It seems like almost every year, at least one college football coach insists that he can handle putting off the decision on who to start at quarterback until well into the season. Though conventional wisdom has always dictated that the best course of action is to pick a player to lead a team’s offense and stick with him, some coaches inevitably seek to eschew tradition and try out some sort of collaboration or competition before they make a decision.
A handful of these systems have seen some success, but these hybrid models have rarely worked out as well as advertised. Generally speaking, these same coaches end up having to backtrack over their innovation pretty quickly — if their school’s athletic director hasn’t already done it for them.
David Shaw isn’t just any college football coach, however, and when he mentioned that he had a system for alternating between “starter” Ryan Burns and “backup” Keller Chryst, it certainly caused me to raise an eyebrow. It would have been oddly fitting that a student of history like Shaw might find the answer that has eluded so many of the greats of college football in the home of “intellectual brutality,” and my underlying skepticism was replaced more by curiosity about what sort of scheme he would trot out.
Five weeks later, it’s clear to me that his experiment has failed. And while getting rid of this system won’t solve all of Stanford’s recent problems, I think it’s a fairly good place to start.
At the end of the day I’m just not sure exactly what the Cardinal staff’s system has really brought to the team. Shaw has been “scripting drives” for Chryst to replace Burns as leader of the offense, apparently to get a preview of what the Palo Alto native can do without risking damage to Burns’ confidence.
On paper, this kind of seems like a good solution to this perpetually difficult problem. But after watching Chryst struggle mightily in these isolated opportunities, it’s become painfully obvious that this taste of a larger workload isn’t really doing anybody any good.
There’s a better Keller Chryst out there than the one who went 2-9 with just 13 yards and an interception against Wazzu. Watch a few minutes of his high school tape and it’s easy to see that Chryst can make huge throws, many of the explosive variety that could serve a stagnant Stanford offense well right about now. But between Stanford’s shaky offensive line, its struggling run game and the fact that the offense will make a scripted shift back to Burns regardless of how he does, it seems like there’s basically no way for Chryst to gain any confidence and start making these big plays.
Burns has done better in this system, which is probably to be expected given that it’s largely tailored to his needs. At this point, however, I just can’t see the justification in interrupting any of his momentum for these pointless tryouts of Chryst. At minimum, inserting a cold, anxious Keller Chryst into the game simply wastes a drive. If watching Chryst’s mistakes in any way shakes the Burns’ confidence, it might be doing a whole lot more to derail the team than that.
I’m not advocating for one quarterback over the other just yet. Personally, I would have liked to see Chryst be offered a similar opportunity to what Burns has received to see if his ability to go long could open up the field a little more for Christian McCaffrey. But more than anything, it would be great just to see this awkward system finally put to rest. When you have two quarterbacks that both are struggling to move the offense forward, the choice between them can’t be “all of the above.”
Switching up how things work at quarterback can have non-obvious consequences for how the rest of the team performs as well, like it has for USC now that Sam Darnold has fully relieved Max Browne of quarterback duties. A couple weeks ago, USC looked like they might be severely undermanned on almost every front. In each game since, they’ve looked like a competitive, powerful team that just might be able to reinsert themselves in the race for the Pac-12 South.
It’ll be tough for Stanford to exorcise its demons in the same manner and regain the momentum that it had when it was an undefeated defending Rose Bowl champion. After watching the proverbial train wreck that the team was against Washington State, however, sitting and waiting out the storm no longer seems like a viable action. It’s hard to admit defeat and terminate any in-game strategy, especially when it means one talented player will have to sit the bench. But with critical contests against Notre Dame and Colorado looming, I think it’s time that Shaw gives it a try.
Someone losing this battle will be what Stanford needs to start winning more of its wars.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.