“He’s not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football…Then again, if you want to build a case for McCarron, you could do worse than starting here: He has as many national championships as he does defeats.” –Sports Illustrated, November 2013
I came across an SDS debate piece in November on whether Blake Sims was a better quarterback than AJ McCarron. Skip to the end for the answer, read on if you’re a ‘Bama fan.
While I typically don’t like to get sucked into irrelevant debates (i.e. the 2014 season wasn’t even over), four of the six pundits chose Blake Sims, and their justifications for doing so kind of pissed me off. Here are some examples:
- “[Sims] is leading a less-talented offense to greater heights.”
- Nope. Yeldon and Henry were stronger, faster, and more experienced than the previous year (until Yeldon hurt his ankle). Amari Cooper was 100% healthy and beasting, not to mention the presence of White, Jones, and new speedster Stewart. The Tide only really lost McCarron, Norwood and Bell. If you think the 2014 offense was less talented than 2013, it’s because AJ and his favorite targets were gone, so what are you really saying…?
- “McCarron benefited from a much stronger offensive line…”
- Uh, what roster are you looking at? Alabama had a 4-veteran O-line (5 counting TE formations) in 2014, and replaced their only gap with one of the best O-line prospects in recent history (Cam Robinson). Sims only ran 3 more times than John Parker Wilson did in 2007, and completed 64% of his passes for just under 3,800 yards and 27 TDs. Moreover, the 2013 O-line was suspect all season. ‘Bama lost Jones, Fluker, and Warmack up front, yet McCarron still completed 67% of his passes for over 3,000 yards and 28 TDs.
- “Sims is a better passer…McCarron was more of a game manager…”
- Yeah, McCarron really managed that 3,000/30/3 line in 2012, and he really managed the shit out of 13 Top 25 opponents over three years, 8 of whom were in the Top 10. He also managed to set every relevant career passing record in Alabama history, and he averaged a 67% completion percentage with receivers not named Julio Jones, while Sims couldn’t break 65% in 2014 throwing to a guy who NASA should hire to catch stray meteors. AJ had the #1 passer rating in the NCAA in 2012 – that’s game ownership.
Props to Jon for giving the nod to AJ in the absence of a complete data set, and to Drew for using actual statistics and not merely his opinions. In response, I posted the following comment, which is still likely still awaiting moderation over a month later:
I’m assuming my profanity got this comment tagged for moderation, but if you can say “shit” on cable television, why can’t I use it in a post about college football? Oh well, this is why I have a blog.
In the end, the question comes down to how you define the quarterback position. For example, my ideal quarterback distributes the ball quickly and vertically. Mobility isn’t a primary factor for me, because strikes down the field are higher-return plays, and I’d rather take a sack on a drive than miss an open man 30 yds downfield. Sims got better at this over the course of 2014, but prior to November he was missing a lot of open guys.
Yet, some people covet mobile QBs, and those are the kind of people who preferred Sims because “he plays the quarterback position better than McCarron.” I liked Blake Sims a lot after he stopped scurrying wild-eyed around the pocket. He buckled down after the spring game, got to work on his drop-back routine, and made excellent decisions and explosive plays his senior season. Sure, some came with his feet, but I called him a great quarterback because of his arm, not his legs.
My curiosity lingered, though…the question being: “Who has been the best Alabama QB to play under Coach Saban?” To answer that, I’ll turn to the data.
John Parker Wilson
It was 2007 (pronounced “two-thousand Saban”). Man, I was so excited. Alabama had just gone through 4 coaches in 7 years. We had lost to Auburn five straight years in the Iron Bowl, which meant perpetual bragging rights for smug Plainsmen who had fewer SEC Championships than Alabama had National Championships. I remember being told by my obnoxious cousin to “fear the thumb,” referring to the fifth straight Iron Bowl victory. It probably didn’t occur to him that Alabama had already beaten Auburn five straight times in the 60s, and nine straight times from ’73-’81, but whatever. The bottom line was that Alabama sucked.
It was a crisis of conscience, really. A series of NCAA violations around the turn of the millennium reflected both apathy at the administrative level and panicky disarray among the coaching staff to turn the program around. In truth, corners were being cut at every SEC school, but it wasn’t an infraction until you got caught.
Well, we got caught. Actually, we were ratted out by the head coach of our second biggest rival, Tennessee. Phil “Fat Face” Fulmer secretly provided info to the NCAA regarding Albert Means and a rogue booster, which set Alabama back for a decade. During that suspension, a dubious textbook ‘scandal’ vacated 21 wins from 2005-07, even though we went 10-2 in 2005. Yet, Saban still took the job.
