Cal Coach Jeff Tedford says he looks in the mirror after every game and asks himself what he could have done better as a head coach and as a playcaller. When Tedford looks in the mirror tonight, following Cal’s 31-20 loss at Arizona State, he should be asking himself if Nate Longshore is his quarterback. I’m not talking about next week, or the rest of this season. I’m talking about 2008. If the answer is “Longshore is not our guy for ‘08,” or “I’m not sure if Longshore is our guy for ‘08,” then Tedford needs to get redshirt freshman Kevin Riley some playing time. Immediately. The fact is, this season’s toast. The Bears are out of the BCS race, out of the Rose Bowl race, out of the Holiday Bowl race. Their bowl destinations at this point are El Paso, San Francisco or Las Vegas. I know Gary Cavalli and the folks at the Emerald Bowl would love to have the Bears. I know some of the Bay Area media types would love for Cal to play in Las Vegas.
But any of those spots is a letdown for the Bears, who two weeks and a few hours ago were 5-0 and poised to be No. 1 in the nation. Now they are 5-3 and No. 6 in the Pac-10, a half-game ahead of Stanford. So the season is basically over, and it is basically over, to a certain extent, because of Longshore: Because of the sprained ankle that kept him out of the Oregon State game. Because of the slow recovery that has affected him for the UCLA and ASU games.
And because of his pre-existing limitations, which were made worse by the injury. When healthy, Longshore is a drop-back passer with zero mobility. When he’s not healthy, he’s so immobile it affects the entire offense. In obvious passing situations, Cal’s opponents can blitz without fear because they know Longshore can’t buy himself time by moving up or side-stepping anyone. That means his reads, throws and timing must be perfect, and they aren’t. These days, if you want to be a top-10 team at the end of the season, your starting quarterback must 1) make big plays in big games with his legs, or 2) be a terrific pocket passer. Longshore will never do the first, and right now, he isn’t the second, either. He can’t move an inch in the pocket, and he’s off target on passes of every distance. Two games in a row, against UCLA and ASU, he has made bad throws at the worst possible times for Cal. His four INTs in the fourth quarters have cost Cal a chance at victory both games. The incompletes and INTs he’s thrown are not what veteran quarterbacks are supposed to do, especially veteran QBs whose greatest asset is their arm strength, accuracy and smarts. So Tedford needs to ask himself if Longshore is the man to lead Cal next season …
Can the Bears go another year with a totally immobile quarterback who’s prone to injury partly because he’s immobile (and then when injured becomes more immobile)?
Can Longshore beat teams with first-class pass rushes like Oregon State and UCLA?
Can he can make clutch throws in pressure situations?
Can the offense function best with a pure pocket passer?
The bottom line:
If Tedford thinks the mobile, gutsy Riley might give Cal a better chance to win, then he needs to play Riley the rest of this lost season, starting Saturday at home against Washington State. (The Bears couldn’t ask for a better situation for Riley.) I could see Tedford, who’s intensely loyal to his players, saying soemthing to the effect of: “I’m sticking with Longshore for ‘07, then we’ll let them compete for the starting job in spring practice and training camp.” But there are two huge problems with that approach, as I see it:
1. It automatically puts Riley at a disadvantage, and if you think Riley might be the guy next fall, then you want him to have a fair shot to win the job.
2. It means that if Riley does win the job in the offseason, then you’re sending a rookie out there. If Riley finishes out this season having played extensively in only one game (Oregon State), then he’ll essentially be a rookie in ‘08 — and I don’t care how competitive the practice situation. As Cal found out last year with Longshore, it’s tough to win big with rookie quarterback. Keep Riley on the bench in ‘07, and you could be ruining ‘08, too. Now, I’m not advocating that Cal bench Longshore and that Riley play every down the rest of the way. That would be foolish and knee-jerk. The official Hotline position on this matter is that assuming both players are healthy, Tedford should make sure Riley plays a significant amount (15-20 passes) in each of the remaining games. Playing both of them — starting Longshore but using Riley — is the best way to win games this year and prepare for next year. Let Riley feel what the USC pass rush is like. Let him throw the ball in Husky Stadium in November. Let him experience the adrenaline of Big Game and a bowl game. Unless, of course, Longshore is positively the guy for now and for next year. In that case, keep Riley on the bench.