Three Observations About Meyer, Leak

You know it, I know it, and the people of Gator Nation know it: this offense has been, is now, and will continue to be the main topic of discussion in and around Gainesville this autumn. In the process of generating meaningful reflection on the state of Florida's offense, observations on past mistakes and future solutions need to be specific and, moreover, confined to a few worthwhile subjects at a time. Otherwise, the focus gets too clouded, the issues too clustered and confused.

For today, the focus should center on the nature of the relationship between Urban Meyer and Chris Leak. No, this won't be some soap-operatic drivel cranked out by a mighty Wurlitzer, because this is not a soap-operatic player-coach relationship. These are two solid human beings we're talking about, the best men you could ever hope to find in a coach and a football player. Moreover, this discussion will not attempt to lay all the blame at the foot of one party and none in front of the other, because in life, it's always a little bit of both; the truth is very rarely found predominantly at the extremes.

Let's dive into this discussion, shall we? Three points will suffice for one coherent column, and these points will be magnified by important, telling examples from high-profile programs elsewhere around the country who are succeeding in ways Florida isn't.

Observation number one: Meyer's offseason emphasis on making Chris Leak a more vocal leader among his teammates is something you can't possibly begin to criticize, in and of itself; but such an emphasis does mean little if Leak hasn't grasped the offense.

It stands to reason --- and one should be able to not only recognize this point, but identify its simplicity --- that a quarterback can't be a vocal leader with his teammates unless or until he possesses appreciable command of the system he's running. Yes, Leak can be a leader on the practice field, in the locker room, and during team-bonding sessions that occur outside of the eleven autumnal Saturdays when the Boys of Old Florida strap on the pads for real. But when game day comes, leadership is manifested through example, performance and knowledge. Danny Wuerffel (and by the way, keep supporting his ministry in New Orleans; one hopes the passage of a mere month won't destroy our attention spans and make us forget the continuous nature of the needs Danny and his city still face) knew his stuff, first of all, but secondly, he translated that knowledge into an ability to pick apart defenses, getting the ball where it needed to go. It was this ability to blend mind and body on gameday that made No. 7 such a respected figure among his teammates.

To provide a more contemporary example, Vince Young did indeed inspire his teammates in the offseason, vocally and forcefully telling his fellow Longhorns that, "If you want to beat Ohio State, join me in the weight room this morning." Sure, Young was able to exercise that kind of leadership off the field, but VY can utter that kind of exhortation because when he gets on the field, he's totally in command of an offense that starts and begins with him, and which he knows. If Young was learning a rigid, dropback-passing system that forced him to get rid of the ball off three-step drops, chances are he wouldn't be as effective this season... and moreover, not nearly as vocal, either. Quarterbacks who want to command teammates need to command offenses first, and one wonders how much Meyer's emphasis on Leak's vocal leadership --- again, not a bad thing --- might have come at the expense of Leak's mastery of this system. Meyer has changed the culture of this program for the better --- the disciplined Tennessee win was proof enough --- but it's very much worth contemplating how much "culture" trumped "systemic knowledge" within Meyer's grander teaching and motivational schemes over the spring and summer.

Observation number two: given Meyer's desire to see Leak motivate his teammates, it's legitimate to suspect that the coach-quarterback might be slightly (and no, that's not sarcastic, either --- it's a sober, low-key, and serious use of the word "slightly") imbalanced in terms of two-way communication.

Think about it: in any chain of command (be it the Presidency of the United States or a corporate office or a church), it's often hard for anyone to fully or aggressively question the man at the top. There are always natural realizations about power structures and the accompanying desires to please the boss, especially if the boss is a good and decent man who is working his butt off, as Meyer is. The best organizations and operations, of course, are the ones where the prevailing culture enables subordinates to feel liberated enough to question and challenge their superiors in a respectful manner that only seeks improvement from the organization as a whole. When input and feedback are shared within a two-way communications model, understanding grows exponentially.

