On Tuesday’s pages of the Times, you’ll find a package I put together on the great year for quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
The part that was most challenging was trying to come up with a subjective list of the best years at the position since the 1978 season, or when the conference expanded to 10 teams.
That segment turned out to be enlightening and frankly, almost exhausting.
First, the genesis of all this. As you probably know, there was a lot of praise in the preseason for this crop of quarterbacks, and speculation that it was the best ever in the league.
Well, if there’s that buzz going around, wouldn’t it make sense to try to deconstruct the last 36 years and see if that might be true?
So I set about trying to find out, using school media guides’ list of yearly passing leaders to compile a list of who quarterbacked in a given year.
That underscores how it gets tricky. When we hear the name of a prominent quarterback, we tend to think of him at his peak – and he may not have played at nearly that level through much of his career.
Kyle Boller, for instance, struggled through three years at Cal before he finally rose under the tutelage of Jeff Tedford to have a big senior season in 2002. The Drew Bledsoe that got drafted No. 1 out of WSU after his big 1992 season wasn’t the same guy that muddled through much of his first two seasons, albeit with great potential.
So in any given year, it was important to determine what class the player was, and how he performed that season. (Fortunately, the publicists of the league put those numbers in their media guides.)
I also considered whether, and how high, a player was drafted, but that was secondary to the type of season the player had. This is about college performance, after all, not the opinion of the pros.
But now to the intriguing part.
The star-wars numbers put up by quarterbacks these days tell us that the game has changed. But on the surface, that’s volume stuff; whereas 20-30 years ago, 200 yards passing was considered sort of a benchmark for a good day, now a 400-yard day doesn’t elicit a raised eyebrow.
But what struck me was how the barometer for things like completion percentages and interceptions has changed. Some of the numbers will shock you.
I consider Marques Tuiasosopo among the elite college quarterbacks I’ve seen during that 36-year stretch, the perfect guy to lead a college offense. His numbers during the 2000 season, when he led the Huskies to the Rose Bowl? Why, 15 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a completion percentage of 53.9. If you heard those numbers and didn’t know who authored them, you wouldn’t figure he’d make honorable mention all-conference.
Examples are all over the place, and they show how much the game has changed. Going back further, the difference becomes stark.
In 1990, the year Washington came very close to winning a national championship the year before it actually did, Mark Brunell had a completion percentage of 48.0. That same season, USC’s Todd Marinovich, who was a first-round draft pick the next spring, threw for 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Or consider 1986, a year that I put just below the top five on this list: Chris Miller of Oregon, who also became a first-round NFL pick in ’87, threw one more interception than touchdown. Chris Chandler of Washington, who had a long, productive NFL career, had a 20-15 touchdown-interception ratio and a 56.6 percentage that season as a junior.
As a friend suggested, this was back in the day when offenses sent two receivers out and maybe a tight end. Now four- and five-receiver sets are common, and so are other things intrinsic to today’s game: Short throws on bubble screens, hitches and shovel passes, for instance.
Meanwhile, today’s college quarterbacks have been to Elite 11 camps, summer passing leagues and the Manning Passing Academy. There’s a lot more preparation for the role of quarterback than a generation ago.
You know how it’s always startling to see somebody else’s kids for the first time in a couple of years? They’ve grown like crazy. That’s how it is with college offenses. Little by little, they’ve morphed, and the collective change is dramatic, evidenced by the evolution of the numbers.
Bottom line: You can’t be too beholden to the stats in comparing eras, and I tried not to be. So I put the year 1988 on my top five (Troy Aikman, Rodney Peete, Timm Rosenbach, et al), and took a hard look at a couple of other years in the 1980s.
I don’t claim the rating to be perfect, and I hope I haven’t undervalued or overlooked a player that would greatly impact a particular year. The fun thing is, it’s all a matter of debate.