Wednesday Thoughts: More QB

I think it was pretty obvious on Saturday that Blake Sims performed the best of the two quarterbacks.  He was crisp, efficient and looked in control of the team.  When Jake Coker finally took the field, the contrast was even more clear.  Sims is our best quarterback right now and it’s not really even close.

But following the game, coach Nick Saban indicated that there was still a quarterbacking competition.  The reasons he gave made sense, I guess, but we are still left to wonder why?  Why is there still a competition when one guy looks so much better than the other?  Well, here are a few ideas as to why.

First, the sample size is relatively small.  There was the A-Day game and, of course, only Sims played that day.  Then there was a decently tough opener against West Virginia.  I think it made sense to play only Sims that day.  From a fan’s vantage point, he was moving the team and there really wasn’t a drive to spare.  We could not afford to sputter given how our defense was playing.  And then there was the FAU game.

Given this small sample size, it is very realistic that the level of play between these inexperienced players could fluctuate rather wildly.  Remember back to the second quarter of the WVU game?  Sims was close to being yanked.  Remember the early second half fumble against FAU?  That was clearly a situation where the QB wasn’t on the same page with the other players.

Accordingly, Sims earned the start against FAU and, I believe, was charged with winning the game.  That wasn’t a big task, but still, his assignment in the game plan was to “get the win.”  The scouting report on FAU, at least according to Phil Savage on the pre-game show was to attack the Owls on the edges.  That’s clearly what Sims did by frequently hitting the swing passes and screens on the edge.  And it worked.

Had Coker started the game (and had FAU been a legitimate opponent), I believe he would have done the same thing.  That wasn’t the case, however.  He was able to enter the game after it was well in hand and, in essence, had a tryout.  He was given a chance to run the full offense with the first team.  This resulted in many more down field passes and plays that were more dynamic than the ones specifically designed to beat the Owls.

Coker’s performance was spotty.  He missed open reads and misfired on several throws.  He also botched a two-minute drill.  But as his playing time increased, he looked a lot more comfortable running the show.  And that should make for a better performance this week against Southern Miss.

I’ve heard varying reports about the quarterback competition this fall.  Of course, from the media we’ve heard that it was neck and neck.  If that was the case, it makes sense to give the guy with the greater upside the chance to win the job.  On the other hand, I’ve heard from scrimmage observers that Coker didn’t look as good as Sims behind closed doors as well.  Based on that, it’s hard to understand why there is still a competition.

I like Sims and I have the feeling that the coaching staff likes him as well.  He should be proud of his improvement and the job he’s done so far this season.  But something tells me the coaching staff is afraid of him hitting his ceiling and being unable to take this team beyond a certain point.  If that’s the case, they are getting Coker ready to take the reins at that point.

We’ll see, I guess.

Roll Tide.

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QB Battle: Update after Second Scrimmage

Michael Casagrande records Nick Saban’s quarterback thoughts following the second scrimmage of fall practice:

“I do think Blake probably is playing a little faster right now,” Saban said. “He’s been in the system longer and has a better understanding, has a little more rhythm.”

“I think sometimes Jake was still trying to feel his way,” Saban said. “He made some real significant strides this week in practice and had some really good practices. So that’s still going to be a competitive situation.”

BOL includes another sentence at the end of that quote:

“Until somebody clearly wins the job, we’re not going to make a decision.”

If you’re an Alabama fan, that’s not a lot to go on related to this position battle.  But it is enough for me to make a few observations:

1) Sims is leading this battle and is the odds-on favorite to start the season versus West Virginia.  “A better understanding” and “a little more rhythm” means he is doing a better job than Coker.  He was the leader out of spring, has improved over the summer and has not let Coker overtake him in camp.

2) The battle will be a battle as long as Nick Saban wants it to be.  He could name a starter right now (Sims).  He’s seen enough from Sims to know what he think the kid can do.  The guy has been in the system for several years, is heading into his senior year and is having to beat out a transfer.  That should tell us something.

3) What it tells us is that Saban isn’t totally comfortable with Sims and that he thinks Coker has a better top side.  Coker is new to the team and new to the system and clearly (at least from what we’ve heard) hasn’t had the camp Sims had.  Yet the competition is still open.  Like I said, the competition is open as long as Saban wants it to be and right now, he still wants it to be.

What Saban is Looking for in a Starting QB

Last week, we took a look at what to expect from Alabama’s next starting quarterback, either Blake Sims or Jacob Coker.  Here’s the nutshell version:

  • Minimal turnovers;

  • High completion percentage; and

  • Being the game manager.

After the Tide’s first practice of the season last Friday, the actual coach of the team, Nick Saban, voiced his opinion on the subject:

1. “…the guy that can basically have the best judgment, decision-making, relative to doing what we need them to do.”

2. “…the guy that is most accurate in throwing the ball to the right place at the right time to give guys the opportunity to make plays.”

3. “…their leadership to affect other people.”

 

For the most part, I think these line up pretty well.

I think you can easily coordinate “decision-making, relative to doing what we need them to do” can translate into “don’t do something stupid and turn the ball over.”

The comments on accuracy line up pretty well, and, in my humble opinion, this can be overstated enough.

And I think “their leadership to affect other people” can, with a particularly loose interpretation, somewhat correlate to game manager.  “Game manager,” in my mind, equates to “being the QB and getting the job done,” and I think that includes on the field and off.

I don’t post this to create some vague associations in order to enhance my blogging cred, but rather to point out the obvious as to what the new quarterback needs to do.

It will be interesting, obviously, to see how this race unfolds.

What to Expect from Sims or Coker

Will it be Coker?

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.

Or Sims?

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.

Minimal Turnovers
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.