In Nick Saban’s seven seasons at the Capstone, there have been three starting quarterbacks and two transitions between those three players, but only one actual position battle. That came before the 2011 season as both AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims battled to replace Greg McElroy.
This season brings another transition and another battle. Another Sims, Blake, and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker are both in the race to succeed McCarron.
I think most people believe the job has been won by Coker. That’s interesting, because he’s new to the program, must learn the playbook, is coming off of a knee injury (though he should be fully healed) and has yet to strap on a crimson helmet for the first time.
We base this concession to Coker, I think, on two things. One, Blake Sims started his career as a running back (and would probably still make a fine one) and we have substantial doubts about his passing ability. As a backup QB for the last couple of years, Sims has managed to log playing time in 18 games and has thrown 39 passes in garbage time. He can, however, run the ball very well, and even logged two rushing touchdowns during the 2012 season. Coker, playing in a mop up role for the Seminoles, has also thrown 41 passes in real, live college football games.
Second, we think Coker fills the stereotyped-role of a Saban quarterback better than Sims. Coker is 6’5″ tall and weighs 230 pounds and we think he’s more of a pocket passer. Sims, meanwhile, goes 6’0″ and 208, and likes to get outside the pocket to try to make things happen.
But regardless of their measurables and their heights and weights (and their skin color), the thing that will determine who wins (or keeps) the starting quarterback job, will be who can do the things Nick Saban wants the best. And if you look back over the last seven Alabama football seasons, you get an idea of what those things are:
- Minimal turnovers;
- High completion percentage; and
- Being the game manager.
The key to playing Nick Saban style football is to be fundamentally sound. This obviously includes limiting turnovers. And for the last seven years, Alabama quarterbacks have done a pretty phenomenal job taking care of the football through the air. Take a look at these touchdown and interception numbers:
- 2007 – John Parker Wilson (18-12)
- 2008 – Wilson (10-8)
- 2009 – Greg McElroy (17-4)
- 2010 – McElroy (20-5)
- 2011 – AJ McCarron (16-5)
- 2012 – McCarron (30-3)
- 2013 – McCarron (28-7)
That’s a touchdown to interception ratio of 139-44 (numbers for starters only) – nearly 3:1 – over the course of seven years. That’s pretty phenomenal. And when you leave out the JPW years, you get a ratio of 4.62:1. I think we’ll agree that these are pretty fantastic numbers. I think it’s also safe to say this is the park in which Saban wants his QB to play.
Now, I’m not saying Coker or Sims should be expected to hang up 30 and 3, but I do think for Alabama to be successful, whoever the quarterback is will need to keep this number under 10. And by successful I mean that more interceptions than 10 would continue to create predicaments for the team that they might not be able to escape.
High Completion Percentage
Something that has also tracked right along with Alabama’s team success of the last seven years has been passing completion percentage.
Here are the completion percentage numbers for the starting quarterback during Saban’s tenure at Bama:
- 2007 – Wilson (55.2)
- 2008 – Wilson (57.9)
- 2009 – McElroy (60.9)
- 2010 – McElroy (70.9)
- 2011 – McCarron (66.8)
- 2012 – McCarron (67.2)
- 2013 – McCarron (67.3)
Beginning with McElroy, we begin to see the type of completion numbers associated with very effective offenses. In fact, if you go back and look at all of the BCS champions (1998-2013), you’ll see that only four of the 16 champions didn’t pass at a rate of at least 60.0% (’98 Tennessee; ’99 FSU; ’01 Miami; and ’07 LSU). You will also see that since the 2002 champions was crowned (Ohio State), only one team has failed to complete at least 60 percent of its passes (’07 LSU). [Stats from www.sports-reference.com]
This, obviously, isn’t a straight-line, 100% correlation that if your team passes successfully at least 60 percent of the time that you will win a title. Absolutely not. But it does say, I think, that the the teams that do win it all, do throw the ball very effectively.
In Alabama’s case, for example, I think the completion percentage change from Wilson’s era to McElroy’s was significant. Over his career, Wilson attempted 1,175 passes. Had he completed 60 percent of those versus only 56.6, that would have meant another 40 completions, and, on average, another 268 yards and maybe another touchdown or two. Over the course of a couple of seasons, that probably means another win or two as well.
As I did above, you can statistically calculate what the extra passing yards, etc. would have been. What you can’t put your finger on is where in the games those completions happen. If that extra completion keeps a drive alive or moves the chains on third down, it’s huge. If that extra completion means a late touchdown against LSU, it’s huge. And overall, when your quarterback is completing passes at a clip greater than 60%, those things are happening.
So I write all of that to say this, Alabama needs it’s next quarterback to throw the ball efficiently. If Sims or Coker can’t complete at least 60 percent of their passes, things won’t feel very good.
Being the Game Manager
McElroy and McCarron were both tagged with the “game manager” label. Maybe they didn’t like it (or maybe they did), but either way, that’s what they were. That was their job.
Now, to be fair, the “game manager” label is probably a little more broad than some people want to acknowledge. It’s doesn’t simply mean handing the ball off for four quarters or simply taking snaps until your defense can get back on the field. It means managing the game to the specification of your game plan. It means doing what you have to do to win.
In the cases of McElroy and McCarron, there were definitely times when the game fell directly onto their shoulders. Think Auburn 2009. Think rematch with LSU back in the BCS title game. Their teams needed them and they responded.
The first things the starting quarterback will have to do is what I’ve listed above. Don’t turn the ball over. Complete your passes. Do the basic things to help your team win. If the quarterback can get these down, the other opportunities will follow.
The same will be required of either Coker or Sims. Don’t expect Saban or Lane Kiffin to dump the entire load on the quarterback for the opener against West Virginia. But at some point during this season, if it is to be a successful season, the team will look to the quarterback to come through for them. Whether or not he does will determine what kind of season it will be.