Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

Letter to Jameis Winston

Dear Jameis,

I know this is one letter you won’t read, especially since it comes from an FSU fan from Canada. As I write this letter, you have been cleared of misconduct charges in your code-of-conduct hearing at Florida State, and you get to focus on the upcoming Rose Bowl against Oregon. Look at this letter as my way to cope with feelings that I suspect many FSU fans experienced when it comes to you, although they probably would have preferred losing that dumpster fire of a game against Florida rather than admit to it.

See, I watched the 2013 season, and by extension, you, and I loved every moment of it. I loved your 24-of-26 game against Pitt, I loved the big comeback to win the National Championship against an Auburn team that outplayed us for most of the game. But more importantly, I loved that destruction of Clemson in Clemson, and I adored your pregame speech.

I’m sitting there going, “And this is a freshman? Oh, this is going to be fun!” On the field, you were, and have been since then, one of the purest incarnations of leadership and poise I’ve ever seen. And for the first time in a long time, such an incarnation was wearing an FSU uniform. To make the moment even more glorious for me, it came against Clemson, a team I’m fairly sure I despise more than most Noles’ fans. Having to watch this team steal top Florida prospects from us, and then not coach them for four years before they bomb in the NFL is painful. Especially considering that, during Bobby Bowden’s final few years, they beat us pretty regularly.

You have to understand just how desperate we were, as a fanbase, for the arrival of someone like you. We had to endure a long global decline of the program, after Weinke and Warrick’s National Champions, that wasn’t completely erased until you arrived. Though Christian Ponder pulled the program out of the ground and EJ Manuel improved it even more, we could feel it getting better, but we knew we weren’t there yet. And in the meantime, we had to deal with a whole bunch of shit we never had to worry about before. Picture having to ask yourself whether we were going to take one up the chin from powerhouses like Virginia, Wake Forest or Boston College. Imagine having to endure two last-gasp game-winning drives in three years from Russell Wilson’s NC State. But worst of all, think about just how excruciating it was to hear everybody gloat about how amazing those insufferable, gag-inspiring, self-righteous Tebow Gators were.

You allowed us to move on from this dark period as a fan base. You symbolized our return to prominence. Non-sports fans can’t understand just how amazing that feels to us actual fans who usually take this stuff too seriously. 2013 was like a dream, and you were the face of that dream.

So the rape accusations? Man…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not really concerned about you stealing a bunch of crab legs, though which voice in your head told you this was a good idea is completely beyond me. On its own, it could be dismissed as a youthful error in judgement, And I care even less about the whole “F*** her right in the p****!” incident, which is really quite juvenile, but on the face of it, it’s a mere facepalm moment. It sure wouldn’t have gone down, in any case, as your proudest moment as an ambassador of the program, but the only reason why it’s not seen as almost harmless is because a) it made your lapses in judgement look like the rule and not the exception and b) it happened in the context of rape accusations, giving the story a darkly ironic feel.

You see, Jameis, what I’ve done so far is what we journalists call burying the lede. I did it mostly to establish the context of my anger towards you. I say this because you have put yourself in a position where football should take a backseat to the damage you’re accused of having caused. Stealing crab legs? I can call it an error in judgement. Yelling an obscenity in a public place? Ibid. But if you did rape that girl? That’s not just an error in judgement. Aside from flat-out murder, it’s not a stretch to say it’s the most reprehensible thing one can do to a fellow human being.

And what it looks like from the outside, Jameis, is that you were protected from the consequences of your actions simply because you’re a great football player. Now, the judge’s ruling says you are innocent. However, the stats suggest you did it. Deadspin’s Daniel Roberts calculated that the odds of someone being falsely accused of rape vary between 50,000 and 200,000 to one, and that’s accounting for the fact that 68% of rapes in the United States go unreported. In other words, to say the stats suggest you did it is a strong euphemism. They scream it. Emphatically.

I must reiterate that none of this constitutes actual proof in your individual case. The average person can be forgiven, however, for looking at those stats, along with the interests of the people involved, and coming to the conclusion that two plus two equals four. The ‘Noles are what the otherwise banal city of Tallahassee has for entertainment. Your head coach, Jimbo Fisher, is now the highest-paid public sector employee in the state of Florida in no small part because of you. A successful Seminoles football team is a tremendous source of revenue for Florida State University.

