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How to Pick a Starting Quarterback

Judging by some comments posted on this blog and others, Maryland's choice of Jordan Steffy as the team's starting quarterback was not the most popular one Ralph Friedgen has made during his tenure at College Park. There are some basic guidelines coaches use to make their final decision, but let's examine the Maryland case just a bit more, using the expertise of people far more qualified to speak on this topic than yours truly.

First question: Why did the decision take so long? Didn't Ralph say he wanted to make a quicker decision this year?

According to Virginia Tech Quarterbacks Coach Mike O'Cain, the choice is much easier to make when coaches are analyzing the work of two similar signal callers. For instance, if you have two signal callers that are tall and not very mobile but have strong arms, judging their performances and then comparing the two is relatively simple. However, if you're dealing with two quarterbacks with different styles and skill sets, the decision becomes more complicated.

"If you're comparing apples to apples, you can make a pretty hard and fast decision," O'Cain said. "But when the two guys are different, you have to make the decision for different reasons."

In Maryland's case, the two quarterbacks under consideration (ok, three if you insist on including Josh Portis, though he was always expected to be used this season in situational roles, not as the opening day starter) have dissimilar styles. Steffy likes to assert control; Turner is more laid back. Turner has a reputation for performing well in games and scrimmages but not in practices; Steffy's reputation is the other way around. Steffy seems built for the West Coast offense. He's an accurate thrower on short and intermediate routes. Turner is not as accurate, nor as mobile, as Steffy, but he seemed to perform well under pressure for the most part last season.

Because they are so different, the Maryland coaching staff presumably had to make different and more numerous considerations than they would have if the two were of the same style.

Second question: How much do preseason statistics matter?

It would appear they matter a great deal. Friedgen said Steffy had better numbers than Turner in nearly all of the statistics of which the coaching staff keeps track. While I don't know what those specific statistics were, here are some of the statistical categories other coaches said were important.

Louisiana State Offensive Coordinator Gary Crowton: completion percentage, touchdowns, interceptions and number of times sacked.

O'Cain: completion percentage and turnovers.

Oregon Offensive Coordinator Chip Kelly: "Statistics can handcuff you." In other words, he values a quarterback's ability to move the ball down the field more than the revelations of charted numbers.

For the record, in 2007 Turner completed 63.5 percent of his passes, compared to Steffy's 67.3 completion percentage. Turner threw for seven touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Steffy threw for two touchdowns and four interceptions. Turner played in 11 games and attempted 153 passes. Steffy played in seven games and attempted 70 passes.

Interestingly enough, many coaches contacted this week said performance from previous seasons bordered on irrelevant once training camp starts. Decisions are made on how quarterbacks played in spring drills and, much more importantly, how they played in fall practices.

"The guy that's best in practice gets into the game first," Crowton said. "How they do in practice, that's all you can go on."

So while Turner may have played admirably last season and led the Terps to a few noteworthy victories, he had to prove himself all over again once the spring and fall rolled around. And from Friedgen's assessment, Turner did not do as good a job of proving himself as did Steffy.

Third question: Should coaches really be consulting their players on a decision like this?

Friedgen said that before the final choice was made, Offensive Coordinator James Franklin polled a handful of offensive players and two-thirds of those players said Steffy was best fit to lead the unit.

While Kelly, Oregon's offensive coordinator, didn't discount that method, he said it often isn't necessary. "When it comes down to game-time decisions, the coaches make those calls," Kelly said. "You can tell by the way players interact on the field how they feel about each other."

O'Cain valued direct input from the players slightly more. "You're always in constant contact with your players," he said. "You want to see who they feel comfortable with, who they will follow the best."

If that's the case, the fact two-thirds of players polled voted for Steffy is even more surprising. After Turner took over the offense last season, his teammates lauded him for his leadership and moxie. It would seem Steffy's intense preparation and knowledge of the offense is now valued more than any perceived edge Turner may have in natural leadership ability.

Final question: Does it even matter who the starting quarterback is?

Many coaches (mainly the ones who have yet to make up their minds) would tell you it does not. Numerous quarterback situations across the country remain unsettled, even though the season begins, well, now. Most coaches with two, or even three, guys battling it out to be their team's main signal caller will play all of them during the first few games of the season, when opponents typically are weaker and margin for error is, therefore, a tad greater. LSU Coach Les Miles, Michigan Coach Rich Rodriguez and Auburn Offensive Coordinator Tony Franklin are just three of several coaches who have said each of their respective candidates will see playing time, at least in week one, and that it's not who starts a game but who finishes it that is important.

Or, that line of thinking could just be a convenient excuse. As we already discussed, in many situations the two or three guys competing for the starting job have different styles, and it would seemingly require more effort for an offense to grow accustomed to the style of multiple quarterbacks than it would to do so for just one. For the sake of chemistry between the quarterback and the offensive line, as well as for the quarterback and his receivers, most coaches prefer to have the signal caller position solidified early, despite what you may here when it's not.

"Yeah, I think we've gotta do something," Friedgen said roughly 36 hours before naming Steffy the starter. "Even if it's wrong, we gotta do something."

By Steve Yanda  |  August 29, 2008; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Football  
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Comments

Mark Twain once said "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

The stats Steffy rolled up last year was against inferior competition compared to that of Turner. While Steffy faced Villanova and Florida International, Turner faced the likes of Clemson and Boston College.

Many aspects of a quarterback's role cannot be quantified with statistics. Most saliently are decision making and leadership.

Steffy has shown that once the lights are on and the camera is rolling, he forgets his lines. Unless Steffy has reached an epiphany, he will resort to the same

Posted by: Charles | August 29, 2008 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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