The famous quote “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none” is often attributed to Vince Lombardi and has been repeated by notable coaches throughout history. There are very few instances over the history of football, and specifically college football, where a team has managed two different quarterbacks and won at an elite level. The one example that most people point to in recent memory being Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida under Urban Meyer, a team that won a National Championship.
There are a lot of reasons why an offense that features two quarterbacks doesn’t work. Many of them come down to intangibles and their effect on play: leadership and momentum. The quarterback is arguably the single most important position in any team sport as the leader of the offense, the player who touches the ball on every play, and the player who is tasked with distributing the ball. Successful teams rally around the quarterback as a leader, and respond to that quarterback. In a perfect world, you could have two players who have different skill sets and feature them in different sets and it would work seamlessly. In a real world application, it rarely works that well because the mental aspects of a rotation end up degrading the performance of one, or both, of the players.
In their road game against Texas A&M on Saturday, Clemson came into the game expecting for both Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence to play. Many expected Bryant to get the start, with Trevor Lawrence coming in at some point. Most of those people likely would have expected them to stick with one player by the start of the second half. Very few people, if any, would have expected the two quarterbacks to actually elevate the play of the other. That’s exactly what happened though, and it is worth investigating why that happened when it so rarely does in football.
Bucking trends is nothing new for Dabo Swinney as a head coach. When Dabo took over for Tommy Bowden midseason in 2008, he was playing with house money as a young interim coach with a marginal-at-best chance of securing the head coaching job at the end of the season. Hiring the interim guy as your head coach rarely works and other programs since have been desperate to “find their Dabo” with virtually no success. Dabo came in with pie-in-the-sky hopes about what he would do with his program, to the extent that most sound-minded people would have labeled him as delusional.
Dabo came in and built his program on a foundation of honesty, trust, competition, family, and, most of all, love. In a world of coaches trying their absolute best to emulate Saban’s football machine, Dabo went in a different direction and nobody gave him much of a chance to turn it into a reality. He also adopted recruiting strategies (which are still questioned to this day) that are, at best, unorthodox. He doesn’t oversign, he offers players that nobody else thinks are a take, he leaves scholarships on the table, and he doesn’t offer players who seem like a no-brainer. He also avoids talented players with baggage like the plague.
Dabo (and his offensive staff) have also come under fire since Chad Morris left for their tendency to sit on leads, especially on the road, and put the game in the hands of the defense to hold on. The results are not good for my general mental health, but the results on the field are hard to argue with. In spite of analysts and fans alike swearing up and down that it’s unsustainable, Dabo has turned it into an art. After the game, Tim Bourret put that strategy into perspective with this tweet
Tonight’s 28-26 Clemson win at Texas AJM was the 23rd win for Clemson by 8 points or less since 2011, most in the nation.
— Tim Bourret (@TimBourret) September 9, 2018
At some point, you have to admit that it’s not just luck anymore. Over that span of time, luck would regress to the mean and most teams would end up with a distribution closer to 50/50. Clemson under Dabo Swinney is just better at winning close games than any other team during that same period. It’s not that other teams don’t try a similar strategy, it’s just that it doesn’t work nearly as well for them.
So what does all of this mean for Clemson and Dabo Swinney, and what does it have to do with playing two quarterbacks? It all comes back to the foundation of the program. The coaches can be honest with both Kelly and Trevor, because they were both brought in under full disclosure. Promises that couldn’t be kept weren’t made, and both players came in with the expectation that everything was earned. Trevor and Kelly want each other to succeed when the other is taking the snap because the program embraces the idea of family, and the rest of the team rallies behind whoever is behind center for the same reason.
It’s easy for a skeptic to write off intangibles and their impact on a team or program. It’s impossible to quantify and even harder to fully explain. Football players are human though and at the end of the day, psychology is going to have a major impact on how they play. There is a reason that sports books give about 3.5 points for home field advantage, and coaches go to extravagant lengths to gain a mental edge on their opponents. So, even though you can’t quantify the effect that Dabo has on the program and how his methodology leads to success, it’s impossible to argue with the results. It probably doesn’t make it easier as a fan in the heat of the moment when you’re watching an opponent come within a hair’s breadth of pulling off the upset, but Clemson fans can take heart when the dust settles that they are a part of something that is both special and unique.