This is a story about Alabama’s 2014 starting quarterback, and like every other story in that category, it faces the central problem of not yet knowing who that player will be. Unlike some of those other stories, it’s not going to pretend to. Neither will coach Nick Saban, who has never had time for this speculative media shit, and who has politely (for him) refused to play along with reporters’ assumptions that the job has been gift wrapped for Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, preferring when asked about the current competition to list every other candidate on the roster instead.
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Coker arrived on campus last week, just in time for fall camp,1 but six other quarterbacks went through spring drills, and Saban has mentioned three — senior Blake Sims, sophomore Alec Morris, and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman — as plausible candidates to start the season opener against West Virginia. Yet despite the ambiguity at the most important position, Alabama is a near-unanimous pick to win the SEC West, sweeping the preseason magazines and dominating the vote at conference media days. Nationally, the Crimson Tide have landed in the top four of every major poll so far, joining defending champion Florida State as an ostensible lock for the four-team playoff that will replace the BCS this season. Phil Steele, the dean of the prognostoscenti, predicted in his annual preview magazine that Alabama will score 37.0 points per game (one point shy of the impressive average it posted the past two years) while averaging 500 yards of total offense (which would be the top-gaining attack in school history). The statheads at Football Outsiders project Bama to rank fifth nationally in Offensive F/+, its measure for overall offensive success, which would be a slight improvement on the Tide’s finish in that category in 2013.
With almost any other team, question marks under center would spawn question marks everywhere else. With Alabama, not knowing who’s going to start at quarterback has little impact on the preseason predictions, because let’s face it, most people think they already do know who’s going to start at quarterback: the same guy as always. You know him well. He’s a 6-foot-3-ish “game manager” with a fratty haircut. He “plays within the offense.” Handoffs galore. Won’t fuck things up for the defense. The last two guys who occupied the position, AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy, both fit that mold to a tee. So did John Parker Wilson, who oversaw a 12-0 regular season as a senior while throwing just nine touchdowns; and Brodie Croyle, who helped orchestrate a top-10 finish in 2005; and Tyler Watts, who piloted the Crimson Tide to a 10-3 record in 2002. Coker, who attended the same Mobile high school as McCarron, is a little bigger than the standard model, checking in at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. Otherwise, though, he looks the part, Bama Bangs and all.
“We do look the same, we do have similar stature, we do have similar styles,” says McElroy, who has signed up for an on-air role this fall with ESPN’s new SEC Network. “If you lined us up and put a bag over our heads, you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart.”
Given Alabama’s history, it’s easy to dismiss the fact that none of the aspiring starters have taken a meaningful college snap. McElroy and McCarron led the Crimson Tide to national championships as fresh-faced starters in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and neither boasted any relevant experience before those seasons. Jay Barker, the only other Bama quarterback to win a national title in the post-Bear era, predated Saban, but he was also an unknown before headlining an undefeated campaign in 1992 as a redshirt sophomore. It’s also easy to overlook the men calling the plays: When Jim McElwain left to coach Colorado State after the 2011 title-winning season, McCarron and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier led a repeat run, and the optimism hasn’t waned now that erstwhile USC head coach Lane Kiffin is set to assume OC duties. And it’s particularly easy to ignore the star ratings: Although McCarron earned decent marks as a recruit, Alabama has never attracted the crème de la crème of high school passers, especially relative to the uniformly blue-chip talent it brings in at other positions.
What that track record implies, and what the early enthusiasm for the 2014 edition endorses, is that Saban has built a machine that transcends the usual life cycle of elite programs, and that finds itself exempt from the burdens of regularly scheduled attrition and “rebuilding” years. It also suggests that he’s done so largely by making his quarterbacks as interchangeable as the supporting cast. After all, when surrounded by the deepest set of rushers and receivers in the nation, and backed by a perennially homicidal defense, how important can the specific identity of the guy under center2 really be?
The answer to that question may be different in 2014 than it was in Saban’s first season, or even in McCarron’s. The baseline for offensive competence in the spread era is steadily on the rise, even in the rough-and-tumble SEC, and the playoff will add an entirely new wrinkle to the championship gantlet this year. Alabama’s familiar rhythms of success have persisted across many seasons and outlived many innovations, but even Saban’s wardrobe evolves over time. If the Tide are the last team left standing in January, Saban will join Bear Bryant as the only college coaches to win a national title with three different starting quarterbacks in the span of a decade, much less three different starters in succession. And if Coker completes the trifecta, he’ll join Auburn’s Cam Newton (2010) and Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway (1985) as the only quarterbacks ever to win a title in their first year on campus. Alabama’s QB pipeline may be more assembly line than adjustment bureau, but if we really expect the Tide to repeat their recent history while bucking everyone else’s, it might finally be time to rethink what a “game manager” actually is.
