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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ordinary Joe

The past three games have underscored a number of problems for Georgia, but not all will be simple fixes.

There are defensive problems that go beyond personnel. There is a lot of inexperience, and players won't turn into veterans overnight. There are some issues with the approach of the coaching staff, but major shakeups aren't likely to take place during the season.

There is one problem, however, that fans see as a pretty quick fix: The Quarterback.

It was just four weeks ago that Joe Cox was enjoying a national offensive player of the week award after tossing five touchdown passes against Arkansas. That, however, has been his high-water mark by a pretty wide margin.

In every game since, Cox has seen his completion percentage of passing yards decline, and the offense has looked brutal -- scoring touchdowns in just two of 12 quarters in its past three games.

“Joe has been a little bit up-and-down these last couple of games," head coach Mark Richt said. "I would say that yes he is still our starting quarterback. A lot of things go into the quarterback’s ability to play at his peak level. I think quarterbacks get maybe a little more blame than they deserve and maybe a little more credit than they deserve. I think if we all played together as a unit, I think Joe’s productivity will rise like it has in other games.”

Richt's assessment of Cox makes a simple assumption: The offense stinks, so Cox stinks.

But what if it's the other way around? Maybe Cox's poor play is the reason the offense has been so bad? If that's the case, wouldn't a change not only be wise, but necessary?

Of course, it's not exactly simple to decide whether or not Cox is the cause of the offensive problems or simply a symptom of a larger malfunction, but we do have some clues.

Let's look at what have been the most troublesome stretches for Georgia in the past three weeks.

First, against Arizona State: Georgia opened the game strong, scoring twice in the first quarter, then went off the rails before a fourth-quarter comeback.

In the first quarter, Cox was 5-of-8 for 105 yards and a touchdown and Georgia had 122 yards of offense.

In quarters 2 and 3, Cox was 5-of-12 for 65 yards and an interception, and Georgia's offense managed just 125 yards (i.e. about 63 yards per quarter -- or one-half what it tallied in the first quarter.)

When the Dawgs rallied down the stretch, Cox's numbers improved: 7-of-11 passing for 74 yards (and an interception) in the fourth quarter, while the Dawgs picked up 84 yards.

As Cox went, so went the Bulldogs.

Next, let's look at the LSU game. Georgia's offense was non-existent for the first half, picking up just one first down. Not surprisingly, Cox struggled as well.

By halftime, Cox had completed just 3-of-9 passes for 31 yards and Georgia's offense had mustered a woeful 49 yards in the half.

Georgia rallied in the second half, however, and the turnaround was led by Cox. His second-half numbers were 15-of-25 for 198 yards and two touchdowns, while Georgia tallied 225 yards of offense (or 82 percent of its output for the game).

Then finally, let's look at last week's loss to Tennessee. This one is a bit more tricky, as Georgia's offense never looked particularly good. But in the first half, the Bulldogs showed at least some marginal ability to move the football, including a 13-play drive. They had five possessions, and only two resulted in three-and-outs. Cox's numbers were bad -- 13-of-20 for 126 yards -- but not unconscionably bad.

Where things really fell apart, however, was the third quarter. On four drives, Georgia had three three-and-outs. Cox's numbers: 2-of-9 for minus-2 yards and an interception.

In fact, here's how bad Cox's numbers during his down stretch against Tennessee really were: His QB rating for the third quarter was ZERO (and that's only because they don't allow for negative numbers).

Again, this doesn't fully account for a solution to the chicken-or-egg question, but think of it this way: Is there a chance the entire offense changed in mid-game or a better chance that one player's performance changed? The latter is obviously the more likely scenario, and as the past three games have shown, when Cox is on, the offense seems to play well. When he's not, it's off the rails.

Of course, that's a simple solution. There is more at play here.

For one, there hasn't been much help for Cox at all. Perhaps his numbers have been down for long stretches because he's simply trying to do too much as the rest of his offense struggles to move the football thanks to drops (there were five against Arizona State) or a lack of a running game (the Bulldogs didn't crack 100 yards on the ground in any of the past three contests).

