ATHENS – This is going to sound strange in a sport where one player has the ball in his hands every play and his position stirs more debate than any other. But if Georgia plays the rest of the season the way it played Saturday against Mississippi State, it may not matter who starts at quarterback.
"You’ve got to have a complete football team, and the emphasis has to be on that, more so than trying to emphasize the quarterback," Vince Dooley said.
The legendary former Georgia coach sat near the back of the room Monday for Kirby Smart’s weekly news conference, as he often does. He’s somewhat of an expert on winning games and championships with defense and a running game.
Football has changed a lot over the past three decades, but some ingredients of yesterday’s success are still applicable today. Georgia has had great quarterbacks in seasons where it didn't have great teams, or at least had teams perceived to have underachieved. (See: 2008, with Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Mohamed Massaquoi and A.J. Green, when the Bulldogs sustained lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida.) It’s why many around the program felt the need to make a change from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart after the 2015 season.
If the Bulldogs continue to win as they did Saturday against Mississippi State, it will not be because of Jake Fromm or Jacob Eason. It will be because Smart elevated the product to the point that when it’s big-game week, players don’t crawl into the fetal position, as we’ve seen too often in the past.
They’re not there yet. They’re not nearly there yet. It’s four weeks and one SEC game into the season. But giddiness comes quickly in these parts after wins. Assumptions are made quickly -- particularly about quarterbacks.
Georgia is 4-0. It ranks last in the SEC and 112th of 129 FBS teams in passing. Start there. Please.
There’s an obsession with who starts at quarterback. I get that. Smart gets that. Dooley gets that. The right read, right decision, right throw by a quarterback can make the difference in a game. But Georgia will not be a quarterback-driven team this season, no more than Alabama generally has been during its reign under Nick Saban.
Eason was named the starter out of camp because he was better. Fromm took over because of an injury to Eason. Fromm had easily his best game against Mississippi State, and for the first time we can say Smart may – may – have a difficult decision as to who starts when Eason is healthy (conceivably as early as this week at Tennessee, but doubtful).
But this season’s team ultimately may not be defined by that decision. If all goes well, the Dogs can win with either quarterback, because the defense has the potential to be that good and there’s depth at running back and improvement on the offensive line. Above that, there are the qualities Smart is trying to instill in the program t o make it less dependent on the wow factor of the quarterback (which is not suggest he won’t happily take such a quarterback).
“I'm trying to build this (team) on the philosophies that we believe in, which is toughness, effort, being physical, being dominant at the line of scrimmage, having big, physical people, winning on special teams,” Smart said. “The quarterback is a piece of that puzzle, right? Some people would say he's the centerpiece of that puzzle. But, really, the program does not revolve around the quarterback, it revolves around the culture. When you get the culture right, it takes care of the other.”
There's a standard school of thought: A starter shouldn’t lose his job because of injury. But that’s not always the case, particular when the starter has a limited resume. Dooley, who won six SEC titles, recalled when Matt Robinson was his starting quarterback in 1974 and early in ’75 before suffering a knee injury, opening the door to a backup named Ray Goff.
“Matt hurt his knee, and he never got his job back (as starter)," Dooley said. "It just happened. We were winning, and he was playing good. We won the (SEC) championship (in 1976) with two quarterbacks.”
Dooley understands why there’s a preoccupation with who starts, but he has been impressed by both Eason and Fromm.
“The other guy (Eason) no question has the stronger arm, but (Fromm’s) judgment is really good,” he said. “They’re both really amazing. Both starting as young freshmen. But it’s the sophistication of quarterbacks in this time. They start out at a very early age and they go to quarterback camps and they get so much better and more training than before.
So how does a coach make a decision?
“You just feel it," he said. "You can't predict it."
Smart doesn’t feel it yet. Or if he does, he's not saying. But a quarterback debate wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
“I view every position the same where competition creates and breeds success,” Smart said. “That's what we've sold this program on. Developing competition throughout practice, and it will continue to be that way at all positions.”
His biggest concern now is complacency. There has been an afterglow hovering over the program, even since the Mississippi State game. Georgia dominated a ranked opponent like it hadn’t in years. But it’s only one win out of eight SEC games.
“If you try to live in the past based on your last performance, humility is a week away,” Smart said. “It doesn't matter. No team cares what you did last week.”
A new week means a potential new chapter in the debate. But everybody may be focusing on the wrong thing.
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