Even now, in the post-postmodern age of football, quarterbacks can excel because of subtleties. The cadence in the huddle, say, or the body language on the sideline.
The changed plays at the line of scrimmage, the checkdowns and throwaways after the snap — a ball that falls harmlessly to the turf is sometimes the best way to keep the chains moving.
Cade McNamara operates confidently in these subtleties, and in the split-second when decisions are made regarding the football. That confidence helped him guide Michigan football to the College Football Playoff a year ago.
Normally, when a college quarterback exudes such immeasurable traits and has eligibility remaining, his status as the program’s starter isn’t the topic du jour.
And yet, here we are, a few days from the beginning of fall camp and a few days removed from Jim Harbaugh playing Twister when asked who his starter would be.
“It’s going to be tough for Cade to beat J.J. (McCarthy) out,” Harbaugh said last week in Indianapolis. “It’s going to be tough for J.J. to beat Cade out. Put the balls out there on Aug. 3, and then they’ll have at it.”
When pressed, U-M’s football coach said McNamara would line up with the first team when camp begins. He also said McCarthy would line up with the first team in camp.
McNamara is getting the first first-team reps because of what he did a year ago. He deserves that.
But the competition, Harbaugh made clear, is wide open.
It should be.
As tough as that is for McNamara, who just guided the Wolverines to their best season in a generation, he understands his coach’s views on the position. He also welcomes the challenge from his understudy.
“I think if you become complacent, you become vulnerable,” McNamara said in Indianapolis. “I think this whole entire situation has really helped me in the sense that I have zero complacency as to what my situation is and where I am on the depth chart. If anything, I’m getting better faster than me just sitting in the quarterback room comfortably.”
Harbaugh obviously isn’t looking for comfort. He wants competition. He also wants more from the passing game than he got a year ago. Which is why he’s keeping the competition open, despite McNamara’s credentials.
“They’re both gonna get a ton of reps,” Harbaugh said. “There will be time to have that competition and determine who the starting quarterback is for the first game.”
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It’s the story line of fall camp. And could be the story line of the season. This is how it goes when there isn’t a clear frontrunner at the most important spot on the field.
McNamara isn’t simply a game manager, though. He can make plays and showed that in critical situations last season.
The ability to make plays, however, isn’t only reading defenses and escaping collapsing pockets and making throws. It’s imbuing the other 10 players with the belief that an offense can make plays.
How is that measured?
It isn’t. Not perfectly, anyway.
Some might study completion percentages or turnover rates or the velocity of a throw. Harbaugh is aware of all the metrics. His favorite metric, though, is this: Does the QB move the offense? And how often does the offense score?
McNamara ranks well in that category. And while you can point to last season’s stellar offensive line play and superb running back tandem of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, McNamara contributed, too.
The question is his ability to make plays against the best defenses in college football. He struggled against Georgia in the playoff game, against that speed and size.
In fairness, the rest of the offense did, too. But when McCarthy played, he displayed a bit more elusiveness and the ability to complete more difficult passes.
Most of those came when the game was decided. Still, the talent is tantalizing, especially considering U-M is getting wide receiver Ronnie Bell back from injury and will have a handful of promising young receivers as well.
Changing quarterbacks when the starter has produced isn’t easy. If it goes awry, it ripples to every other position on offense, and even to the defense; a team that can’t move the ball or suddenly turns it over often forces the defense to play more snaps.
There’s also the matter of chemistry, a word that can sound empty but is critical in football. Harbaugh knows he has a quarterback that commands his huddle and locker room. He also knows he has a quarterback that can do things McNamara can’t.
He has benched successful quarterbacks before. Most notably, Alex Smith when he had Colin Kaepernick on the sideline. The move led to a run to the Super Bowl.
The most famous recent college quarterback change came when Nick Saban pulled Jalen Hurts in the national title game for freshman Tua Tagovailoa. The youngster made the throw of his life to win Alabama the championship in overtime. Saban looked like a gambling genius.
The Crimson Tide were playing Georgia, and the Bulldogs’ speed and size on defense feasted on Hurts’ (relative) inability to throw the ball. Hurts had been one of the best players in college football that season. Still, he got pulled for the player who offered the right skill set for the moment.
McNamara was the right quarterback for U-M’s moment last fall. He may well be this fall, too, especially in the beginning. And if he has shown improvement and hits more throws on the run and makes more plays when everything has broken down, he’ll stay on the field all season.
If not, McCarthy will take his place.
He could take his place no matter how much better McNamara becomes if he learns to read defenses and manage the huddle in ways that match his running and throwing talent.
Harbaugh will have a difficult choice to make in a month. He might have a difficult choice each week after that. But whether McNamara or McCarthy emerge, what matters is that Harbaugh isn’t afraid to make the change.
Here’s betting he won’t be.