As for you, an immensely lucrative NFL career awaits. Yeah, I know, you’re in for a brutally exhausting interview process at the combine. Teams are going to fire a lot of questions about every transgression you’ve committed, and that doesn’t even include the rape accusations. Some wise-ass coach might even shout “RAPIST WINSTON!” as you enter the room. Some teams will take you off their draft board altogether. But not all of them. And the teams that need a quarterback have very few options at the position in the 2015 draft. Marcus Mariota? He’s likely going first overall, but I can promise you that some, if not all, teams who figure to have a chance to draft him, are going to take a long look at you because you’ve played in a pro-style offence. Consider the atrocious year it’s been for mobile, former spread/option quarterbacks in the NFL. Kaepernick, Cam, RG3, all these guys are going to make teams really nervous about taking Mariota, or any spread/option product. Add that to the fact that the best pro-style quarterback in the draft after you is Michigan State’s Connor Cook (at best a slightly better version of Kirk Cousins), plus that you now have next to zero chance of going to jail, and it’s easy to see how your stock is bound to climb. Teams’ll just bring themselves to consider you and say things such as, “Well… he wasn’t actually convicted of anything. In fact, he was never criminally charged. Plus, he’s a great leader, and the skills are there.” Next thing you know, you’ll be a first-round pick in spite of all this chaos.

All this figures to happen despite the fact that the investigation into your accuser’s claim was so obviously botched that, again, anyone trying to connect the dots can easily come to the conclusion that the botch job was intentional and done solely to protect your team, your school and you. Between the systemic dismissive treatment of rape victims when they do come forward and your importance to the livelihood of many successful figures at FSU, one is on safe ground when saying that you, your head coach, your athletic director and Florida State University as whole, have millions of reasons to lie about what happened while your accuser has next to none.

You can claim your innocence. Your lawyer can come out and say this is the worst attack job in the history of amateur sports. Jimbo Fisher can back you up as unconditionally as he has. But of course all those things will happen. Meanwhile, the mishandled investigation, which, obviously, produced insufficient evidence to warrant any criminal charges, seems far too convenient. It makes you, your lawyer, and Coach Fisher come across as disingenuous. It discredits any FSU fan who attempts to defend you, no matter how valid their arguments might be in theory.

Under no circumstance does the legal system require you to prove your innocence, and I cannot per se hold it against you that you haven’t. But there is a giant difference between a lack of evidence in a properly-conducted investigation and a so-called lack of evidence in an investigation with enough procedural irregularities to make it unbelievable even if you tried to make a crime-thriller movie about it. You can say the investigation produced no evidence of wrongdoing on your part but, given its flaws, you can’t expect people to take it seriously.

In the meantime, I grit my teeth thinking that your situation has made the team so unlikable that everybody keeps fishing for reasons to knock us out of playoff contention. We started the season at number 1, and were dropped as low as number 4. Do we get dropped to 4 without this rape accusations fiasco? I have my doubts. Coach Fisher has spent the year spewing a narrative along the lines of, “our guys use the nation’s hatred to fuel their focus and togertherness.” Fuel their focus? You must joking! You have played like anything but a focused team. You guys are way too talented to have to squeeze out victories in extremis, wrestling-heel style, against the OK-at-best ACC competition you faced this year.

I hate feeling at least a bit unclean at the idea that I might be supporting a (more) morally bankrupt program (than all the others) when I read take-down pieces like this one. Drew Magary can be a blowhard, and he’s being one here, but it becomes harder to dismiss the substance of his argument when I read this from a writer I respect and can’t bring myself to disagree with much of what he says. Here’s what I’ll say in defence-ish of your statement: we should not minimize the gravity of a false rape accusation just to emphasize the gravity of an actual rape, and it seems to me several journalists are guilty of this. But even then, I kinda get their point. You were wrong, morally at least, to pretend that rape and false rape accusations are equivalent in legal or moral terms. They are not.

I’ll never forget 2013, but I find myself wishing you’ll declare for the upcoming NFL Draft not because I don’t like you, not because I think we’d be better on the field without you (an idea so idiotic it should cause anyone to question the sanity of the person who utters it), but because things have reached the point where I don’t want you to be FSU’s problem anymore. But all these admittedly selfish footballing preoccupations are irrelevant compared to the more important one: if you did do it, and the undeniable fishiness of the investigation forces me to keep asking myself the question, then there is a young lady out there suffering not only from the traumatic experience of the rape itself, but from the inevitable slut-shaming she’s probably been facing since she filed the accusation. And this would be both a tragedy and a scandal. So is the fact that she would have faced all of it anyway, from the less reputable FSU fans, even if you HAD been found guilty. This is what you have forced us, as fans of both you and of the Florida State Seminoles, to square our morals with.

