Here’s a hypothesis you’ve probably heard:
If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.
The idea, essentially, is that any football team forced to play two quarterbacks in a game did not have one who performed well enough to win the starting job. And, indeed, the majority of signal-caller platoons have produced undeniably mediocre results.
Which brings us, of course, to Washington — where head coach Jimmy Lake has declined to publicly name a starter and entertained the possibility of playing multiple quarterbacks on Saturday against California. Four scholarship signal-callers — graduate student Kevin Thomson, redshirt sophomore Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris and true freshman Ethan Garbers — competed in fall camp, with Thomson and Morris the prohibitive favorites to take the season’s opening snap.
But, theoretically, could a two-quarterback system actually work?
Lake — a lifelong defensive coach — says he has seen it do so.
“From a defensive perspective, it definitely keeps you off balance,” Lake said in his weekly news conference Monday. “All you have to do is look to the New Orleans Saints and they’re doing it pretty well right now, playing two quarterbacks (Drew Brees and Taysom Hill). That keeps defenses off balance. You don’t know what to expect.
“If there’s a guy that can just take over the reins and be the guy, then he’ll be the guy. But from a defensive standpoint, if there’s a guy back there that can just take control, that’s difficult to defend. If there’s a two-headed monster back there, that’s difficult to defend. We’re going to do whatever’s best for our team to make sure we get victories here in 2020.”
In college football, same as the NFL, there are examples of successful two-quarterback systems. Take the Washington Huskies, who started Mark Brunell and Billy Joe Hobert nearly evenly en route to their third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance and a 9-3 record in 1992. Or the Michigan Wolverines (10-2), who trotted out Tom Brady and Drew Henson in 1999 before eventually settling on Brady and winning a Rose Bowl as well. Or the Louisiana State Tigers (12-2), who shuffled starter Matt Flynn and backup Ryan Perriloux throughout a 2007 season that ended with a national title.
Of course, the most obvious example is the 2006 Florida Gators — who alternated between an experienced and steady starter (Chris Leake) and a dual-threat freshman backup (Tim Tebow). Under head coach Urban Meyer, Leake accounted for 26 touchdowns through the air and on the ground, while Tebow ran for eight scores and threw for five more as well.
And, most importantly, Florida sealed a 13-1 season with a national title of its own.
So, yes, it can be done — but the key is to find quarterbacks with complementary skill sets.
“It’s a good question,” said first-year UW offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Donovan, when asked what needs to happen for a two-quarterback system to work. “Ideally you would always want one and ride with it. I understand that. But sometimes some guys might give you certain skill sets that you like over another guy, and at least they’re valuable enough to utilize throughout a game. And if it comes to that point, you go ahead and do it.
“Some guys maybe just haven’t run away with the job, and you’ve got to see unfortunately how they’re going to react when it’s go-time. So there’s a couple different ways that you would be able to play two quarterbacks or more.”
So, ultimately, which is the case at Washington?
To begin with, there’s no guarantee UW will play a pair of signal-callers on Saturday. It’s possible — maybe even likely — that Lake’s quarterback conundrum was little more than a smoke screen, and Thomson or Morris (or Sirmon, or Garbers) conclusively won the job.
But it also could be argued that Thomson and Morris, specifically, actually do have differing skill sets. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Thomson is a definite dual threat, who threw for 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions while adding 619 rushing yards and a team-best 12 rushing scores at Sacramento State last season — being named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year as a result.
Morris (6-0, 200), meanwhile, seems like more of a pure pocket passer. In four seasons as the starter at Graham-Kapowsin High School, he threw for 9,815 yards and 99 touchdowns.
A two-quarterback system, of course, could also come with significant side effects. Take Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who chose to play both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire in the 2016 season opener at Texas.
“My whole goal is to turn chicken crap into chicken salad,” Zaire said after the decision was made, according to Sports Illustrated. “We gotta make him right.”
Turns out, he was wrong.
The Kizer-Zaire timeshare was a tornado of self-inflicted devastation, as both players’ confidence cratered and the program’s offensive identity was irreparably punctured as well. The Irish finished 4-8, and Kelly — who has since recovered — nearly lost his job.
A two-quarterback system can be just that — chicken crap or chicken salad.
And at around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, we’ll see what’s on the menu for Washington this fall.
“I think we have four guys that I have no problem trotting out there and playing Saturday night, and I feel really good about them,” Donovan said. “However it shakes out as far as the game goes and the season goes, I feel good about who we have.”