Joe Stapleton: Rotating quarterbacks? It could work for Michigan

Marissa McClain/Daily
Quarterback Tate Forcier (5) exits Ross-Ade stadium after Michigan's 27-16 victory over Purdue on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010. Buy this photo

Daily Sports Editor
Published November 16, 2010

Last weekend after the Michigan football team's 27-16 win at Purdue, both Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said something interesting when they were questioned about pulling sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson in favor of backup sophomore quarterback Tate Forcier in the third quarter.

They told reporters not to think of taking Robinson out as "benching" him. They simply needed a spark, and they thought Forcier could provide it.

Robinson and Forcier alternated drives for the remainder of the game.

“If you run a running back in or out or a wide receiver in or out or a lineman or a linebacker, you just say, ‘Oh, you’re giving him a break,' " Rodriguez said after the game in West Lafayette. “If you take a quarterback out, you say you’re benching him. We’re just giving him a break and let him see what’s going on out there.”

It kind of makes sense. Quarterback is really the only position in football, besides maybe punter/kicker, that's expected to take every snap of every game barring an extreme blowout.

But the move to Forcier when Robinson was struggling raises a few questions.

First, if we're not going to call Robinson's substitution out of the game "benching," then can we call Forcier a "backup?" Rodriguez has been adamant all year, despite how much Forcier has played, that Robinson is the starter. But if he gets pulled, if he's not moving the offense, doesn't that make Forcier more of an "option" than a "backup?"

This hasn't happened yet, but the quarterback situation is slowly moving toward what it was last year, just in reverse. Last year, it was Robinson providing a change of pace when the Forcier-led offense stalled. This year, it's the other way around.

But I guess naming Forcier's position on the depth chart is less than pressing. The second, and more important, question: Does this work? Actually, it might be: Can it work?

For me, it's complicated. In theory, it should work, right? The two quarterbacks have such varied skill sets. Robinson is an average passer, but he's faster than a cheetah on steroids. Forcier is so accurate it seems like his eyes are affixed with a permanent scope, but he's an average runner. Coaches have said as much after games in which Forcier played.

In reality though, it's much harder than it seems, and the reasons for that are more cerebral. The quarterback is supposed to be a player who commands respect through not only his play but his leadership. It's essential that the quarterback be the leader of the offense, and it's tough to lead when you're only in the game every other drive.

Rotating quarterbacks is uncommon because of something I like to call the "Eighth-Grade AAU Basketball Conundrum." This refers to the common (and somewhat, ahem, personal) problem of pulling players when they are performing poorly.

Of course, this needs to be done sometimes, but it shouldn't be overdone. If it gets to the point where the player thinks he's getting pulled every time he makes a mistake, it makes him play timidly. And it becomes impossible for me, err, the player to play well.

Do I think Robinson and Forcier have stronger mental fortitudes than I did as an eighth-grader? Of course. But I think it's still a factor. If Robinson thinks he's getting pulled every time he throws a pick, it won't make him throw less picks — it will make him play timidly. And that's not good for anyone.

There are some Michigan-specific positives that suggest this could work here. First, Rodriguez deserves praise for making sure the quarterbacks take near-equal first-team snaps in practice. This allows each to develop some timing with all the wideouts so everyone is familiar with everyone come game time.

Second, praise needs to go to each of the quarterbacks for having awesome attitudes about splitting time. Robinson was happy in his role last year and is happy in his role this year. But really, he would probably be happy if all his material possessions consisted of a paper clip and a few breath mints — that's just who he is.

The real pleasant surprise is how Forcier has responded to his role post-Connecticut. You can tell he wants nothing more than to play, but he has done an amazing job of keeping a great attitude the whole season and being happy with his playing time. He is willing to do whatever is best for the team, which is an admirable 180 from week one.

These two mentalities combine to make a largely ego-free quarterbacking duo that can kill you with the run and the pass. And this team has enough senior leadership on the offense (redshirt junior David Molk, senior Stephen Schilling) to not worry about which quarterback to look to as a leader. Taking all of this into account, it's tough to see rotating quarterbacks not working.

It'd better. My editor already told me he's taking me off the page if I'm making a mistake here.