He took the job for a variety of reasons. The money was enough to coax him out of the NFL, where coaching salaries are capped and he hadn’t seen much success. He was eager to get back to recruiting, something he does better than just about any college football coach in history (drafting has it’s own cap: 32 teams, 7 rounds, etc). Saban also wanted control over his program and the egos of young players, something definitely lacking in the NFL, where he made an offensive lineman cry in practice. Most of all, Saban knew that turning around Alabama required only one thing: discipline.
When Saban arrived, he purged the entire coaching staff. He brought in Major Applewhite, a promising young OC who’d been a fairly productive QB in his own right at Texas just a few years earlier. He also hired Kevin Steele, a magnificent recruiter who’d been an assistant at FSU since 2002. In the offseason, he scrapped together whatever was left of the recruiting class, the most important element being linebacker Rolando McClain. Names such as Kareem Jackson, Darius Hanks, and Marquis Maze will also ring some bells.
One position he did not pull immediately was quarterback. Alabama already had a veteran QB in John Parker Wilson, who former coach Mike Shula leaned heavily on in 2006 following the departure of Mr. Hot/Cold himself, Brodie Croyle. Wilson was 3-star talent from Alabama’s football factory, Hoover High School, where he threw 40 TDs and over 3,800 yards his senior year. With a starting year under his belt, Saban figured he was the best candidate to run his offense for the remainder of his eligibility.
Some fans maniacally thought Saban could go undefeated his first year, with Shula’s players, an entirely new staff, and while still on probation. Of the seven wins in 2007, five were vacated following the textbook fiasco, and we lost to Auburn for a 6th straight time (not to mention a nail-biter vs. LSU). Wilson attempted a staggering 462 pass attempts, but with a 55.2% completion percentage and a relatively short-range game, Wilson currently holds the worst passing yards/attempt in the Saban era (6.2). A questionable offensive line might’ve been to blame, which allowed a drive-killing sack vs. LSU, one of 25 on the year (tied for 5th most in SEC). Wilson was forced into (or planned) 80 rushing attempts in 2007, and managed to turn those into positive yards (104).
People give Saban a hard time about his feelings toward fast-paced offenses, but in 2007 his offense averaged 75.7 plays/game, good for 42nd in the country. Wilson’s passing attempts (and subsequent incompletions) slowed game clocks throughout the season, and he alone accounted for 60.7% of the team’s yardage production in 2007, but those plays and yards didn’t translate into points – Alabama was ranked 71st in points/game (25.0) – and Alabama struggled enough to drop a game to UL-Monroe in Tuscaloosa. I was there, and it was the most embarrassing football game I’ve ever witnessed.
After eking out a victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl, Saban could finally dedicate all his run time to recruiting. He’d have a lot more buy-in from current players the next season, and that would completely change the culture of the locker room. This would translate into a change in the culture on the field, too. Part of the player buy-in would rely on creating a little competition and showing the world that Alabama was a home to top talent again. Saban did that with the 2008 recruiting class.
The biggest name was Julio Jones, one of the best wide receiver prospects in recent national memory, let alone in the state of Alabama. A 5-star recruit, he was 6’4″ and 215lbs, ready to play at the next level on Day 1. Saban also started pulling out-of-state talent, such as future Heisman winner, Mark Ingram (MI); future kraken, Don’ta Hightower (TN); and future bust, Star Jackson (FL); all 4-star prospects and all highly targeted young men. The 2008 class also contained a lot of in-state talent, such as linebackers Marcel Dareus (LB) and Courtney Upshaw, and safeties Robert Lester and Mark Barron.
Despite his short time at Alabama, I still mention Star Jackson because he was the first quarterback Nick Saban ever signed at Alabama (interesting aside: future TE Brad Smelley was listed as a QB, the position he played in HS). The 5th ranked QB in the country, Jackson was a pro-style passer known for extending plays with his feet, otherwise considered “dual-threat” today. Sound familiar? Saban would recruit an identical QB two years later named Blake Sims.
With the 2008 class, the pieces were in place for a championship run. Maybe not in 2008, since the new talent would need to develop, but at least by the time they were all seniors. Little did Alabama fans know that they’d get three national championships in that four year span.
