ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 8: C. J.Brown #16 of the Maryland Terrapins passes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Just weeks ago, before Maryland's season began, a post like this would've been unthinkable. Danny O'Brien was coming off his much-celebrated freshman season, in in which he was the ACC's Rookie of the Year. He was on the Preseason All-ACC Second Team. We were driving his bandwagon. He was, more or less, the only thing people thought they knew to expect out of Maryland's offense.
Yet here we are. After turning in a series of bad performances, culminating in a 1-6, one interception outing in the first half against Georgia Tech, O'Brien was pulled in favor of his more sprightly backup, C.J. Brown. And Brown, despite going 4-17 through the air, did unleash a 77-yard touchdown run off a zone-read option and was at the helm of the Terrapins' furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Now, we have Randy Edsall saying that the staff needs to review the tape to figure out which will start, a decision that won't be made until game time on Saturday night, when the Terrapins take on the Clemson Tigers at Byrd. You know what that means: we have a real-life quarterback controversy brewing right now.
So, how did we end up in this spot, thought to be absurd just weeks ago? It's a complex situation, with many facets to explore, most of which I'll touch on in this post. Let's start out, though, with the most obvious discussion point: Gary Crowton's scheme, particularly as it relates to forcing O'Brien into it.
Crowton's scheme, in its purest form, can probably best be compared to what Oregon's offense currently runs. (Crowton did install the precursor to the Ducks' O when he was in Eugene earlier in the decade, after all.) Obviously, nothing is as far out there as Oregon, but Maryland has made heavy use of zone-read options, short pass plays, and quick tempos, particularly against Miami in the opener. Quite simply, that's a pretty terrible fit for O'Brien, who's a pretty pure pro-style QB: an under-center game manager, at his best when asked to drop back in the pocket and make reads.
But Crowton, of course, ended up putting O'Brien in his scheme anyway, even though it was a poor fit given his strengths and weakness. And past putting O'Brien in a bad spot, it put the scheme in a bad spot; Maryland's spread is handcuffed without a mobile quarterback, and it makes it harder to be effective over the long run as defenses learn that the quarterback isn't a threat. Playing O'Brien in it is akin to playing a guy like, oh, Mark Sanchez or Tom Brady (don't blame me, I just watched the Jets-Pats game) in the offense Oregon runs; in other words, it's a pretty big waste, both of the talent and game plan.
Now, tweaks to Crowton's offense can certainly be made, and if O'Brien were to stay on as the starter, they'd have to be. If you were observant during the start of the GT game, you saw them in action. He went more under center as opposed to in the gun - 13 of his 20 snaps were from a traditional under-center look - and none of his six passes were "short" - the primary receiver on each was at least 5 yards down the field on each. Maryland can't go too pro-style too quickly - they have minimal practice time in those sets compared to the months spent installing Crowton's playbook, and that means poor execution and errors will likely be increased - but they can gear themselves toward it a little more, accommodating DOB in the process. Those tweaks aren't the revamp of the scheme that the Terrapins would likely need to match DOB's skillset, but they'd at least help out.
I have to say, though, that O'Brien's troubles don't appear to be entirely scheme-related. It's clear that through the first five games he hasn't not the same player fans expected him to be, irrespective of the game plan. Throws he should be making, both of the short and intermediate variety, have often been inaccurate; he's missed reads he should be making; he appears nervous and jittery in the pocket. Rewatch the Temple game to see what I'm talking about; even easy passes, like the first attempt of the game (a five-yard swing pass to an uncovered Davin Meggett that ended up bouncing a yard short), aren't connecting. Nor does the playbook account for his reasoning of forcing the ball into a non-existent hole to a double-covered Matt Furstenburg, resulting in his interception against Tech.