In Alabama, coaches who win become gods. Outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the five head men who claimed national championships for the Crimson Tide — Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bryant, Gene Stallings, and Saban — are canonized with bronze statues3 along the “Walk of Champions,” graven images at least as revered as the Ten Commandments within state lines. Inside the stadium, home games begin with a benediction from the Bear, forever growling down from the altar of the JumboTron, “I ain’t never been nothin’ but a winner.” When Saban reflects on “The Process,”4 the faithful receive his wisdom with murmurs of assent. Reverently rendered Crimson Tide iconography is a cottage industry.
Alabama quarterbacks, on the other hand, tend to fall on the more human end of the spectrum. Near the end of Barker’s college career, a New York Times piece on the player who’d amassed a 35-2-1 record as a starter and finished fifth in the 1994 Heisman voting focused mainly on the QB battling his reputation as “a caretaker,” lauding his “composure and efficiency” under center despite the “constraints of Alabama’s careful offensive philosophy.” More than a decade earlier, on the heels of an Alabama national championship run in 1978, author Richard Price assessed starting QB Steadman Shealy in Playboy as “a clean-cut, all-American, God, Bear and ’Bama man if ever there were one,” noting that “Shealy isn’t much bigger than I am, but he’s a lot blonder and tanner.”
Then as now, those lines read like a casting call for a stock character. Amid towering, 300-pound behemoths and chiseled, quick-twitch Adonises, Tide QBs are the floppy-haired boys next door. They’re not the biggest, or the fastest, or the most impressive in shorts. They can generally be trusted to have your daughter home by midnight. They’re rarely labeled as “athletes,” “dual threats,” or even “deceptively fast.”5 Typically, they don’t wind up in the NFL, or at least — as the cliché goes — not for long. Since 1976, when the New York Jets used a first-round draft pick on Richard Todd, only one Alabama quarterback has been selected higher than the fifth round (Croyle, in the third round in 2006), and none have gone on to start more than 10 NFL games. Their post-college careers track instead toward coaching, or ministry, or civil law, or insurance. Their college trajectory is typically retold as a coming-of-age, reinforcing the idea of the coach as a molder of men. Like the rest of us, they graduate to a life in polo shirts, not pads.
In that sense, and to the extent that he’s readily slotted into the “caretaker” role where success hinges on his willingness to overcome his mediocre talent by playing “within the offense,” the archetypal Bama quarterback is probably underrated. That was certainly true for McCarron, even if underrated isn’t a label one typically associates with the Heisman Trophy runner-up. At the time, McCarron’s candidacy was widely viewed as a kind of career achievement award, an unimaginative nod to a recognizable face who best fit the template only after other, more statistically driven candidates began to stumble down the stretch. In this narrative, the only number that mattered was .900, McCarron’s winning percentage in 40 career starts. Of course, that didn’t stop doubters from shouting that the defense had more to do with that total than the quarterback.
The skeptics who reflexively waved off McCarron’s production on a run-oriented, defense-first team were always looking at the wrong numbers, however. As a junior, McCarron finished with the nation’s best pass efficiency rating, sealing the crown with a flawless, four-touchdown barrage of Notre Dame in the BCS title game. Last year, he broke his own school record for passing yards in a season (3,063), saving most of the damage for the brightest lights. Against Texas A&M, McCarron outdueled Johnny Manziel in a bona fide shootout. Against LSU, he led six consecutive scoring drives in a 38-17 victory that bore no resemblance to the infamous 9-6 slugfest of 2011. Against Auburn, he passed for three touchdowns with no interceptions and saw a fourth, game-icing touchdown dropped in the fourth quarter; even in a losing effort, his final efficiency rating against the Tigers (173.0) was the best of any opposing passer in 2013 except Manziel, and was 40 points higher than what Jameis Winston managed against Auburn in the BCS title game. In the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, McCarron went out with a career-high in passing yards (387) and two more touchdowns. Altogether, in Alabama’s four biggest games of the season, he averaged 294 yards with 12 total touchdowns and an efficiency rating of 189.3, best in the nation against ranked opponents.
If you’re under 40 years old, McCarron is the most productive Crimson Tide quarterback of your lifetime,6 and, despite falling to the fifth round in this year’s draft, he has the best chance of anyone in that span to break the drought at the next level.
