First and 10: Jimbo Fisher has no other option. It's (past) time to give up the offense
There was a moment in the postmortem, minutes after trudging off the field from a game his team could have won, when it became clear that Jimbo Fisher must give up control of the Texas A&M offense if he’s going to survive as coach.
Fisher, in explaining the Aggies’ toughness and grit in a last-second loss to Alabama, proclaimed, “We’re playing a backup quarterback, too.”
Don’t buy what he’s shoveling, everyone.
Fisher was playing Haynes King, his hand-picked starting quarterback the past 2 seasons. He was playing a Texas high school superstar, an elite recruit everyone wanted and Fisher landed — and was building his offense around King’s dual-threat ability.
He was a quarterback with dynamic ability who could take the Fisher offense into the 21st century. The problem is, the guy coaching him is stuck in the ’90s.
After the 1-possession loss at Alabama, after the Aggies lost for the 3rd time this season with a team built on 3 straight top-5 recruiting classes, Fisher said, “Hopefully this will give us some vision of what we can be.”
Here’s your vision: Texas A&M is down 4, and it’s 4th-and-goal from the Alabama 2 with 3 seconds to play, and because a pass interference penalty against Alabama in the end zone nullified an interception, the Aggies had one play to win the game.
The interference call also gave Fisher extra time to talk to King — while the call was being discussed and assessed by officials — and served as a timeout of sorts (because Texas A&M had none remaining).
The Aggies got on the field for the last play, and Alabama called timeout. That’s another stoppage where Fisher could have come up with a unique play — a man coverage beater, because no defense plays zone at the 2-yard line — to win the game.
Instead, we got a schoolyard down-and-out.
Fisher called it a “pylon” play, where the receiver, Evan Stewart, drives the corner deep into the end zone, turns outside and comes back for the ball that’s thrown on timing. He said there were multiple options on the play, but King chose that throw, and said Aggies scored on the same play earlier in the game.
Hello, red flag.
If you want to know why Fisher needs to hire a quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator/play-caller, this specific play call tells the story.
There were 4 receivers in the play, 3 left and Stewart — the team’s best wideout — at the numbers on the right. Moose Muhammed was in the slot and ran a hook to the goal line, and Chris Marshall ran a drag 2 yards behind him. Chase Lane ran a fade to the left corner.
Fisher said King had 3 options on the play, and chose the option the Aggies scored on earlier in the game. They’re on the right hash, and that throw — that play call — eliminates 3/4 of the field and requires a perfectly-timed throw and the receiver to beat the corner.
This is the play call for a quarterback who was benched earlier in the season for poor play, who had barely completed 50 percent of his passes and looked overwhelmed until the last drive of the game.
King waited a count too late to make the throw, and by the time he did, any separation Stewart had created was gone — and more important, Stewart was out of the end zone and so was the throw.
Almost any other call would’ve been better. Hell, a run from the 2 would’ve been better.
A pick play — see: Clemson vs. Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game — is an easy call. Force the official to not call the pick; most don’t make that call in that situation.
Instead of putting King in position to win — he attempted 45 passes against the best pass rush in college football prior to the last play of the game — Fisher told him to go make a play. A 5th-year senior, or a quarterback with multiple starting seasons, makes that timing throw, in that environment, in that pressure spot, with everything on the line.
Not a guy making his 5th career start.
Don’t blame Haynes King for not executing the call, as Fisher most certainly did. Blame the guy who made the play call, no matter what he says.
“Had it,” Fisher said. “It was a good read, we just didn’t get it executed in what we needed to do.”
And then, the absolute red flag of all, postmortem: “But the decision was right, in where we were going and what we did,” Fisher said.
Don’t buy what he’s shoveling, everyone.
Time for Fisher to suck it up, take a step back and allow someone else to bring the Texas A&M offense into the now.
2. Next up
Before we go further, understand this: Fisher isn’t giving in without one last push to make it right. This is his identity; it’s who he is as a quarterback at Salem and Samford, as an assistant coach at Auburn, LSU and Florida State, and as the head coach at FSU and now Texas A&M.
He has been at the top of his profession for decades, developing multiple first-round picks and two No. 1 overall picks (JaMarcus Russell, Jameis Winston) and becoming one of the game’s best play callers.
But football has changed at every level, and the passing game concepts that were once so successful — and his legendary hard-charging teaching of the position — need an overhaul. Those who look at that last play call against Alabama and don’t think something is wrong, are the same people who don’t think the deep-pocket oil barons connected to Texas A&M won’t come up with $85 million to find another coach.
Anyone who feels secure in his job doesn’t proclaim “the decision was right.”
So how does Fisher fix it? The same way they fix everything at Texas A&M (not that it’s a bad thing): throw money at it.
Hire Garrett Riley, TCU’s offensive coordinator who, many in the coaching fraternity will tell you, is on the same professional track as his brother, Lincoln. Get him for a couple of years before a smart athletic director at a Power 5 school hires him as his head coach.
