UO Quarterbacks: Why Not Both?

Almost 500 years ago, European Colonialists were negotiating with Native Americans to secure rights and security for some territory in their New World. As the story goes, they offered the tribal elders two options: a pile of glass beads from the Netherlands or a stack of woven blankets from England. When asked to choose between them, the negotiations broke down, because the Native American culture was unfamiliar with western reductionism that results in the either/or formulation. At each point, when pressed for a decision, the elders’ response was the same: “Thank you sirs, we would prefer both.”

Chip Kelly and his staff of football coaches at the University of Oregon will decide this weekend who will be the Ducks’ starting quarterback for the first game of the 2010 season. We’re more acculturated to an either/or way of thinking, so most fans will admit a slight preference for either senior Nate Costa or sophomore Darron Thomas, but how many of us wouldn’t prefer both?

We’ve been here before. Brady Leaf and Dennis Dixon were locked in a similar competition in 2007, and I offered something similar then. (See “Two Buck Ducks” http://www.dksez.com/?p=178) I promise I haven’t given sport advice since. But it’s bigger than sport. It’s part of the brand of Eugene, where we try new things and nobody talks us out of it.

Some things have changed since 2007. We have a new head coach, who’s young and aggressive and looks for envelopes he can push. Although he was an early adopter of the spread offense, he didn’t invent it. The image of the Ducks as brash and “one inch out of control” has been affirmed. They toppled USC and have Rose Bowl stubs to show the grandchildren. And they’ve perfected a unique pace for their offense that gives defenders less time to breathe, but also less time to think. That’s important.

Costa and Thomas have different strengths and styles. Choosing just one would be like trying to keep warm under a pile of glass beads.

Costa has been exposed to the system for four years, mostly from the sidelines, so he knows the playbook and the players. He can run, but at most schools he’d have become a pocket passer. He has passed with greater accuracy than Thomas this spring and fall. He’s also been the placeholder for extra point and field goal kicks, and heroically so. Arizona would have beaten the Ducks in 2009, if it weren’t for Costa’s composure.

Thomas is bigger, faster, younger. As one of those naturally gifted athletes, he’s lined up as a receiver and as a running back for the Ducks. He can play the game in the style of Jeremiah Masoli, where a broken play is just another play. If Plan A ain’t gonna work, just keep going down the alphabet and invent new letters if you have to. If you’re a defender, you can’t predict what he’s going to do.

Both quarterbacks play the same tune, but to slightly different rhythms. The difference between a marching band and jukebox jive isn’t the notes — it’s the spaces between the notes. In a game of split-second decision-making, that difference can be used to the Ducks’ advantage.

Now consider the physics of defending incursion on a football field. If a team is on its own 20 yard line, there are 4,800 square yards of turf behind them to be defended. That’s a lot of real estate. If the offense is closing in and begins only 20 yards from its goal, then the area to be defended is a mere 1,600 square yards. (Yes, I know. I have too much time on my hands.) Each defender has a perimeter one third as large.

Costa’s poise and precision becomes more valuable as you approach the goal, because everyone is bunched together. Thomas’s hip hop hustle works best when there’s an open field ahead. Thomas should take the first snap for the opening drive. And Costa should take the last. Thank you sirs, we would prefer both.

Will defenses know how to react to an offense designed to use the different strengths and styles of two quarterbacks on every drive? Will ESPN know how to react? We may hear from them what we hear all the time: “Only in Eugene!”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs. He knows nothing more about football than what he reads in the newspaper.