His college success wasn’t a matter of kind, but it was a matter of degree. Because McCarron was rarely asked to deliver game-changing performances, he earned a reputation as the latest cog in Alabama’s quarterback wheel, a piece that could be readily swapped out, just as McCarron had replaced McElroy, and McElroy had replaced Wilson, and so on. As the laundry list of big-game success illustrates, however, he was more than capable of rising to the occasion when generic, between-the-tackles grinding failed to generate enough juice. He seems to fit the template, yet he’s left sizable shoes to fill.
Only, that’s not what most people see. Sprawling chest tattoo notwithstanding, McCarron never threatened to break the home-grown, clean-cut, within-the-offense mold. When Bama fans amble along the sepia-toned back roads regulated by the nostalgia gland in the recesses of their brains, McCarron will never stride boldly into the frame as a hyperefficient technician patiently carving up a succession of blue-chip defenses. They’ll always recall him as the boy from Mobile who broke down in tears after leading a game-winning, championship-saving drive at LSU on one of the worst statistical nights of his career, and then bagged a beauty queen. That’s a picture that can hang above mantels statewide, right alongside paeans to McElroy’s game-winning, championship-saving drive at Auburn in 2009, and Steadman Shealy’s game-winning, championship-winning drive at Auburn in 1979, and maybe even Barker’s game-winning pass in the 1995 Citrus Bowl. These are the moments that define what the faithful need and expect from a championship quarterback.
While need may be overstating the point, consider that in the three seasons McCarron served as the starter, Alabama spent 26 weeks ranked no. 1 in the AP poll, never fell below no. 4, and was favored by Las Vegas to win every single game. Yet when the time came for Daniel Moore, the state’s unofficial artist-in-residence, to commit McCarron to canvas for posterity following the QB’s barn-burning BCS performance against Notre Dame, Moore chose “Overcoming Adversity” for the title.
It would have been foolish to expect anything else. The story of Alabama as a state — economically, racially, geographically — is one of adversity, of the little guy humbly scrapping to surpass his apparent limitations. By contrast, the story of Alabama football is one of a fully funded juggernaut that can win anywhere in America. Especially under Saban, the operation has been a monolith, obsessed with maintaining the high ground in recruiting wars, perpetually upgrading its palatial facilities. The image of the everyman quarterback, steeled only by the sage old coach in his ear and the Crimson in his veins, is a vital link between the underdogs in the stands and the powerhouse on the field — a David to humanize the Goliath. That’s how McCarron could bring himself to tell reporters before the draft that “I’ve been disrespected my whole college career,” and actually believe it. The chip on his shoulder comes with the script.
In that sense, and to the extent that he’s “nothin’ but a winner,” ready and willing to emerge from his cocoon when his moment arrives, the archetypal Bama quarterback is serially overrated. Barker didn’t lead any dramatic, come-from-behind victories in the championship season of 1992; neither did Wilson en route to his 12-0 regular season in 2008, nor McCarron in the championship run of 2011. Since Saban’s arrival, the Crimson Tide have watched opposing quarterbacks engineer as many fourth-quarter comebacks as their own, and two of their three losses in 2012-13 were clinched by McCarron turnovers on potential game-winning drives.
What’s more, the tendency to define success in terms of opportunism and grit risks overshadowing the routine, nuts-and-bolts work that puts the vast majority of games out of reach for the opponent by the fourth quarter. As ludicrous as it sounds for a guy with McCarron’s trophy shelf to bitch about respect, it’s not surprising that someone with his stat sheet would start to chafe at the “plays within the offense” stereotype, especially when fighting to defend his pro prospects. At the most fundamental level, he saw that the mythmaking that entitles him to a lifetime of free beers in his home state also takes the difficulty of his job for granted.
McElroy knows the feeling. “You naturally want to be considered more,” he says, adding that he’s come to view the “game manager” label as a compliment. “Naturally, with the amount of talent surrounding the Alabama quarterback, it does ease the situation somewhat … But playing quarterback there requires a tremendous amount of mental aptitude. [Coaches] place so much trust in you to make the right checks and the right decisions within the game plan. You have to earn that game plan and that trust.”
As Saban insists, Coker has yet to earn anything beyond a seat in the meeting room. At Florida State, Coker was considered a relatively mediocre prospect in the class of 2011, earning three-star ratings from recruitniks despite his prototypical size. After redshirting his first season in Tallahassee, he attempted five garbage-time passes in 2012 and 36 in 2013 before suffering a season-ending knee injury last November. Coker didn’t stay trapped under that three-star ceiling for long, though: His former FSU coaches praised his arm strength to the heavens, and so did Winston, who beat out Coker for the starting job last spring. By the time Coker was beginning to rehab his knee last winter, the pretense of having briefly shared the depth chart with the eventual Heisman winner had done more to raise his stock than anything he’d accomplished in an actual game.