Go get Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton, who was offensive coordinator at Tennessee in 2018 before taking a $400,000 payout to get his first head coaching job. His offenses at WKU have averaged more than 40 points a game since the beginning of 2021.
Challenge Wake Forest OC Warren Ruggiero, and convince him that nothing would be more exciting than taking his unique slow mesh spread to the SEC and turning the league sideways. For those who think the slow mesh won’t work against the SEC’s athletic defensive fronts, I give you Clemson.
The best defensive line in the nation this season, and for much of the past few years, hasn’t been able to figure it out. Wake Forest scored 45 points in a loss to Clemson last month.
“(Ruggiero) has a brilliant mind,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told me in April. “There are good coaches that just don’t have the sense of what to call, and when to call it. Warren has it.”
That’s where we are with Fisher. Hiring a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator isn’t a panic move from a one-time elite coach; it’s a still elite coach who’s evolving.
3. Don’t buy the sale, The Epilogue
If this were an isolated incident, it’s easier to give Fisher a pass. Heck, you’d probably buy this excuse, too:
“You work on them, and you have them, we had what we wanted to go to,” Fisher said of the play call at the end of the Alabama game. “We knew what we wanted to go to, you just gotta make it.”
But Fisher’s offenses haven’t been the same since Jameis Winston left FSU for the NFL after the 2014 season. It’s a vintage, old-school Chevy Nova while everyone else is breaking in a new Tesla.
Compounding the problem is the way he has recruited the position. Fisher has yet to have an all-conference quarterback — or even 1 of the top 3 in the ACC or SEC on any given year — since Winston left FSU.
Everett Golson. Sean Maguire. Deondre Francois. James Blackman. Kellon Mond. Zach Calzada. Haynes King. Max Johnson.
Any of those guys move the needle?
This isn’t just an Alabama thing. Brian Kelly, despite the disaster that played out Saturday against a really good Tennessee team, will get it straightened out at LSU.
He’ll recruit elite players (and quarterbacks) and will have LSU soon competing for SEC titles. Lane Kiffin isn’t going anywhere, and his first quarterback at Ole Miss (Matt Corral) was a country mile better than anything Fisher has had since Winston.
Kiffin’s next quarterback, Jaxson Dart, is on his way, too. Ole Miss beat Texas A&M by 10 last season. What happens later this month in College Station?
Arkansas and Mississippi State aren’t going away, either. Auburn will find another coach. Maybe even a guy named Urb (more on that later).
Fisher can’t keep proclaiming everything will be fine when everyone is healthy, when empirical data suggests otherwise. He can’t keep missing on quarterback recruits, and can’t keep selling an offense that isn’t quarterback friendly.
Again, he’s not failing by moving away from the offense and allowing it to develop. He’s learning and adjusting, and eventually — with all of that talent — winning big again.
4. The QB quandary
In the era of quarterback is everything, consider what’s happening in Gainesville.
The enigmatic play of quarterback Anthony Richardson has the Florida staff adjusting on a weekly basis to find a way to win games.
Richardson threw for 168 yards and ran for 106 and 3 TDs in a season-opening win over Utah, then combined to complete 47 percent of his passes against Kentucky and USF with 0 TDs and 4 INTs.
A week later, he accounted for 515 yards and 4 TDs in a loss to Tennessee, before getting 285 total yards and 2 TDs in a glorified scrimmage against FCS Eastern Washington.
Then came last weekend against Missouri, and the most curious of all performances from Richardson. His first throw against Missouri was a deep cross to Justin Shorter — a difficult intermediate throw — for 20 yards. A perfect throw, no less.
He threw 13 passes the rest of the game. He ran the ball 5 times.
The clear and unquestioned most dangerous threat on the team had the ball in his hands for 18 plays. The Gators had 46 plays.
Richardson tweaked his ankle against EWU, and went inside the medical tent again against Missouri. A source within the Florida program says Richardson hasn’t been healthy since the first game of the season and continues to deal with multiple nagging injuries.
That reality has left Florida coach (and QBs coach/play caller) Billy Napier piecing together a game plan with a quarterback who already has admitted this season that he has been affected by the moment and lost confidence. And with a quarterback who has started all of 7 games in what seems like a long college career.
“(Richardson) is sloppy right now, both mechanically and decision making,” an NFL scout told me Sunday. “But he’s a young guy who is still learning the position. Every snap is analyzed by everybody in this business. There’s too much potential there to not do so. But no question, there’s way too much inconsistency right now.”
5. The Weekly 5
- Alabama (-7.5) at Tennessee
- Auburn (+14.5) at Ole Miss
- Arkansas (+3) at BYU
- LSU (+3.5) at Florida
- Mississippi State at Kentucky (+5.5)
Last week: 3-2.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama RB Jahmyr Gibbs.
“The speed and burst are one thing, a big, big thing. But what has really surprised me is his toughness and ability to get tough yards. He’s 5-11, 200 pounds, and he’s a strong, solid 200. He sees a crease, plants a foot and goes — and the explosion is impressive. He has terrific hands and is going to be a matchup problem in the pass game in our league.