So go on and prepare for the Rose Bowl. You’re going to need all the preparation you can squeeze into whatever time you have left before the game. Hell, if you and the team play as you have all year, you’re getting blown out by at least 30 points against this steamroller of an Oregon offence.

Not that this was ever the point.



5 thoughts about the BCS Championship game

After hearing every so-called expert rehash the National Title game between Florida State and Auburn, here are five thoughts I’d like to bring up so we can make the discussion a bit more intelligent.

1. FSU won.

Infecting the post-game discussions is this notion that FSU didn’t win the game, Auburn lost it. I find this thesis less than convincing.

Allow me to let the ‘Nole haters and Auburn fans in on a little secret about how sporting contests work: in every game, one team finds a way to win, and one finds a way to lose. As true as it is that Auburn had a few killer blunders that are bound to give them quite the heartache when they watch the film, it’s also true that Florida State found a way to fight their way back in the game. Many teams, down 21-3, would have pulled an Ohio State, raised the white flag and started getting mentally ready to spend the next 7 months shielding their ego from the torment and ridicule of having surrendered 50 points to the SEC team. Not FSU. They got a crucial touchdown before the half, made decent adjustments at the break, and won the second half. People who give them no credit for this are being disingenuous.

Here is a fact: the what-if game is pointless. In a game, some opportunities are taken, others are missed. Some plays were there to be made by Auburn that could have won them the game. They didn’t make them. A better team would have. This makes the Tigers less deserving to win the game, not more so. My idol Skip Bayless brought back two plays he says cost Auburn the game. Pretending for a moment that I accept the premise that a handful of isolated plays can really determine the outcome of a football game, I counted three. (1) Before he went on to have a surprisingly effective night throwing the ball, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall reminded us that he’s barely adequate as a passer as he underthrew his receiver, who was left alone in the seam, and the receiver dropped the ball. This is on the game’s first drive. If he catches it, it’s 7-0. Instead, the Tigers punt the ball. (2) That dreadful missed field goal was a real gimme and hurts even more considering it was fourth and two and the Auburn ground game was having success moving the ball. Can anyone stop Auburn when they only need two yards? I haven’t seen anyone do it all year. (3) When Tre Mason broke his 37-yard TD to give Auburn the lead back with just over a minute to go, had he had the presence of mind to take a knee at the one-yard line, they can grind more time off the clock and/or force FSU to burn another timeout. 

Right. Except we must immediately make two points upon hearing this.

(1) So all Auburn had to do was make those plays and they win? That’s not an argument. They didn’t, did they? If my mother had a mustache, she’d be my father. But she doesn’t. Marshall did underthrow his receiver, who still should have caught the ball, but didn’t. The kicker did miss that field goal. And Mason didn’t down the ball at the 1. (Though I must confess I would struggle to give him a hard time about this. First, it goes against everything a running back is coached to do. Secondly and more importantly, everybody was so shell-shocked to see Auburn’s defense playing so well after being iffy the entire season. Well, they were their iffy selves on two drives in the game: the last FSU possession of each half, including the ice-in-his-veins drive from Jameis Winston that won FSU the game.  Wanna play the what-if game? Here’s one for you: if Auburn’s D doesn’t revert back to its incompetence with the game on the line, Mason’s mistake isn’t even a memory right now.)

(2) Let me hand out additional criticism that would make great fodder for the what-if game. What if Kelvin Benjamin hadn’t dropped two drive-killing passes along with the drive killer from Reshad Greene? What if DeVonte Freeman hadn’t taken that moronic personal foul after a touchdown, which prevented the Noles from going for two down 24-19? It’s not as if FSU didn’t cock up a few chances along the way.

What about the coaching? Auburn had amazing success offensively in the first half, yet in certain key situations in the second half, Guz Malzahn got too cute with some of his playcalling, which allowed the Noles to get Auburn in second/third and long situations. Even an over-caffeinated offense like Auburn’s becomes more predictable in such situations. Obviously, FSU’s gameplan was, as it should have been, to shut down the run and force Nick Marshall to beat them with the pass. Second or third and long forces this. Why would Malzahn do anything to fix something that isn’t broken? What if he hadn’t? Mind you, he certainly did much better than Jimbo Fisher, who apparently needed the entire first half to realize he might want to lay off the Captains concept (all hooks) considering Auburn was in man-press coverage most of the time. Hooks can work against man coverage, but they require perfect timing, which is tough to achieve when your quarterback is dodging incoming pass rushers all the time. (Cue to FSU O-Line coach Rick Trickett, one of the best in the business, downing 4 more caplets of Tums.)

