THE THEORETICAL CASE FOR NATHAN STANLEY
Washington Redskins head coach, Joe Gibbs, was well known to tell other coaches that backup quarterback is second most important position on a team. He was right.
It doesn’t matter that he learned to play quarterback in the ground-oriented wing-T offense.
It doesn’t matter that he played in the second division of Wisconsin high school football.
It doesn’t matter that he rated a perfectly middle of the road 3-star player by nearly every recruiting service.
It doesn’t matter that he received only two scholarship offers.
And it shouldn’t matter that he’s only a true college freshman.
The only thing that should matter is whether or not Nathan Stanley is the second best quarterback the Iowa Hawkeyes have right now, and if he is, then he is the backup.
Plain and simple.
We have no idea if this is the case though. None of us do. Stanley, Wiegers, and Cook are in the eyes of the beholders now. Of course, the beholders are not currently broadcasting their meetings on C-SPAN or SoundCloud, so we only know what they tell us through press conferences and the like and frankly what they tell us is hardly decipherable. Or, rather, what they’ve told us is just enough information to spark a flame of curiosity that slowly but surely becomes a bonfire of supposition. Information about personnel and especially about closely fought position battles usually comes in dribs and drabs or through carefully parsed updates that if held to the light one way might suggest that, for example, Nathan Stanley is a handful of practices away from becoming the next Drew Tate, and if held in another suggests he’s gonna be wearing a redshirt barring a total quarterback catastrophe.
Some fans believe it should matter if Stanley is only barely better than Tyler Wiegers, the more experienced, tenured quarterback. In other words, if Stanley is not obviously the better quarterback then shelve him like a can of beans in a prepper’s bunker. Preserve his eligibility and save him for a time of critical need. This, again, is good in Polyanna theoryland, but doesn’t jive with the ebbs and flows of injury and transfer and potential never realized. Or to put it another way, what team is more reliant upon perfectly threading the personnel needle than an Iowa Hawkeyes team that generally lacks depth, relies to an almost comical degree upon walk-ons and “good stories,” and is more or less never inside the Top 25 in national recruiting rankings. Translation: Iowa’s talent cup never runneth over. Ever.
If Nathan Stanley is barely or nearly imperceptibly better, or even equal to the guys who have been in this system longer than he’s been, then he’s already proving he’s the better quarterback. Knowing how to learn quickly is no small matter for a quarterback who has less than a week to digest a complex game plan during the course of a season. If you’re Iowa and you want to be a national player then you have to squeeze a dollar outta fifteen cents, and you have to put your most talented and able players on the line and try to win with them. This is why you kill yourself in the offseason in recruiting battles, to find talent so you can then leverage it. Football players, especially quarterbacks, are not U.S Savings Bonds to be cashed in once they’ve achieved their ultimate value. Not at Iowa. The game is ruthless and becoming more ruthless every year to a player’s body, and with concussion protocols becoming ever more cautionary, a quarterback’s time on the field has never been more precarious or unpredictable.
Here is another issue: Are we sure we can trust Kirk Ferentz where a quarterback decision is concerned? Some fans are only now getting over Jake Christensen playing the entire second half of the 2008 Pittsburgh game (which Iowa lost), despite Ricky Stanzi clearly outplaying him in the first half.
Most fans have repressed Ferentz’s choice to disregard the backup quarterback, for even a single play, during the abysmal 2012 season. Has even enough time passed since Kirk Ferentz was recently confused and pig-headed about how to manage his quarterback talent in 2014? A season where rather than referring to his quarterbacks as something akin to the engine inside a sports car he instead discussed them the way a retiree might discuss a financial advisor. His excessive use of terms like “trust” and “experience” confounded those who thought college football was an athletic endeavor involving post-adolescents.
We don’t need to rehash the Jake Rudock vs. C.J. Beathard debate because that debate is over and settled. But we can acknowledge that when Ferentz finally and definitively declared C.J. Beathard his starting quarterback, he did so in a manner that was bewildering, shocking, and out of character, and not necessarily because of any superior trust or experience C.J. had over his main rival for the position, because he had neither. It seems that Ferentz finally made it a priority to evaluate and envision how Beathard’s talent could more positively impact the offense - if not the entire program - if given a real chance, and he concluded it could be profound. The same must be true when deciding on who is to become your backup quarterback. But will it?
