Two weeks ago, inspired by the San Francisco 49ers 32-7 Week 11 blowout win over the Chicago Bears at the hands of first-time starter Colin Kaepernick, I wrote that I had yet to meet a head coach that wants to deal with a quarterback controversy. I explained that coaches like stability and certainty while quarterback controversies breed the exact opposite … distraction and division.
While I have yet to meet that coach that wants a quarterback controversy, I did see two coaches embrace one this weekend. Not surprisingly, one of those teams is the aforementioned San Francisco 49ers as coach Jim Harbaugh has fueled the fire by not naming a permanent starter moving forward and instead will play the “hot hand.” The second team may catch you off guard, not because the starting quarterback was in fact benched in favor of the backup, but because of who that backup happened to be yesterday.
The Jets aren’t new to the controversy conversation as the division and distraction were almost instantaneous after they held a press conference for the signing of a backup quarterback. Anonymous Jets players have previously backed one quarterback over the other when speaking to the media “off the record.” Well, after Sunday, a third quarterback has been added to the debate. Yes, the New York Jets replaced Mark Sanchez midway through the game on Sunday, but not in favor of fan sensation Tim Tebow, but for Greg McElroy instead. Tebow was in street clothes due to a rib injury and therefore unavailable to play in the game. Which begs the question: If Tebow was available, would the Jets have pulled Sanchez at all and if they did, would they have still picked McElroy over Tebow?
McElroy replaced Sanchez in the third quarter and immediately took his team on a 10-play scoring drive that resulted in the only touchdown of the game. That 1-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland was good enough for a 7-6 victory over the equally embarrassing Arizona Cardinals. Later in the game, McElroy converted a third-down pass to Jeremy Kerley that gave the Jets a new set of downs that would eventually allow them to run out the clock to end the game. All in all, McElroy was an unsexy 5-of-7 for just 29 yards, but he did what Sanchez couldn’t in the previous 40 minutes of the game … score. After the game, Rex Ryan refused to name a starter for Week 14 saying “I’ll let you guys know who’s going to be the quarterback when I’m ready … We’ll evaluate our situation as the week goes on.”
Rex Ryan may not want a quarterback controversy, but he is obviously embracing it as he will keep the Jaguars guessing but also accept the media circus his indecision brings. And just wait until the medical staff clears Tebow for contact, that media circus will be magnified tenfold.
As for the 49ers, Jim Harbuagh had yet another opportunity to name a permanent starter but refused by saying, “I will let you know if there’s a change, but right now, I feel as if it would be the same this week.” This is a little bit more definitive than just riding the “hot hand” approach, but still leaves the door open for Alex Smith to retake the starting quarterback role with just four games remaining before the playoffs.
After previously leading the 49ers to back-to-back 30-point outings in impressive wins over the Bears and Saints, the 49ers were only able to post 13 points in a three-point overtime loss to the Rams on Sunday. Colin Kaepernick was 21-of-32 passing for 208 yards and added another 84 yards on the ground, but was held without a touchdown in either category. Now 292 yards of total offense is far from a bad outing, but mistakes and missed opportunities are exacerbated with another capable quarterback looking over your shoulder. One of those mistakes, a costly errant pitch to Ted Ginn late in the fourth quarter with the 49ers holding onto an eight-point lead that was eventually recovered by the Rams and returned for a touchdown. The Rams would then complete a successful two-point conversion to tie the game at 10-10 and force yet another overtime period between these two teams.
Would Alex Smith have made that mistake? Would they even be in that situation in Alex Smith was in the game? Those are all questions that the scenario in San Francisco demands, but cannot be answered fairly. But that type of unfair criticism is exactly what you get in the thick of a quarterback controversy. It is when that criticism and questioning penetrates the walls of the locker room when you really have a problem. When the players are confused as to the overall direction of the team, the division and the distraction take away from the task at hand — preparing for the playoffs and winning a championship.