So, 2008 opened with an entirely different energy. We annihilated #9 Clemson in the neutral opener, a tradition that has continued with different big name victims each year. Then Alabama did the unthinkable by going undefeated in the regular season. We sent a #3 Georgia team to their own funeral, for which they were already dressed. Then we pulled out a crazy overtime victory in the bayou, versus an LSU team (some of whom he’d recruited while at LSU) that was feeling pretty good at halftime.
I’m still convinced that the 2008 game at #15 LSU changed more about the Alabama program than any game since Saban had taken over. Clemson and Georgia were both overrated, and you should never underestimate the power of pure hate in Death Valley. Rolando McLain got an interception (thank god for Jarrett Lee). Julio Jones dragged several LSU defenders on multiple plays, and ended up with 128 receiving yards. Following that game, Saban was uncommonly open about the state of his team:
“We’re at about 19,000 feet and the mountain is probably 26,000 feet…The air is changing, it’s a little bit rare. You’ve got to change how you breathe sometimes, but you still have to focus on the task at hand…if you slip up and don’t focus on the task, the consequences can be devastating, even more so than when you are down at 7,000 feet.”
John Parker Wilson played ok. He threw for just over 200 yards, but most importantly he threw only one interception, which was a problem for him all season. His Int-to-TD ratio in 2008 was a dismal 80%, the worst of any starting QB in the Saban Era.
Wilson’s season stats ended up being as mediocre as his performance at LSU, and that was part of Saban’s plan. Running 75.7 plays/game in 2007, the majority of them being passing plays, earned Alabama 7 wins. Running 66.1 plays/game in 2008, the majority of them being running plays, earned Alabama 12 wins. Moreover, those ~76 plays/game in 2007 only led to 25 points per game (71st in the country). Running ten fewer plays per game in 2008 increased points scored per game to over 30, which was 31st in the country.
…and people wonder why Saban chose a conventional pro-style over a gimmicky HUNH.
A lot of the credit goes to Jim McElwain. By replacing Applewhite, Saban was holding his offensive coordinator accountable for the results of the offense. Wilson had thrown a lot in 2007, with 11 of his 462 passes being intercepted and only 18 of them going for touchdowns. That math got Applewhite fired.
One of my favorite football sayings came from Woody Hayes: “Only three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.” McElwain understood this, and Wilson’s attempts plummeted to 323 in 2008, a 30% decrease from the previous year. Fans probably didn’t notice (or care) that Alabama had dropped to 94th in the country in plays/game, but JPW’s passer rating (aka QBR) in 2008 magically improved, even though his contribution to the offense declined markedly in his last season (from 60% of team yards to 45% of team yards). The path to a championship was clear, and it was not going through the quarterback position.
Even so, 2008 ended in disaster. Alabama lost the SEC championship to Tim Tebow, who had convinced his team to win a national title after losing to a bad Ole Miss team earlier in the year. ‘Bama went to the Sugar Bowl and got whipped by a fast-paced team that came into the game a huge underdog, apparently setting a sick precedent for both 2013 and 2014. JPW was sacked eight times, and threw two costly interceptions. I was there, and it was the second most embarrassing football game I’ve ever witnessed.
Just as Coach Saban had predicted after LSU, Alabama didn’t focus against Utah, and the fall off the mountain hurt worse than if we’d never made it there in the first place.
Still, the trajectory was clear, and the pieces were in place. The Tide was rising.
I remember Greg McElroy coming into the 2008 Auburn game with a few minutes left and throwing a perfect 34 yard fade route to Marquis Maze. Roll Tide. 36-0. I love blowouts, especially when they’re shutouts, and especially if either come against Auburn. But what I loved most about that pass was knowing that there’d be no drop off in talent at the QB position in 2009. In fact, I told my friends that day that Greg McElroy would be better than JPW.
It’s not that Wilson was a bad QB, he just wasn’t that good. To be fair, he held most of Alabama’s career passing records when he graduated, but starting for three years provides that opportunity (see AJ McCarron). His failure to excel offensively with the opportunity he was given in 2007 (I mean, 462 attempts!), coupled with his interceptions (2007 was most in Saban Era, 2008 was 2nd most), got an OC fired and cost Alabama as many as six games. Alabama went 12-0 in the 2008 regular season because Saban re-instituted smashmouth football at The Capstone – run the ball down the other team’s throat and keep them from scoring TDs. It’s as simple as that, and he could have done it with any senior game manager. That being said, Wilson quarterbacked one of my favorite Alabama seasons ever, so I have a ton of respect for him.