When Fisher finally started sprinkling in some rub and crossing routes, they moved the ball better. So you mean crossing routes are great against man coverage? Say it ain’t so! Moreover, Fisher also tends to abandon the run FAR too often, and this game was no exception. This notion of 50% run/pass being a balanced offense doesn’t work, but when you have three future NFL draft picks at running back, how about using them? Of course, it doesn’t hurt the Noles when they’re molesting Idaho or Wake Forest. But against Auburn, you’re allowing Dee Ford and company to play situational pass rusher all the time. The Auburn defense doesn’t have that much going for it, but it has Dee Ford. Answer me this: what if Fisher had called a better game? We’re probably watching FSU pull away in the fourth. What is it, you say? He didn’t call this great game I’m referring to? Ah! But that, my friends, is exactly my point. (And in Fisher’s defense, that reverse punt fake was a beautiful call.)

2. Dee Ford can play the game of football. This was the fifth Auburn game I watched this year. Ford has impressed me in all of them. His size will likely prevent him from playing defensive end full time at the next level, and I’m not sure his initial quickness is elite, but the motor on this guy is just astonishing. He never gives up on a play. His hands are violent and he just bullies offensive tackles. Against Texas A&M, he did well when facing future 1st round tackle Jake Matthews. He was all over the field against Alabama, even if the stats weren’t exuberant. I liked what I saw against Georgia and in the SEC Championship game against Missouri. He terrorized FSU’s offensive tackles on Monday.

He’s disciplined too. Watch the play when FSU tried to run a fake jet sweep to Reshad Greene. When Winston tries to run in the opposite direction to find his receiver, Ford is waiting on him the entire time and drops him. The combine will tell us whether he has ideal athleticism, but his temperament and nastiness are ideal. I see him making it in the NFL as a 3-4 outside linebacker and having some success there.

3. FSU’s two unsung heroes. By and large, FSU’s defence had a tough day, but that didn’t stop defensive linemen Timmy Jernigan and Mario Edwards from having terrific games for FSU. For my money, Jernigan should have won defensive MVP for the game instead of PJ Williams, who did, to be fair, come up with a critical interception of Nick Marshall when the Noles were down 21-13. Jernigan anchored the middle of the defense, and mostly shut down the inside run. The success Auburn were having was mostly when they ran outside, which they too seldom did, in my view. Meanwhile, Auburn figured they could do well optioning Edwards, who is really built more like a defensive tackle than like an end (I think he’s a 3 or a 5 technique in the NFL), since Nick Marshall runs like a defensive back (which star linebacker Telvin Smith came to realize on Auburn’s third touchdown). For the most part, Edwards was coached not let Marshall keep the ball, but he did make an astonishing play in the fourth quarter playing 50/50 between Marshall and Tre Mason. When Marshall kept it, Edwards stayed with him until the sideline and flattened him for a one-yard gain. Again, for all intents and purposes, we’re talking a defensive tackle defending a DB.

4. Jameis Winston is one cool cucumber. His offensive line’s performance was borderline nightmarish. He rarely had a clean pocket. The running game was mostly absent. His timing was off most of the first half and even parts of the second. For the most parts, his receivers allowed themselves to be shut down worse than the Montreal Canadiens’ offense. He fumbled at a critical juncture, which gave Auburn another score. At this point, most quarterbacks would be losing it in some way, shape or form. Not Winston. Much will be said of his Brady-esque final drive. What impresses me is not the drive itself. (Let’s face it. Reshad Greene did most of the work with that 49-yard play, about 45 of which were YACs.) It’s the fact that he could muster such poise after struggling most of the night. When things were going so well, they get a delay of game penalty, yet Winston comes right back and gets the first down. I’m not one to believe in this notion of the clutch gene, but if it does exist, Winston has it.

5. Neither Auburn nor FSU is going away. FSU should start next season ranked number 1. Auburn deserves to be in the Top 10. The craziest thing about these teams is that both are loaded with young playmakers. Winston will be a sophomore, and he’s got a few promising receivers to replace those who will be leaving this year. Rick Trickett churns out athletic offensive linemen like he picks them off the assembly line. And mark my words, converted safety turned running back Karlos Williams is going to be SPECIAL. He’s tremendously big and fast, and as a former headhunter type at safety, he’s looking to hurt people. Kermit Whitfield, who had the key kickoff return for a touchdown, will be a playmaker wherever they line him up. And Jimbo Fisher recruits defense every year as if he’s losing every starter. They’re loaded with talent aching to take over for the Jernigans, Telvin Smiths and LaMarcus Joyners of the world.

