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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.”


jferg said...

So...following the logic and assumptions of this Stacey Searels (sp?) to blame for our team's dismal production? If we run the ball well (which he is the running game coordinator, right?), then we pass well. If we run and pass well, our offense moves the ball with regularity. If our offense moved the ball with regularity, we score more points. During this offensive regularity, our defense has time to rest and study past drive performance for in-game adjustments--thus the defense plays better. CSS??? (toungue firmly implanted in cheek)

Ausdawg85 said...

Tough article on the kid, and I trust everyone will read it to its conclusion to understand that you are no indicting him of crimes against the Bulldawg Nation. The truth, of course, is Joe is neither the teams problem nor their solution. If ALL of the other parts were working, he'd be a fine leader. There are just some many parts wrong right now, especially with youth and poor performance from our experienced players, there isn't any one person that can make a real impact....beyond AJ, and maybe he is the only reason we have 3 wins.

Anonymous said...

i for 1 think logan gray would bring another dimension to the offense and that alone might open up the running game provided booboo stuck w/ it

PatinDC said...

I still feel that if the passing game was working more, better acuracy more long completions, than the running game would see the holes open back up. Joe is not a threat really to win by himself, so the other team now has the film and the plan to shut down the offense.

David Hale said...

Patin -- I'm not necessarily saying you're wrong, but look at the Tennessee game. They did just the opposite. The only think Kiffin WAS concerned about was the big play (although probably more due to AJ than Joe). They were rushing three, playing a bail coverage and leaving the underneath open. The runs were there, Georgia just couldn't make them.

Granted, that's one game, but it's also a very smart D coordinator who looked at the film and said if we don't let Joe & AJ beat us with the big play, we don't think Georgia can beat us.

That sort of flies in the face of what most people are saying Joe's problems are.

Anonymous said...

If grandma had balls she'd be grandpa

Will said...

Given that UGA had a big number of quick-strike TDs coming in and not many sustained drives (again due to the lack of consistency in the run game) it was a great plan on Monte's part.

As far as Gray goes, I wonder if they've practiced enough option-style plays that maybe that could get the run game going? Cox is an OK scrambler but can run upfield as well as Stafford could.

Anonymous said...

Even Ted Kaczynski managed to figure out a way to defend his actions....

Joe Cox may not be the problem. But he's certainly not the answer either.

Joe Cox continues to receive the red carpet treatment after playing poorly every single week other than Arkansas. How anyone can say that giving Logan Gray is a bad idea is beyond me.

David, hope your head doesn't hurt too bad. That wall has got to be getting old. Same to you Coach Richt.

David Hale said...

Anon -- the article was hardly a defense of Cox, much less a red carpet. I'm simply pointing out that a simple change of QBs doesn't instantly fix anything -- and in fact it may cause more problems.

Not saying not to do it, and I'm not saying to do it. Just laying out two sides of the argument. You've made up your mind, and that's cool. I can see the logic on the other side, too, though.

Gozer the Gozarian said...

The problem is, with practices being closed, no one (other than the coaches) knows how good Gray or Murray are. Yes, playing Murray would burn the redshirt, but we'd likely have him for 3 more years anyway, and if he looks like the best QB (talent-wise), they might as well play him. Cox has made his share of freshman mistakes, so it isn't like Murray's inexperience would be a huge dropoff.

Same goes for Gray. All the fans have seen of him in actual gametime so far have been a couple of QB runs and one or two passes against Tennessee (and it's doubtful that the little we've seen from him is indicative of his overall performance and ability). Could he be better than Cox? No one knows. We just have to hope the coaches are making the best decisions.

Maybe they should open practice so we can make the decisions for them. I'm not sure what's so secretive about our practices anyway. Are we afraid to give away our excellent defensive schemes that Willie's saving for Florida?