Let’s be clear about this, a backup quarterback is not an afterthought. He is far more than a “break glass in case of emergency” player. While he might get very, very few first team snaps week in and week out, much rests on the shoulders of the backup and a great deal goes into being the next-guy-in under center. In many cases, the job of backup quarterback demands he is able to, with little notice, drop his clipboard and hoist the weight of a season on the brink of disaster. This is not always the case, but that it could be the case should be motivation enough to select the right player, which is the best player.
Let’s play it out. There are more or less four common scenarios for which the back-up quarterback sees playing time:
1. The Accidental Tourist: The starter loses his helmet or a shoe or his knee brace gets broken, and at minimum he must sit out one play. You can call timeout or send in the backup to manage perhaps no more than a single play. Of course, time and score will dictate which the coach chooses to do, but should the backup be asked to sub in he’s likely to do nothing more than handoff the football for a play or two.
2. Bridge The Gap: Football is truly ruthless, and so your starter gets injured and must miss a series or two or three, or even a quarter or a half, to receive treatment. You send in the backup to either hold down the fort or manage the game very conservatively until the starter is reinserted (assuming he is reinserted). Again, time and score will dictate how he’s used, but given that he did not take many reps with the first team during the course of the week, the staff is going to (if time and score allow) handle him with kid gloves. Although, he might need to rescue your football team, and that’s a tall order for any backup.
3. Spot Starter: Your starting quarterback must miss a game or two due to an injury or (less likely for Iowa this year) he has a temporary crisis of confidence and needs to be “relieved” due to poor performance. You start your backup until the starter can return healthy or confident enough to play again. The key here is that the coaching staff sees the backup as a stop gap measure.
4. Changing Of The Guard: Your starting quarterback is so injured or is performing so poorly you have to make a permanent change for the good of the team. The backup becomes the starter and vice versa.
In three of the last eight years Iowa has had to rely seriously upon a second quarterback.
THE FUTURE IS ALWAYS NOW
When it comes to managing the quarterback position, the future is largely irrelevant. Or, it should be. Recruits (and walk-ons) are always coming in and injuries are commonplace, as are the flights of fancy of restless young men, also known as availing oneself to the transfer rule. The future, in other words, is guesswork bordering on a fantasy. As the coach you have to manage players “in time.” Sure, you lay the best-laid plans and hope you’ll get lucky and it all unfolds just as you dreamed it. But you cannot bet on it or at least you have to have a Plan B, C and D.
Your best players should be able to reveal themselves at practice unless your practices are poorly conceived. As such the coaching staff is able to get the needed feedback and information that will allow them to decide who projects best onto the field. And really, that is what personnel decisions are all about: projecting. This is not scientific, although you can employ scientific methods. You have to use some gut here, and if you don’t think that to be the case go look at all the first, second and third round draft picks at quarterback who never saw the light of day in the NFL or once they did were fucking awful and way in over their heads, despite the scrutiny of mountains of game tape, hours of physical testing at the combine or at a campus “pro day,” not to mention one-on-one interviews and written tests, and on and on. The best coaches have a good gut. Jim Harbaugh, for example, has a good gut. Hayden Fry had an incredible gut. Kirk Ferentz? Not so much.
Finally, there is this: players know. They know who’s the best guy. They’ve always known. If they feel the decision process on who plays is not fair, then morale issues seep in through the cracks of your team’s chemistry. I’m in the camp that this is what happened during the Rudock vs. C.J. jumble-fuck of 2014. But that’s conjecture and we’ll never know. Iowa now has a slew of true freshmen listed on the two-deeps. Maybe they’re there because of a massive drop off in talent after the first team, or maybe these guys are just that good. Or maybe both. But this suggests that Kirk and Company might be, despite their deep and unwavering commitment to developmental football, more open to finding ways to get their most talented players on the field and using that also as part of the developmental process (as opposed to using only the weight room, meeting room, and practice field) .
In 2017, Iowa has its best recruiting class in years coming on board, and combined with a ton of youth on the current two-deeps, this reinforces the argument that the future is now. But the future is always now. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes are playing a team that on paper looks wildly inferior. If the sharks in Vegas are right, the game is likely to get one-sided on the scoreboard and maybe in a hurry. At some point, someone may relieve C.J. Beathard, and the guy who does should be none other than the best damn guy we got for the job. Period.