“It's been highs and lows," Cox said. "I think we’ve been inconsistent in a lot of different places, and me, too. That’s the most frustrating thing is when you know you’ve seen everything when it’s been working and some games when it just doesn’t, you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong or why it can’t be like those games when things were going well. It’s a tough deal, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there’s no use in feeling so bad you can’t move forward.”

It's not out of the question to assume some of that frustration has played itself out on the field, too, right?

Look at Georgia's rushing numbers for a second. In the two games when the Bulldogs have topped 100 yards on the ground, Cox has enjoyed by far his best two performances. In the four games that they haven't, Cox's numbers have been down, too.

Ah, but couldn't that be that defenses are gearing up to stuff the run because they don't think Cox can beat them?

Well, that definitely wasn't the case against Tennessee, a game in which Cox reached his low point as a passer.

“Tennessee did a nice job of making us throw underneath, played a lot of cover three, played a lot of bail coverage, sometimes only rushed three guys," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "When you do that, you’ve got to execute, and when you don’t execute, the result is only three points.”

Or look at the second-half numbers against LSU. Georgia's run game was abysmal in the first half, picking up just 18 yards. When Washaun Ealey entered the game in the third quarter and showed that the ball could be moved on the ground, things turned around. Georgia broke a couple of mid-sized runs, and suddenly the plays opened up downfield.

In addition, while the pass protection has seemed improved this season, that wasn't the case against Tennessee. Cox wasn't officially sacked, but he was hit repeatedly and forced to thrown early or throw the ball away routinely. Moreover, Cox has worked out of the shotgun a great deal this season, and that's another thing that probably hasn't helped Georgia's running game.

On top of that, the play-action has essentially been completely ineffective because Cox is either working from the shotgun or the defense isn't worried about the running game enough to bite.

Take away Georgia's two longest runs of the season -- an 80-yarder by Richard Samuel on which he wasn't touched by a defender against Arkansas and a 60-yard reverse by Branden Smith that caught South Carolina off guard, and Georgia is averaging just 2.61 yards per carry this season (and just 74 yards per game on the ground). Only four teams in FBS football have less ground production per game than that. None play in a BCS conference and their combined record against other FBS teams is 6-13.

The bottom line is, no QB can succeed with that type of running game.

And that's really the biggest issue with Cox. He's, at best, a game manager. He's a quarterback who can make a play under good conditions, but he's not the type of quarterback that can put the offense on his back and consistently win games. Matthew Stafford had that ability. Cox does not.

Of course, even Cox's game management hasn't been great. He has had at least one turnover in each game this season, with two interceptions being returned for touchdowns. That's not the cerebral type of play you want from a "game manager."

On the other hand, even if his execution isn't where it needs to be, he brings an important presence to the huddle. On any given play, Georgia might have a combination of Washaun Ealey (zero starts), Tavarres King (four starts), Orson Charles (zero starts), Fred Munzenmaier (zero starts), Rantavious Wooten (zero starts), Arthur Lynch (one start), Marlon Brown (zero starts), Carlton Thomas (zero starts), Caleb King (zero starts), Aron White (six starts) or Richard Samuel (six starts) in the huddle with Cox.

Only Mike Moore (who has struggled) and A.J. Green (who has been amazing) will have any real experience at the skill positions. Cox is the glue holding things together.

Georgia could put Logan Gray in with Cox struggling. Aaron Murray could see his redshirt lifted and be thrown into action.

But what happens to Georgia's offense then?

Might they be in better position, physically, to make a play than Cox? Sure.

Might they even make a few better decisions than Cox? Maybe, but it's a big assumption if you think so.

But are they going to be any better prepared to handle what is an absolutely catastrophically inexperienced and ineffective offense around them? It's hard to see how they could be.

Before all of this started, back when Cox still clearly looked like the best man for the job, I made the case that it was worth giving one of the younger QBs some work as preparation for next season, when Georgia's team might look a good bit more impressive but will have a glaring question mark at quarterback.

I had more than a few people tell me I was crazy back then. Why take your best QB off the field?

