We've had the entire off-season to watch our MSU Football program re-invent itself with a plan to consistently reach championship level. We've seen the Spring Game, we've heard about the quarterback competition in August, and we've watched three actual games worth of "quarterback controversy". In this piece, I give my interpretation and explanation of what has happened thus far.
Preparing and Reacting
When a coaching staff prepares for a game, they create a game-plan. Ideally, things unfold in a way that allows them to follow the plan with some adjustments here and there and they walk away with a victory. They can review the tape and find plenty of things on which to work and improve for the following game. If the game has adversity or misfortune during the game, the staff may need to ditch the game-plan and react to a new reality. Sometimes a game situation, even a single play, can cause a game to "snowball out of control".
In a similar way, Mark Dantonio put together a season-plan for his team and more specifically the quarterback position within the offense before the season started. What we witnessed is not what the head coach and staff had originally planned to happen. When we pass judgement on what we see, we do so with the benefit of seeing how things already played out, including variables brought by the opposing team. It's easy for us, as fans, to ditch a game plan we know little about and contributed nothing towards creating..
Mark Dantonio promised thorough evaluations and changes where needed after MSU's offense failed to produce positive results in 2012. Exit Dan Roushar enter the Dave Warner - Jim Bollman combination and several position-coach reassignments.
Dantonio promised competition at the QB position in the spring. Fans hoped it would not just be for show and motivation, but a true competition. Dantonio delivered with a lot of live practices and scrimmages for all of the quarterbacks. Maxwell held on to his job.
Dantonio promised more QB competition in August camp. More reps with the 1s and 2s for all the quarterbacks and more live contact followed. None of the challengers could do quite enough to unseat Maxwell. Most fans accepted the outcome of the competition, although some were disappointed.
Dantonio delivered. He did what he said he would do. Again, Andrew Maxwell passed the test. Receivers had improved. The offensive line looked like a strength. Confidence in the running backs was building. The big concern seemed to be at the tight-end position.
Heading into game week, Dantonio had another promise to keep. He was not going to leave the Spartans without an experienced quarterback in 2014 the way his did in 2012 by failing to play Andrew Maxwell in 2011. He looked at the hand he was dealt and figured he'd approach the first three games with a somewhat softer pre-season feel, intending to spread playing time to at least two of the three non-Maxwells.
Dantonio would never verbalize things this way, but it's likely the thought process was something like this:
"Maxwell is the starter. He racks up yards and points in game one and everyone gains confidence. Cook comes in to audition for the assumed #2 role. O'Connor gets his fair shake due to his mobility. All three play if things go right in that game. Ditto for game two with the possible exception of an O'Connor/Cook flip-flop based on their performance the previous week. Damion Terry learns by watching. We believe our best chance to win is with Andrew Maxwell, but we want to be sure and will use the first two games to confirm our decision and to provide valuable experience for all the number two and three quarterbacks. If Andrew stumbles and one of the other guys lights it up and backs it up in practice, we are comfortable making a change, but we don't anticipate that happening. We tighten up loose ends and get experience to whoever needs it in game three as we get set for the meat of the schedule and Notre Dame the following week. We use the bye week to make necessary adjustments, heal up and begin our march to compete for a division championship with our 5th year starter at quarterback and a capable, now experienced back-up."
Dantonio kept his off-season promises and executed an aggressive off-season plan. Much like calling a play in the huddle and assessing the defensive alignment as he approaches the line of scrimmage, Mark Dantonio had to call an audible prior to the snap (he saw the overall ineffectiveness of the offense regardless of who was in at quarterback in the first game). Even though he may have have checked into the right play (going with Cook/O'Connor in game two), assignments were missed (receivers, O-line, no TEs) and bad play calling. It was like a "broken play" in football. He had to improvise (going with Cook/Terry in practice - holding out Maxwell while everyone else learned/competed) to create a positive outcome - or at least avoid a game changing mistake (playing Terry and burning his red-shirt or going with the safe bet of Maxwell which would have created a real issue if he didn't come through - both are still available if needed).
