Stanford Needs to Play K.J. Costello

Stanford can possibly help its 2016 and definitely help its 2017 prospects by giving K.J. Costello a chance to play.

It was an inauspicious start for Keller Chryst in his first game as Stanford’s starting quarterback. Stanford gained but 44 yards on its first 17 offensive plays in Tucson before Christian McCaffrey burst through the Arizona defense for 45 yards and a touchdown. That set off a stretch of seven plays in which the Cardinal put up 110 yards and 14 points.  Stanford ended up reaching the 30-point plateau for the first time this season, after reaching it in its final 12 games of 2015.

Chryst, for his part, was categorically inefficient.  He completed 14-30 passes with an interception and two TD’s.  His 104 yards passing yielded a 3.5 yards per attempt.  That was by far the worst of any Pac-12 quarterback.  Nobody else was worse than 5.3. Brandon Dawkins, who put on a clinic on how to airmail passes into the stands for Arizona, had a 7.7 YPA.  Oregon State’s Marcus McMaryion, a third stringer, averaged 8.4.

There is no argument to be made that Ryan Burns could not have produced the same result against that wretched Arizona defense. And while Coach Shaw said that the bar for Chryst wasn’t high and that he really wouldn’t be evaluated based on his first start, the bottom line is that I left Arizona Stadium with more questions than answers about Stanford’s quarterback position.

And that brings us to K.J. Costello.

Costello, a freshman, is listed as Stanford’s third string quarterback.  He hasn’t played yet this year, keeping his redshirt option in play.  It’s time to burn that option. Before I go into why, let me deal with all the reasons why not.

“You can’t burn the redshirt with only four games left.”

First of all, the short term. Stanford sits at 5-3, squarely boxed out of any hope of winning the Pac-12 or playing in the college football playoff.  Those options are off the table.  That’s not to say there is nothing worth playing for short of that.  5-7 is a far cry away from the 9-3 season still in play for Stanford.

However, Stanford is set to play a slew of the some of the absolute worst defenses college football has to offer.  Oregon State, Oregon, Cal, and Rice, are not exactly pillars of defensive resistance. If Stanford can win games with a quarterback putting up a 3.5 YPA rate, it’s hard to argue that it’s putting anything on the table by giving snaps to an unknown quantity.  Of course, Costello is totally unproven, but the known knowns are not good.  Putting it succinctly, Stanford proved that if it can run the ball, it needs virtually nothing from its quarterback against weak defenses.  Stanford is not conclusively compromising its season by letting Costello play.

Now, in the long term, there are two specious objections.  First, that it would be a disservice to Costello to waste a year of eligibility playing in the final four games. Is that a bigger waste than playing an entire season and never taking a snap?  Also, with Davis Mills showing up next season, there’s a case to be made that this is Costello’s best chance to stake a claim to the starting job.

Costello is a very confident player from all accounts.  I think he’d take that chance.  Also, those concerned about the long term really need to look at the reality.  Is the concern that if K.J. Costello plays, Stanford is depriving himself of it starting quarterback for the 2020 season?  There are so many twists and turns before then that it’s preposterous to fear that scenario.  If he’s a great quarterback, he isn’t staying through 2020.  If he’s not great, he won’t be playing in 2020 with or without eligibility.

Stanford’s not jeopardizing much for either Costello or itself by playing him this year. Fears about the 2020 season are just not worth the opportunity to see what Costello can offer.

“We need to see what we have in Chryst.”

This is a player in his third season in the program, a player who lost the quarterback competition, one that stretched from spring ball until less than two weeks before the season began.  He’s played in seven games this season, and he’s got the same 3.5 yards per attempt through seven games (and 48 passes) that he did against the Wildcats.

Also, playing Costello doesn’t mean you can’t play Chryst.  I actually can’t believe I’m advocating this, but really it’s just to say that this doesn’t need to be an all or nothing proposition.  Maybe Chryst will develop, and these last four games will play a big part in that development, but given who Stanford is playing and the way it plays, it seems unlikely that Chryst’s 2017 can be significantly impacted by how much he plays.  Costello’s 2017, on the other hand, could really be altered by some playing experience.

“The coaches have all the information.  If Costello isn’t playing, it must be because he isn’t ready.”

To quote one of the preeminent sportswriters of the day, “Ohhhhhhhh boyyyyyyyyy.”  Until Costello takes a snap in a meaningful game, they do not have all the information.  Furthermore, they had “all the information” this past spring and summer when they named Burns, who has been replaced. Back in the summer of 2012, they had all the information when they named Josh Nunes the starter.  

Part of this is simply the nature of the game.  Quarterbacks don’t get hit in practice anymore, so in a very real way you can’t know what you have at the position until you send him out into live competition on game days.  I was initially skeptical of the choice to go with Ryan Burns without having game information.  I’d like to say “I told you so” but the truth is that the early returns from games suggested Stanford could have survived with Burns, when they have now decided they cannot.  

That being said, Stanford is jeopardizing its 2017 by not having game data on Costello. This season on offense is going to yield another quarterback competition, one with more than two contestants.  Stanford needs as much hard data as possible, because clearly the way they have been evaluating and developing quarterbacks is not producing consistent and sustainable results.  This whole notion of the three to four year career arc has become antiquated.  

Kevin Hogan proved there is a version of the West Coast Offense that can do enough to win games if coupled with a sound defense.  That’s where Stanford sits in 2016.  Lance Anderson has once again conjured up a defense that has not given up more than 10 points in each of its last three games, against legit offenses.  There is no way there are not plays that Costello can execute in a game right now.  After all, as the third string quarterback, there was always a chance he could be pressed into duty because of injury, especially with the fullback mentality with which Chryst and Burns man the position.

To put it succinctly, Stanford is not jeopardizing what’s left of its 2016 and it can take steps towards avoiding a duplication of the Clown Car its 2016 offense was in 2017.  The team is facing nothing but garbage on defense.  You do not have to commit every remaining snap to one player.  If the credo is that you owe the players on this team the best chance to win, it is wrong to stand pat and insist that Burns and Chryst in their current form are the absolute apex of the position.  And that’s another thing:  playing Costello doesn’t deny Burns and/or Chryst the chance to fight for playing time in 2017.

This isn’t about the old meme of “Fans love the guy who hasn’t played.”  Maybe Costello is not as good as Chryst or Burns.  The point is, why not find out as definitively as possible?  What does Stanford have to lose at this point?

And let us offer a final point of clarification:  this season is not the sole referendum on this offensive staff.  If you look at the whole of Coach Shaw’s body of work, and you accept his own premise that “all the fingers point to” him ultimately with regard to the offense, then it is fair to call every aspect of what this team does on that side of the ball into question.  Here are Stanford’s ranks in offensive points per drive since 2012:  71, 30, 50, 2, 118.  At best, the track record is uneven.  

For the record:  Power running is absolutely the right philosophy for Stanford.  The West Coast Offense is very much aligned to players with Stanford’s skill set.  What needs to be scrutinized is the pedagogy and the scaffolding.  The truth of the matter is that all teams essentially have all the same plays.  The biggest variation between the WCO, the “route tree” system, and the Erhardt-Perkins system (covered brilliantly in Chris B. Brown’s book Smart Football)  is the way information is conveyed from coaches to quarterbacks and from quarterbacks to the players.  There are more nuances than that, but fundamentally, that is the primary distinction.

Come the offseason, Stanford’s staff needs to take a hard look at who’s doing what on offense and how information is being conveyed to the players.  For now, it needs to take a hard look at its quarterback options.  All its options, for the sake of both 2016 and the years to come.

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