McElroy came into the program in 2006, the same year Wilson started his first season. He was the 11th ranked QB in his class, and a 3-star prospect from Texas, a state that was pumping QBs out like widgets in the 2000s. Besides McElroy, you had big prospects leaving the state for Kansas (Todd Reesing), Missouri (Chase Daniel), and Georgia (Matthew Stafford), and some big names staying in-state to play for Texas (Vince Young, then Colt McCoy), Texas Tech (Graham Harrell), Texas A&M (Jerrod Johnson), and Houston (Case Keenum). This resume of state quarterback talent is outstanding, so McElroy’s success at Alabama probably shouldn’t surprise anyone.
McElroy’s first year under center was a clear improvement over previous quarterbacks. His completion percentage was 61%, compared to JPW’s 58% from the previous year and 55% in 2007. This meant that although McElroy only had two more passing attempts than JPW did the previous year, he was able to gain 235 more yards (an entire game’s worth off only two more attempts). McElroy’s 2,500 passing yards wasn’t sexy, but his Int-to-TD ratio was 24%, (roughly a third of Wilson’s in 2008), and McElroy drove the field more efficiently at 7.7 yards per pass attempt.
In other words, McElroy was still a game manager, but he was a significantly better game manager than John Parker Wilson.
The results are impossible to ignore. What stands out most about Greg McElroy is that he was the first ‘Bama QB to win a national championship since the 1992 season. It was one of the happiest days of my life. In all actuality, it was Alabama’s defense who won that national championship, because it was Alabama’s defense that blocked two Tennessee kicks in Week 8. It was also Alabama’s defense that finished the season ranked 2nd in scoring defense (11.71 pts/game), total defense (244.14 yds/game), and rushing defense (78.14 yds/game). It didn’t matter that Greg McElroy wasn’t Colt McCoy, what mattered was that when we played Colt McCoy, we made his ass quit.
2009 was also the year AJ McCarron joined the Crimson Tide, redshirting to preserve his eligibility. He was the only QB in ‘Bama’s 2009 class (like Jackson), and he almost had to burn his redshirt a few times, most notably during the national championship game when McElroy was nearly sidelined with a rib injury.
McElroy was not without his faults. For example, he was terrible against #22 South Carolina. He was so bad that Saban resorted to the wildcat, letting Ingram rack up 246 rushing yards in his signature Heisman moment. Regarding his struggles vs South Carolina, McElroy did his best Tebow impression (before all that kneeling shit):
“I haven’t been playing real confidently. I haven’t been stepping into my throws like I had been in weeks past. But we’ll get it figured out. I promise. …I don’t care if I spend every second and sleep in the football complex. I will do that to figure this thing out. I have all the confidence in the world in myself and my teammates that we can come back and dominate opponents, just like we did against Arkansas and against other teams.”
McElroy played better after South Carolina, and threw his first touchdown in 4 games vs LSU. Three games later, unranked Auburn shut down Mark Ingram, forcing the Tide to rely on McElroy. It was a shrewd defensive tactic by Ted Roof, and would’ve worked if Greg McElroy wasn’t so darn efficient with the football. I won’t go into detail here, but let’s just say they call it “The Drive” for a reason. It wouldn’t have even been The Drive unless he’d hit Colin Peek for a TD in the 2nd Quarter, so considering the inside pressure from Auburn, that Iron Bowl victory goes entirely to McElroy. He was MVP of the SEC Championship game, too.
Unfortunately, just as swollen heads ruined 2008, they poisoned Alabama’s focus the entire season in 2010 following a National Championship.
It became a pattern. Coach Saban would work his team into a focused and sustained frenzy, but like all frenzies, they had to end at some point, and the crash was directly proportional to the frenzied success it followed.
For example, Alabama made everyone forget 2007 the next season. The success was so sudden and unexpected that they eventually lost both the SEC Championship and a major bowl game. However, that crash was so influential that it swung next year’s team upward into the Championship. Analysts then penned Alabama, which wouldn’t lose any offensive weapons, as a candidate to repeat the achievements in 2010. I was under the impression that we’d at least win the SEC West, if not the conference altogether.
Unfortunately, instead of rising to anyone’s expectations, Alabama lost three games in 2010. It started when #19 South Carolina got their revenge in Columbia, a game that followed a close win against #10 Arkansas and a blowout of #7 Florida. Three weeks later, #10 LSU proved how hard it is to win in the bayou. The regular season was capped off by a heartbreaking Iron Bowl that sent Scam Newton to a Heisman trophy and #2 Auburn to a National Championship. Even the dismantling of Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl couldn’t ameliorate such a confusing season.
