Skeletons in the Closet

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Recently, while surfing through channels, I stumbled upon a replay of the 2000 Holiday Bowl, featuring the Texas Longhorns and the Oregon Ducks.  I nearly continued changing channels, then I realized: 2000 Oregon Ducks . . . Joey Harrington.  The game was already into the fourth quarter, so a complete TV scout was impossible, but it was certainly worth watching.

What I saw was unnerving.  Joey looked good; very good.  By the time I’d tuned in, he’d already thrown two touchdowns, rushed for another, and received yet another (!).  He got rid of the ball quickly, hit receivers in stride, and was instrumental in engineering two critical touchdown drives in the closing minutes.  It was unnerving because I saw very little of the indecisive, inaccurate quarterback Lions fans would come to know.  There were some little things that looked familiar---his lower body mechanics were still way off—but on the whole, it was a completely different John Joseph Harrington, Jr., under center for the Ducks.  What unnerved me the most?  How much I liked what I saw—the same way I like what I’ve seen of Matthew Stafford.

What went wrong?  Where did Joey’s accuracy, the decision-making, and clutch performance go?  What happened to the sharp, accurate passer I saw on TV, swathed in one of the most ridiculous uniforms in sports?  I suspect the answer has something to do the guy they kept cutting to up on in the booth: OC/QB Coach Jeff Tedford, whom we saw on-screen no less than three times in the waning minutes of the game.

Tedford, whose potent college offenses have produced a string of high-profile NFL busts, is a universally-acknowledged offensive mastermind, a brilliant X-and-O man who puts his players in excellent positions to win.  He does a lot of of the work for his quarterbacks, having enginered an offense that’s based on one or two pre-snap reads.  Often, these keys will remove all but one or two options for a quarterback--meaning when the ball is snapped, he can focus entirely on execution.  While this leads to Tedford being able to extract quality play from nearly any quarterback with a solid arm and decent athleticism, it’s resulted in many of his star pupils failing to catch on at the next level.

When Joey Harrington came to the Lions, he was inserted into the classic Bill Walsh offense; 4 or 5 options on every play, with quick reads, quick decisions, and accurate passing absolutely vital to the success of the offense.  The Walsh offense and the Tedford offense share a lot of fundamental terminology and philosophy: a mix of power running, passing to the running backs, and quick timing passes to the wideouts.

The coaching approach, however, is completely different.  The Tedford offense relies on the quarterback to be an extension of the offensive coordinator; to execute a predetermined gameplan.  The Walsh offense requires a quarterback to be a ‘coach on the field’, with a full understanding of the goals and philosophies of the offense, and making all the reads and decisions as the action unfolds.

It’s no wonder common wisdom holds that quarterback needs three full years of coaching in the WCO before he can execute it at a high level, and it’s further no wonder that Joey Harrington failed to perform right away.  Historians—and Denizens--can debate for eternity whether Joey Ballgame ever had the potential to succeed.  But the success of Aaron Rodgers proves that with good coaching and lots of patience, a Tedford-coached player can indeed become an excellent professional quarterback.

How, then, can we apply this lesson to the development of Matthew Stafford?  The answer is, we can’t.  Stafford came from a relatively complex (for college) pro-style offense in Georgia, and the Lions run a relatively simple (for the pros) pro-style offense.  Stafford is a much different quarterback than Harrington in terms of physical and mental strengths and weaknesses.  Finally, Stafford is a much different person than Harrington, with a much different upbringing, football career, psyche, and attitude.  As much as we humans are wired to learn from past experiences, we may just have to get over our Harrington-induced phobia of rookie quarterbacks.

Then again, Roy Williams played in that Holiday Bowl too; the game-winning touchdown bounced off of his hands.  Maybe the past should make us wary about the future . . .

Discuss it here, in The Den!