Stress Test: What's The Job Of An Iowa QB?

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Playing quarterback is stressful business, and no one knows that better than Kirk Ferentz who does his best to alleviate quarterback damage.

Charlie Tate who coached the University of Miami in the 1960s once said, "Having a pro offense like ours with great receivers but no first-rate quarterback is like having a new limousine with a chimpanzee at the wheel."

No matter what formation is run or what offense is employed there is one man in charge on the field, and that is the quarterback. He gets the ball on every play and decides what's to be done with it. In even simple passing schemes the quarterback chooses whether to audible to another play and where to throw the ball. The offense is believed to be his responsibility. Over the years the ideal quarterback has been mythologized as the fearless leader, coach on the field, who understands the task at hand, organizes the team, and takes command of the offense. No one personified this any better than Johnny Unitas, who once said; "The quarterback doesn't come into his own until he can tell the coach to go to hell."

Because of Unitas and others like him, the quarterback came to be known as the "field general" or "surgeon." It is practically a rule of football that the starting quarterback will be designated a team captain. He is also seen as an extension of his coach, the personification of his the team's identity, and is the most idolized player by the fan base who will, in some cases, have only his number as an option when they buy an "officially licensed" team jersey. It is why in modern football history the quarterback almost always gets the blame when his team loses and the credit when his team wins. It is why he gets famous. It is why he gets rich.

But, fame and riches also come with duties and burdens that require the quarterback to be tougher of mind than of body. Longtime Miami Dolphins back-up quarterback Don Strock said after his first NFL start that he hadn't faced so many questions "since my mother caught me drinking in high school." Bill Parcells once told his quarterback Phil Simms after a tough game "don't buy the papers tomorrow you're not going to like what you read." A quarterback is the object of intense scrutiny and focus and cannot afford to be sensitive. One look at the rise of social media, the internet and the 24-hour television news cycle and it might seem as if the pressure present today is more intense than ever before, but the zealots have always found ways to make their presence felt. Bobby Lane famously said, "I get booed in the men's room." Sonny Jurgensen likened playing quarterback "to holding group therapy for 50,000 people a week."

Quarterback is the toughest, most visible, most pressure-packed, most lauded, most vilified and most fascinating position in sports. And thus playing quarterback requires unique athletic gifts and even more exceptional personal traits. While I'd bet most quarterbacks, if they were sincere, would confess to a degree of glory lust (some more than others), few ever get it without some cost to their self-worth. After a rough start to this his final and likely his career defining season, James Vandenberg, if he were to be honest, would tell you this is not how he envisioned it unfolding. Yet, the Iowa Hawkeyes are in first place in the Legends Division of the Big Ten and in position to play their way into the Big Ten Championship game, and no one is more central to where they are today and where they hope to go than James Vandenberg.

But it wasn't always this way. The quarterback is not always Patton on the battlefield. The truth is he's not always been that consequential.

THE BEGINNING

In the beginning there was only college football and it was a rough game of violent scrums and dirty play. Football was so violent that 18 players died during 1905. This would prompt President Theodore Roosevelt to get involved to reform the fledgling but increasingly popular game, just as he had reformed big business.

Roosevelt tasked athletic leaders from all the major universities of the day to form a commission whose number one priority was to clean up the game. This commission would form the basis of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and right away it developed several new rules for football:

- mass formations like the flying wedge and gang tackling were banned

- first down yardage was increased from 5 to 10 yards

- passing the football was permitted

These rule changes where implemented to "open up" the game by thinning the obsession with and emphasis on plays that leveraged brute strength. It was a critical turning point for the sport, because thanks to Roosevelt's intervention the forward pass was introduced to football.

THE ORIGINAL QUARTERBACK

The main offensive formation used in the early days of football was the T formation, which was the creation of Walter Camp at Yale in the early 1880s. Amos Alonzo Stag, a former star player at Yale under Camp, would mature the T formation while serving as the head coach at the University of Chicago for 41 years from 1892 through 1932. In the early version of the T, linemen were shoulder to shoulder with no gaps and the offense was developed to augment rushing the football. In the original T the names of the backfield positions were literal. In the backfield there was a player who was a quarter of the way back behind the center, two players who were halfway back behind the center, and a fullback who was stationed the furthest back. The formation resembled a lower case "t" and the position of quarterback was born, but he was not like the quarterbacks of today or even the early 1930s.

