Urban Meyer, Meet 1997

In the next twelve days before the Cocktail Party, much will be said about Florida's offense that has been repeated ever since the Tennessee game. So with that in mind, let's cut through the forest of generally obvious and interlocking truths about Chris Leak, the offensive line, the skill sets of backs and receivers, and Dan Mullen's play calling to offer one not-so-obvious but unmistakably bold solution to the problems that ail Urban Meyer's spread option: turn back the clock eight years.

Coach Meyer, you need to dig into your knowledge of Gator history and recall one November evening in 1997 when Steve Spurrier, on the verge of failing to win 10 games for the first time in several seasons, knew he needed to do something special against No. 2 Florida State in the regular-season finale.

Spurrier had a quarterback in Doug Johnson not without physical gifts, but who was laboring under intense pressure and scrutiny. Johnson felt he had to carry the whole offense on his shoulders, and the emotional strain of a long up-and-down season was catching up with him. Seeing this, Spurrier came up with an inspired epiphany: what better way to bring out Johnson's best --- while avoiding his worst tendencies and keeping his body relatively healthy --- than by cutting down his snaps and sending him in from the sidelines to run virtually every other play, armed with fresh coaching and instructions?

Not only did Spurrier find a way to use his No. 1 quarterback in a supremely effective manner; he also discovered a method in which he could utilize the gifts of his No. 2 quarterback, Noah Brindise. A perceptive student of the game who would eventually coach beside Spurrier, Brindise enabled Florida's offense to acquire a change of pace each time he stepped on the field. Also "coached up" from the sidelines before each play, Brindise usually handed off to Fred Taylor, but would occasionally pass the ball to keep the Seminoles' defense off balance. Similarly, Johnson --- mostly brought in to pass --- would occasionally hand off so that Mickey Andrews' troops couldn't get a permanent fix on the Gators' play selection.

The move was a masterstroke. It didn't create a quarterback controversy so much as it blended the best of each signal-caller's attributes in one larger offensive approach that mixed the run and pass. Johnson didn't get hit as much, and he played the most liberated game of that '97 season since the Tennessee game. Brindise --- who briefly starred in a third-quarter comeback against Georgia that year (before the house fell down in the fourth) --- complemented Johnson's raw athletic abilities with good game management and a steady hand that sustained the Gators' offense whenever he took the field against the Semis. The result was an epic 32-29 win that, while not as significant as "52-20" or any SEC Championship Game victory, stands as the greatest single-game coaching performance in Spurrier's decorated UF career.

Simply stated, any and all of the parallels between the Doug Johnson-Noah Brindise situation in '97 and the Chris Leak-Josh Portis situation in 2005 should be readily obvious. What's more is that Portis, unlike Brindise, has huge upside and needs to get reps now for future seasons to be able to fulfill their potential.

Meyer is a system coach --- his bread is buttered on the strength of this offensive system, which needs to be fully installed and incorporated before it can be definitively said to work (or not). But just because the system needs to be furthered (and the fact that an SEC title is an almost-guaranteed impossibility at this point only makes it more important to develop the system at this point) does not mean that individual play calling or the development of a younger quarterback should be retarded. Thinking that either Leak or Portis must take all the snaps is ridiculous; however, as Spurrier's move proved eight years ago, you don't have to create a quarterback controversy by sending out a QB for a whole series or two. By alternating two quarterbacks on a play-to-play basis, you enable both of them to get reps and understand the offense by virtue of watching the action from the sideline on every other play. Meyer and Mullen could alternatively coach up a quarterback and call a play, devising a system of responsibility on the sidelines during gameday that could prove even more effective in promoting understanding of the offense while unlocking the talents of their signal callers.

You want to win now if you're a Florida fan, but you need to grow the system if you're Urban Meyer. You want Chris Leak to succeed, and you don't want a senior QB to sit next year, but neither do you want the career of Josh Portis to waste away on the bench. You want Leak to succeed as a passer in the SEC, but you want Portis to get meaningful snaps in the remaining games this season, not just mop-up work in the fourth quarter against Vandy. You realize that if Leak can figure out this offense by 2006, the Gators would become an instant national title contender, given the strength of their defense and special teams. Yet, you also realize that the sooner Portis can flash his quicks on the field, the spread option could zoom into life and make Florida that much more devastating on a long-term basis.

At every turn, Urban Meyer faces conflicting needs and competing tensions. But as Steve Spurrier showed eight years ago, you don't have to think in black-and-white ways. Sometimes, you can think in shades of gray --- Doug Johnson's lighter shade of gray and Noah Brindise's darker, more conservative shade of gray. That dynamic can be renewed in a system that gives both Chris Leak and Josh Portis meaningful snaps, extra coaching, and minimized exposure to hits within an alternating framework.

Coach, know your Gator history and look at the results of that famous Florida State game. Then realize that as the present and the future both demand your attention, you can deal with both by looking to the past. Eight years in the past, to be specific.

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