If you read my last post you know I like to delve into Pro-Football/NFL history to find past analogies to current Brown’s issues. One of the most pressing issues currently facing the Browns as we approach the pre-season is the “quarterback” controversy. We have a rookie who appears to be the franchise quarterback of the future and a young veteran who has shown some promise but suffered from a lack of weapons. Pundits suggest it is just a matter of time until Weeden is named starter. Pundits also suggest that having two potential starters is bad for the team and that McCoy should be traded. I would suggest that trading or cutting McCoy this year is not in the best interest of the team. My reason for this position can be found in history – the 1979/1980 San Francisco 49ers. While the situation isn’t exactly the same there are enough similarities to see why waiting a year before making a move on McCoy just makes sense even if you believe Weeden is the Browns new franchise quarterback.
Steve DeBerg was drafted in the 10th round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1977 to compete to eventually replace the aging Roger Staubach. Unfortunately for DeBerg, Danny White was entrenched in that role and he was cut at the end of training camp. However, his career was saved when the struggling San Francisco 49ers picked him up to back-up Jim Plunkett with Scott Bull. The next season Plunkett was gone, Scott Bull was the starter, but Steve DeBerg would soon replace him starting 11 games winning 1. Pete McCulley, Head Coach of the 49ers at the start of 1978, was fired mid-season and interim Head Coach Fred O’Conner was not hired to the permanent spot. Scott Bull’s days with the 49ers were done as well.
Ultimately the legendary Bill Walsh was chosen to lead the 1979 49ers. Walsh inherited an offense with a porous line, an anemic running game, questionable receivers, and Steve DeBerg. DeBerg seemed to be the one bright spot with superior arm strength, accuracy, and ability to move the ball down the field though he wasn’t very mobile and was interception prone. DeBerg would start all but one game that season for Walsh and his new West Coast Offense. Despite the 49ers going 2-14 again that season (both won with DeBerg as starter) DeBerg had a phenomenal season breaking the NFL record for most pass completions with 347, posting a 3,652-yard passing season and a 4th quarter comeback drive to give the 49ers one of their wins. He had shown heart and determination in the face of adversity to have promise as a passer in Walsh’s new West Coast Offense with a 60% completion rate despite throwing only 17 TD to 21 interceptions. Some pundits labeled the 1979 49ers the best 2-14 team ever and they were clearly on the rise. Many thought DeBerg’s tendency to throw interceptions was just as much of a result of the porous line and receivers as his own play.
But remember that one game DeBerg didn’t start? That game was started by DeBerg’s back-up, selected by the 49ers in the third round of the 1979 Draft – Notre Dame’s quarterback Joe Montana. As unbelievable as it seems now Joe Montana wasn’t considered a top prospect in the 1979 draft, rated as a fifth rounder by many scouts. Criticisms leveled against him was that he was small, slow, had questionable arm strength, and that he was a system player surrounded by a great team though he was given credit for “moxie” and intangibles. He was almost the polar opposite of DeBerg. Walsh saw something in him that others hadn’t and thought he was just possibly the 49ers franchise quarterback of the future. However, having only thrown 23 passes in 1979 Montana was still an unknown quantity.
Entering the 1980 season Walsh had improved all positions on both sides of the ball and the 49ers were ready to turn the corner if they had their franchise quarterback. Could DeBerg be the franchise quarterback now that he wasn’t behind a porous line and had a better run game and receivers? Would his interception rate drop with these improvements? Was Montana the right fit for the team instead? Walsh really had no way to know.
To determine this Walsh decided on an interesting strategy for the 1980 season. Instead of avoiding the quarterback controversy he embraced it. He kept them both and alternated them from the start of the season. DeBerg started 9 games during the season and during those starts played respectably completing a 93 yard pass and leading a 4th quarter comeback. However, by mid-season DeBerg’s tendency to throw interceptions at critical movements and Montana’s abilities were apparent and Montana won the starting job. However, throughout the season both treated each other with respect and professionalism and their play was improved by the competition. Walsh also had two viable starters both of whom won games for the 49ers. The 49ers ended with an almost respectable 6-10 record taking the team from worst to clearly improving. The controversy gave Walsh the ability to truly evaluate what he had in each quarterback and in the end everyone benefitted.
The 49ers of course went on to win the Super Bowl the next year with Montana as the franchise quarterback. DeBerg, despite losing his starting job to Montana, saw his value increase allowing Walsh to trade him to the Denver Broncos to play back-up to Craig Morton and be groomed for the staring position there (though John Elway being drafted in 1983 ended that hope). DeBerg went on to eventually start for the KC Chiefs from 1988 to 1991 and play for 6 teams and 11 coaches. To this day he is considered one of the best back-ups to ever play the game.
If you don’t see the historical analogies here then you truly don’t understand football. Like Walsh in 1980 Shurmur has two unknowns. First, there is McCoy who is a young veteran who has shown potential but issues. Those issues may be just as much of a result of the team as a whole as his own abilities. You know his strengths can win some games but can he be a franchise quarterback of a winning franchise. Second, you have Weeden who appears to have different strengths that could make him the Browns franchise quarterback of the future. However, he hasn’t proven himself on the field yet and has different potential weaknesses. The Browns simply can’t say for certain who their franchise quarterback is, if either, until the season has been played.
While I do believe Weeden wins and keeps the starting job in Cleveland in the end I see nothing but positives by keeping McCoy through the season. He, and Weeden, have shown nothing but class and professionalism during the offseason just as DeBerg and Montana did. There is no reason to think they won’t continue to behave in this manner throughout the season and that the competition will be a distraction for them or the team. He will push Weeden more than Seneca Wallace ever would. If Weeden falters then he can step in and perform better than Wallace, maybe earning back his starting job. If Weeden doesn’t falter then McCoy will benefit from the competition and his value will only increase by playing on an improved Browns team.
The end of the 2012 season, not the start, is the time to decide if McCoy should stay or go just as the end, not the start, of 1980 season was decision time for DeBerg in San Francisco.