Now, I'd guess the majority of folks want to see Cox benched. After all, on an offense performing this badly, the best looking guys on the team are the ones who aren't playing. But I can't help but wonder if this might be the worst time to bring in one of the youngsters. If you really are planning ahead, what good does it do to have them sit in a pocket that quickly collapses? What good does it do to have them force passes downfield because the running game is ineffective? What good does it do for the development of the players around them to have one more person in the huddle who doesn't know all the ins and outs of the playbook?

I don't know the answers to that. Maybe there are some serious benefits. Or maybe it turns into a catastrophe. With Logan Gray, at least it's an experiment with few long-range problems. He probably needs to see action on at least a series or two each game -- if for no other reason than to allow Georgia to see what it has to work with for next year.

For Murray, it's a more complex issue. Burning a redshirt on an experiment that is likely doomed to failure probably isn't worthwhile -- although LSU showed how it can work last year with Jordan Jefferson.

But the bottom line, I think, is that the players don't seem to be clamoring for a change at QB, and they're probably in the best position of anyone to decide.

It's one thing to support your guy, but there's no one who has earned a say in the discussion more than A.J. Green, and he goes beyond simple support for Cox.

“Joe doesn’t need to be pushed," Green said. "Joe’s a great guy and a leader. He’s going to fight, and I wouldn’t have anybody in the huddle with me except Joe.”

14 comments:

JRL said...

I think LG needs to be given more than one play or one series - not because JC is bad but because it might give defenses something else to consider. At this point anything would help.

LG looked pretty good in the spring game but he was playing against our defense :-)

Anonymous said...

I tend to think that this all spells trouble...David you think that this "players only meeting" means that the staff is losing the team...seems to me that generally when you hear about this in the pros and elsewhere it is followed by upheavel...

Anonymous said...

Do you think the poor offensive scheme and play calling places him in a no win situation. Why do you think Tenn did what they did with their quarterback. Because he was so good? No, they used their offense to hide the fact he is not as good as they would like.

David Hale said...

Anon -- I wouldn't worry about the players-only meeting. I think it was more about reassuring the younger kids that all was not lost. Coaches can preach that, but sometimes it means a lot more coming from the other players. It didn't sound to me like there was a groundswell of problems from the players perspective.

Spencer said...

What makes you say the pocket is quickly collapsing? Our O-line has done a nice job of pass protection.

Also, I don't understand your arguments about putting in a young guy. The benefit is not this year, as you state at first. More than anything else, throw him into the fire, let him get beat up, make stupid mistakes and see how fast the game is. By next year it will have slowed down and (hopefully) everyone around him will have learned from the experience, making it that much better.

What's the downside?

Anonymous said...

This isn't exactly rocket science. Before the season we new, or should have known, two basic facts: 1) AJ is the only real offensive threat that we can count on and 2) Joe Cox is not athletic enough to make or create plays on his own. What this meant then and now is that unless the RB's, none of which had proven a thing and still haven't, stepped up AND some other receivers stepped up, we were going to be in trouble on offense. It was clear, at least to me before the season started that Joe Cox would only be effective if he had a lot of weapons at his disposal. I think that this has borne itself out. We have three possible outcomes: 1) the running game comes around and because the other receivers have played at least adequately, that Cox will become effective again; 2) the running game continues to falter and Cox will be as useless as he can be leading to the worse season since 1996; or 3) we put in a guy that can make plays with his feet and arm. We are getting to the point where we were in 1990 when we threw Joe Dupree out there just to have any chance at moving the ball as our slow, unathletic QB's, like Talley and Jones, rode the bench. That being said, I have little faith in Logan. I don't think he will ever be a quality SEC QB, but his ability to run might open up passing lanes and some big plays. I also think that Murray is an exceptional talent and can run around and throw it on the money. I do worry about throwing him in the fire. That kid may be the best to play at UGA and I don't want to ruin him to salvage 2009.

All this being said, I would not all be against telling the backs and the OL that we are not throwing a forward pass vs. Vandy so either blow them off the ball or lose to Vandy. I would hope that they would respond out of sheer desperation.

