There were a number of factors in Alabama having a 4-9 season in 2003. Having a new quarterback in a new system would have made for enough difficulty. Throw injury into the mix -- actually, two injuries -- and the task of winning became even more difficult. That is not to put last year's horrible record on the backs of quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Spencer Pennington, because other deficiencies and injuries at other positions played into the struggle. So did having a first year head coach and so did having what was judged to be the nation's most difficult schedule.
There is nothing that can be done about 2003. And success in 2004 does not depend entirely on improved play from the quarterback position. But if Alabama gets good quarterback performance the rebuilding task will proceed more quickly.
Head Coach Mike Shula knows something about good quarterback play, and he has no doubts that his number one quarterback has the natural ability to be one of the best in the Southeastern Conference and the nation. But little is ever accomplished strictly on potential.
In 2004 Brodie Croyle must convert potential into achievement. No one doubts that potential because he has shown flashes of his considerable ability over the past two years, both as a back-up as a redshirt freshman in 2003 and last year when he started the season, but had to play most of the year with an injured left shoulder.
Croyle has a strong and accurate arm. He has good football instincts. It remains to be seen if he will have an offensive line to protect in the passing game and provide for a running game, and the jury will be out on the receiving corps until next August.
It would be bad luck if Alabama had two quarterbacks with injuries in 2004 as was the case last year. In the spring neither Croyle nor Pennington -- both of whom had post-season shoulder surgery -- were able to participate in full contact team drills. That is not good. But the silver lining in that cloud is that a third quarterback, transfer Marc Guillon, got plenty of work and will be a capable back-up. Croyle will be number one when August practice begins, and unless he is injured he will almost certainly be the starter when Bama opens the season against Utah State on September 4.
Pennington and Guillon both have skills and the battle for number two should be spirited. Of course, with Shula coming from the professional ranks, look for Alabama (like most college squads today) to be a one quarterback team, particularly if Croyle stays healthy.
Some of the all-time favorite championship teams at Alabama were quarterbacked by men who were more valuable for their leadership qualities than, perhaps, their quarterback skills. Long-time Alabama football observers say that Bama won the 1961 national championship in spite of Pat Trammell. The inside word in 1992 was that it was Jay Barker's job to not lose the national championship.
But what Trammell and Barker lacked in passing ability, they more than made up as leaders. That starts off the field. And it is possible that Alabama's success in 2004 will depend on what Brodie Croyle does in the weight room and in summer pass skeleton work. Championship Alabama football teams (and even those that didn't win chamjpionships, but were contenders) almost always have had a quarterback who did more than anyone else on the team in summer conditioning, in the weight room, in the film room. No one can make a quarterback do those things. And to some extent it is a factor of maturity.
There is some truth in the adage that when a team wins the quarterback gets more credit than he's due and when the team loses the quarterback gets more blame than he's due. But it's also true that winning teams usually have a quarterback who has winning qualities. Croyle has the skills and has a number of good qualities. His summer work ethic could determine Alabama's 2004 football fate.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of essays on what Alabama might reasonably expect from each position in order to have a successful 2004 season.