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Minnesota Golden Gophers Football: The Annual QB Controversy That Isn't

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It's almost October, which means it's time for the Gophers annual QB Controversy. Can we have an objective, reasoned discussion about this? I didn't think so.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

So back in July I wrote an article that contained this little nugget about what I hoped Mitch Leidner’s improvement looked like.

I'm hoping that with Nelson out of the picture, Leidner can develop a little swagger.  It doesn't have to be a ton of swagger, just something like along the lines of "On third and seven I can hit my guy on a slant route,in the numbers, with the nose of the ball pointed down and keep this drive going."  Give me that level of swagger, and I'll be a pretty happy guy.

Note that I wasn’t looking for a great statistical leap from average passer to above-average passer. I think that expectation is unrealistic and therefore unfair to Mitch and the team in general. The problems that plagued the Gophers’ passing attack last year were basically unaddressed and remain this year; young, inexperienced wide receivers looking for balls from a young, inexperienced QB. The only improvement we could hope for was that they would all raise their own talent levels. Not easily done.

I think many people internally decided that an offseason’s worth of improvement would pay off on the stat sheet. That’s an unrealistic expectation because offseason practices are so limited in number. Through the first four games, that statistical improvement obviously hasn’t happened. That lack of improved stats has caused a good number of people to completely write-off Leidner, despite the fact that he’s in his first real year of action. The argument goes something like this: Leidner couldn’t be a worse passer, so we might as well go with Chris Streveler because he has that elusive quality we love: swagger.

Well let’s explore this quality. What does swagger do for a football player? Does it add a +5 bonus to his vertical leap? Or maybe a +7 bonus to throwing accuracy when there’s less than two minutes in a half? In reality, swagger doesn’t make a player better in any quantifiable way.

What swagger really is, the only thing it can be, is our own feelings projected on a person we don’t know, used to fit our own constructed narrative. I couldn’t state it in July the way I can state it now; what I wanted out of Mitch Leidner this year is to make ME feel confident that he can pick up a third and seven. Frankly, I could care less how he feels about it as long as he picks it up.

When someone says Streveler has more "swagger," they mean they have more confidence in him than in Leidner, but they can’t explain why.

Let’s examine two case studies.

In the first case, there seemed to be a clear starting quarterback coming out of camp. After dispatching a couple of lesser teams, the starter gets dinged-up, giving the backup QB a shot to see significant playing time against a team with a terrible defense. For argument’s sake, let’s call that team the San Jose State University Spartans. Backup QB avails himself well against this team with no defense, and half of the fan base decides he should be the starter because he’s a "gamer" and runs the offense with "more confidence." From that point on, statistics are largely left out of the argument of who should start.

In the second case, there seemed to be a clear starting QB coming out of camp. After rolling over a couple of inferior opponents, the starter suffers a couple of injuries, giving the backup QB a chance to see significant playing time against a team with a woeful defensive unit. To keep the argument interesting, let’s call that team the San Jose State University Spartans. Backup QB steps up to the plate and impresses against that team with no defense of which to speak. At this point, roughly fifty percent of the fanbase decides he should be the starter because he’s got more "swagger" or "runs with premise." From this point on, statistics are largely left out of the argument of who should start.

Here’s your answer key: one of the cases is Philip Nelson starting with Mitch Leidner as the backup out of camp. In the other, Mitch Leidner is the starter with Chris Streveler as the backup. If you’re wondering which one’s which, don’t ask me. I couldn’t tell you either way.

All I know is the gamer last year is the goat this year for some reason. Well, maybe the reason is stats? Let’s examine that. Last year, Nelson threw for 1,300 yards and a 50% completion rate. After throwing two passes for 18 yards in the bowl game against Syracuse, the fan base had had enough. We were done with him. Give us Leidner!

Leidner had thrown for 619 yards at a slightly better 55% completion rate. This year, he’s thrown for 362 yards (6.7 per attempt) at a 48% completion rate through three games played. Well, that won’t do. He was supposed to be above 60% this year! Give us Streveler!

As you can guess, Streveler’s swaggered his way to better stats… Wait. No he hasn’t. He’s completed only four of his eleven attempts (36.4%) for 37 yards (3.4 per attempt, rounding up). After going 1 for 7 for seven yards in his first start, the fan base has had enough… but for some that’s not the case. Some people want him to start.

What’s my point in all this? Well, believe it or not, I don’t intend this article to be a defense of Leidner. Frankly, he hasn’t inspired in me the confidence that I desired in July. My point is that Streveler certainly hasn’t either, by the less than optimal eyeball test or the stat sheet. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could say with certainty that Steveler should be starting. If someone wants to convince me that he should be, they had better use an argument that doesn’t hinge on their own projected feelings.

Until someone can objectively make the argument that Streveler is better (or the team stands a better chance of winning with him instead of Leidner), there is no quarterback controversy for the coaching staff. When he's healthy, Mitch Leidner is the starter on this team.