I blame the lack of leadership on defense. Rolondo McLain was gone, and Dont’a Hightower hadn’t found his voice in the huddle yet. If you look at the depth chart in 2010, it’s hard to understand how Alabama didn’t go undefeated and smash every defensive record ever. Seven future NFL starters were starting on the defense, and one future NFL starter (CJ Mosley) was a backup to one of those guys. Four future NFL starters were starting on offense, one of them having won the Heisman the previous year, and another (Barrett Jones) who would win just about every offensive lineman award known to man. It simply doesn’t make sense on paper, so you had to be a fan and watch the entire season to make the connection. The defense, regardless of talent, had no chemistry.
McElroy was as busy in 2010 as he was in 2009, throwing only 12 fewer passes in one less game, but he was far more accurate and productive. In 2010, Greg McElroy completed 71% of this throws for 2,987 yards and 20 TDs. That completion percentage is the best in the Saban Era so far, and his Int-to-TD ratio was an acceptable 25%. More importantly, McElroy’s team yardage share was about 52%, which was 6 percentage points higher than both his 2009 share or JPW’s share in 2008. Alabama also improved to 21st in the nation in points/game, despite falling back to 93rd place in plays/game.
McElroy was drafted by the New York Jets, which meant that his football career was over. I was less pissed about his draft position than I was that he didn’t get a Rhodes Scholarship, but I guess you can’t win ’em all.
2010 was also the year Alabama recruited a 4-star athlete out of Gainesville, GA by the name of Blake Sims.
Many ‘Bama fans consider AJ McCarron to be the best Alabama quarterback in school history. This is partly a result of the whole “What have you done for me lately? Oh, that’s right, you won two national championships” syndrome. As the Crimson nation gets further from 1992, less and less people remember Jay Barker. Meanwhile, all Alabama fans remember AJ and Greg.
I don’t have to delve too deep into former Alabama QBs to show you just how good AJ McCarron was. He owns almost all major career passing records at the Capstone, see below:
- Career Yards (9,019)
- Season Yards (3,063)
- Career Completions (686)
- Career Touchdowns (77)
- Season Touchdowns (30)
- Most 4-TD Games (7)
He also won two national championships in a row (..in a row, folks). The only other Alabama quarterback to pull that off was Joe Namath. McCarron was hugely more productive than Broadway Joe, mainly because of how much the game has changed, but he also possessed Namath’s swagger, the unquantifiable magic that made him so good.
In his three years at Alabama, AJ McCarron played 17 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and beat 13 of them (76.5%). He played 10 teams ranked in the AP Top 10 and beat 8 of them (80%). McElroy wasn’t too shabby himself, having defeated 11 of 14 teams in the Top 25 (78.6%), and 7 of 9 teams in the Top 10 (77.8%). The undefeated season in 2009 helped McElroy’s case. Also reflected in those numbers are McCarron’s inability to score vs #1 LSU in the 2011 regular season, his inability to outscore Johnny Football in 2012, and his inability to control shit when #4 Auburn ran back a kick-six on one of the worst days of my life. With more reliable field goal kicking, McCarron could’ve gone 10 for 10 against the AP Top 10 from 2011-13.
As a ‘Bama fan, I saw McCarron’s big game demeanor on display constantly, starting with his gutsy attack on LSU defensive backs in the 2011 championship game. The next year, he ripped LSU’s heart out again on a screen play to TJ Yeldon. He broke 300 yards a week later in a close loss to TAMU, tossed 4 TDs against Auburn to close the season, and then 4 more against Notre Dame in the national championship game. In 2013, he threw for 334 and 4 TDs in a shootout rematch with #6 TAMU, he scored 3 TDs against #10 LSU, and threw a 99 yard TD pass to Amari Cooper late against #4 Auburn to take a brief lead.
You can’t deny McCarron’s effect in big games, and his confidence trickled down to other players in the huddle. He was a true field marshal, and as reliable a QB as a coach could want when you’re down late in the 4th Quarter.
It didn’t start out that way, though. Just as in the Sims/Coker competition, McCarron had to beat out Phillip Sims for the starting job. Of course, Sims helped AJ out a lot by throwing an interception on his first possession of the year, which set Kent State up for their only points of the game. If not for that, the ‘Bama defense would’ve pitched four shutouts in 2011, so we can only imagine how Phillip Sims felt about that. Even AJ threw two interceptions, and I remember wondering what kind of season this would be.