The way the quarterback decision unfolded may have looked like a "quarterback circus" and may have appeared to be a management debacle by Dantonio, but in reality it was an audible into the correct play, then an improvisation on a broken play. While we all tend to consider only a few primary factors when viewing a game or strategic decisions, the head coach has an entire eco-system to consider. There are personalities, micro-messaging, long-term and short-term effects, and a staff of coaches among other issues to calculate. He also has to play out the down-side risk scenarios more seriously than the fan base usually considers. That is why most coaches are naturally risk-adverse.
Most Fans are thrill-seekers. We get to evaluate decisions from a rear-view mirror perspective, while a head coach is making decisions before the scenarios unfold and while circumstances are fluid and quickly changing. It's like a baseball manager bringing in a relief pitcher when the starter was cruising along except for those last two batters who just reached base. The relief pitcher comes in and gives up a double. Fans call in to the local radio stations complaining about the manager making the pitching change as if they know that if the starter had the opportunity, he would have got the next hitter out. In reality, he might have given up a home run, but the caller never considers that possibility. In a way, Dantonio ended up executing his plan. It just didn't look the way he had planned nor did it produce the result he expected. He was forced to adjust on the fly even while being accused of being stubborn.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
In the case of how Dantonio handled the quarterback situation, many think Dantonio caused
the problem or at least exacerbated it. They say, "he should have picked one guy and stuck with him" or just "prepared Damion Terry from the beginning so he would have gotten more reps and enough experience by now" or "ditched Andrew Maxwell from the beginning". I think all those approaches are easy to say from where we sit, but they would have violated some basic principles and promises (covered earlier), jeopardized the development of viable plan B options, or would have led us to the same place we ended up anyways. In fact, he actually did pick "one guy" before game one. Receivers couldn't catch passes - easy ones or tough catches, the O-line couldn't protect the quarterback and the TEs were non existent. He picked "one guy" for game two. Some fans just didn't see it that way. He stuck with that guy after game two and confirmed his decision by making sure Terry shouldn't get in the mix after another week of evaluation.
When looking at the quarterback derby as a called play, then an audible, then innovating after the play broke down, Mark Dantonio did just fine making a play with an offense that doesn't have star power. The way Dantonio handled the circumstances was not pretty from a public relations standpoint, but I believe he very well may have prevented the situation from snowballing out of control. He played his cards the best you could expect with the hand he was dealt - especially when considering that he couldn't see all the cards on the table beforehand that we can see now.
The Big Question
I just have to wonder about caliber of this offensive coaching staff at this point. MSU had issues all last year and during the bowl game after the extra practices. The problems persisted into the 2013 season no matter who was playing quarterback. Could Dantonio and MSU have attracted a high-end offensive mind in the off season? Dantonio valued continuity and the security that comes with it more than ingenuity and the risk that comes with it. Yet, there is still a lot of adjusting taking place for the players and staff - The QB coach is now calling plays as co-OC. The RB coach is now coaching QBs, the new co-OC Jim Bollman handles TEs and we are not sure what else he really does. Also Mark Staten was the TE coach before taking over the OL when Roushar became the OC in 2011.
Can this staff evaluate, recruit, develop, coach and game-plan at a championship level? Could it be that Dantonio made a mistake in assembling this staff as he lost Dan Enos, Don Treadwell and Dan Roushar (who was the O-line coach before his trial run at OC). We have to wait and see. If the offense regresses to 2012 form for most of 2013, BIG changes will be needed. If we see a 2012 re-run, will Dantonio say goodbye to his long-time friends on that side of the ball to bring in a high powered staff to get the most out of Damion Terry? Would Narduzzi staying at MSU or leaving influence that decision? All of these issues will be solved if the Spartans can produce on offense and get back to the Big Ten Championship game in 2013.
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