Thomas said...

I completely agree that a second QB needs to get some reps in the remaining games. But I get a little pissed off when I see some fans suggest that this season is a loss so we need to play all the kids, let an inexperienced QB get pounded and wait till next year. Fla, Auburn and Tech are still on the schedule. Anybody who doesn't get amped at the thought of doing everything possible to win those games - well, I question their fanhood. It may not look like we could beat any of them right now, but there's a lot of time left to get better. This season ain't over. Play to win, not to get ready for next year.

David Hale said...

spencer - I think thomas answers your question. it's easy for you to say the young guys should be in and screw it, but do you think a fan who paid for the ticket necessarily beleives it? Or what about the coaches who are hoping to keep their jobs? Or what about the other seniors who want to get a few more wins? Or what about guys like AJ who might get killed when a freshman tosses a floater over the middle when he panics during a blitz?

It's not all as simple as it seems, and there's a good chance that if Murray or Gray is back there, the offense is in even worse shape.

And to answer the first part of your question -- a lack of sacks does not necessarily mean the pocket hasn't collapsed. How many times has Joe heaved a ball out of bounds (or last week, to a defender) to avoid a sack?

Matt said...

Maybe the younger guys should have called a players only meeting. They are the only ones that seem to play hard and make plays! The upperclassman on this team are the last people that need to talk up the young guys (i.e Evans, Jones and Miller so the most lack of discipline and blown assignments of any one on the team)

Shoaib Ashraf said...

David,

I think we can mostly agree that Joe Cox is, at the very least, an average SEC QB. However, our run game is absolutely below average. It's terrible. I don't think you can ask any of our QBs, regardless of who it is, to do any more than what is already being done at that position. If we start running the ball with authority, we accomplish so many things that plague our team: 1) We play balanced football. Remember when we did that? 2) We control the clock, keep opponent's offense off the field along with our defense. 3) We open up the pass by providing favorable coverage to not only AJ but Orson Charles, T. King and company.

Gentlemen, we need to run the football like a respectable team!

Macon said...

Ashraf - you hit it on the head. No QB can be successful without a credible running game. You must make the Line Backers commit to the play action to open up the secondary. I am a little more concerned with the knee jerk chicken little's - fire this person or that person - so called experts than I am about MR righting the ship.
As a former Infantry Airborne officer, I have seen my fair share of leaders. The helmet throwing - foul mouth screamers work in Boot Camp, but a real leader can get the best from his people with a steady even keeled hand. A few of the best leaders I have ever seen, rarely raised there voices and men would face a hail of bullets for them. He has a great track record and we should give him the chance to right the ship. The players need to get the stars out of there eyes and get to work. Sometime a good old fashioned butt whipping like the TN game is all we need. I bet we will see a little more fire in the future.

The sky is not falling, all teams do this. Go back and look at the 10 year records of UF, LSU and AL and you will all see the same dip.

Randy

PS David. GREAT WORK - you do a great job providing OBJECTIVE information for us. THANKS

Anonymous said...

Nice quote at the end of article, but honestly does anyone believe that if Green felt otherwise that he would actually state it to anyone other than his closest friends/family much less in a public statement to the media.

Cox needs to realize his limitations and begin to the put the current team and the team of next year first and back the idea that one or two of the younger qbs get some reps because worst case scenario they do just as bad as he has the last few games.

UGA69Dawg said...

Joe Cox should not be judged too greatly on the UT Game. As I have said before, UT had a great D made greater by Monte Kiffin. The only way we win that game is our D holds UT to fewer points. Our D didn't so we lost big. UT as far as I'm concerned is and will be the second best D we will face all year, UF being #1. The UF game will be like UT, our O won't score diddly on the Gators. Unfortunately, our D won't stop their O so it won't be close. Sad but true we are just weak on both sides of the ball this year. Throw in the kick off team and we are what we are.

Dawgy1 said...

David, I think you nailed it with the lack of a ground game. Once other DC's found out that we could not run the ball, UGA was made one dimentional. That almost never works. Cox and probably any other QB we throw in there will fail.