Statistically, in the FBS (read: non-Towson) games since the Miami opener, O'Brien is 52 for 91, with one touchdown and five interceptions. That's bottom 30 material nationally (in fact, low 90s in completion percentage, and almost certainly as low in TD:INT ratio). I know he's out of his comfort zone in this scheme, but he was okay in the Miami game; I find it hard to believe the scheme alone has accounted for all of the decline. Perhaps it's mental, a loss of confidence after some iffy plays and performances that snowballed into what we've been seeing recently. Whatever the reason, I have my doubts that even a scheme switch would right things immediately for DOB.
(I also want to take this time to point out that, in hindsight, expectations for O'Brien were likely inflated. Look back at his stats from last year, and you'll see some great games - N.C. State, Wake Forest, Boston College - but some bad ones as well - Duke (9/26), Clemson (3 interceptions), and Miami (9/28 with a pick). That was fine when he was a freshman and was expected to only not turn the ball over and let the defense, running game, and big play WR help him win the game, but now that he's forced to be a game-winner his errors are shining brighter. Don't get me wrong: he was undoubtedly great for a freshman QB, but the hero status he reached - and we're guiltier of it than anyone - and some are citing now, was perhaps too much.)
Meanwhile, O'Brien's counterpart seems an even bigger question mark, particularly through the air. We've seen C.J. Brown (CJB?) play in less than three quarters of a meaningful game, which was a road game against a top 15 opponent. It's a tough situation to grade, particularly given the 4-17 with an interception passing record. It's safe to say that C.J. doesn't have a golden arm, though I'm not sold on it being as bad as everyone has painted it so far. There were several miscommunications between Brown and the wide receivers, indicating a lack of timing (a usual symptom of lack of practice time between the QB and receivers), and he was facing a top-30 passing defense. He's not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but he may yet be able to the avoid being the second coming of Joel Statham.
His legs and athleticism are his breadwinner anyway, and they certainly didn't let him down against GT, with that 77-yard TD scamper and 124 rushing yards - Maryland's season-high, for what it's worth. That is what makes him a good fit for Crowton's scheme; he can run zone-reads beautifully (as he did on the 77-yarder) and his mobility lets Crowton do some things that DOB can't, like rollouts and options. And his apparent lack of an arm shouldn't be a killer, given that Crowton likes to keep the passing game simple anyway.
And so Maryland is in a bind. In one corner, you have a player who has proven himself to be effective in the past but who is struggling with the offensive gameplan, one that is ill-suited to him (and vice-versa), without the time or ability to overhaul the scheme to fit him entirely. In the other corner, you have an unproven quarterback with a questionable arm, but who is explosive carrying the ball and fits the offensive scheme.
(Now, I guess, is the time to mention the possibility that Maryland goes dual-QB, a thought I had floated last week. I don't think it'll happen, but football is a copy-cat game, and the two-QB motif is popping around the country, most notably in Texas. Crowton has experience with it, too, with the high-profile Jarrett Lee / Jordan Jefferson combo from his LSU days. It's not something I exactly expect, but it's certainly a consideration.)
I have a nagging feeling that Brown is going to be the guy come Saturday, perhaps because new coaches tend to favor new QBs. To be honest, I don't really care which guy goes out there, so long as the offense is geared toward his skill-set. If O'Brien gets the start and the offense is an under-center, running-game-based look with a handful of intermediate-to-deep throws, they'll be putting themselves in a position to succeed. Likewise, I'll be fine if it's Brown, so long as the offense is the pure Crowtonian spread-option-look-alike that fits him so well.
Full disclosure: the fan in me, the irrational part of my brain that believes the shirt I wear has a definite influence on a football game (dating back to last year, my Torrey Smith jersey is 5-2, which I'm pretty sure is statistically significant, right?), would like to see Brown, entirely thanks to my unhealthy infatuation with running quarterbacks. But again, so long as the offense fits the guy taking the snaps, I'll be happy. Both options have potential, so long as their strengths are utilized properly.
So, to summarize: 1600 words later, we don't know who'll start or the offense they'll be running, and we can't even be entirely sure if they will only be one of them. Fun times in College Park, right?