Glen "Pop" Warner inspired by Stagg would later come up with an alternative formation: the single wing. In Warner's single wing the line was unbalanced so that either both guards or both tackles were on the same side of the center to form greater blocking power at the point of the rushing attack. Early football was still very much a ground-oriented game and the single wing was a running formation ideal for the time. In the single wing the quarterback was a blocking back, much like today's fullback, but he often called signals and began to emerge as an on-field leader.

THE PASSING GAME

For many years almost everyone was running some variation of Pop Warner's single wing formation as it offered the best option for rushing the football, which was still the focus of nearly every offense. In 1933 Clark Shaughnessy replaced the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago. Shaughnessy is credited with several innovations that changed the game of football forever. First, Shaughnessy updated Stagg's old T formation by moving the linemen further apart to open gaps in the defense and he moved the quarterback directly under the center so he could take a "hand-to-hand snap." These changes allowed the offense to become even faster and it firmly situated the quarterback as the central point of the offense. In Shaughnessy's modernized T formation the quarterback took the snap and quickly handed off to a back moving at full speed toward the line or faked a handoff and passed the ball to a receiver. Suddenly greater emphasis moved to the pass and with this change; speed and scheme became the ultimate equalizer to raw power.

Football has never looked back.

+++

Vikings coach Bud Grant once said of the basics for success, "A good coach needs a patient wife, a loyal dog and a great quarterback, but not necessarily in that order."

As football progressed beyond the T formation, it was increasingly the passing game that proved to be the engine for change. As the passing game increased in importance so too did it's trigger man, the quarterback. But not every quarterback possess the ideal skill set. Coaches have dealt with this in many ways, most notably by organizing their offense to maximize the talents of whomever is under center. But, in some cases, tailoring the offense is not so much about finding ways to get the quarterback to pass the ball more effectively, so as to sustain passing production; it's about finding ways to get the quarterback to pass the ball more prudently so as to mitigate passing mishaps.

MANAGING STRESS

Since the loss of Drew Tate to graduation, and the near institutionalization of dominant defensive play, Kirk Ferentz has more or less organized his offense so the quarterback's principal task is to execute a discreet and disciplined role within the offense. The Iowa quarterback in the most recent period of Ferentz's tenure is to, above all else, not lose a game with bad decisions, fumbles and interceptions. This sort of quarterback is often referred to as a good game manager. Instead of relying on his arm and passing exploits to win the game, the game manager relies on the team's defense and running game to win.

Elvis Grbac was coming off a pro bowl season, and had just signed on in Baltimore as a free agent when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis told the quarterback bluntly, "you don't have to win it, just don't lose it."

Arguably the most celebrated game manager from the professional ranks was Trent Dilfer, who in 2000 with the Baltimore Ravens led his team to the Super Bowl despite not ranking anywhere near the Top Ten in the NFL in a single relevant passing statistic. That Ravens team possessed the NFL's best defense, one that allowed a stingy 10.5 points a game, by far the league leader. Dilfer, who had set numerous passing records as a collegiate star, had been directed to limit offensive damage so that the Ravens otherworldly defense could be the catalyst for victory. Despite leading the Ravens to the pinnacle of the profession he was, predictably, out of Baltimore the following year in favor of the aforementioned Grbac. Upon signing, Grbac ridiculed Dilfer by telling the press, "It's time that a quarterback comes in here and provides leadership, a go-to guy, a vertical passing game." In his first and only year with the Ravens, Grbac, who set passing efficiency records at Michigan, was relegated to game manager and threw for the second lowest passing percentage and passer rating of his career. The following year he was out of football.