Meanwhile, save for early declarations for the NFL draft, Auburn would get back Marshall, Tre Mason and ALL FIVE offensive linemen who started the National Title game. Part of the defense’s problem this year was its youth; they’ll be better in 2014. Besides, how much talent do you really need to run that offense? Malzahn has to be one of the two or three best offensive minds in all of college football and his offense is impossible to really shut down without changing the rules. And to think it’s basically a supercharged version of the Wing-T. Alabama better be ready, or they’ll lose to this lot again, and this time, Auburn won’t need a missed field goal returned for a touchdown.

Anyways, for us college fans who understand this is the best level of football to watch, we’re now stuck with the NFL playoffs. I’ll try to write a bit on that if law school allows me the time. Until then, FSU won. Just so we’re clear.

Florida State’s statement

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston took the shotgun snap. As was the case most of the night, he had a clean pocket. He found his receiver Rashad Greene on a little eight-yard hook. “Good work,” I’m thinking. “Get your first down.”

Clemson safety Bashaud Breeland dropped his head trying to make the receiver pay, and Greene made him miss. Then, defensive tackle Kevin Dodd valiantly tried a shoestring tackle, but couldn’t make it. Greene accelerated into the now-open field. It was a footrace. Cornerback Darius Robinson looked like he had the angle, but Greene was going to gain quite a few yards before anyone tackled him.

10, 15, 20 yards. And I’m thinking, “wait a tick… Robinson’s not closing the distance… Holy shit! That’s a touchdown!” This was the first time it occurred me that the two teams on that field in Clemson were not on the same level this Saturday. At that point, it was 24-7 for FSU.

Sure, Clemson had lost a fumble on their first offensive play of the game. Sure, Winston’s first pass of the game was a touchdown to mammoth receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who looks like a faster version of Plaxico Burress. Sure, cornerback LaMarcus Joyner sacked Clemson QB Tajh Boyd and forced a fumble which was recovered and brought back for a touchdown by FSU’s Mario Edwards. Up until Greene’s touchdown, it was already clear FSU were playing better than Clemson.

But the Tigers were showing signs of fighting back. Boyd did find that filthy traitor receiver Sammy Watkins for a touchdown. The defence did intercept Winston as FSU was threatening to score again. I was expecting a back-and-forth affair much like last year’s 41-37 classic. With Clemson trailing by ten but threatening to trim the lead to three, it was looking that way.

But when Greene pulled away from the Clemson defence, all of a sudden, the vibe was different. It wasn’t momentum. It was superiority. When Tajh Boyd, who had himself one miserable night, threw an interception to FSU’s Joyner though the ‘Noles had only 10 men on the field, it dawned upon me FSU might not so much beat Clemson as they might maul them. In typical nervous-fan fashion, I didn’t believe it until Clemson started coming apart at the seams in the third quarter, taking stupid unnecessary roughness penalties and seemingly having every nice offensive play called back for holding. One of their defensive backs was ejected for targeting. It was as if the Tigers were coming to terms with the fact that they were not ready for what the Seminoles had in store for them today. It just wasn’t going to happen for them.

After the game, the only word ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit could muster was “Wow!” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, classy in defeat, observed that “Florida State might be the best team in the nation. You just don’t have a lot of room for error against a team like that.” What was clear, though, was that no one, not Herbstreit, not Swinney, and certainly not me, saw this beatdown coming. No one except, it would seem, Jameis Winston.

Much was said about Winston finally looking like a freshman. This game would have been a logical time for it to happen. Big stage; hostile atmosphere; best conference opponent; third-ranked team vs fifth-ranked team: this is the type of stage where inexperienced youngsters usually fail. Winston, however, is clearly not just any freshman.

If you haven’t seen the highlights from the game, watch them here. Beyond any individual moment (though Benjamin’s touchdown catch is far from banal), what struck me is Winston’s speech to his teammates in the locker room before the game. It shows you what Winston is, in a nutshell. “My brothers,” he says. “Put a smile on your face.” Had I been Dabo Swinney and seen this before the game, I would have been terrified. Winston was sincere. This was not a kid pretending not to be scared. This kid was not scared, period.

“It” factor

One of the usual clichés in sports, especially at the quarterback position, is the so-called “it” factor. WInston is not a walking human highlight reel like Johnny Manziel. There isn’t one ball that had me go “Oh, wow!” Not every throw is spot on target; his mechanics still need work. The kid, it seems, just manages the game, but next thing you know, he’s thrown for 444 yards, three touchdowns and has run for another one. By all accounts, he’s now played himself into the Heisman race.

