Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What if there were no Nate Longshore?

Shades of 2005?

The message boards are lit up in a frenzy over the suggestion by Tedford that the QB competition might be open again. Why? Because for many Cal fans, it means their worst fear will be realized: Nate Longshore as the starter once again. But consider what situation Tedford, the coaching staff, and the team would be facing right now if Longshore were not on the team.

The passing game is unreliable so the offense is basically one-dimensional right now, the most explosive player on the field is out, and after one quarter of the season, Riley is undeniably struggling. You could dismiss Wazzu because it was early in the season and the QB was not asked to do much. And you could even dismiss the first three quarters of Maryland because of the conditions and it still being early in the season (though I think the passing game could have and should have been sharper early on). Good coaches make assessments and sweeping conclusions every quarter of the season, not every game. After four games, trends cannot be ignored. And after Q1, the trend is that Riley is struggling to execute this offense. The passing game is significantly behind where it was in 2006 and pre-ankle injury 2007. Riley has the keys to the Ferrari and he can't get it out of third gear 80% of the time. Third gear has been enough thus far, but it won't be enough in conference play.

With those realities facing me as a coach, I can tell you I would not be confident about my offense heading into this week's game. Cal is not a vanilla-offense-win-with-defense kind of team. But the last few weeks, that's how they have looked. That won't cut it in conference play, and Tedford knows it. That's why he pulled Riley and why he said "we'll see" when asked about opening up the QB competition. He is hoping that move will either increase Riley's focus (a reasonable expectation given the way he performs under pressure), or it will give Longshore the confidence to be the starter if Riley doesn't show Tedford what he wants to see.

Which brings me back to the question: what if there were no Longshore? First, you couldn't pull Riley. Mansion is not ready. In fact, you couldn't even publicly criticize your QB, because you can't kill his confidence if he is your only viable starter, and you have no backup, so your criticisms aren't going to have the same motivational effect. Second, you have to start game planning for the fact that your passing game is severely limited. This affects every aspect of the game - it makes the defense have to be more conservative, it limits the offensive playbook, and it means your protection schemes need to be tighter which limits the receiver sets. In other words, without Longshore, this would look a lot more like 2005.  Having Longshore is a luxury, and Tedford should be using him in as many ways as possible.  

One final thought: Riley's struggles raise an interesting possibility about Tedford's handling of the QB situation last season. Tedford may have seen that while Riley has the physical tools and mental toughness to be good in crunch time, he lacked the "everyday" ease and fluidity in his game that a starter has to possess, what I call the "lead off hitter" element. A starter needs to be able to run the offense smoothly from the start, hit open guys early, and get the offense in rhythm. This is actually the majority of the QBs job in an offense. And it is particularly critical to Tedford's offense because in the first dozen plays or so, he likes to show the defense a lot of different looks to see how they will defend it. If those early plays don't work, it derails the game plan early on, and in some cases (such as MD), it gives the defense the upper hand if the other team scores early. Now you are playing from behind, you are under pressure, and certain things are not available. A lead off hitter does not (and cannot) take two quarters to warm up. For all his faults in crunch time, Longshore is a solid lead off hitter.

Based on what we have seen from Riley thus far, Tedford probably made the right call last year. Nate doesn't feel he lost the job to injury last year, but rather during a QB competition in the fall. Riley wasn't thrown to the wolves too early, and was given a chance to be the full-time starter this year after earning it. He's had the chance to start four very different games against different defenses in different environments before Tedford made a comment about his job security. And now, both QBs are going to be put under pressure this week, which should raise both of their games.


Aaron said...

Longshore is not a solid lead off hitter. He is a very inconsistent lead off hitter. I'm not going to go over 2+ years of stats, but I strongly attending games with Longshore starting in '06 and '07 and saying after the first half, "Man, I hate it when we have no offense." There were good and bad starts by Longshore.

More important to me is how he handled pressure, and playing from behind, and it was quite bad, actually.

Riley plays better under pressure and from behind. Riley seems very inconsistent out of the gate - but he's not throwing to Jackson/Jordan/Hawkins, either, is he?

I'm not happy with Riley's performance, but I do want to give him more time, and I'm very happy that my backup is as experienced and qualified as Nate is. I would tell them before the game something like "Riley is the starter, and he gets the first 3 series, but Nate gets the next 3, and I can change my mind later depending on what the team needs - you're both fighting for the job every week, got it?".

After being so loyal to Nate, I'm pissed if he drops Riley as starter with so few negatives on his resume. The upside is so much better.

I also saw Nate throw 2 INTS against Michigan State, so I'm plenty wary of him.

Anonymous said...

I would expect Riley to start against ASU and get the first quarter, with a move to Longshore only if the offense sputters (which seems likely based on performance so far). If that happens, I would hope the home crowd will get behind Nate, who plays hard, never calls out a teammate, always says the right thing, and remains, after all, a kid. Anyone who boos him (or, for that matter, any of these kids), under any circumstances, should be ashamed.
-DC Bear Fan

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