Given Florida State’s 2013 defense — the Seminoles ended the regular season ranked first nationally in both yards allowed and points per game allowed, having held all but one opponent to 17 points or fewer — and the mediocrity of the ACC, Coker could have conceivably steered the Seminoles to the championship game with half of Winston’s production. For the believers, that’s the prevailing theory for his projected success at Alabama, too. And if the job does wind up going to Coker, he’ll have plenty of help: The only notable loss among Tide skill players (besides McCarron) is wide receiver Kevin Norwood, a fourth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. Otherwise, returning players this fall accounted for 5,133 yards from scrimmage in 2013, the highest returning total of any FBS offense except Baylor (5,196).
But even in the SEC, which built its domineering reputation on the strength of its defenses, the baseline for what constitutes a top-shelf D in the up-tempo/spread era is beginning to give way. Last year, fully half of SEC offenses averaged at least 30 points per game in conference play, a share that has risen every year since 2009, when it stood at zero. Despite leading the league in both total and scoring defense, as usual, Alabama still yielded 40 points for the first time in the Saban era in its shootout win over Texas A&M, and later rang in the new year by allowing 45 to a relatively pedestrian Oklahoma attack in the Sugar Bowl. In between, Auburn’s runaway triple-option scheme gashed the Tide for more rushing yards, on more yards per carry, than any opposing offense7 since Saban’s third game on the job in 2007. As usual, the majority of the starters from that defense are gone, fighting for NFL roster spots.
Clearly, there will be a few occasions this season that call for the offense to put the pedal to the metal for some sustained period before the fourth quarter, and that remains an awkward proposition. Since 2008, Alabama has allowed 24 points or more in a dozen games. Its record in those contests: four wins and eight losses, including all three defeats in 2012-13. Even two of the highest-scoring offenses in school history, opposite a pair of elite, top-five defenses stacked with NFL talent, weren’t able to score enough to ensure perfection in either season.
“You have to embrace the challenge, embrace the spotlight, embrace the pedestal; if you don’t appreciate that aspect, you don’t get the full experience,” says McElroy, whose experience included both the high of the unbeaten run in 2009 and the relative low of a failed repeat bid as a senior, when Bama finished 10-3 after opening the season at no. 1. “No one feels worse than the players. That was my experience in 2010 with those three losses … The disappointment in that locker room was so much greater than any pressure anyone could have put on us from the outside. We felt like we let everyone down.”
On the other hand, perfection may now be an obsolete standard. By necessity, both the BCS and the old pell-mell bowl system that preceded it tended to punish losses more harshly than they rewarded wins, conditioning contenders to live each and every week as if all of their goals and possibly even their basic sense of self-worth hung in the balance. Five of Alabama’s nine defeats since ’08 have come with the Crimson Tide ranked no. 1 or no. 2 in every major poll, and all of them felt like small earthquakes reverberating throughout the country.
But they frequently turned out to be detours rather than death knells. With some unexpected assistance down the stretch, the 2011 and 2012 teams both regained their footing in the polls in short order and dropped the hammer in the BCS title game, just as Florida did in its championship seasons under Urban Meyer in 2006 and 2008, and LSU did in 2007, when the Tigers took the crown despite losing twice in the most incoherent season of the BCS era. The playoff also figures to lower the bar slightly for the also-rans, which almost certainly would have included Alabama in 2013, even in the wake of an unprecedented sucker punch of a loss at Auburn. (Uncomfortable as the comparison may be, that Auburn team is another example of an outfit that rebounded from a regular-season loss to come within seconds of a national crown, and happened to do it with a first-year transfer at quarterback.) Where national goals are concerned, the margin for error in the regular season is objectively larger than it’s ever been.
Internally, though, Saban’s team remains one whose only point of reference is its own potential: It’s Alabama versus the Platonic ideal of Alabama. The new quarterback, whoever he turns out to be, will be measured against a very specific standard, one that has been subtly but steadily raised by his immediate predecessors. Despite their success, or maybe because of it, that’s been a standard even they couldn’t always meet.
Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) has written about college football for multiple outlets, including Yahoo, Deadspin, and The Baffler. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is biased against your favorite team. This is his first piece for Grantland.