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Cade McNamara: Game Manager or Gunslinger?

The Cade McNamara Iowa fans have seen through three games is not playing like the same quarterback Michigan fans watched for three seasons, for better or worse.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa’s Week Three win over Western Michigan saw the Hawkeyes’ running game finally awaken from its multi-year slumber, piling up 254 yards and three touchdowns. While the game was closer during the first half than Hawkeye fans would have liked, the second half saw Iowa score more points than they had in either of their first two games (27), hold the Broncos to 35 yards of total offense, and make several big plays on special teams. As Iowa prepares for this week’s marquee matchup against Penn State, it does so having just played its most complete game of the season.

However, Iowa’s passing game remains a serious question mark. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes mustered only 133 passing yards against an opponent that was allowing an average of 286.5 per game. Starting quarterback Cade McNamara threw for only 103 yards and completed under 50% of his passes for only the third time in his career. Meanwhile, Iowa’s pass protection, which had been solid through the first two games, suffered several significant breakdowns, allowing McNamara to be sacked four times and pressured on several other occasions. Iowa’s passing struggles against Western Michigan are unfortunately not out of character for the team this season, as the Hawkeyes rank in the bottom three of the Big Ten in completion percentage (53.4%), yards per attempt (5.9), and passer rating (111.91).

Iowa is no stranger to inefficient passing games after spending the last three years trying to fit the square peg of Spencer Petras into the round hole of the Brian Ferentz offense. While the arrival of McNamara and transfer pass catchers Erick All, Seth Anderson, and Kaleb Brown was supposed to resolve these issues, Iowa’s offense still has not figured out how to make the passing game click. Some of these problems can be chalked up to early season jitters (did anyone watch Alabama throw for 107 yards on Saturday against a USF team that went 1-11 last season?) and chemistry issues caused by the influx of new transfers and McNamara missing significant time in the offseason. However, between the start of the Big Ten season and the injury to Iowa’s leading receiver Luke Lachey, Iowa’s margin for error in the passing game will get significantly smaller in the weeks to come, raising questions about whether Iowa’s poor passing attack is about to get even worse.

Cade McNamara’s tenure as Iowa’s starting quarterback has been a mixed bag so far. On one hand, the Hawkeyes are 3-0 with Cade running the offense, are averaging 11 more points per game than they did last season (28.3, up from 17.7), and have nearly as many touchdown passes through three games (four) as Spencer Petras did in all of 2022 (five). On the other hand, McNamara has been an extremely inefficient passer thus far with a surprising penchant for turning the ball over. Through three games, McNamara’s passing statistics are not dissimilar from those one might have expected to see from Spencer Petras had he used his COVID year of eligibility to return to the team this Fall.

Iowa Quarterback Comparison

Player Passing Yards Per Game Yards Per Attempt Air Yards Per Attempt Touchdown Passes Per Game Completion Percentage Passer Rating
Player Passing Yards Per Game Yards Per Attempt Air Yards Per Attempt Touchdown Passes Per Game Completion Percentage Passer Rating
Cade McNamara (2023) 139 5.9 5.1 1.33 53.50% 113
Spencer Petras (Career Averages) 148.54 6.1 5.7 0.685 56.70% 114.7

Three games is an absurdly small sample size, so fans shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet. Still, the strange thing about McNamara’s play (particularly over the past two games) has been how different it has looked from what he showed during his 21 games with the Michigan Wolverines. As Michigan’s starting quarterback, McNamara was what one might call a “Game Manager+”: someone who could ably run a high-powered and efficient offense without having to shoulder all the playmaking, but who could step up to make big plays when the situation called for it. Michigan McNamara was accurate in the short-to-intermediate passing game but had a deep ball opponents had to respect. He was extremely turnover-averse, handled pressure in the pocket well, and made the right decision with the football more times than not. The Cade McNamara Iowa has seen so far has not been the same player. McNamara has three interceptions through as many games in 2023 despite throwing only six all season while leading Michigan to the 2021 Big Ten Championship, and his game against the Broncos marked only his second multi-interception game of his career, with the other coming against future national champion Georgia in the 2021 Orange Bowl.

Against Western Michigan, McNamara seemed to be forcing the issue at times. His first interception (at the :08 second mark in the video below) came on an ill-advised attempt to force the ball to Nico Ragaini despite the receiver having three defenders in the area.

On McNamara’s second pick (at the 2:37 mark in the video above), he was late on his read and missed a window to hit Seth Anderson on a deep shot but opted to throw the ball late into double coverage anyway, predictably resulting in an interception and a Brian Ferentz aneurysm.

To make matters worse, McNamara appeared to have option receivers closer to the line of scrimmage on both of these plays, as was also the case on a handful of his incompletions against the Broncos in which he attempted to throw downfield.

On one hand, McNamara deserves credit for playing more aggressively than Hawkeye quarterbacks have in recent years and for not defaulting to the path of least resistance. Iowa has had plenty of gunslinger quarterbacks like Drew Tate and Ricky Stanzi who have occasionally put the ball in harm’s way, but whose upside and big play ability easily made up for the occasional turnover or poor throw. McNamara is also still adjusting to playing without the competent offensive coaching and four/five-star talent he enjoyed at Michigan. Given that Cade is new to Iowa’s offense, missed time during the offseason, and is still nursing an injury that is hampering his mobility, it is not unreasonable to expect major improvements as the season progresses. Whether McNamara wants to play game manager or gunslinger, better chemistry with his receivers and blockers should make him more successful at either approach.

On the other hand, it’s worth asking if McNamara is doing himself a disservice by trying to carry too large a load for the Iowa offense. In an interview last offseason, McNamara expressed some frustration with the “game manger” designation and outlined why his transfer to Iowa was the perfect opportunity to shake the label that had been affixed to both himself and Iowa QBs of the past.

“I want to not be labeled as a game manager anymore, and I understand the offense that Iowa has had in the past. But they’ve made it extremely clear that we’re not looking to stay this way. We’re well aware we need to change in order to make us contenders again in the Big Ten Championship, and for me, that was such an intriguing opportunity because, not only are they looking to change, but I’m looking to change the perception of my own game as well.”

It was difficult not to think about that quote while watching McNamara try in vain to jumpstart a moribund Iowa passing game by trying to hit big plays that weren’t there instead of taking what the defense was giving him. Whether McNamara is forcing the issue to try and reinvent the public’s perception of Iowa’s offense, of his own play, or both, Iowa’s passing game will continue to struggle unless he can rediscover some of the tendencies that made him so efficient at Michigan. Cade’s assessment was dead on; Iowa does not need a quarterback who can only manage games, and critics who have labeled him as such have dramatically underestimated his talent and capabilities. However, McNamara cannot reverse nearly 25 years of bad Iowa offenses with a single flick of his right arm, and it doesn’t help anybody for him to try. Whether the Hawkeyes can establish a consistent passing game this season may depend on whether McNamara can strike the right balance between the efficient and accurate game manager he was at Michigan and the gunslinger his early play at Iowa suggests he wants to be. If McNamara succeeds, Iowa’s offense may finally turn the corner fans have been waiting for. If not, inconsistent performances like those Iowa fans saw over the past two weeks (and honestly, for the past two seasons) may continue to be the norm.