Stanford took a big and inevitable step back at the quarterback position in 2016. After four seasons of Kevin Hogan, the final one punctuated by one of the best single-season performances in school history, there was just no way that the Cardinal would avoid some slippage at the game’s most important position.
Stanford’s quarterback competition in 2016 was seemingly resolved when Coach David Shaw chose Ryan Burns, a redshirt junior, over redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst. When Burns went out and helped lead Stanford to wins over Kansas State and USC to start the season, the matter seemed over. Chryst was routinely getting at least a series a game and Coach Shaw maintained that that would be the case moving forward. Stanford’s offense struggled in Pasadena, but an endgame TD drive snatched victory from defeat and put the Cardinal at 3-0.
Then Stanford went to Seattle. A 44-6 disembowling at the hands of the Huskies left fingers pointing at literally every single part of Stanford’s football team. The Cardinal came back the next week to The Library and left its depleted defense out to dry in a 42-16 Pirate pillaging. The following week Stanford went to South Bend and its defense carried it to a 17-10 win over Notre Dame. For those three games, Burns threw cumulatively for 7.5 yards per attempt in and against the Cougars he was actually pretty good statistically. He threw for 8.9 yards per attempt and completed 76% of his passes against Washington State.
The next game, a home game against Colorado, was of course the death knell for the Burns Era, and it’s been well documented. Ryan Burns left the starting job with this statistical profile: 6.9 yards per attempt, 63% completion percentage, and 15 points per game from the offense. The Cardinal did not score more than 16 points for five consecutive games.
Because they could admittedly think of nothing else to do, Stanford’s offensive brain trust chose to switch quarterbacks and play Chryst, who’d lost the competition in the preseason. Before we get into the caveats, let’s look at what Chryst accomplished: 6.9 yards per attempt, 60% completion percentage. Stanford scored 39.6 points per game in Chryst’s five starts.
Those are basically the same numbers, until you get to the macro. Obviously, Stanford’s offense was more efficient in the games Chryst started. But Stanford’s coaches know better than to mistake correlation for causality, right? This data point seems especially relevant. In Burns’ seven starts, Stanford rushed for 3.98 yards per carry. In Chryst’s five starts, the Cardinal rushed for 6.9 yards per carry.
So against weaker defenses and with a dominant running game, Chryst wasn’t able to outperform Burns, and yet the reality is that had Chryst not been injured in El Paso, Ryan Burns would almost assuredly be headed to another school for his final year of college football. As it stands now, Burns remains a member of the Stanford football program, and no matter how you feel about the two players, he absolutely has a case to compete for the starting job in 2017 should he remain on campus.
Of course, it’s not even that simple. I made a case last year that K.J. Costello should have an opportunity to start for the Cardinal. While I was and am happy to concede that ShawVitaGren was never gonna give him a shot as a true freshman, the point was that a case could be made. Those reservations are gone in 2017, as Costello is currently one of only two healthy scholarship quarterbacks on the roster available for spring ball.
But it’s not even that simple. Davis Mills, the top-rated QB recruit in the country, arrives at Stanford at some point this summer, further muddling the QB picture. Chryst’s best case it seems right now is to be ready in time for summer camp but there is no certainty on that at all.
ShawVitaGren have not shown much proficiency in their last two attempts at picking a starting quarterback. Kevin Hogan finished third prior to the 2012 season, and of course last year Stanford didn’t finish with the same guy with which it started. That’s a small sample size, but what is the staff gonna do with up to four potential options at quarterback?
If history is our guide, you can scratch Mills from the list of contenders. ShawVitaGren tends to impose a long download time on the Terrabyte-sized playbook, and if Andrew Luck wasn’t judged able to contribute as a true freshman, what counter does Mills have? As the guy who advocated for him to start this past season, even I have to concede that Costello remains an unknown quantity at this point because he hasn’t made a single throw or handoff in a college game yet.
Chryst’s injury is the real monkey wrench here, clearly. It could end up bringing Burns back, further complicating the decision for the staff. So the bottom line is that the choices comprise two underwhelming knowns and two knowns with exceptional pedigrees. Of course, Chryst had a great pedigree when he matriculated, so who knows?
This is the toughest call in all of sports to make, especially when you make it without seeing every guy in a game. That is of course an impossibility, unless ShawVitaGren commits to playing three or four guys in the Rice game. The truth is nobody at this point knows what the best choice is, but what we can advocate for is the best rationale for making the choice.
Experience matters, obviously, but one of the mistakes Stanford’s offensive coaching staff has made in the past is overvaluing experience in the face of superior talent. Looking at where Stanford stands now, the most talented player should play in 2017. It’s worth taking some lumps in the early part of the season if the Cardinal staff gets this right. If it’s Costello, Stanford has a starter for three seasons barring injury. If it’s Mills, then Stanford has a chance to start one guy for four years. That’s a huge long shot, but the point is that ultimately the staff needs to evaluate the process by which it makes these decisions and be sure it leads them to the most, best success.
It’s a long-acknowledged rule that players should not lose their starting jobs to injury. In the NFL, the Cowboys and 49ers have broken that rule to mixed results. If Chryst was the no-doubt starter in the minds of the Stanford coaches prior to his injury, than if he comes back in time to play in summer camp than he should have a chance to start. However, Stanford’s not going to tell Costello and/or Burns that there is no way they can win or make a case for the job in spring practice.
We’ll never know, but I don’t think Chryst had earned that exalted status. He didn’t outperform Burns when he had all the leverage on his side. Maybe he is the right guy moving forward, but nobody can make that claim definitively right now.
Stanford has a chance to regain its place at the top of the Pac-12 North, but it’s clear obstacle number one is identifying its signal caller. Track the “how” as much as the “who,” because it matters a great deal.