Another beautiful moment tonight was when he was asked about Heisman consideration and his first, completely spontaneous answer was “it’s all down to my teammates.” And it is.

Even during FSU’s dark period between 2003 (or so) and last year, Florida State always had impressive-looking athletes. They always looked great coming out of the bus. Except unlike some of the overhyped cream puffs with whom FSU embarrassed itself during the final years of Bobby Bowden’s career, this group of guys can really play.

FSU’s dynamic trio of receivers (Benjamin, Greene and Kenny Shaw) chipped away at Clemson’s secondary all day. Tight end, Nick O’Leary, who reminds me of Dallas Clark, except he blocks better, led the team in receiving, including a 94-yarder when Clemson forgot about him on a play action fake. The running game, strangely ineffective in the first two quarters, became a factor in the second half when FSU started running the outside zone play from the gun split formation.

And that defence swarms like that of the FSU of old. 3-technique Timmy Jernigan ought to be a first-round pick, and the front doesn’t appear to suffer too much from losing three ends to the NFL draft. LaMarcus Joyner is a great leader in the secondary, and he had his greatest game as a Seminole when it counted most. And linebacker Telvin Smith is a special player.

Last but not least, offensive line coach Rick Trickett continues to take high school linemen nobody knows about and turn them into zone blocking monsters. I don’t know of anyone who coaches the position better in college ball than Trickett.

But to come back to Winston, it’s not the tangibles that make him great but the intangibles. His personality could not be more conducive to success as a quarterback, but we were waiting to see it on the big stage. There was a blip when he completed 24 of 26 passes against Pittsburgh, but that was the one time. He deep-fried Wake Forest and Maryland, but they’re Wake Forest and Maryland. The Clemson game, however, seems to leave very little doubt as to Winston’s legitimacy. The “it” factor is one of those things that can’t be described; you just know it when you see it. And Winston has it.

The long road back 

I’m sorry for going on and on about this, but you have to understand how emotional this game is for me as an FSU fan. The years of misery I had to go through while the program basically went through seven years of irrelevancy weighed on me.

Years of crappy quarterbacking from Chris Rix, Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee. Years of inept offensive line play, of failing overrated skill position players, of defensive mediocrity. And, of course, enough frustrating games to send me into depression. Between the 30-0 loss to Wake Forest at home in 2006, to the two losses at home to Russell Wilson’s NC State, to four years of not belonging on the same field as Tebow’s Gators, to several upset losses to pedestrian opponents like Boston College and Virginia, I had to watch teams like Clemson and North Carolina out-recruit the Noles in Florida and assume the kind of identity my Noles once had. That Miami took a similar downturn was of no consolation whatsoever.

Things got slightly better with Christian Ponder at quarterback, but the Noles were still a shadow of their former selves. And as I told anybody who would listen last year, FSU were much better under EJ Manuel, but they weren’t quite there yet.

A few years ago, there was a trend of naming “coaches-in-waiting.” Just about everybody hated it; it vanished very quickly. However, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher has to be the most successful test subject of this M.O. The job he has done at FSU is remarkable, the culminating point of which (so far) was this drubbing of Clemson. Don’t let the score fool you, they might be overrated, but Clemson is one talented team, and yet they could seemingly do nothing right against the Seminoles tonight.

FSU might lose a trap game to a team like NC State or the scary fast Miami Hurricanes, but this type of outclassing of a quality opponent is something I hadn’t seen from FSU for a very long time. The lesser Seminole teams found ways to be a tease every once in a while, but they never did anything like this. And so, finally, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say it.

The Florida State Seminoles are back.


I have to mention another game which made me extremely happy today, which was the victory of my alma mater, les Spartiates du Vieux Montréal, over the hated Vanier Cheetahs. This was Vieux’s second convincing win over “VC” this season. Of course, it won’t mean much if they don’t wrap their great season with a championship, but since the Bol d’Or final is not today, I’m taking a moment to enjoy it.

Between Vieux’s and FSU’s big wins. I don’t want this day to end.

5 football questions for this week

Law studies are a pain in that they hardly allow me to pour countless words into writing about the game, which is annoying at the start of the NCAA, NFL and CIS seasons. However, I do wish to take the time to answer the five questions I’ve been getting the most from friends and fellow members of the Quebec football community. So here goes.

1. What happened to Concordia against UofM?

Can’t say I didn’t see this one coming. There was a play when Carabins defensive lineman David Ménard penetrated (again) through the Concordia offensive line and batted down a Reid Quest pass. The way the play happened, however, gave the impression Ménard had punched Quest in the face. That play strikes me as symbolic of the spanking the Stingers took from their Montreal rivals, a beatdown about which the word “embarrassing” comes quickly into the mind. 

