Replacing Hurts: Was It Really the Right Decision?

Photo credit: nytimes.com

So you watched the College Football Playoff National Championship game about a week ago; the Alabama Crimson Tide trailed 13-0 at the half. The Tide’s offense was sub par, gaining only 94 yards off 24 plays against the Georgia Bulldog defense. Alabama’s defense wasn’t impressive either, giving up 13 first half points; however, I’ll give the defense the benefit of the doubt since it was on the field most of the first half due to the offense’s ineffectiveness. So when the offense can’t score points, who’s to blame? The quarterback of course. Tide starting quarterback Jalen Hurts completed 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards. That’s an average of seven yards for every completed pass and only one completion shy of connecting on half of his pass attempts. These stats aren’t terribly bad, but it’s the small number of stats that doesn’t help Hurts’ case much. During the first half, I saw a quarterback – who’s known for making big plays with his feet – really trying to wait as long as possible for an open receiver, and he made wise choices to throw away the ball when all else failed.

Now, let’s consider some other factors: Hurts doesn’t play defense, so he didn’t give up 13 first-half points, including a one-yard touchdown run with seven seconds left in the second quarter. Hurts also isn’t the team field goal kicker, who couldn’t connect from 40 yards in the first quarter. Considering these factors, the Tide could’ve entered the half down only 6-to-3 instead of the larger 13-0 deficit. If this was the case, does Saban still decide to bench Hurts even with the Tide getting the kickoff to start the second half?

But, trailing 13-to-0 to a former assistant in a national championship game many people felt your team didn’t deserve to be playing in, chasing your fifth national title in nine seasons, trying to tie Paul Bear Bryant’s record for most national championships, what do you do? You do the same thing you did in the 2016 season-opener against USC – replace your starting quarterback with a true freshman. Blake Barnett started the game but was replaced by Hurts who stole the show. He  completed 6 of 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 32 yards in 9 carries while notching two touchdowns. But, Barnett did see the field again in the second half and connected on a 45-yard pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. However, he transferred later in the season which was the best option for him in my opinion.

Besides, in 2016, it was the season opener and neither Hurts nor Barnett had yet to solidify a starting position. But more was at stake on January 8, 2018, and for the past two seasons Hurts has proven he could lead his team to victory. As a true freshman, Hurts’ only loss came in the national title game against Clemson; a game where Hurts pulled off a 30-yard touchdown run giving Bama a 31-28 lead over Clemson with 2:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Again, Hurts isn’t a defensive player so he couldn’t stop Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense from charging down the field and scoring, lifting the Tigers to a national championship victory. Since the Tide’s defense couldn’t hold off the Tigers’ offense in 2016 and Saban decided to replace Hurts with true-freshman Tua Tagovailoa, that’s back-to-back years Hurts has been robbed of the chance to lead his team to a national championship victory. Maybe the intermission is an opportunity for Hurts to settle down, refocus himself and refocus his offense; maybe, just maybe, Hurts makes the necessary adjustments and has a second half nearly as impressive as Tagovailoa. But we’ll never know.

Granted, Saban’s decisions have worked in his favor and have led to everyone singing him praises, but the downside of his decisions have led to public scrutiny and ridicule of his players. In 2016, Tide fans and commentators labelled Barnett a quitter for deciding to transfer after Hurts solidified himself as Bama’s starting quarterback a few games into the season. Hurts was clicking on all cylinders and the only way Barnett was going to see the field was in the second half of a blowout game or if Hurts got injured. This is why I stated before that Barnett’s decision to transfer was the best option for his career if he wanted to play more and have a shot at the NFL.  https://wp.me/p4cFCW-qQ

The Tide nation and college football analysts had been singing Hurts’ praises for the past two years up until he struggled in the first half of the 2018 national title game. It’s baffling how a sophomore quarterback with a 25-2 record – who was also on the Heisman watch list earlier in the season – can struggle for 30 minutes of one game and now be the topic of conversations suggesting he move from quarterback to the running back position. What an insult…

What makes Hurts unique is the fact he’s a dual-threat quarterback. He’s spent all of his athletic years working to perfect himself at the quarterback position and for him to transition to being a running back would take him out of his element. For example, Russell Westbrook is a point guard who’s a great rebounder on the hardwood. He’s able to be effective not only because he’s athletic, but because point guards usually don’t crash the boards. But if head coach Billy Donovan puts Westbrook in the post on offense and defense, he likely wouldn’t be as effective on the boards. The same applies to hurts on the gridiron; as a running back, he loses his uniqueness and probably wouldn’t be effective at the position.

Don’t get me wrong, with the exception of throwing an interception and taking a sack when he had chances to throw away the ball, Tagovailoa was outstanding, connecting on 14 of his 24 pass attempts for 166 yards and earning three touchdowns. His most impressive play was the 41-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to fellow true-freshman DeVonta Smith. But was this performance enough to proclaim him as Bama’s starting quarterback for next season? Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer is even on the record saying he thinks Tagovailoa will win the Heisman next season. He’s clearly made up in his mind who’ll be starting under center for Bama in the upcoming season.

From Just watching Tagovailoa in the second half of the ship, I concluded he is the better passer of the two quarterbacks but I’m not ready to declare him the better quarterback after only one game. The young man is talented, but maybe those 30 minutes were his time to shine; maybe he was able to see holes in Georgia’s defense from the sideline Hurts missed on the field; maybe he caught the Bulldogs’ defense off guard because they weren’t prepared to defend him. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not biased towards Hurts, because I know too well that in most cases the athletes on the bench bring just as much to the table or even more than the ones on the court and field; but I’m not in favor of coaches turning their backs on players who are an integral part of the team’s success.

Let’s flashback to the 2017 NCAA women’s national championship game when Mississippi State starting point guard Morgan Wlliam was benched for all but the final 43 seconds of the fourth quarter. Similar to Hurts, William was an integral part of State’s success and the engine that made the team go. She’d already been having a successful individual season, but most of her prestige was due to her play in the NCAA tournament during MSU’s historic run. The 5-foot-5 junior guard scored 41 points in the Elite Eight against Baylor and knocked down the game-winning jumper to take down UCONN in the Final Four. Compared to her two previous games, William struggled earning four assists, one turnover and scoring eight points on 2 of 8 shooting from the field in 23 minutes. Head coach Vic Schaefer said William wasn’t playing sharp and backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes was playing well at the time. Holmes didn’t have an assist or turnover in 17 minutes but did score six points on 3 of 5 shooting from the field. Without a doubt, Holmes was solid off the bench but none of the Bulldogs had much energy during that title game.

Granted, the point guard is the floor general and the team feeds off his or her energy, but anyone who watched the game would likely agree William’s play wasn’t worthy of her being benched for the entire fourth quarter. The problem is Schaefer was singing William praises following the Baylor and UCONN games but didn’t support her when she struggled in the ship, the same way Saban didn’t support Hurts. The only difference is Bama won and MSU didn’t. However, the game was still in reach when William was benched, so it’s possible she would’ve found her rhythm and led the Bulldogs to victory. Despite the lack of trust and support from their coaches, both Hurts and William showed class and great character, and that’s something I appreciate considering the circumstances.

On the other hand, in Saban’s case, you don’t win six national championships without making tough decisions; and his last two decisions to make quarterback changes have worked out well for the Tide. The bright side is now everyone knows what Tagovailoa is capable of, which leads me to wonder why Saban didn’t play him more during the regular season if he was this talented? The switching up of quarterbacks during the title game wouldn’t have been such a big deal if fans had already seen more of Tagovailoa.

Sure, Saban had seen what he could do in practice, but it was still risky for Saban to put his trust in a freshman who hadn’t played much all season, especially with everything that was on the line. But, Tagavailoa also had to go in and perform under pressure; and let’s be honest, if he played terribly and Alabama lost, the public consensus would probably be that taking Hurts out of the game was a bad decision by Saban.

Should Hurts transfer? With his proven resume, I don’t think so. He just needs to stregthen his passing game and reading defenses in the off season. In comparison, J.T. Barrett didn’t transfer after his season-ending injury turned into sophomore, third-string quarterback Cardale Jones leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship in 2015. After three breakout games as the starting quarterback that earned the Buckeyes championship hardware, Jones was named the starting quarterback the following season. Then he was replaced by Barrett after seven games due to inconsistent play. Barrett remained the starting quarterback for the Buckeyes until his college football career concluded in January 2018. Jones is now an NFL quarterback for the LA Chargers and Barrett has a great chance to be selected by an NFL team in this year’s draft. Having two talented quarterbacks on the same team isn’t the worst-case scenario, so I wouldn’t be so quick to count out Hurts.

But what’s more interesting is that the title game was one for Bama freshman to shine on offense. Running back Najee Harris and wide receivers Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith all made big plays that were clutch during the Tide’s comeback victory, but no one is suggesting that running backs Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris or wide receiver Robert Foster transfer. Star wide receiver Calvin Ridley didn’t have his best game and if he hadn’t declared for the NFL Draft, should he have been worried about losing his position? No.

Tide nation will just have to wait and see how next season plays out. Nevertheless, with Bama’s current roster and 2018 signees, I expect the Tide to be competing for national title number 18 in 2019.

Sources:

BTN.com staff. (2016). Ohio State’s Cardale Joins to Declare for the NFL Draft. BTN.com.

McNair, Kirk. (2018, January 14). Seven Seconds May Have Turned The Tide at Quarterback. 247sports.com.

Sammon, Will. (2017, April 2). Morgan William watches end of Mississippi State’s loss. Clarion Ledger

Sargeant, Keith. (2018, January 9). Alabama vs. Georgia Recap: National Championship 2018. nj.com.

 

 

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