Therefore, with respect to the Meyer-Leak relationship, one has to ask this legitimate question: if Meyer emphasized the need for Leak, his main man on offense, to lead and guide his teammates, that inevitably creates or reinforces the idea that Meyer is sending ideas downward in a more one-way communications model. To reference the struggles of Florida's offense for just a bit, one could say that Meyer is being too stubborn in trying to do certain things too repeatedly, even and especially when they just haven't worked. Maybe it's because this system --- in style and scope --- has not been fully implemented yet, and maybe it's because the execution just isn't emerging despite the potential for big plays. No matter --- wherever you come down on that last debate (lack of full systemic implementation versus poor execution), what seems clear is that Meyer is dictating too much to Leak, without enough of a two-way flow of idea-sharing and communication. This leads to the third and, by far, the most important of today's three observations.

Observation number three: if you're unsure about the merits of the previous two thoughts, there's no doubt whatsoever about this one: Meyer and Leak have not established a framework in which coach and quarterback can both be comfortable with the plays Dan Mullen is calling.

This is the deficiency in the Meyer-Leak relationship that screams for improvement in the time before the Cocktail Party, not to mention the remainder of Leak's time in Gainesville. Why? Let's go to South Bend, Ind., for a measured but revealing explanation.

And before you go there.... no, don't.

This is not a way of saying Charlie Weis should have been hired as Gator coach (Hindsight! Hindsight!), nor is it a way of saying that Weis' first-year success with an offense should reflect poorly on Meyer, who has struggled to install the spread option. Let's keep the focus limited and the expectations reasonable.

Here is the point about Notre Dame's offense that Meyer (a former position coach at ND) and Leak need to take note of: Weis said --- in the buildup to the USC game --- that the plays he would install for the battle against the Trojans, like the plays he installs for any game with the Irish, are plays he knows Brady Quinn will be comfortable with. "If he's not comfortable," Weis said, "I throw them out (of the game plan)."

Doesn't this explain why Quinn has undergone a tremendous one-year metamorphosis into a sensational, poised and tough-minded quarterback whom his teammates don't just play hard for, but excel for? Doesn't this go a long way toward revealing why a head coach and a quarterback need to be on the same page, with the coach not just instructing the quarterback, but also giving the quarterback the intellectual freedom and emotional space to be able to tell the coach he's not comfortable with certain plays?

One thing to notice about a read-based system such as the spread option is that it has something of a standard template that the quarterback must, upon reading the defense and then initiating the play, bring into life in the proper way. In this sense, the quarterback is not "in command" of the offense, given his fundamentally reactive role. (Side note: this is why this columnist mentioned, way back in mid-September, the need for running plays to be quickly initiated by Leak, but then find life in the hands of multiple backs and receivers who, through sleight of hand or fakes, could create big gains on misdirection/trick-oriented runs.) This stands in opposition to traditional, scripted pass plays from a conventional pro set in which the options are more defined, narrow and straightforward. Leak's comfort level his first two years was obviously greater, and it shouldn't be a surprise as to why. It should therefore be easy to see why it's been so difficult for Meyer and Leak to establish a framework of plays under this system in which Leak can feel truly comfortable. The very emphasis on making reads and decisions while on the field can lend itself toward a situation in which Leak couldn't tell Meyer what plays he's comfortable with, even if he wanted to! Not only is Leak uncomfortable with the plays, but the larger discomfort with the whole system might very well be preventing Leak from giving top-quality feedback and input to Meyer throughout the season. While Brady Quinn and Charlie Weis are thinking on the same page and very much aware of each other's strengths and limitations, Chris Leak and Urban Meyer obviously haven't arrived at a similar meeting of the minds. Until that fundamental development takes place, it's hard for Leak to be a vocal leader with his teammates, and it's also hard for two-way communication to truly flourish between a QB and his coach.

Leadership --- by example on gamedays, not just vocal exhortations in the weight room or during practice.

Boldness --- the boldness for a QB to demand more from his coach.

Comfort --- the comfort level Chris Leak and Urban Meyer need to have, not just as human beings (they have always had that), but in terms of mastering a system and feeling good about each individual play selection during a game.

These three things need to more fully define the relationship between head coach and lead signal caller. If you see them emerge, chances are you'll see Florida get off the canvas and make major improvements in 2005.


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