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Offseason Musings: Northwestern uses two quarterbacks, and so what?

Covering college sports in the offseason tends to turn into an exercise in creative frustration. When there’s nothing going on in the real world – on the field or court, where real people engage in real interscholastic competition – we like to talk about conceptual or speculative things, things grounded in analytical thought or reaction. We’re opening up our window of our collective offseason stream of consciousness with a new little feature called “offseason musings.” Original, right? You probably don’t need further explanation, but the crux of the idea is for yours truly to relay a random Northwestern-related thought, question or conversation tidbit in extended form.

Any particularly compelling NU-sports related subject is fair game here, and want to hear from you, too: if you have anything you’d like addressed, feel free to tip us on Twitter (@Insidenu) or head on over to the contact page and shoot us (or your writer of choice) an email. This is a purely fun and spontaneous endeavor, and the topics could get wacky from time to time, but hey, what else is year-round Northwestern sports coverage if not diffusely entertaining? Consider this an official invitation into our offseason thought box.


The wins piled up, and the questions kept coming. Northwestern was winning games with two quarterbacks, and people had their doubts. Kain Colter will never be able to take the pounding. All Trevor Siemian does is screw up Kain’s rhythm! When you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback! Who’s going to be under center in “crunch time”?! Ad infinitum.

Those were the kinds of questions not just fans, but qualified media I know and respect, were asking every week (and continued to ask during spring practice). As you can probably imagine, these sorts of criticisms were rotten at first utterance; by week seven or eight, the “quarterback controversy” had turned into something like a recurring post-game press conference nightmare. Win or lose, rain or shine, the cynics kept coming back. The laments kept pouring in from the outside. The skepticism lingered.

The funniest part about these questions was that they totally ignored the single most important thing about any football game: deciding a winner and a loser. 10 times out of 13 last season, Northwestern was the former. Using two quarterbacks, sometimes even swapping them in the midst of a single drive downfield (gasp!), Northwestern won 10 games. This isn’t groundbreaking news – it’s me underlining with thick, bold ink the most important data points of Northwestern’s 2012 season. Winning 10 games, ending a 64-year-old bowl winless streak and breathing a wind of recruiting momentum unlike any the Wildcats have seen in a one-year span under Pat Fitzgerald were the most important themes, I’d say. In a concise summary of Northwestern’s 2012 season, that would just about cover it.

What you could completely ignore, if you really wanted to, is the detail that Northwestern even used two quarterbacks in the first place. But that’s not even the main point. The point is that Northwestern spent the better part of an entire season (from Siemian’s late-game heroics at Syracuse to Colter’s wide receiver breakout against Indiana) proving its quarterback system – which, just in case it wasn’t clear enough already, FEATURES TWO QUARTERBACKS – is anything but ordinary. It’s entirely unconventional, but it worked. And unless coordinator Mick McCall decides to scrap the entire playbook this offseason, it’s going to have to work in 2013, too.

This is not a difficult concept to grasp. A two-QB system is prone to error or dysfunction. It has its warts. There are clashing personalities for which such an arrangement could never work on certain teams. Some teams need one trusted leader under center. Some treat quarterback ownership like a sacred rite owned exclusively by a chosen field general. That’s a perfectly normal situation for any football team to have: one quarterback. No questions about different plays or formations or the delegation of responsibilities in crucial fourth-quarter drives.

The Wildcats don’t operate the same way, and not just because McCall is some anti-establishment schematic radical who likes to get creative with variously daring five-wide receiver sets. It’s much simpler than that. McCall has proven over the years how pliable he can be in molding a playbook specifically to accentuate his players’ best strengths. Mike Kafka and CJ Bacher were (comparatively) more conventional pocket passers, and McCall crafted an offense to accommodate their abilities. Dan Persa was a mobile playmaker with terrific short-range accuracy; McCall designed the offense accordingly. Last season, he tweaked his offense to make room for what he (and presumably Fitzgerald) believed was the most effective way to utilize Northwestern’s quarterback position. The two-quarterback system was at the crux of that plan. And guess what? It worked.

The general unease and predictable post-game questions will endure, I’m fairly certain, because when you use two quarterbacks, you are challenging every hoary intangible maxim sports fans (and writers) like to latch on to: singular leadership, stability, unity, and so on. Using two quarterbacks means running up against decades of consensus football practice. It is bold and unconventional in all the ways that should cause a football team to burst at its seams. It’s asking for trouble, basically.

Asking for more is the path the Wildcats will happily tread in 2013. They will continue to use two quarterbacks, probably win a bunch of games doing it, with the same negative reaction attached at the back end. Two quarterbacks doesn’t have to be a hot point of debate every time Northwestern plays a football game. It is because people – not all people, but enough to compel me to write this cathartic screed – make it so.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Just accept two quarterbacks for what it is: two talented dudes with different bundles of physical and tactical strengths sharing one position, a wise positional provision for two divergent skillsets working in tandem. It’s a really neat thing, this two-quarterback game, and save for a few clunky mid-drive swaps last season, it succeeded more times than not. That’s the point I can’t stress enough, and will continue to bludgeon home until it is buried deep into Northwestern’s collective football consciousness. Using two quarterbacks helped the Wildcats turn last season into the immense double-digit campaign it was.

There are other flaws, and other concerns at other positions, to pick at. The quarterback system doesn’t need to be changed. Let it soak in, block out the archetypical criticisms, move on and enjoy another 12-game sample of Colter and Siemian pushing Northwestern to Legends Division and Big Ten contention.

And don’t, please don’t, waste one second of your summer thinking about the following question: “Who’s going to take the first snap at Cal, coach Fitz?” I’ve heard it before, and would rather prefer not to hear it again.