It didn’t take long for one to realize “les Bleus” were superior. The porous ConU pass protection forced them to resort to half-slide protection, which requires the running backs to help slow down backside pursuit, but UofM front seven consistently beat the Stingers offensive line on the frontside and pounded QB Reid Quest anyway. Concordia does have skilled offensive players, including future pro slotback Kris Bastien, but because Quest wore the UofM defensive front between 1 and 4 PM, they didn’t really get to show their skills. 

As for Concordia’s defence, it has a lot to offer, but it cannot be expected to hold opponents off the board (especially not UofM and its excellent running back Rotrand Sené) if it spends the entire day on the field. Coordinator Luc Pelland is a terrific defensive mind, and he had great success running his 3-4 defence while at Vanier College, not to mention that it seemingly makes sense considering that Concordia is short on defensive linemen and heavy on linebackers. The thing is, though, I’m unconvinced star linebacker Max Caron thrives in it. Caron (I can say this having played in front him myself) seems at his best with a full defensive line keeping blockers off him so he can roam freely. The prospect of Caron and fellow star Travis Bent playing together, along with experienced veteran Alexandre Lemire and freaky athlete Mikael Charland, is enticing, but again, Caron doesn’t make the same impact when he has to fight through traffic. This is a kid who shone very brightly as a rookie when this columnist was finishing his CIS career, and was unplayable during his second season, as he went on to win the President’s trophy as the country’s best defensive player. The secondary is talented but young, with both characteristics showing at different points in the game. The Stingers also showed a worrisome propensity to lose the edge on outside running plays, particularly when faced with UofM’s beloved wing back on the right side of the formation. 

That being said, it’s one game. Yeah, yeah, I know it was a real beatdown, but allow me to make two final points. First, should the opposition fail to put as much pressure on the passer as UofM did (Laval might, the rest of the league likely won’t), this Concordia team will score points. Quest is talented, so are the receivers, and I really liked the vision and moves I saw from rookie running back Jamall Hamilton-Hyman. Second, and perhaps more importantly, has anyone looked at the Stingers’ schedule this year? They play McGill and Bishop’s twice and get St-Francis-Xavier at home, all completely winnable games, despite the Stingers’ obvious pass protection issues and striking youth in the secondary. They could lose all games against francophone teams and still finish the season with five wins. And you know what five wins gets you, at the bare minimum, in this conference? Third place.

2. What do you make of Johnny Manziel’s conduct? 

This kid is really starting to worry me. That his personality is already far better suited to the pro lifestyle than to that of college is so self-evident, it’s long been past debating.

Moreover, I frankly couldn’t care less about him taunting the NCAA during A&M’s first game against Rice. The NCAA is an organization so unbearably piss-poor in just about every conceivable way (including the hypocritical rule that led to its scrutiny of Manziel) that it deserves little more than to be treated with ridicule, mockery and contempt. 

That being said, it’s all of Manziel’s other off-season antics that have me worried. The whole time, I kept saying to myself “Il faut que jeunesse se passe”, or, for those whose French is not quite up there, that kids must be allowed to be kids and that when the season started, Manziel would come back focused and ready for an encore. But his unforgivable demeanour when dealing with his head coach Kevin Sumlin, after all the “while drunk” incidents he gave us during the offseason is giving me serious pause. Is this kid’s judgement so poor that he doesn’t realize whatever he suffered during the offseason, he did to himself (save for the NCAA investigation). And is he so hard-headed and arrogant that he can’t even keep a low profile on the field until he reminds everyone he can play football? 

That Manziel will declare for the 2014 NFL Draft is, barring a serious injury, as foregone a conclusion as foregone conclusions get. But if I’m an NFL personnel guy, I’m getting very worried about the kind of character I’d be getting in Manziel. 

3. Is the read option in the NFL to stay? 

People who have Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin on their fantasy teams better pray it is. Remember when Mike Tomlin said it was a flavour of the month thing? If he’s right, the outlook for the season just got very different for a handful of teams, worst of all for the Redskins. 

That being said, I think Tomlin’s wrong and that Niners and Skins fans can breathe easy. Unless you’re going to allow defences to play with 12 men, the coaches who designed read option plays last year did it so cleverly (with lead blockers escorting the quarterback) and the receivers and tight ends in the NFL are such dynamic athletes that I can’t see what tactic defensive coordinators could dial up consistently to stop the read option AND not leave themselves super vulnerable to 1-on-1 matchups with dynamite receivers down the field. Would you care to match your safety or Sam linebacker 1-on-1 against Vernon Davis? Didn’t think so. 