McCarron wasn’t out of the woods after winning the starting job. He was also competing with Trent Richardson for production opportunities. He threw for a paltry 163 yards the next game, and didn’t have a breakout until Vanderbilt in Week 6 (237 yds, 4 TDs). In the 2011 regular season, McCarron was averaging less than 200 yards passing per game on a one-loss team that was averaging over 35 points per game (Top 20 in nation). Now, that is game management.
It all changed in the National Championship game. The stats don’t show it. The stats say that McCarron passed for 234 yards (his 3rd most that season) and no touchdowns. The stats say that Jeremy Shelley kicked five field goals in a repeat of the “Game of the Century.” SEC haters say the game was boring, and LSU fans echoed the ongoing conference championship rhetoric. But what I saw was Nick Saban finally trusting a quarterback to make a game happen, not just manage it.
It was subtle. After an opening LSU three-and-out, McCarron completed three straight passes to two different tight ends for 25 total yards. Couple of runs. Punt. Another LSU three-and-out. A big Marquis Maze return. McCarron pass to Darius Hanks for 16 yards. Another to Smelley. Field Goal.
This went on for some time, and that’s basically the ballgame. McCarron maintained a 68% completion percentage throughout the game, just about what his career percentage is. That’s nothing special, but the manner in which he did it let me know how special he was. Most importantly, he threw right at CB Tyrann Mathieu, the self-proclaimed “Honey Badger” and the talk of sports talk radio in 2011. LSU’s swagger disappeared when it was apparent that this first-year QB was having his way with their Heisman candidate. In the end, Alabama’s defense won the day: LSU didn’t score a single point, didn’t cross midfield until the 4th Quarter, and their sweetened varmint returned one punt for just one yard.
AJ McCarron’s first year stats were predictably bland. He attempted about the same number of throws as McElroy had in 2009, but passed for more yards, and did it in one less game. His lowest yardage total of the year was 110 yards against Miss St. His highest was 284 against Tennessee.
In 2012, Jim McElwain got his head coaching opportunity at Colorado State, which he successfully turned around before taking the Florida job. Nick Saban replaced him with a young OC and QB coach named Doug Nussmeier from the Washington Huskies, a team that had just finished 30th in the country in total offense. Nussmeier brought a former quarterback’s mindset to Alabama, and he immediately built a rapport with AJ McCarron.
Behind the scenes, however, it was clear that Coach Saban was not entertaining an air raid. Nussmeier’s Washington offense had finished 104th in passing yards per game in 2011, and 64th in pass attempts. Even in future NFL QB Jake Locker’s senior season (2010), Washington was 74th in attempts, and passing plays made up less than 40% of the offense. Alabama was a career changing gig for Nussmeier, but it was clear he wouldn’t be reinventing the game under Saban.
As usual with Saban, it worked. AJ McCarron became one of the most efficient quarterbacks in Alabama history. He threw for almost 3,000 yards, led an offense that scored 37.6 points per game (finished 13th in nation), and had an incredible 10% Int-to-TD ratio (30 TDs vs 3 Ints). His 9.1 passing yards per attempt in 2012 were second in the Saban Era only to McElroy’s 9.5 in 2010.
McCarron’s 175.3 QBR was the highest in the Saban Era, and the highest in the NCAA that year. While this reflects McCarron’s 2012 productivity in general, let’s not forget that he was 5 for 6 against Top 25 opponents, and 4 for 4 vs the AP Top 10. Only 2009 Greg McElroy could claim so many Top 10 victims, and he only had a QBR of 140.5 that year. What’s crazy is that McCarron only attempted 314 passes in 2012, despite playing in the full 14 games (one more than 2011 or 2013), the same number of games as 2009 Greg McElroy (who had 11 more attempts). McElroy may have had a better completion percentage in 2010, but McCarron’s 2012 season is the most effective of the Saban Era.
In fact, Alabama as a team was incredibly efficient on offense in 2012. In McCarron’s last two years, Alabama was ranked 114th and 116th in plays per game, even though Alabama was running more plays per game in 2013 than they had in 2010 (when they were ranked 93rd). Even so, Alabama was apparently making the most of their fewer plays in 2012 and 2013, because they still ranked 13th and 16th in scoring per game, respectively. This all just goes to show you how popular the HUNH has become in college football, but the reason why Nick Saban hasn’t been sold on it’s efficacy.