Of course every coach wants what Bud Grant wanted, a great quarterback. But greatness, besides being in scarce supply, is in the eye of the beholder. It's interesting that Ricky Stanzi and now James Vandenberg seemed to have become less dynamic, less personally productive the more games they played at Iowa. Consider, for example, Vandenberg's arc. In his first 9 games as a starter - right up to and including the loss to Minnesota last year - he was a 60% passer, and had a 2 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio. Predictably Iowa was 7-2 in those games. However, in his next 12 games, despite his accumulation of experience, Vandenberg's completion percentage have dropped, his passing yardage per game has dropped, his yards per attempt have dropped, and predictably, Iowa is a .500 team during this stretch. Interestingly, in those 12 games Vandenberg has thrown five more passes, on average, per game yet his yards per game has dropped by more than 30 yards. It begs an interesting question. Is he choosing the less risky pass option and squeezing the air out of the ball? His numbers suggest he might be. Despite playing three more times since the Minnesota game last year, and against arguably stiffer competition, you will see below that he's nevertheless thrown fewer interceptions. Unfortunately, that accomplishment has been paralleled by less productivity, but that might not be how his coach sees it.

"To just look at the quarterback, which I understand is what everybody does on offensive analysis, it's not quite as simple as that," Ferentz said following a devastating loss to Central Michigan. "I'll just say this: I'm glad he's our quarterback, and I'm glad he's going to be our quarterback for the next eight games. I think he's a heck of a player, and I think he's a heck of a young man."

James Vandenberg

Games

Comp

Att

%

PPG

Yards

YPG

YPA

TD/Int

W/L

1-9

155

258

60.0

28.7

2091

232.3

8.1

16/8

7-2

10 - 21

225

398

56.5

33.1

2415

201.3

6.1

11/6

6-6

PPG = passes per game; YPG = yards per game; YPA = yards per attempt

"Every quarterback is a game manager," laughs Colts' president Bill Polian. "It's what the job is all about."

It's a bit ironic that Kirk Ferentz spent his formative professional coaching years in the Ravens franchise. And one could argue Ferentz has more than a passing appreciation and understanding of the winning formula employed by the 2000 Ravens team. A look at Iowa post-Tate reveals a program that has, in each successive year, chosen to run the ball more than pass it. It also reveals a program that is happy to rely upon its defense to win games. Other than last year's ranking of 46th, the defense has performed excellently ranking 12th or better nationally in scoring defense four of the last six years, and is currently ranked 21st. The offense on the other hand has been ranked better than 50th just once, in 2008 (the year of the infamous Gopher beat down). It is worth noting though that when considering scoring stats, Kirk Ferentz does not run up the score when the opportunity presents itself. He mostly shuts it down once he perceives the lead is safe (usually 21 or more points early in the 4th quarter against an overmatched opponent signals a complete shut down, and against a more capable opponent he will sometimes begin to bleed clock prior to the 4th quarter in lieu of risking a turnover to accumulate more points).

YEAR

% of pass plays

National Ranking

Scoring Defense (rank)

Scoring Offense (rank)

Team Record

2012*

48.5

62

21

100

4-2

2011

47.6

62

46

58

7-6

2010

44.2

82

7

50

8-5

2009

46.3

66

8

86

11-2

2008

38.3

103

5

33

9-4

2007

46.1

74

12

110

6-6

* in progress

Some will argue that Ricky Stanzi might not have been a game manager in 2009. They'll point to the number of interceptions and fumbles he accumulated and argue he was asked to carry the offense due to the lack of experience at the running back position. It's a compelling argument given that it was the year in which he attempted the greatest percentage of passes within the offense while he was at Iowa. However, the counterargument is that Iowa was tied or behind in the fourth quarter in 6 of the 10 regular season games he started (he was injured in the 10th game and did not see action in the 4th quarter). Traditional game management was compromised by the fact that Iowa was scratching and clawing to come from behind to win games, and too often had no option but to turn to the passing game.

So, has Kirk Ferentz pressed his quarterback over the last six years to sublimate his talent, for the good of the team, so he can focus on successful game management? Is the Iowa quarterback made to be so fearful of mistakes that he cannot grow as a player? It's hard to prove that Ferentz is pushing this quarterback model or isn't. Moreover, as easy as it is to complain about it when the Hawkeyes are losing, it's equally hard to complain one way or the other when the Hawkeyes are winning. And that is the point after all for the coach, right? To win.

One can almost hear Ferentz whisper in the quarterback's ear: "You don't have to win it, just don't lose it."

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