I think the read option is here to stay. Probably not as a full-scale system, but as an offensive package. Ready to eat your words, coach Tomlin? 

4. How’d you like Jameis Winston’s debut at quarterback for Florida State?

Very much indeed. Winston stood out in a fairly easy 41-13 win against Pitt by completing 24 of his 26 passing attempts. But that wasn’t what made me happiest about the kid’s debut on Monday.

First, FSU finally has a QB with enough sense to look for tight end Nick O’Leary. O’Leary would be a unanimous selection as the most un-stylish player in College Football, but he also happens to be really good. Winston found him three times in the end zone. How’s that for a start for the big tight end?

Winston, and this makes me smile from ear to ear, was also so incredibly poised it was almost disconcerting. After FSU had seemingly become a breeding ground for happy-footed quarterbacks, from Chris Rix to Drew Weatherford, and even Christian Ponder at times, it’s refreshing to see a young QB keep his cool when a bit of pressure is headed his way. 

Winston maneuvered effortlessly around the pocket, making veteran throws on the run with the kind of accuracy you’d expect from a fifth-year senior. Obviously, it would be ludicrous to expect this kind of performance every single week from him; after all, freshmen, talented though they may be, are often inconsistent. But one thing is clear. FSU has its most talented QB since Bobby Bowden’s glory years. Whether he’ll become the best remains to be seen. But I like what I see so far. 

5. Name one team you expect to surprise and to disappoint this year in the NFL.

My surprise team is the Tennessee Titans. With some clever offseason additions, the Titans are a functional performance from Jake Locker away from becoming a really good team. I loooooooooove the Chance Warmack pick in the 2013 first round, which, along with the signing of Andy Levitre, gives them a really good offensive line. Both their receivers, if they can stay healthy (looking at you, Kenny Britt) are first round talents. Delanie Walker, while not as physically gifted as departed starter Jared Cook, might give them more production at the tight end position. And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Johnson, who figures to benefit from improved offensive line play. 

They are solid defensively, especially if Kamerion Wimbley can give them any kind of pass rush. I like those linebackers a lot and the defensive backs are talented as well. Moreover, the schedule is fairly merciful. They do get an unpleasant first half of October with a long trip to Seattle followed by a visit from the all-powerful 49ers. However, the rest of the non-division schedule includes the Chargers, Jets, and Chiefs at home as well as an opening-day visit to a diminished Steelers team. If Locker is so much as decent, they have a real shot at a Wild Card berth as the AFC South is weak with the Texans winning by default, the Jags still in reconstruction and the Colts poised to crash back down to earth. Which conveniently leads me to…

My “incoming disappointment” team is the Colts. They do have Andrew Luck, who figures to be a Top 5 quarterback for years to come. However, I hated their offseason moves. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated their moves. First of all, they have a much tougher schedule this year. Secondly, they’re still not good enough to overtake the Texans. Thirdly, both the Jags and the Titans will be tougher confrontations this year.

And last but certainly not least: when was the last time you saw a team succeed after deciding to pay middle-of-the-road starters like stars and fringe players like starters? Needing to protect Andrew Luck, the Colts decided to pay decent-at-best tackle Gosder Cherilus a fairly monstrous contract to keep opposing speed rushers off Luck. Not against elite opposition he won’t. 

But the truly shocking part was the contracts they gave to the newest most expensive journeymen defensive starters in the league. They added some beef to their defensive line by giving a whopping 4-year, $22-million contract to Ricky “never-lived-up-to-the-years-and-years-of-hype” Jean-François, who hasn’t been more than a bit part player since high school. 

And then Jim Irsay outdid himself… the boy turned around and gave Eric Walden $16 million. Eric Walden, 16 million dollars. 16 million dollars to Eric Walden. For those who don’t know, Walden is (a) the man meant to replace departed Dwight Freeney (an idea which in and of itself is cause for hilarity) and (b) essentially known as the revolving door around which Colin Kaepernick ran circles while Walden was playing for the Packers in last year’s playoffs. 

Meanwhile, Reggie Wayne isn’t getting younger. They don’t have a really scary threat opposite him (though I love their young tight ends, Fleener and Allen). Their running back squad consists of disappointing first round picks and journeymen. Their offensive line is nothing to write home about. They still lack a dominant nose tackle for their 3-4 and the secondary is still rather unconvincing. At least, they still have Adam Vinatieri, right? 

So here I am having spent much more time on this than I should have. See you soon, football fans. I’ll try my best to keep the territory busy. 

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