“He’s an Alvin Kamara/Travis Etienne type, where you get him in space in the second level, he’s going to make a lot of guys look bad. He’s not a between-the-tackles guy, but you know what you’re getting when you pick him. Offense is about guys that can run.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: A not-so-obvious midseason MVP.
1. Georgia: RB Kenny McIntosh. 3 rush TDs, 26 catches, key 3rd-down option for QB Stetson Bennett.
2. Alabama: Gibbs. Without his explosion plays in the run (532 yards, 2 TDs) and pass games (22 catches, 3 TDs), the Tide’s offense is predictable.
3. Tennessee: WR Bru McCoy. Preseason All-American WR Cedric Tillman goes down, and McCoy is finally playing to his 5-star potential (20 catches, 17.5 ypc.).
4. Ole Miss: RB Quinshon Judkins. Freshman 3-star recruit has become the most dangerous option (581 yards, 8 TDs) in a talented backfield.
5. Mississippi State: LB Nathaniel Watson. The most important player on a wildly underrated defense, he has 3 sacks, an interception and is disruptive in pass rush situations.
6. Texas A&M: S Jardin Gilbert. A big hitter who has developed in coverage this season (41 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PD).
7. Arkansas: LB Drew Sanders. Alabama transfer leads the SEC in sacks (6.5), has 59 tackles and 2 forced fumbles.
8. Kentucky: WR Tayvion Robinson. Virginia Tech transfer has been overshadowed by the speed and dynamic ability of freshmen Dane Key and Barion Brown, but his production (25 catches, 15.7 ypc., 3 TD) has been among the best in the SEC.
9. LSU: WR Malik Nabers. His production (370 yards receiving) can’t be overshadowed by 2 fumbled punts in the season opener.
10. South Carolina: TB MarShawn Lloyd. Quietly having an impressive season (434 yards, 7 TDs) in a challenging first 6 games for the Gamecocks’ offense.
11. Florida: CB Jason Marshall. Might be the best cover corner in the SEC. Teams don’t throw at him, and when they do, big plays are rare (Tennessee WR Ramel Keyton’s diving 43-yard deep ball catch).
12. Missouri: LB Ty’Ron Hopper. Florida transfer is a different player in 2022: confident, aggressive, and far and away the best player on an underrated defense.
13. Auburn: QB Robby Ashford. Put in a difficult situation as a young, unpolished thrower. But has given Auburn a dangerous threat in the run game.
14. Vanderbilt: WR Will Sheppard. Leads the SEC in touchdown catches (8), and is 3rd in receiving yards (452) for the surprising Vandy passing game.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: You’re the athletic director at Auburn, who do you hire after (Bryan) Harsin is fired? — Kent Downing, Macon, Ga.
Let’s quickly get something out of the way: I’m not taking the Auburn AD job — and dealing with those meddling boosters — unless it comes with a Jimmy Sexton-brokered deal.
Don’t think it’s a toxic coaching job, because it’s not remotely close to that. You’re talking about a program that has played for 2 national titles (winning 1) in the past 12 years. How many programs can say that?
But it’s going to take a unique coach to make it work this time. It’s not just because of how Harsin’s 2 seasons have unfolded, or the quick hook that’s on the way. It’s all about who can stare down those meddling boosters — and win games.
Harsin stood toe to toe with those outside the program who have way too much power, and won Round 1. He won’t win Round 2.
Bill O’Brien has the backbone to stand tall in the job — and compete with Saban — but he’ll likely have his choice of jobs in both college football and the NFL. He’s not willingly jumping into that nonsense.
The list of coaches willing to put up with it begins and ends with 2 guys who have previous off-field issues: Liberty coach Hugh Freeze — who won big at Ole Miss before getting fired for NCAA/personal conduct issues — and, of course, Urban Meyer.
Would Meyer take the job? Who knows. His ego would certainly try to drag him into it, but would his family agree to one more ride in the SEC meatgrinder — especially one that means annually going head to head with (in no particular order) Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and the occasional Ole Miss/Mississippi State/Arkansas rare season?
98. You’re not reading this wrong. The Tennessee Volunteers are 3rd in the SEC in rushing defense, giving up 98 yards per conference game. A year ago, the Vols were 13th in the SEC, giving up 200.7 yards per conference game.
Now here comes Alabama, averaging 277.6 yards rushing in SEC games. The Tide have become more dangerous running the ball with QB Jalen Milroe filling in for injured starter Bryce Young.
In the past 2 games against Arkansas and Texas A&M, the Tide have rushed for 605 yards and 5 TDs — averaging 6.5 yards per carry. The Vols have been better up the middle this season with DTs Omari Thomas and Kurt Garland, LBs Juwan Mitchell and Aaron Beasley and S Jaylen McCollough.
This will be their biggest test — and the key to the game for the Tennessee defense no matter who plays quarterback for Alabama.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Brian Kelly on the Tigers’ struggling passing game: “It’s easy to point to (QB Jayden Daniels), but we got behind. He’s got to throw every down. They know he has to throw every down. So it’s hard to be balanced, and it’s hard to say it’s one guy.”