AJ McCarron’s last year under center at Alabama was bittersweet. He surpassed the 3,000 mark, becoming the first Alabama quarterback to do so (a shocking statistic in itself). He was responsible for over 51% of the team’s offensive yards, and about 32% of the team’s touchdowns (most since JPW in 2007). His QBR was 167.2, and would’ve been higher had it not been for his uncharacteristic seven interceptions. With fewer TDs than the previous year, his Int-to-TD ratio crept up to 25%, aligning with McElroy’s career numbers, which weren’t necessarily bad.
McCarron was still averaging 9.1 yards per passing attempt, and he had the best completion percentage of his career that season. Unfortunately, the ‘Bama secondary was giving up way too many yards, and with Amari Cooper battling injuries into November, the Alabama offense just couldn’t keep up the pace.
So, after arriving on the plains of Auburn, AL undefeated, fate showed her ugly, bitch face and the three-peat I wanted so badly was kicked away in the waning seconds of my Thanksgiving break. I could just imagine my dumbass cousins, jumping up and down in bliss, enjoying yet another fluke victory snatched from the jaws of the chaos and bullshit created by Gus Malzahn’s sweater vest. It was one of the worst days of my entire life, and I hope that anyone who enjoyed that game suffers some sports-related catastrophe that makes them physically sick whenever they think about it.
Which brings me to 2014, the Year of Redemption.
You wanna know why Blake Sims was such a good quarterback? He embodied the work ethic and stoicism that Nick Saban preaches to every incoming freshman: work hard, stay focused, put the team first, and you’ll play great football.
Sims succeeded in the face of players who didn’t know what to expect from him, coaches who didn’t trust him, and journalists who said that the job was as good as Coker’s, who hadn’t thrown a single pass for the University of Alabama. In response to all this, and a dismal A-day game, Sims got with quarterback tutor Ken Mastrole and corrected his mechanics. In case anyone has forgotten, he spent 2011 practicing with the running backs before converting to QB as AJ’s backup, so it’s not as if we’re talking about a lifetime QB here.
It is this resilience in the face of adversity that make his case so interesting, and it’s why he was the perfect candidate to replace McCarron under Nick Saban.
I was one of those people on the fence about the whole Sims/Coker thing. My gut reaction was to go with the landed guy, the established passer with two years of QB practice in Saban’s system. The Process doesn’t care how strong your arm is, only that your arm is capable of getting the ball from the center’s crotch into the endzone. From that perspective, it was easy to favor Sims in late December.
Kiffin’s hire forced a recount. Granted, Kiffin’s hire was announced before Coker’s transfer was made official, but rumors had been swirling for weeks. To be honest, the timing made it seem like Coker was transferring in direct response to the Kiffin hire. If not, then Nick Saban was effectively replacing a departing OC and QB with the two most talented, out-of-work people at both positions in the country.
Lane Kiffin said he wasn’t coming in to change anything, but I had my doubts. Why would Saban hire such a pass heavy OC? This was the guy who had coached Matt Leinart and John David Booty, as well as the receivers catching passes from Carson Palmer. Saban hired the mastermind behind one of the most explosive passing attacks on the west coast the past three years (see Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, 2011-2012) to replace Coach Nuss, a coach responsible for the 104th ranked passing attack in the country before arriving at Alabama. It only made sense that Saban was going to pair Coker with Kiffin, and just let the kids figure it all out as the season unfolded.
Tension mounted. Offseason readers hung onto every word about the quarterbacks race (not the quarterback’s race). People were watching videos of Jacob Coker throwing passes in the rain in Mobile until he finally arrived for August practice. Then footage of Coker in ‘Bama pads throwing passes to ‘Bama receivers finally arrived, and it seemed like an errant pass hitting the camera was a sign from God that this was Alabama’s new quarterback, overthrowing receivers because they’re just too damn slow for his cannon.
In reality, of course, we were being fed what the press wanted us to believe. Coker was a quick learner, Saban admitted as much early in camp. But nobody can learn everything and gain the trust of an entirely new team in under a month, and Saban has never started a first year quarterback (at LSU or Alabama), so I should have stuck with my instincts. Lesson learned.
Even if Kiffin did secretly get Coker to transfer to ‘Bama under the pretenses of starting immediately, he’s got to be happy with the results Sims delivered in 2014. Blake had a 156.9 passer rating, which is highest of any ‘Bama QB’s first year under center in the Saban Era. Sims also averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, another statistic that exceeds his first year predecessors. Likewise, his 27 passing touchdowns blows both McCarron and McElroy out of the water, neither of whom had more than 18 their first year. Statistically speaking, Sims put up the best raw numbers of any Saban QB at Alabama, hands down.
