hollingsworth because of his superior mobility, many fans thought the same would be true of Brian Burgdorf as he took over for Jay Barker. The notion wasn’t completely without merit; at the end of the 1993 season, with Barker on the bench recovering from a knee injury, Burgdorf took the reins of the team in the Gator Bowl and led a surgical attack that resulted in a 24-10 win over North Carolina that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated. Burgdorf also had managed to throw for the same number of touchdowns as Barker (4) that year on fewer than half the number of attempts. But when 1995 rolled around, it wasn’t meant to be. Burgdorf led a late comeback against Vanderbilt in the opener but ended up splitting time with Kitchens, whose bigger arm offered better chance for big plays in Stallings’ preferred downfield passing game. While the stats at the end of the year strongly favored Burgdorf (59.3 completion percentage compared to 49.6 percent for Kitchens, and three times as many touchdowns), Kitchens was establishing himself as Alabama’s quarterback for the future. Alabama went back to the SEC title game in 1996 under Kitchens’ guidance.
Out: Freddie Kitchens
In: John David Phillips, Andrew Zow
Results: Dual-threat John David Phillips had been Alabama’s goal-line specialist at quarterback early in the 1997 season. The special package for Phillips proved to be one of many things that didn’t work out for first-year coach Mike DuBose. Heading into 1998 – and with seniors Freddie Kitchens and Lance Tucker no longer in the picture – the job fell to a competition between the senior Phillips and a big-armed redshirt freshman named Andrew Zow. Phillips got the initial nod. In the first game of the year, a contest against Brigham Young that served to showcase Bryant-Denny Stadium’s new east upper deck, it appeared coaches had made the right decision. Zow was just 2-of-4 but Phillips went 17-for-29 for 188 yards and managed the game quite well as Shaun Alexander scored 5 touchdowns. Had Phillips not had problems with cramps (although the game was played at night, it was one of the hottest in Bryant-Denny history), he likely would have played every offensive snap. Phillips got his first touchdown pass the next week against Vanderbilt, but in Week 3 against Arkansas, the wheels came off. Phillips went 9-of-21 for 48 yards and an interception and basically lost the job during a 42-6 loss that is still one of the worst in modern Tide history. Zow took over for good during the Florida game the following week, nearly led a miracle comeback at game’s end and Phillips didn’t figure into a game the rest of the way. Zow would later find himself as one half of a two-quarterback system with Tyler Watts and is still remembered as one of the school’s most solid signal-callers.
Out: Tyler Watts
In: Brodie Croyle
Results: The same fans who heralded Watts’ signing in 1998 as the arrival of Bama’s first Heisman Trophy winner couldn’t wait to shuttle Watts out of town so the next first Heisman winner, Croyle, could take the field full-time in 2003. Croyle had already started two games in 2002 when Watts was sidelined with an injury, and his major-league arm had drawn significant attention, particularly on bomb passes to Zach Fletcher against Arkansas and LSU. That attention actually led to Watts having one of the best “forgotten years” in Alabama history – Watts was 112-of-181 (61.9%) for 1,414 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions on the year, while Croyle threw for 1,046 yards but completed fewer than half his pass attempts. With Mike Shula coming in as head coach – and ostensibly bringing in a pro-set attack and getting away from former coach Dennis Franchione’s flex-option look – big things were expected of Croyle. Instead, Alabama went 4-9 and Croyle struggled with injuries, interceptions and the general Shula-led malaise. Unfortunately for Croyle, it would take two years to realize his potential, and even the 2005 season finished in disappointing fashion with losses to LSU and Auburn. In the end, Croyle racked up some big numbers, but knee injuries and mismanagement from Shula forever branded his career with the tag, “what might have been.”
Out: Brodie Croyle
In: John Parker Wilson
Results: Wilson’s appearance during trash time in a 28-18 loss to Auburn at the end of the 2005 season had fans salivating. Wilson stood in and took vicious hit after vicious hit and led Alabama to a late touchdown to make the score somewhat respectable. Croyle had gotten gunshy under the weight of numerous sacks from a Bob Connelly-coached offensive line, but Wilson looked ready to take the heat. Turns out, he just hadn’t been properly baptized yet. The 2006 season started out well enough for Wilson and Alabama, but by the end of the year, Wilson was ducking and dodging just as Croyle had been programmed to do. It wasn’t that Wilson did anything egregiously wrong in 2006; it was that he didn’t do anything particularly well. And given the frequent breakdowns in other areas of the team, whether a missed PAT in overtime at Arkansas, a dropped touchdown pass against Auburn or a team-wide meltdown in a near-miss to Duke, Alabama needed more than Wilson could give. A glance at the final stats, however, turns up some surprises. Wilson threw for a ton of yards (2,707), had 17 touchdowns against 10 interceptions – not bad numbers for a first-year starter – and led Alabama to one overtime win (Ole Miss) and one should-have-been-an-overtime-win (Arkansas). But it wasn’t good enough to save Alabama from a losing season, nor was it good enough to save Shula’s job.
If there’s a single overriding point to make here, it’s that new starters at the quarterback position are rarely difference-makers – at least in the positive sense. Danny Woodson, Brian Burgdorf and John David Phillips, it could be argued, actually did more harm than good.
In 2009, Alabama will either be led by Wilson’s backup of two years, Greg McElroy, or one of three players that have yet to throw a pass in a college game, Star Jackson, Thomas Darrah or incoming freshman A.J. McCarron. If McElroy wins the job, it will mark a first of sorts in Alabama quarterback transitions.
McElroy is a near-carbon copy of Wilson, from his better-than-it-first-appears scrambling ability to his ball placement and game management skills. Both players were high school stars with good pedigrees, but neither was considered truly elite.
In prior transitions, Alabama has drastically changed styles. In 1991, it was a change from the slow-footed, soft-armed Hollingsworth to the fast, cannon-shouldered Woodson. In 1995, strong-armed Barker yielded to noodle-armed, but fleet-footed Burgdorf. In 1998, lead-footed gunslinger Kitchens left and dual-threat Phillips took over, and in 2003, Alabama staged a repeat of sorts of 1991, when soft-throwing Watts departed and was replaced by arguably the strongest arm in Alabama history, Croyle. When Croyle graduated in 2005, Wilson was tagged with the polite analysis, “He throws a more catchable ball.”
Spring is still young in Tuscaloosa, and McElroy has not only to face several tests before A-Day, but must also hold off this same crew plus McCarron in August. If he holds on, however, it will mark potentially the smoothest transition at quarterback Alabama has seen in perhaps decades, from a style standpoint.
But this much is certain: Don’t make championship plans yet. History teaches us that Alabama, in the postmodern era, rarely competes for championships when the quarterback is a fresh face.