But raw numbers alone can be misleading. Sure, he threw for more yards (3,473) in 2014 than McCarron did any year he played, but Blake Sims also threw more interceptions in 2014 than McCarron’s first two seasons combined. Sims’ 2014 Int-to-TD ratio of 37% was the highest since John Parker Wilson in 2008. As far as Sims’ mobility, he scored 7 TDs on the ground and picked up 323 yards on 83 attempts (the most ever under a Saban QB), but he also fumbled the ball 5 times, resulting in an awful Fum-to-TD ratio of 71%.
Blake Sims made a lot of plays happen and led multiple comebacks in 2014, but only in response to problems he created. His 44% completion percentage against LSU meant John Chavis could cheat linebackers into run gaps, effectively forcing Alabama to do the one thing they weren’t doing well that night. Sims tossed 3 horrible interceptions against Auburn before Coker started warming up. Only then did Sims realize he was playing in a rivalry game and hang 34 points on them in the 2nd half (thank you, Amari). Finally, he threw two costly interceptions against Ohio State, one on a bad defensive read in the 3rd Quarter, and another toward OJ Howard in the 4th, echoing the interception he threw in the last seconds of the Ole Miss loss.
He overcame the incompletions vs LSU, and he threw more TDs than interceptions against Auburn, but he rightfully accepts the 2014-15 Sugar Bowl loss as his responsibility. That’s what leaders do: they hold themselves accountable. Yet, some of the blame goes to Lane Kiffin, who earned plenty of vitriol for forcing Blake to throw the ball when Henry and Yeldon were running it so effectively in the first half. Sure, Sims threw the two costly picks (and a third on a late Hail Mary), but should he have been throwing at all?
If you take away the 3 interceptions vs Ohio State, Sims would have thrown as many interceptions in 2014 as AJ McCarron’s most irresponsible year (2013). As irony would have it, AJ had a pretty bad Sugar Bowl that year as well, throwing two picks that led to Oklahoma scores in a 45-31 loss. God, I hate the Sugar Bowl.
So, Who’s The Best?
It’s AJ McCarron, dummy.
Look, when you get mangled up in the data (which I’m sure you are if you read all that), you lose track of what really matters in football: winning games. Sometimes winning games takes a little more swagger and attitude than “QB mobility.”
- McCarron was 80% versus Top 10 opponents, while Sims was 50%.
- McCarron won two National Championships (one in his first start year) and almost threepeated, while Sims lost the inaugural playoff game as a #1 seed.
- AJ was 36-4 (90%) at Alabama. Sims was 12-2 (86%).
Even if you break down some important figures, McCarron comes out on top:
- McCarron had a better career (and first year) completion percentage than Sims.
- McCarron had a better turnover ratio than Sims.
- Both QBs directed first-year offenses ranked #18 in the country. AJ wins because he was throwing to Maze/Hanks and not Cooper.
If you want to make this an argument about “talent” or some other nebulous concept of raw value, how about this:
- Blake Sims wasn’t even recruited as a QB, he was a running back. On the other hand, AJ McCarron threw for over 6,000 yards and 66 TDs as a QB in high school, and enrolled at Alabama as a 4-star prospect.
- McCarron finished 2nd in the Heisman voting in 2013. He lost to that freak, Jameis Winston, who also won the National Championship that year. Sims didn’t make it to New York in 2014, but he was throwing to a guy who did.
- McCarron was taken in the 5th Rd of the NFL draft (projected higher), while Sims would be lucky to play QB in Canada.
And if we played the “what if” game:
- What if McCarron played in Kiffin’s offense? We caught a glimpse of this in his Sugar Bowl, after Saban consulted Kiffin on faster play following a loss to Auburn. McCarron threw two picks, but he also put up 387 yards and 2 TDs on a bowl-caliber defense. If he did that the other 12 games in 2013, he would’ve had 4,644 yards and 26 TDs.
- What if Sims didn’t have Cooper? Amari Cooper was absolutely fantastic, and Alabama could easily have lost to Auburn following Sims’ three interceptions if Cooper wasn’t there to break an Iron Bowl receiving record. I’m certain that without Cooper, Alabama would’ve finished 9-3 or 10-2 at the best.
If Sims had won a National Championship his first (and only) year, he might get the nod since that would bump his record up to 14-1 (93%) and he’d be in the same rarefied air as McElroy, McCarron, and the other QBs who won titles their first year starting. But he didn’t, sadly, so everyone can stop bitching about who the better quarterback was and relax.
It was this guy: